Race and Trauma, Part Two

This week, Dan is joined again by friends and colleagues Susan Kim, Abby Wong-Heffter, and Wendell Moss as they continue their conversation around race and trauma. Susan, Abby, and Wendell share some painful details of their stories, revealing ways in which they experienced harm or threat directed at the color of their skin. They go on to disclose ways in which even well-meaning white people from Christian communities have at times hurt them through words and assumptions. Although these conversations are painful and disruptive, again we invite you to join us as courageous listeners and compassionate followers of Jesus.

In continuing the conversation, Dan asks: What has it meant to not be a majority in our culture and in the community of God’s people?

Susan: I have a recollection of being part of the 1.5 generation — with parents who grew up in Korea, myself being born here. My dad always knew I was a good student, but one day I had a difficult time with a particular assignment. I couldn’t do it because I didn’t know what the picture of farm equipment was. If my dad didn’t have a Korean-English dictionary, so many things would have been assumed. The problem wasn’t that I wasn’t a good student, but English was my second language. I have had to worry about people assuming things because of my face. It hasn’t been that long since Japanese Americans were interned because of what they looked like.

Wendell: From a little boy, I always would ask myself, Do you like myself? And further, Do you enjoy my face? I grew up in a predominantly African American neighborhood, so I had a sense that my skin was wanted. When my father was transferred and we lived in a non-black neighborhood, it was a shock. I remember seeing a little girl, about six years old, on my way home from school. She yelled “nigger.” I knew what it meant and that she had learned that somewhere. What I couldn’t process with my parents how I now wondered who else thought that. This happened during a time when studies were being done about African Americans having a smaller brain or having an extra bone in their leg. Ultimately, I got to the point of wondering if I liked my own skin, which brought more shame.

Abby: I am half Chinese, and I knew I was different because I went to a Dutch reformed high school. But that awareness — that my friends were blonde and blue-eyed — didn’t burden me. When I went to college, it became apparent that I was very different. That was the beginning of battling with the confusion of “Who am I? Am I lovely?” It became regular for people to approach and ask, “What are you?” It was confusing because it felt good to be noticed, but it also felt invasive. It felt like a the statement was a demand to solve a mystery. It became evident that I could have an “in” if I played up the Chinese part. At the same time, it pushed some people away. One friend told me their grandma saw a picture of me and wanted her to no longer be my friend.

These experiences contain something between micro-aggressions or slight offenses — something that is hard to name but is actually a dagger that goes deep.

Dan: All 3 have named experiences I have never had. These experiences contain something between micro-aggressions or slight offenses — something that is hard to name but is actually a dagger that goes deep. What sense of threat do you feel?

Wendell: Honestly, there’s always a threat of, “Will I be dismissed?” I have heard so many words about, “That was then. You’re an adult now.” But I have needed to learn to love that little boy’s face and allow it to be honored. To be continually told that my story should no longer have weight, it’s painful.

Susan: What feels difficult about this conversation is to first have to justify that it’s real before getting to the actual event that was hurtful. There’s the double trauma of the event and not being believed.

Dan: And the agony can be exacerbated by family who says you have to get over it. There are so many parallels to sexual abuse. What I have said often is, “The more subtle, the more satanic.” It’s now a matter of whether or not we can trust that trauma is real.

Abby: It’s just another side of the dismissal. I’ve been met with, “Oh, but your skin is so beautiful.” And that adds to what feels like crazy-making.

Dan: What have you experienced in the context of the believing community?

Wendell: To constantly hear “in christ, skin color doesn’t matter” feels painful. I was fearfully and wonderfully made. God was intentional with my color. So to hear the well-meaning Christian community dismissing God’s creation of me is difficult.

Dan: It’s also a denial, an attempt to escape blame — dismissive to point of cruelty.

Abby: I think of the picture of the banquet table, and it looks so often like redemption is a beautifully set table with mostly white people and one black person, one latino, one Asian.

It still feels like my face is serving something instead of diversity speaking of God and His creation.

Dan: I was with a student and asked if he knew any theologians of color. He said no, except one. I asked what color he thought a north African bishop would be. Augustine — a theologian that bridges so much — was not white. We’re bumping up against a lot of preconceived notions.

A question to consider: You may not be a racist, but are you anti-racist with regard to a log in your own eye? Next time, we will address what we are hoping for our audience and The Allender Center.