The seminary ethics professor, after a heated class in which a Mexican-American student broke down, look straight at me said, “Yes, but you have assimilated.”
I know he did not understand how offensive his statement was, and would be appalled to see his statement as racist, but racist, nonetheless it was. His racial concern was condescending. I have found the same condescending among many n the Emergent Church.
Being a progressive Christian, he sees himself as a champion of the downtrodden. Yet, he did not see was his view as the champion of the downtrodden made himself above those very same people. As a Mexican in America, I have had to face many forms of racism, jokes about being a wetback, and an illegal. The worst from my and others perspective is the ones that come from people who think themselves above being racists like the ethics professor. Comments like I must be Italian because I don’t look Mexican, or I am too white to be a Mexican or this one about being assimilated, as if I had turn my back on my culture. They could only see being Mexican out of their view of oppression, ignoring the rich history which has nothing to do with the big neighbor to north. What BS.
He said it because I held a different opinion than what he thought I should as a Mexican. I did not fit his story, based on only on white oppression, about how Mexicans should react to the real life situation he had us reenact in class. He expected a Mexican to react like the Mexican-American girl, with anger. Being brought up in the border of culture, I learn to translate from culture to build a bridge, and I responded that that was what the situation needed. The main issue being a difference in the understanding of time, American vs Mexican. Most of the class, dominated by progressive Christian, came to the rescue of the crying student. She was crying that the Anglos should understand the differences in how Mexicans view time. The funny thing was girl was an American born of Mexican heritage, and it was clear to me that she did not have a clear handle on Mexican time either. Further, It became clear that her response was welcome by the white students. They can say they felt sorry and then did not have to actually change any of the power dynamics. Feeling guilty got them out of any action.
It was one of my first experiences with Christians who would become the Emergent Church. Young, hip, and already looking to forge a newer and better Christianity than the one they grew up in. When I read Soong-Chan Rah article in Sojourners about the whiteness of the Emergent Church and the reaction to it, I wanted to write about it, but knew I had to wait. Better to reflect than to react. Then Arizona passed the toughest immigration bill, and I knew I gad to speak.
One of the first things I notice about Rah’s article is that it took American distinctions and narrative about race as the starting point. “White people” was taken as normative, even though many scholars have pointed out the “white people” really is distinction make as a not… white people not being black, Asian, Hispanic (at the turn of the 20th century non white included Italians). “The History of White People” (Norton; $27.95), Nell Irvin Painter being the most recent. Also, Kelefa Sanneh has a great mediation on the idea on “white peop;e” on the New Yorker.
The narrative that these thinkers isolate is the idea that whiteness is something that needed to be protected. This is the fear driving the Arizona law, a fear of needing to be protected from the hoards of Mexicans wanting to take jobs, health care, and whatever else. Could it come from a sense of historic guilt? After all, Arizona, California, Texas New Mexico all came into the union via illegal immigration that turned violent and ended with the US army in Mexico City. 14 million dollars is a good deal for all that land if you head is at the wrong end of a gun barrel. Clearly, there is a fear and a wanting of defense, so much so, that Arizonians are willing to pervert their values.
The second thing I notice was the reaction to Rah’s article was similar to the one I experience in class. Emergent Christians feel bad about the racism in the past, but their feeling bad and trying to do better should gives them points. As the saying goes, trying is lying. And the second, there seem to be a lack of understanding that being multicultural is not medicine to be taken as repentance, or the eating of another’s food, but the acceptance of the other’s dignity. Moreover, it is that the other has something to teach us.