Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Racist Ugliness in Our Civilized Society

Here's a news flash: racism still exists. As we regroup from that shocking revelation, it's evident that we still have a long way to go until people are judged not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. And it's not just the "under-represented" minorities such as blacks and Hispanics that get shafted and mistreated. Even the so-called "model minorities", the minorities which closet racists don't mind moving into their neighborhoods and going to their schools, the Asian-Americans, face racism and are exposed to ugly prejudice and stereotypes.

Two articles that I read recently illustrated this point. The first was news about the disturbing details emerging from the case of Private Daniel Chen, an army private in Afghanistan who was subjected to constant verbal and physical abuse from his fellow soldiers, leading to his death, initially deemed as suicide but still under investigation. Private Chen, a Chinese-American, was subjected to constant jokes and insults about his ethnicity, with reports that soldiers "used a mocking accent while calling him Jackie Chen; others allegedly told him to 'go back to China'." And the verbal abuse was accompanied with physical abuse, including being dragged out of bed and over gravel, and being forced to crawl while other soldiers threw rocks at him.

The second article was an op-ed about racism against Chinese Britons written by a Elizabeth Chan, a performing artist in England, another progressive and civilized society where you'd think that we would see a lot less blatant racist hatred, but that's sadly not the case. But her experience isn't that different than what I (or many of my other Asian-American friends) have experienced in my lifetime, many more times that I would like to remember, "being targeted by shouts of "Jackie Chan!" and kung-fu noises from random strangers continue to greet me in the street."

And while we all wish we could wipe this away and explain this by blaming this on ignorant and uneducated yokels, that's just not the case. Note this eye-opening paragraph from Chan about her experiences in cosmopolitan London in the midst of highly-educated sophisticated people:

Going to drama school in London was a revelation; I was told I couldn't perform in a scene from a play because it had been written for white people. The scene was two girls sitting on a park bench talking about boys, and the year was 2006. Worse was when it came from my contemporaries; one (white, liberal, highly educated) helpfully suggested I did a monologue from The Good Soul of Szechuan instead, and another rushed up after one performance to tell me how delighted her parents had been that I'd spoken perfect English (I'm from Bradford).

It's the modern day equivalent to "You're really a credit to your race" or "Some of my best friends are Asian." But where the op-ed really hits the mark that Asians need to take responsibility for this. The reason why these things don't get play is because Asians are often too conciliatory in the face of racist slights or offense, rationalizing that the (1) the actions are actually benign or non-malicious in intent or (2) there's little to be gained by confronting the issue at hand. Otherwise, the Asian plays into and reinforces the stereotype as the harmless, weak and meek servant who smiles as they're bullied by supposedly more superior and assertive races.

This isn't about political correctness, this is about the willingness to rightfully take claim of the same respect that has been afforded people of other races and segments of society, and that respect comes in the form of the fear of outrage and repercussion when lines have been crossed. Take for example the most promoted comments on sports website that followed the announcement of basketball player Jeremy Lin's relegation to the D-League:

moesman83 Tue 17 Jan 2012 9:02 PM
Man, what an eye opener.

Bourbon_Meyer Tue 17 Jan 2012 7:08 PM
Number 17, no MSG, ready for pick-up!

DonCherry'sHockeySchtick Tue 17 Jan 2012 6:54 PM
This was really just a numbers thing with Baron Davis returning, I'm sure Lin did the math and knew he would be sent down.

I can't help but wonder if the everyone would find it funny if jokes were made about Dwight Howard's slavery-bred body or Jason Pierre-Paul eating bananas at the zoo. The jokes, the taunting and crimes such as the ones committed against Private Daniel Chen will sadly continue as long as sin exists in the world. But people who stand for righteousness - especially Asians themselves - need to stand up and speak up so that these actions are treated as just as unacceptable as similar those against people of other affinity groups.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Relationship Between Possession and Compassion

One of the common refrains for people who disdain the suburbs is that the comfort and socioeconomic lack of diversity (generally upper middle class) can lead to damaging character traits, namely a lack of awareness and sensitivity towards those who aren't as fortunate. An article in Time last month highlighted a study which recently tried to find a correlation between college students' economic upbringing and their compassion.

The correlation in this study was measured by self-reported survey data, a self-test and heart-rate measurements on how they felt after watching certain videos and a partner exercise in empathy for a counterpart going through a job interview. At the end of the day, the lower-income students scored higher in the compassion and empathy scale on all three of the tests.

I suppose much of this isn't all that surprising, because the greatest teacher of the discipline of compassion is personal experience. For a person who has known nothing except a life where food, clothing, housing and even non-essential materials possessions are summoned on demand either with a walk down the stairs or with a swipe of a credit card (or daddy's credit card), the concept of living in want is foreign and inexplicable. Without personal context, there's no benefit of firsthand experience which provides an emotionally connecting narrative on how situations like that happen. All are left with are sterile explanations such as "post-housing market bubble economy" and "manufacturing job outsourcing" at best, and callous rhetoric such as "poor people are lazy and dumb" at worst.

The study points out that it's not the super-rich (or the so-called 1%) that can learn or thing or two about compassion, it's the upper-middle class. I would actually submit that everyone who has never been "poor" doesn't really get the benefit of the difficulties of the struggle of living without material possession, and the resulting emotional intelligence in terms of being more inclined to be compassionate.

A buddy of mine referenced an article, which in part, made the point that "money can't by happiness", but the answer is a little more nuanced than the cliche. The article notes:
Research shows that money has diminishing marginal utility: “Anybody who says money can’t buy happiness has never met someone who lives in a cardboard box under a bridge,” Gilbert said. “But anybody who tells you money buys happiness has never met a very very rich person.” Money makes a big difference when it moves you out of poverty and into the middle class, he explained, but it makes very little difference after that.
So once you've crossed the income level in which you're no longer living in poverty (or the cardboard box), the excess money probably won't mean a heck of a lot of difference in terms of your happiness. I would also submit that having less of it won't make you any more compassionate, because there's very little that differentiates the "struggle" of a hedge fund manager's kid and the middle class manager's kid.

What this means to me is that my kids - even though they're not being raised in an ├╝ber-rich environment. We don't have butlers or even nannies and family vacations are to Lancaster and the Jersey Shore, not to Paris or Hawaii - are absolutely prone to being caught in a web of entitlement leading to a callousness towards those who have less or have fallen upon more difficult circumstances. Thus my responsibility as a father is to model compassion and grace, first by making absolutely clear that the blessed life that we live has much less to do with the immediate visible evidence of their parents' degrees and even "hard work", but that God (at least for this season) has been gracious to enable us to make a living unfettered by tragedy, disease, disability, others' evildoing or any other thing beyond our control that might otherwise alter this current reality. And as members of a broader community, we must lend a hand to our brothers and sisters who have fallen into difficult circumstances.

It comes down to grace - blessings given to us from God which are unmerited. Our own understanding of this necessarily colors our whole view of whether what we do is charity... or Kingdom justice.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Posture of Praise and Thanksgiving

A few nights ago, members of my church gathered together to have a casual prayer and praise night. It was a time for people to get together and give thanks for what God was doing in their life and to share with others how they've experienced God's faithfulness in goodness.

I've been to quite a few of these in my lifetime, and I always find it interesting how difficult it is for people, including me to step forward, stand up and share what really should be an answer to a simple question: What has God been doing in your life for which you'd like to give thanks? And in my experience, there's generally a gap of a few seconds to a few minutes where people shuffle in their seats and stare at their shoes as silence echoes in the room.

Of course, there's always an element of fear of speaking in public. I can understand that people tie themselves in knots in their own minds around how people might respond to whatever they share. A lot of it might be silly, but understandable. For example, after a young mother has brought the congregation to tears about how God has helped her cope and heal after losing her twin girls to leukemia, one might be a little self-conscious about walking up and sharing that he's really glad that God helped him find the wallet that he thought he had lost at the neighborhood pizza store.

But I think a part of it is that the posture of praise and thanksgiving isn't natural to us. Sadly, human nature is not predisposed to giving thanks, it's predisposed to complaining and whining about how our lives aren't as comfortable, convenient or happy as we think they ought to be. I firmly believe that one of the reasons why churches have praise and prayer nights is that it creates a discipline which human inertia would otherwise not take us to. You throw a bunch of people in a room and the inclination is to (more pejoratively) have a group misery-loves-company whine session or (less pejoratively) share problems in their lives for others can commiserate and problem solve. And to be clear, there's a place for that. It's entirely appropriate to share burdens and constructively provide counsel and prayer.

As for myself, I'm a problem solver by nature and that's not, in this case, a good thing. The wrongheaded focus on economy of effort and "productiveness" means that to stop and celebrate the good news of others and the praise God for good things going on in my life or others tends to lag behind in priority behind finding problems, caucusing around those problems and trying to fix them. But the truth is that to take time for thanks is tremendously productive. It reminds us of where we stand in the world and the rightful supremacy of God in our lives. It reminds us that even in a world where we're prone to fall into cynicism and despair, that God is redeeming pockets of broken lives right before our eyes. These reminders and lessons are critical in helping us live rightly.