Stephen Colbert doesn't know his own race. The host of The Colbert Report, a satirical television news program on Comedy Central, claims to be colorblind, unable to discern his skin color. "People tell me I'm white," he said during one episode, "because I own a lot of Jimmy Buffet albums." The colorblind approach to race and racism makes for amusing television but is the height of na?vet? in real life. Yet for many churches this seems to be the preferred method of talking - or not talking - about all things related to race.
The beauty and peril of our diverse culture is impossible to miss. A quick snapshot reveals a president who shares a heritage with both Kenya and Kansas, a New York Post cartoon of a dead chimpanzee that stirs up memories of racist stereotypes, and teenage pop star Miley Cyrus photographed pulling back her eyes in an attempt to "look Asian." Stephen Colbert isn't the only TV personality who finds comedy in this racially charged atmosphere. Michael Scott, the hilariously insensitive manager of The Office, manages to repeatedly offend each of his diverse staff - no one is safe from his absurd stereotypes. A more nuanced primetime treatment of race can be seen on Lost where the island's castaways epitomize the global, ethnic, and class diversity and divisions of our day. In a society increasingly conscious of race and ethnicity, the silence of our churches grows more notable by the day.
Whatever the reason for our silence when it comes to race, the result is the same: increasing irrelevance in a culture schooled in diversity. How strange this must seem to a nation whose multi-ethnic population will soon eliminate any one racial majority. What does our ambivalence say when ethnic and class injustice appear in our neighborhoods or local news? The ability to speak to a generation raised within this milieu is compromised by our ongoing silence. In a culture that laughs at buffoons like Stephen Colbert and Michael Scott and sympathizes with the fantastically diverse cast of Lost, our silence may be the loudest voice of all.
With so much media and entertainment chatter around issues of race and racism, why do our churches struggle to join the conversation? (To be clear, there are churches - many African American congregations among them - whose contributions to racial awareness and justice have been many. I'm writing here about the mostly white churches of the evangelical tradition; churches that, in my experience, say very little about these issues.) It can't be that we don't care about issues of justice. The faithful care for the unborn has more recently been joined by an active concern for those suffering from extreme poverty and the AIDS pandemic. "Too heavenly minded to be any earthly good," is an accusation that rings hollow for most of us. So why the ambivalence about race and the ongoing racism experienced by many Americans?
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