Subliminal Racism

One of the great dangers of cross-cultural ministry is subliminal racism. That is, a prejudice based on race that operates under the threshold of our consciousness. Even people with the most color-blind of hearts are not impervious to this kind of influence, as horrible as it is. How does something like this happen, even to people with enough “cross-cultural love” to leave their country in the first place?


Probably the first step in the birthing of subliminal racism is becoming an extreme minority. Not just to find oneself in the smaller slice of the pie chart, but to be the only sliver that doesn’t conform to the whole. Meaning, many cross-cultural workers find themselves as the object of racism for the first time in their lives! I’m a white guy from Ohio – you think I’ve ever been the object of discrimination before? But in China – apart from one of the three or so most international cities – I stick out in a bad way. If I talk to someone in this city, there’s a large possibility that that’s the first time they’ve ever talked to a non-Chinese person before. For all the outcry about race-based prejudice in America (however justified it may be), we are probably one of the most diversity-educated nations in the world. Very often, people here will say and do things that sting solely on account of my race. For the record, it’s far easier to say that racism is wrong until you’ve been the object of it! Then, the instinct is to lash out with racism in the other direction – no matter how wrong you know it is.


As I wrote about last week, you’ll find that a majority of the people in a culture are probably worshipping similar idols. Which won’t make sense to you. And when you encounter that, it is tempting to throw up your hands and say something like, “What is wrong with these people?”, forgetting for a moment that the idolatry of your own people is just as awful in the sight of the Creator. Sadly, many missionaries become experts in “what’s wrong with these people.” They make lots of “us/them” statements. And after banging into the same walls over and over again, these race-based statements begin to form impressions in the heart about what kind of person someone is before they’ve even met them. They begin to focus more on the weakness of the people, less on the power of God. They start to imagine that their efforts would be more effective/appreciated/blessed/worthwhile in their home country. I can’t speak for everyone, but when you pull back the surface layer the root for a seething racism is often revealed.


So, what to do with that, right? First, if you’re planning on getting into cross-cultural ministry, you’d better realize that the greatest attacks will most likely spring up in the subliminal places of your heart. Realize that you won’t always be filled with fuzzy love for everyone and everything in your new home. Establish now in your heart what it is that you love – Jesus and the people that bear His image, not people that wear such-and-such hats or speak such-and-such language or eat such-and-such food. 


Next, and this one is lifelong – recognize the seeds and roots of your own bitterness and hatred. When those cultural-clashing incidents occur, when you feel angry enough to kill, when you feel humiliated enough to run home, beware what you do with the emotions and reactions produced! Don’t bury the offense somewhere in the deep soil of your heart – bear it to the throne of grace and plead for more grace. Remember what you are yourself – cut not only from same marvelous image of God, but also from the same sinful stock of Adam.

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