stereotypes

A Miracle of Resilience

Lisa Sharon Harper is Chief Church Engagement Officer for Sojourners and co-author of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith.

MY GREAT-GRANDMOTHER, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Johnson, was born in 1890 in Camden, S.C., with a different last name from all the other people in her household. Three generations later, we have no idea where the name Johnson came from.

Lizzie grew up working plantation land owned by her grandmother, Lea Ballard. Lea received the land in the wake of the Civil War: We don’t know how or why, though one theory speculates that Lea, who was listed as a 42-year-old mulatto widow on the 1880 U.S. Census, may have been the daughter of her slave owner. He may have given the land to her after the Civil War. We don’t know. We only know that Lea owned it, that she had 17 children who worked that land, according to family lore, and that the city of Camden eventually stole the land from her by the power of eminent domain. This we know from records I hold in my possession.

Lizzie married a railroad man named Charles Jenkins. Lizzie and Charles had three children; Charles later died in a railroad accident. Lizzie had a choice: endure the brutality of the Jim Crow South alone with three kids, or move with the stream of black bodies migrating north. Lizzie migrated to Washington, D.C., and, eventually, to Philadelphia and took her lightest-skinned child with her.

Both mother and child were light enough to pass for white. My caramel-toned, straight-haired grandmother, Willa, and her brother, Charlie, were too dark. So they were left behind in the care of their elderly great-grandmother. Willa and Charlie joined others on the plantation and earned their keep working the fields.

Darn It!

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Why Evangelicals Should Care About 'The Mikado' Controversy If They Care About Reconciliation in the Church

Courtesy of Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society

Courtesy of Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society

In my pastoral counseling class in seminary, the professor played a video of a counseling session of a black couple. He intended for us to learn some lessons on marriage counseling from it, but it turned out to be a laugh fest for the mostly white class. Repeatedly the husband and wife cut each other down with witty insults. My sense is that the couple reminded the students of George and Louise Jefferson from the TV show The Jeffersons. I sat next to an African American student that day and during the break I turned over to him and asked, “Do you find this funny?” He said, “I’m glad you asked,” and proceeded to tell me that he witnessed this kind of behavior firsthand in his own home since his parents are divorced. Needless to say he did not find the video amusing. I encouraged him to voice this to the class, which he courageously did when we returned from break. It seems while the professor intended to communicate one thing from showing the video, it communicated another because of the manner in which the students were racialized. 

I share this story as an analogue to the recent controversy surrounding the production of the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s The Mikado — a comic opera written in 1885 as a critique of British politics and institutions, set in distant, mysterious, and mostly made-up Japan. It began with Sharon Chan writing an editorial to the Seattle Times, calling the current production of it by an all-white cast as “yellowface” and “open[ing] old wounds and resurrect[ing] pejorative stereotypes.”  Since then, Jeff Yang has also written an editorial for CNN.com entitled, “Yellowface staging of ‘The Mikado’ has to end.”  I will not rehearse their arguments here; I write to address why this incident matters to North American evangelicals. 

How a Gay Football Player Could Help Redeem the Church

Mizzou tweets support for Michael Sam, via Twitter

Mizzou tweets support for Michael Sam, via Twitter

There’s something about Michael Sam that we are missing and I hope the church will see it.

Michael Sam is the college football star who “came out” in an interview with ESPN and the New York Times . He graduated in December and will be drafted in the upcoming NFL draft. Sam was the Southeastern Conference’s co-defensive player of the year and a first-team all-American. He came out to his teammates before the season started and at the end of the year they voted him their most valuable player.

But it’s not his superior football skills that the church should pay attention to. It’s his spirit and his sense of identity.

Throughout his interview on ESPN with Chris Connely, Sam smiles, clearly comfortable in his own skin. A few highlights of the conversation that are worth pointing out:

Representing Christ in the Face of Stereotypes

Sombre Model Looking Away. Courtesty Claire McAdams, via Shutterstock

On Oct. 13, Asian Americans United published an open letter asking the church to reevaluate its behavior toward its Asian brothers and sisters. The letter demands that the evangelical community listen and respect a community that has generally been overlooked or disregarded. Central to this issue is identity.

When we begin to divide or alienate communities through our behavior based on race, we are additionally dividing the identity of Christ. However, if we return to the core of what being Christian entails, we are reminded that we are not our own and find a new calling to community. 

With whom do you identify? In a nation, with over 75 percent of its population nominally claiming the label Christian, asking whom we identify with is an important question. It is a challenge but a daily necessity to reflect on our character and ask if we are truly representing Christ.

An Open Letter to the Evangelical Church: I Am Not Your Punch Line

Church with cross in the foreground, sunfun / Shutterstock.com

Church with cross in the foreground, sunfun / Shutterstock.com

There are few things as exhausting, draining, and disheartening as family drama. I’m not talking low-level sibling rivalry over who gets shotgun all the time. I’m talking deep-rooted family issues that go generations back. That kind of family drama shows up in the most inopportune times in the most inappropriate places — at someone’s wedding or funeral, at the family reunion, or while grocery shopping.

But when family drama shows up in the church, it grieves me. It riles me up like nothing else does because it is in my identity as a Christian and Jesus-follower where I am all of who God created me to be and has called me to be — Asian and American, Korean, female, friend, daughter, wife, mother, sister, aunt, writer, manager, advocate, activist. The church is the place where I and everyone else SHOULD be able to get real and raw and honest to work out the kinks and twists, to name the places of pain and hurt, and to find both healing and full restoration and  redemption.

So when the church uses bits and pieces of “my” culture — the way my parents speak English (or the way majority culture people interpret the way my parents speak English) or the way I look (or the way the majority culture would reproduce what they think I look like) – for laughs and giggles, it’s not simply a weak attempt at humor. It’s wrong. It’s hurtful. It’s not honoring. It can start out as “an honest mistake” with “good intentions,” but ignored, it can lead to sin.

Fortunately, there is room for mistakes, apologies, dialogue, learning, and forgiveness.

Overcoming Stereotypes

Diversity image,  antoniomas/ Shutterstock.com

Diversity image, antoniomas/ Shutterstock.com

I was in my office on a quiet afternoon when I saw the car pull into the parking lot.

Those of us who work in churches are familiar with people stopping by seeking a bit of financial help. But people stop by churches for lots of reasons. It’s best to wait to see what they want before making assumptions.

As I watched the African-American gentlemen get out of his car, I sighed. My peaceful afternoon was going to be interrupted by yet another request for help. We could do that, but it would take some time. He came into the church and I greeted him.

“Hi, how are you?”

“Fine,” he said. “But I think I’m lost. I’ve got this appointment at a business near here, but I think I missed a turn. Can you help me figure out where it is?”

So why did I assume he was looking for a handout? The only variable was the color of his skin. And in that moment, I realized how quickly I make judgments about people based on stereotypes that lurk within me. And I was grateful that I had kept that stereotype to myself when I greeted the man.

7 Marks of A Stereotypical American Christian

American flag and the Bible, SUE ASHE / Shutterstock.com

American flag and the Bible, SUE ASHE / Shutterstock.com

1) You Love To Argue, Fight, And Attack

There’s nothing quite like flooding people’s Facebook feeds with posts about the sins of gay marriage, abortion, and the Democratic Party or the volleyed claims of bigotry, hypocrisy, and self-interest.

American Christians seemingly love to argue with people and engage themselves in various culture wars. Whether it’s about the existence of global warming, prayer in schools, evolution, gun control, or homosexuality, you love to let people know that you’re RIGHT and they’re WRONG. Oh yeah, and if you don’t agree with me —You’re going to hell! Literally.

Your main forms of communication include boycotting, accusing, yelling, screaming, pointing, spewing, slandering, shaming, shaking your fists, and waving protest signs. In fact, you’ll probably write a venomous response to this piece in the comments section below.

Christianity for Non-Christians

"Belief," Leszek Glasner / Shutterstock.com

"Belief," Leszek Glasner / Shutterstock.com

There are lots of biases and assumptions about Christians out there, many of which are founded in real-life experience. And yes, we Christians have done our share of damage when it comes to tarnishing our so-called “brand.” But there also seems to be this tendency to understand Christianity and its adherents as one generally monolithic group that can be described in simple (often negative) terms that they would never be acceptable to apply to any other group.

Part of this is because of the historic dominance of the Christian culture in the modern Western world. It’s the same reason that stereotypes of men on network sitcoms are pervasively unflattering, while the same stereotypes would cause a firestorm of negative publicity if applied to the female counterparts. Some of this is entirely warranted and necessary in tearing down false or damaging constructs of power. But sometimes, if we’re being honest, they’re just wrong. And stupid.

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