White Privilege in Western Missions

by Editor on October 9, 2016

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“There’s really no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

– Arundhati Roy

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I am an Asian American, born and raised in the States, a child of immigrants. Growing up, my faith was deeply influenced by Western Christian thought, but always experienced in the context of immigrant churches. Ethnic identity, far from being ignored and irrelevant to my faith, was recognized and celebrated.

Then I became a missionary.

And my ethnicity that was once recognized and celebrated within the minority church now frequently left me feeling ignored and irrelevant within the predominantly white missions community.

Something is rotten in the state of Western missions when the very communities that are meant to proclaim God’s inclusiveness seem to make people of color feel other and less than.

I’m not talking about outright prejudice. God willing, we have moved beyond mistreatment that is conscious, deliberate, or blatant. But I am talking about subtle ways that people of color are disenfranchised.

There was that time I heard about an all-expense paid retreat for women on the field. Excited about the possibility of a fun and relaxing trip away, I found the promotional video online and eagerly watched it. But my heart sank as the video only featured frame after frame of white women. I knew immediately that this retreat was not designed with me in mind. I was not even on their radar, much less on their screen.

Then there was the time that our missions agency was considering mobilization of internationals. Leaders from around the region gathered together to discuss the pros and cons of such an endeavor. I and other minority members expressed our apprehension of recruiting locals into a primarily white organization, citing concerns about expansionism and assimilation.  I was thankful that we were given a voice in this decision. But I was mistaken. Instead of hearing our reservations and taking time to reflect on the alternatives that we suggested, a task force was immediately formed at the end of that meeting to move ahead with the plan.

And just earlier this year, I discovered that a missions blogger writing under an Asian pseudonym was actually white. Honestly, I felt betrayed. I had been encouraged by the recognition of this Asian blogger, seeing it as a sign of the strides taken within Western missions to listen to the perspectives of people of color; only to have the rug pulled out from underneath me when I learned that the blogger was not a person of color at all.

I think of my father, who has written countless books about missions, is a sought-after speaker for conferences, and has five decades of ministry experience as a missionary, pastor, professor, and mobilizer. Go anywhere in the world and ask any believer with my ethnic background, and they probably know of him. Yet very few white missionaries have ever heard of his name.

It’s experiences like these that have taught me …

We are invisible.

Our perspectives are ignored.

Our voices are unheard.

Instead, we are replaced by those with power and privilege.

Even (and perhaps especially) in missions work, the resources that are used, the ideas that are disseminated, and the methods that are implemented are most likely created, introduced, or advanced by white men.

While their intentions are undoubtedly benevolent, this comes at a cost. When those with white privilege are the only people with influence, people of color inevitability feel stripped of power. When theirs are the only voices we hear, people of color feel unheard.  When there is a lack of representation and diversity within the missions community, people of color feel dismissed.

These seemingly benign acts of commission and omission seem trivial taken on their own, but when experienced day after day, what we hear is “I don’t need you.”  The message we receive is that we are weaker, less honorable, and unpresentable.

“But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:24-26).

As a member of this body, my responsibility is not only to honor others, but to call out dishonor when I see it. I am not only to care for others, but to bring awareness when there is division. I’m not simply to rejoice, but to invite others in when I suffer.

So I write this to bring awareness to the marginalization that many people of color experience within the sphere of Western missions. I write this as an unveiling of tender wounds. I write this, not to point fingers, but to ask you to suffer with us.

Resist the desire to defend. Reject any shame you may feel. Refrain from problem-solving prematurely.

These will only prevent you from truly suffering together with us.

Instead, listen to our stories and our pain. Step into our shoes. Grieve with us.

By acknowledging the disparity, empathizing with our feelings, and understanding the injustices we have to endure, you begin to replace the damaging messages we’ve received.

Instead of invisible, we begin to feel seen.

Instead of ignored, we begin to feel known.

Instead of being silenced, we begin to feel heard.

Perhaps this simple act of com-passion — “suffering with” — will be the very thing that sets us on the path toward greater unity and healing.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Grace Lee (a pseudonym) is a California native who is church planting in Asia with her husband and two kids.
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