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

*          *          *

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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  • Thank you so much for writing this, Grace. This is a vitally important discussion…

  • Prue Scott

    I feel like I don’t have much right to comment because I am in the majority white section of the Western mission community. But that’s not to say that I haven’t faced prejudice as an Australian in International mission – being a minority nationality in a majority American missionary community can at times be hard too. I’m not trying to negate your argument at all Grace, and I agree that it is an important discussion, but I think we can all feel prejudice at times. So I empathise, even though I haven’t experienced what you do. Your wounds are acknowledged.

    • Grace Lee

      Prue, I think whether it’s Americans and Australians, men and women, or white people and people of color, etc., I think it’s important to communicate with one another and share honestly about ways that we feel marginalized so that we can love one another better.

  • Amy Medina

    This is compelling and this discussion needs to happen. Thank you for writing!

    I want to hear more about this paragraph. I feel like it’s really important and yet I don’t understand it. Can you explain more?
    “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.”

    • jenni

      Like Amy I’d appreciate a whole blog post expanding your comment on mobilisation of Internationals

    • pointe4Jesus

      Yeah, I’m having trouble understanding what, exactly, was being discussed, and why she felt like it was a problem. As it reads now, it seems like they were trying to get more internationals into missions, and I’m having trouble seeing why she would have a problem with that. Clarification would be greatly appreciated.

    • Grace Lee

      I’m not sure if I can do this topic justice here in the comments section, but I will try to address it briefly.

      When an organization talks about mobilizing internationals, they think of diversity, unity, cooperation, greater effectiveness, etc.

      All good things.

      For me, when I think about mobilizing internationals, I think of those things, but I also think of:

      Assimilation: We talk of diversity, but more likely than not, locals have to conform to the established norms and culture of the Western organization. Western ways of communicating, making decisions, relating, and relaxing are assumed.

      Loss of cultural identity and alienation from their own communities: I know of locals who work so closely with foreigners that they have a hard time relating to their own people. We take them out of their communities and get them so used to our way of doing things that they reject their own culture. Many times, also, the locals that we attract as foreigners are attracted to our foreignness. They may enjoy the cool factor of being associated with a foreigner, but this in fact can alienate them from their own families and friends.

      “Imperialism”: Organizations need to be cognizant of what may be driving the desire to expand, (Greater power? Influence?) especially if there already exists local organizations that are better equipped to support local missionaries. I know of Asian organizations that require members to raise support to help take care of parents. Asian organizations where funds raised go into a communal pot instead of into individual accounts. Asian organizations with Asian member care teams to counsel through the unique challenges of Asian relationships. Western organizations would most likely not consider these courses of action because they are so outside their cultural worldview. Instead of requiring locals to become “one of us”, is there a way that organizations can partner with and equip locals through local channels?

      This is not to say that organizations should not internationalize. But leadership needs to be very thoughtful about how it does so in a way that minimizes the drawbacks. There are organizations doing this well, I think. I would love to hear of examples from organizational leaders and local members of such organizations to share their best practices.

      • Amy Medina

        Hmmm.. Very interesting. I don’t doubt that this is true. Just discouraging, I guess, because it kind of feels like “damned if we do, damned if we don’t.” I would think that the reason organizations try to internationalize is because they are wanting to get away from “white privilege.” And yet….are you saying that makes the problem worse? How can we fix this? There aren’t any “local” missions organizations in my country to partner with.

  • Laura

    Thank you for sharing. As others have said, this is important. After spending a lot of time in diverse (particularly black/white/hispanic) churches and other settings in the US, I have been struck by how very non-diverse American missionaries seem to be. And I have missed the richness that comes from more diverse groups of Americans.

  • Christy

    Thank you for sharing… I too grieve that the western mission world has such lack of diversity! Why is it there are not more people of color involved with missions? I see that at every mission org/church I have worked at and it makes me so sad. This is not what heaven will look like. We need to be more intentional about reaching out to people of color, and empowering them to also serve and have their voices heard! Keep preaching it sister!!!

    • Tomi Beara

      are you crazy? you think it grieves God that people are sacrificing their lives for the Gospel? do you really think God cares about what color our skin is, listen to yourselves – you are so corrupted by racial divisions, you miss the Kingdom of God – stop crying about it, and go out into the mission field, the mission field isn’t for crybabies, it isn’t a safe place, doesn’t matter your skin color – GO and TEACH and PREACH!

  • E.

    The mission I work with has experienced a lot of “growing pains” (Since day 1 over 100 years ago, actually.) as they seek to become senders of missionaries from all nations…but the benefits of working together, with brothers & sisters of other nations & races, far outweigh the “easy” choice of remaining majority-white/American. We all learn so much more, spread the Gospel much further, when we incorporate the experiences of the Church in other cultures. We’re so much better together.

  • Lisa Enqvist

    Thank you for sharing. Important discussion, which I do hope will bring positive results around the world.
    I would like to quote the following lines in situations wherever people are bleeding:

    “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.”

    God bless you Grace.

  • John Barclay

    Spot on Grace. What we white western missos need to remember (and thank God for) is that the majority of cross-cultural missos are no longer white or western (‘Old Sending Countries’), but from South America, Africa and Asia (‘New Sending Countries’). My great concern over the past 11 years has been the anonymity of NSC MKs/ TCKs. Western missions have focused on their own (white) MKs in terms of support, care and education, whilst NSC MKs have languished, struggled and suffered.

    I first tried to address this by editing a small publication: ‘Indian MKs – a fresh exploration’ (2005). I tried to bring attention to the plight of Korean and Indian MKs at the EuroTCK conference in Mosbach, 2007, and again at the IMKEC conference in the UK in September 2007 (see ACSI World Report 3rd Qrtr 2008).

    I am really encouraged by the more recent development of the Asian MK Network that was launched during (but not as a part of) the Global Member Care conference in Chiang Mai, April 2012; it continues to grow in size and influence – to the benefit of the large Asian MK community.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      I think you’ve hit on a Caucasian blind spot here, John, and I’m glad you’re doing things to remedy the situation. I have heard similar things from some of my Asian homeschooling friends — there are not as many educational resources geared for Asian parents, the way they are geared for North American parents. Thank you so much for highlighting and working to close this Asian/African/South American TCK information gap!

      May God richly bless your efforts, and let us know if there’s anything we at A Life Overseas can do to help in them.

    • Grace Lee

      John, thank you for the work that you are doing to bring awareness that a one-size-fits-all approach to supporting missionaries/TCKs actually ignores the needs of minority groups. Like you pointed out, people of color are quickly becoming the majority in cross-cultural work, and yet there are limited resources for them.

  • Carrie Anne Hudson

    Grace, I do hear your frustration and angst. I’m sorry that you’ve felt hurt by the Christian community. It sounds like the hurt has compounded over the years. I agree that the mission community is majority Caucasian. But my experience has me deviating on a few points.

    If the mission world is dominated by Caucasians, that seems to be a discussion we need to have when talking about theological education, church, and mobilization in the West. This isn’t the fault of the missionary. We are with a rather large sending organization and our experience is quite different. We have many, many Asians that are leading, teaching, and contributing in important ways. Their views are heard and discussed. While this might not be the experience of everyone, it makes me leery to throw the race card too quickly.

    I have had tons of ideas that were never accepted by the group. This is the beauty of community and brainstorming. While there might be prejudicial intent for some, might it just be that the idea wasn’t the one that the leadership felt like going forward with? We have to be really careful to say it’s because of race. We will never have any productive missional dialogues if we constantly have to make sure we are every ethnic background is being represented before making a decision. While there are certainly some, I don’t personally know one racist missionary. Missionaries, I have found, are some of the most racially accepting people on the planet. Hence, choosing to live in a place where they are most likely the minority.

    It’s worth asking that if the internet had been around when your father wrote, would his ideas have been more broadly read? In addition, the onus of some of the disparity might be on Asian parents who don’t want their children entering the profession of missions or theology. Again, let’s assume the Christian community is not being racist and try to think through other mitigating factors. (I think we owe that to one another as family. I understand that there are racist believers, but it’s certainly not a majority.)

    One last note, liking the blogger’s material, finding out he’s not Asian, and then feeling like he can’t speak into your work is doing the exact same thing you are blaming your leadership of. It’s not listening to someone based on the color of his or her skin. That kind of logic is just not ok. While it pains me that you’ve been hurt, I want to make sure we don’t shout ‘oppression,’ too quickly. That’s a loaded word with history and corruption; so let’s not put that on our leadership presumptively without knowing for sure that was their intent.

    • pointe4Jesus

      I would be interested to know what missions group she is with. As you have said, there are some groups that are very good in this regard, and it appears that there are some that are by far not so good. Would it be possible to change missions organizations?

      • Grace Lee

        It was not my intent to disparage the organization. The group that I speak of is actually very intentional and forward-thinking in terms of empowering people of color and inviting other perspectives. But even organizations that have greater diversity in membership and leadership need to continue to grow in their awareness of unconscious biases.

    • Grace Lee

      Carrie, thanks for taking the time to respond. Although you wrote that you heard my frustration and angst, I can’t help but think that you did not. You took time to deconstruct each of my personal experiences and explain why you thought I should NOT feel the way I do.

      I never complained about the missions community being “dominated” by Caucasians. I merely stated the reality that Western missions communities are predominantly white, and described my experiences as a minority within that environment. I actually believe that mobilization among people of color is growing, if it has not already surpassed that of white missionaries.

      In regards to the organizational discussion, I never said that I was purposely discriminated against because of my race. I was saying that I and other people of color raised issues and concerns about internationalization that a white person would not think about, but these concerns were not addressed.

      I never said that I did not respect the blogger simply because he was not Asian. I said that I was disappointed because I thought this voice represented the perspective of a person of color, when in actuality, it did not. This blogger’s perspectives and opinions can absolutely speak into my life, but they do so coming from a white person who was not born into an Asian family and has never experienced what it’s like to be Asian.

      You seemed to read that I felt that people intended to hurt or oppress me. I think if you reread carefully, that is not what I’m saying. I’m saying that most of my experiences of marginalization are through unintentional and unconscious ways that white missionaries go about their business without awareness of how they affect people of color.

      In short, I asked that readers would:
      “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.”

      And yet, I’m sorry to say, I feel like this request was ignored.

  • Tai Tirzah

    Thank you for articulating what my family and other missionaries on our base have been unable to describe! We live in community on a missionary base in the U.S and have many nations represented. We marvel because it is very evident our white missionary friends don’t have an ounce of racism in them. IT’S IMPOSSIBLE!!! But then their are these things…things that go beyond not being recognized. When I step on the mission field 3 years ago, in my frustration I cried, “Where are the Black, Native and Latino American, born and raised in the U.S, missionaries? Why are they not stepping in to missions?” Three years later, I shake my head and say, “Now I know why they are not here.” It just took me 3 years to see what they likely saw, from the outside looking in. I believe this is a hour that the Church going to shine in the midst of the racial division that is sweeping the globe. However, when she shines, what will the world see?

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      This comment is important, Tai, and I would love to know more. Can you tell us more of the reasons, as you understand them, that people of color are not stepping into missions the way you would like to see them do so?

      We need to see what you’re seeing, hear what you’re hearing, and feel what you’re feeling.

    • Grace Lee

      Yes, Tai, I think we all need to start by acknowledging our personal implicit biases instead of continually trying to convince ourselves that we don’t have any. I myself own up to the fact that I have preconceived ideas and stereotypes about white people, about other people of color, and even about other Asians and Asian-Americans. We can’t be open to God changing our hearts when we believe that there’s nothing to change.

  • Lisa

    Thanks so much for this, Grace. It’s clearly an important discussion and I am glad you chose to raise your voice… praying it will be heard.

    I really love your description of compassion, and as I sit in that place, I can’t help thinking that the unintentional discrimination you face is similar to what I sense as a woman in a man’s world.. same but different, I expect, with deeper and less acknowledged barriers.

    I understand your desire for anonymity but also would like to hear who you father is and what great things he has to say that we white people are missing. Perhaps once all this has settled, you might consider writing another post highlighting the contribution of other cultures into the missions conversation and dropping his as a name among the many that are surely there.

  • Joey Chiang

    Grace, your experience and perspective resonates with me. Thank you for being honest. I’m an ABC and have lived in E.Asia for 14 years now. I’d love to be in touch with you and your husband directly. I’m sure we’d have lots to talk about. joeychiang at gmail.

    @carrie_anne_hudson:disqus I appreciate what you wrote. And I agree we have to be careful not to “throw the race card too quickly.” I think it’s important to recognize that Grace is an Asian American, which might explain why your experience greatly differs from hers. Asian Americans are treated differently in Asia, and it’s healthy to admit that it gets annoying… Just because an organization has Asian nationals in positions of leadership/influence doesn’t necessarily mean those nationals or the organization as a whole knows how to understand Asian Americans. In fact, I contend nationals find it harder because their stereotype of “American” gets challenged and even breaks down. Also, the discovery about the white blogger using an Asian pseudonym doesn’t sound like she’s unwilling to let him speak into her work. Rather, it’s about “seeing it as a sign of the strides taken within Western missions to listen to the perspectives of people of color” when in fact that wasn’t necessarily the case. I agree, though, that dismissing him for that reason isn’t appropriate.

    A brief illustration of where being treated differently isn’t always a negative experience: On many occasions, I’ve found myself in a room with a white coworker and several local leaders who first look at him and say something like “Despite what we usually say, we don’t actually believe you understand what it means to be Asian. We’re accustomed to telling you what we think you want to hear because you’re white.” Then they turn to me and say “It’s much easier to be honest with you because you’re not white.” Again, that’s not an isolated incident but instead a regular occurrence. Interpreting our helpfulness to these HC leaders based on our respective experiences yields drastically different results. Yet, I believe there’s still a place for laborers of different cultures.

    • Carrie Anne Hudson

      I absolutely agree. There are pros AND cons to being Asian and living in East Asia. I think both Asian and non-Asian missionaries have important open doors to them in their work here. My frustration is coming in her displacing her anger towards white missionaries and leadership. I feel like she is putting the blame on the missionaries for lack of diversity oversees when that conversation should be squarely directed towards churches in the West. I do hope she continues to read that blogger’s material. When we find things that are helpful to our work and to us personally, we shouldn’t let race the the reason we stop using heir material. My biggest hope is that she (and all of us) will give each other the benefit of the doubt and not assume malintent.

  • Kevin

    Great post, Grace. I think one of the things that needs to also be discussed alongside this issue is the mission funding structure we currently use, i.e., the personal support raising model. I think the majority of the mission force from Western nations (particularly the U.S.) being white has a lot to do with the funding model we use. Whites have access to more institutional wealth than minorities typically do, and this has a direct impact on who is able to “make it to the field.” I think the mission community needs to do some serious reflection on how the personal support raising model inherently (although unintentionally) perpetuates a predominately white mission force, and, in practice, stiff-arms people of color from the field.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Thank you for pointing this out, Kevin. It’s not something I have thought of before, but it makes complete sense.

    • craigasauros

      Scott Bessenecker’s groundbreaking book, Overturning Tables, addresses this issue very well and presents some viable alternatives.

  • Dalaina May

    This is beautiful and so so very needed. I see you. I hurt with you. I want better for all of us.

  • Kathy Vaughan

    At a gathering of women, mostly missionaries, in Jinja, Uganda earlier this year, I was so surprised to hear something similar expressed by a black missionary from America, for whom I have great respect. She shared with us her feelings of being discriminated against, or feeling treated as less than, by the missionary community here. I think many of us were surprised by this. I know I was shocked. Some began to ask how we may be guilty of this without knowing it, and what could be done to rectify this. In response, women in this community began meeting together to try to understand each other better, intentionally inviting people of other races to join in the dialogue, with the goal of transformation that truly reflects the unity, love and respect that we should have for one another as sisters in Christ. We probably have a long way to go. May God guide us as we try to see and treat one another as equals, as brothers and sisters in Christ.

    • Grace Lee

      Kathy, we’d all like to assume that people of color are doing just fine in our communities, so I’m sure it’s shocking when we find that they are not. This post was definitely about bringing awareness to the marginalization many of us feel as people of color. I’m so encouraged by how you and your community responded with humility and grace, and I hope many other groups will take intentional measures to bring healing in this area.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      This is beautiful, Kathy, thank you for sharing this story.

  • Tomi Beara

    are you serious? why are you sooooo self- occupied? doesn’t matter what color is in the mission field, as long as there are christians there, and don’t you get it? America has 240 million WHITE people, and about 19 million ASIANS.

    I lived in China for 2 years, chinese/asia are the world’s most racist people. They are all about blood line, at least you could get citizenship in a WHITE CHRISTIAN MAJORITY country. That means you will get social security, healthcare, food, whatever you need if you don’t have it – when would Japan, Korea, China, Vietnam or any other xenophobic Asian nation take me a white Christian into their nation and give me citizenship? Social services, social care and let me run for political office, let me build schools in my own language, let me worship freely my God?

    You are guys are so full of jealousy, it is grieving the Holy Spirit, repent and start teaching Asia to not be so racist.

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