What Silence About Racism Sounds Like (and Words BIPOC Need to Hear)

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”

~Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986

As a woman of color navigating all the ways this past year has brought my racial pain and trauma to the surface, there are words I need to hear from the people in my life:

“I see you.”

“I’m here for you.”

“I’ve got your back.”

For those of you who are leaders, I need to hear the same from the leadership of the organizations and institutions I’m part of:

“We see you.”

“We’re here for you.”

“We’ve got your back.”

Why is this so important? Because, as Elie Wiesel states, “Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented.” For me personally, when the people in my life or the organizations I’m part of offer silence in response to racial pain, what I hear is NOT compassion or empathy. What I hear is:

They do not see me.

They are not here for me.

They do not have my back.

My journal is a place where I feel freedom to express all the things I’m too timid or scared to say out loud. Over the past year, I’ve written in my journal, “I wish they would try. But in order to try, they’d first have to care. And I don’t know anymore if I believe they care.”

So if you care, please don’t believe the lie that silence is the best option. At the least, it can be hurtful (or even feel like betrayal) to those who are hurting. At most, it can embolden those who have deep racism in their hearts and desire to harm racial minorities. Say something!

I know that some of you are reading this and thinking, “I’ve wanted to say something to my friends (or the people I lead) who’ve been hurting during this season, but I haven’t been able to find the words.” I get that. It can be scary to want to say something but to also be afraid of saying the wrong thing. If coming up with the “right” words has felt like an overwhelming and impossible task for you, or if you read the three sentences I shared earlier and thought, “That’s what I’ve been trying to say but I didn’t know how!”—you’re welcome to use them! It doesn’t have to be word-for-word exactly what I wrote. There are so many ways you can express these messages! The important thing is to express them and mean them!

Let’s take a closer look at these three sentences:

“I see you.”

This is the bare minimum. This shouldn’t be controversial. Yet, unfortunately, I know that for some, it is. If you love someone, these words should be easy. The other two sentences are dependent on this one. “I see you” can sound like:

  • “I’m listening.”
  • “I see your pain. I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”
  • “I see the image of God in you.”
  • “I see your uniqueness. I see your beautiful personality, your giftings, what you bring into a room, the ways you make me better.”

Note: In addition to silence, there are many ways to convey, “I don’t see you.” Some of those ways include arguing instead of listening, gaslighting, defensiveness or making it about yourself when people are sharing their stories of pain with you.

“I’m here for you.”

This one takes a little bit of time, effort, and compassion. This looks like sitting with someone’s pain—even if it’s uncomfortable. “I’m here for you” can sound like:

  • “If you need to cry or vent, I’m here.
  • “Can I give you a hug?”…when it’s safe to do so.
  • “Can I bring you coffee or a meal?”

“I’ve got your back.”

This one takes some courage. You might get some pushback from those who haven’t taken the time to examine their negative racial biases. But know this: The dignity and worth of BIPOC are worth it! In addition to using your voice to speak up, “I’ve got your back” can sound like:

  • “I want to be your ally.”
  • “I want to grow in this area so I can do better.”
  • “I want to protect you. I will come to your defense if someone tries to harm you.” (These words need to be backed up by action if the opportunity arises!)
  • “Can I sit with you at church?” Or, “Can I come with you when you go to [insert place where they may need an ally to help them feel safe]?”
  • “I want to give action to my words. I don’t just want to say things need to be better; I want to do concrete things to help bring change.”
  • “We need your voice! I’m going to amplify your voice any way I can!”
  • If you’re in a position of leadership: “How can we do better?” and “How can we come alongside you?”

One more thing: If you can’t mean these words, please don’t say them. I don’t mean that as a slam. It takes repentance and work over time to be able to say each of these things. It’s also a progression: You can’t have someone’s back when you’ve never been (or aren’t at least willing to be) there for them. And you can’t be there for them if you don’t see them (which includes seeing their pain). So if these are words you’ve never said to someone experiencing racial pain or trauma, start by prayerfully examining yourself and asking God, “Since words are the overflow of the heart, what in my heart (and mind) needs to change so I can say these words?” If you can say, “I can see you,” but you don’t think you can honestly say, “I’m here for you,” or “I’ve got your back,” bring that to God and be honest about why you feel that way. And then let God shine a light on everything in your heart that wants to hide. Will it be easy? No. But will it be worth it? Yes!

This is where healing begins.

An Asian American’s Awakening

What follows is something I wrote many months ago when America was reeling and grappling with questions about race. I’ve been unsure of whether or not I wanted to share these words. They’re not exactly “on brand” for my blog. And as time continued to pass, I thought maybe I was trying to talk about something people have moved on from. But then a friend experienced something. Something I’ve experienced and wrote about in these paragraphs. I allowed more time to pass. And in that time, the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community has suffered: the continuation of Anti-Asian rhetoric, AAPI being attacked (even killed) in the street, the Atlanta massacre

Many people are tired of talking about race, but the conversation isn’t over. It can’t be. There are still questions to ask, issues to discuss, and stories to share.

I’m done hiding. 

During this season, I’ve been taking a hard look at ways I’ve chosen to “assimilate” into White culture (or rather, hide my Filipino-ness). 

Being Asian American in predominantly White spaces is tricky. I rarely experience explicit hatred—that doesn’t mean it has never happened—but there are things that lie under the surface. The often asked “Where are you really from?” and “Did your husband meet you on the mission field?” remind me that for many, I’m forever a foreigner. I was born here. This is my home, but I don’t really belong. 

And then there’s the issue of what’s safe for me to talk about. I learned early that to talk about my heritage is taboo. Friends could talk freely about the culture of whatever European country their ancestors hailed from, but conversations about my Filipino heritage were unwelcome. This unwelcoming would manifest in a few ways: being made fun of, being told to “go back to my country,” or someone quickly changing the topic. (Note: As for someone quickly changing the topic, this was never something someone would do only once. They never allowed me to speak openly about my heritage even when they spoke openly of theirs).

And then there’s the perceived language barrier. The key word: “perceived.” I speak fluent English with good grammar and a Midwest accent. Yet people still ask me, “Do you understand English?” It’s difficult to prove my intellect to someone who struggles to believe I understand the language I’m speaking fluently. In a similar way, there’s also an assumption that I’m ignorant of American history and culture. As for culture, I get that things were different in my house as both my parents are immigrants. But outside of my house, everything in my life was as “American” as my White counterparts. In fact, because I had to go back and forth between the Filipino culture inside my home and the American culture outside my home, I grew up with a greater awareness of cultural elements many people take for granted and don’t notice.

I was talking about this to a friend recently. She’s Chinese—born and raised in China—and moved to the US as a grad student. When she heard my experiences, she said, “I’m glad I’m not an Asian American! That sounds really hard!” To have to hide an integral part of who I am…Yes, it’s hard.

Over the years, I’ve been extra careful to not assume someone was treating me a certain way just because of my race. It gets hard when I’m in a store and a worker follows me around—one store clerk yelled at me while I looked at skirts. Or the many times when I’m in a women’s boutique and none of the workers will give me service of any kind unless my white husband says to them, “Can one of you please help my wife?” I try to ignore this stuff, smile, and move on. 

I’ve come home crying after walking in our neighborhood multiple times because White people often slow down or stop their vehicles beside me to stare at me. It’s usually White men in big trucks—I know this is something some White women in my city have experienced. But I’ve also experienced this from White women in nice cars. Maybe this is happening for a reason other than my Asianness, but it’s happening during a time when Anti-Asian hate crimes are heightened and I don’t feel safe outside of my home. I now bring pepper spray with me on neighborhood walks.

Within church spaces—note the plural; this isn’t just something that has happened at one church or one kind of gathering—people often refuse to talk with me, give me dirty looks, or back away from me when I talk with them. But then they’ll completely change—they’ll perk up, smile, and suddenly become chatty—if my husband or another White person comes and stands beside me and speaks highly of me.

I’ve experienced more. And I’ve experienced worse.

Over the years, I found ways to adapt. I assimilated. Or rather, I hid my Filipino-ness. I dropped Filipino mannerisms. I ate with my hands far less than I used to. I avoided the sun to ensure my skin stayed as light as possible (and I used papaya soap to try to lighten it even more). I did whatever I could to blend into predominantly White surroundings. And because of this, there have been some people who have forgotten I’m not White. Someone actually told me once, “When I see you, I don’t see an Asian; I just see a White girl.” Don’t get me started on all the ways that statement is so so SO wrong. And that’s the thing: I’m NOT White. I’m 100% Filipina—this is my ethnicity. So if you can’t see my Filipina-ness, you don’t see me. At the same time, I’m also 100% American—this is my nationality. So if you look at me and only see ways I’m other, you don’t see me either.

Our ethnic heritages aren’t things that are discarded at the foot of the cross. Revelation 7:9 says,

“After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

~Revelation 7:9, CSB

So I’ve made a decision: I’m not hiding anymore. What does that mean? Honestly, I’m not completely sure. I’m just going to let this journey take me where it will. Here’s what I do know: I bear the image of God and I’m not going to be a part of tearing down the imago Dei in me anymore.

“No matter your ethnicity, skin color, or cultural values, you have been made as a bearer of God’s image with dignity and worth equal to every other person. If you don’t value your cultural identity, you are not valuing a vital aspect of the image of God within you. If you don’t value the cultural identity of another person, you are not valuing the image of God within him or her.”

~Becoming All Things: How Small Changes Lead To Lasting Connections Across Cultures, by Michelle Ami Reyes

Just a few notes for clarification…

What I’m NOT saying:

  • I’m not saying all White people are bad. (I don’t believe that. Not even a little.)
  • I’m not saying there aren’t negative racial biases in ethnic minority communities.

What I AM saying:

  • Racism exists. Most ethnic minorities have wounds from instances when we’ve been treated differently as our White counterparts. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. And because of that…
  • The stories of ethnic minorities need to be heard.
  • Every single person is a bearer of the image of God. And our uniqueness—including the uniqueness of our ethnic heritages—is a beautiful expression of the image of God. So our differences are to be celebrated, not hidden or erased.
  • There is hope AND there’s a lot of work to be done! So let’s get to work!
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is acs_0900.jpg
I bought this pin after I decided to stop hiding. It’s the sun from the flag of the Philippines. It’s pinned to the purse I use most often to remind me of this important part of who I am.

What Does Loving One Another Look Like?

The following is a message I shared in a Drury University chapel service this week. This semester, the theme many of the speakers are exploring is “One Another.” And for anyone reading this who has taken a homiletics class (or four), yes, I realize this message isn’t “balanced” in that it’s extremely heavy on application. On the other end of the spectrum, I hate that I ended up with three points! (I typically go for a more story-like structure that takes you from point A to point B.) Moral of the story: Say the thing God wants you to say through whatever structure communicates it best!

There’s a phrase we often use when we talk about what being a Christian is: “personal relationship with Jesus.” But what does that really mean?

It means we can know Jesus—not just know about Jesus, but we can know Him—personally. We don’t need someone to mediate for us. He’s not distant. He is the God who is with us. One of Jesus’ last words to the disciples before He ascended to Heaven is, “Behold, I am with you, even to the end of the age.” He’s not just with us in an ethereal sense; we have the freedom to approach Him and talk to Him whenever we want. The idea that we can have a personal relationship with God is a distinctive of Christianity. 

The problem with the phrase, “personal relationship with Jesus,” is that we live in an individualist and consumerist culture. And it becomes easy for us to look at our personal relationship with Jesus with me-centered eyes.

Being a follower of Jesus is bigger than “me and Jesus.” Being a follower of Jesus means being part of something bigger than ourselves. 

So here are a couple questions I’d like you to consider: Do people know you have a personal relationship with Jesus? And if they do, how do they know?

  • Because you told them you’re a Christian?
  • Because you post Christian things on social media?
  • Because you go to church or pray before you eat a meal?
  • Or because when they think of you, they think of someone who loves well?

In John 13:34-35, Jesus said:

I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

In Matthew 22: 35-40, Jesus articulated the two greatest commandments:

…an expert in the law, asked a question to test him: “Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?”

He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”

Isn’t it interesting that these two commands that all of God’s other commands depend on are both relational and social?

In Matthew 5:43-45, Jesus went so far as to say:

You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

Later, in Galatians 5:22, Paul described the fruit of the Spirit—one fruit with nine qualities. And what’s the first quality of the fruit of the Spirit? Love.

What marks us as Christians isn’t our piety, how often we go to church, or even our spiritual disciplines. Those things are important and have their place, but they’re not what marks us as Christians. The mark of being a follower of Jesus is love. 

And as followers of Jesus, love is the thing out of which everything we do flows. 

So I want to spend the rest of this time exploring this question: What does loving one another look like?

This isn’t going to be exhaustive, but I hope to give you a glimpse of what loving one another can look like and to challenge you to love others more deeply.

Loving one another looks like empathy and presence.

The Bible uses a lot of metaphors to describe the Church and one of them is the concept of family. When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He taught them to open with the words, “Our Father.” He could have taught them to say, “My Father,” but a personal relationship with God isn’t just, “Me and God.” Like I said earlier, having a personal relationship with God means that we can know God personally, but it means more than that. It means that we are members of God’s family. 

This past month, my husband and I were in Alabama to mourn the loss of my father-in-law. Because Alabama is farther along in the vaccine rollout, we were able to hold a service that people were actually able to attend. And it was beautiful to see what kind of people came.

There were people who lived locally whom my mother-in-law hadn’t seen in decades—people who had worked with my father-in-law at the first company he worked at after college. They showed their love just by being there.

And then there was one of my husband’s cousins. To give you some context, my father-in-law was one of twelve, so my husband has a LOT of cousins! We’ve been married for almost 18 years and I still can’t keep them all straight. In fact, there are cousins I haven’t even met yet! Of the cousins my husband actually has a relationship with, there were a number of them we expected to see because they live in the area. But there were a couple that came that were a complete surprise because they had to travel (in a pandemic!) to be there. As we spoke with one of them, he told us what compelled him to make the trip to be there: “These are the cousins I know.” I met this same cousin when Daniel and I got married. He had to travel a far distance to come to that, too. So he has both celebrated with us and mourned with us. 

Loving one another means seeing people where they’re at and choosing to be with them, rejoicing with them when they rejoice and mourning with them when they mourn. Loving one another looks like empathy and presence.

Loving one another looks like living for something bigger than ourselves.

How do we do that? Through our choices. 

The choices we make aren’t just about us. There’s no, “I’m making this choice for me.” Our choices impact those around us. 

Are there choices we make that don’t matter? Sure! A few weeks ago I bought a purse and had to choose whether I wanted the brown one or the black one. Neither one of those choices make a difference in how well I love. 

Now I will say, there was another purse I’d been eyeing for months—stay with me here—but it was way out of my budget. So if I would have bought that other purse, it would have meant less money in the bank. The purse I ended up buying was almost exactly the same as the one I was eyeing except it was a different color and it was 75% off, so I could make it work within our budget. And why does it matter that I made a choice to work within our budget? Because I’ve been wanting to live more generously. And staying within our budget gives us more room to be generous and to love others better. 

A completely unspiritual choice can open up possibilities for spiritual things! 

Our choices—even some that we think don’t really matter—impact those around us.

Last Friday, I got my second vaccine shot. As I was getting it, I started tearing up and said to the nurse, “I’m getting emotional!” And she said, “That’s understandable! You’ve never lived through anything like this before.” And then she said something that made me tear up even more: “Just think about the difference you’re making!”

As we’ve navigated the pandemic over the past year, we’ve seen a lot of opinions about wearing masks, whether or not we should get the vaccine, and a gajillion other things. I’m not here to make a partisan argument. Science is important. The Constitution is important. And it’s okay if we have convictions about those things. It’s okay for science or the Constitution to be a reason why you advocate for something.  But as Christians, the thing that should be our primary, core motivation, the motivation that trumps all others, the thing that most compels our actions…is love.  

You see, if we advocate for science but without love, or if we advocate for the Constitution but without love, we can cause a lot of destruction.

If you study history, it doesn’t take long to see ways that both science and the Constitution have produced some bad fruit and have been used (and at times, manipulated) to justify some awful things, from slavery to the use of atomic bombs.

But when our core motivation is love: 

  • instead of destruction, we create;
  • instead of despair, we bring hope;
  • and in a world that is broken, we bring healing.

Loving one another looks like empathy and presence. It looks like living for something bigger than ourselves. And…

Loving one another looks like allowing God to transform us when it’s hard to love.

Our world is divided. And one of the things that has broken my heart over the past year is to see all the ways that the Church is divided, too.

There’s so much fear, anger, and hate. And I’m gonna to be honest: as a woman of color, it has been a struggle to love. People I disagree with who aren’t Christian? I can love them—easy. But Christians who post racist or misogynistic things on social media, people who marginalize me within Christian spaces and force me to defend the dignity and worth of myself and others who look like me, people for whom I think, “They’re Christians! They should know better and do better!” Not easy. 

I don’t know who you struggle to love, but know that your struggle doesn’t make you a bad Christian—it makes you human. Opening our hearts to love people also means opening our hearts to be hurt by people. And unfortunately, some people do a lot of damage and never repent, never try to be better, never try to fix what they broke, never even say sorry. 

So what do we do about people who are hard to love? We can’t will ourselves to love better! We can’t love our enemies or the people who’ve hurt us without God’s help. 

Start by bringing your honest, unfiltered feelings to God. Don’t hold anything back from Him. If you want to learn how to do that, the Psalms are a great place to start. There’s no human emotion that isn’t expressed somewhere in the pages of the Psalms. God gave space for celebration, joy, and hopefulness. But He also gave space for lament, sadness, discouragement, depression, anger. And if God gave space for those emotions in the Bible, we can know that God gives space for those emotions in us as well. Our emotions—even the dark ones we try to hide from other people—are safe with God. Sometimes we think, “I don’t want to have this emotion, so I’m going to ignore it and pretend it’s not there.” But there’s a better way. You don’t have to hide those things from God. 

When you give God access to those parts of yourself, you also give space for Him to heal and transform you—not with a neat and tidy bandaid, but with true healing. And when we experience God’s healing and transformation, we can truly love. 

So what does this look like? We can pray, “God, I really wish this person or these people would [insert all the dark stuff you don’t want to wish on them but deep down you really do].” And feel safe in the knowledge that God won’t be surprised by any of those thoughts or feelings because He already knows you have them! It’s not about telling God so He can see them. It’s about telling God so you can give Him access to every single part of your heart. And when you’ve laid it all before God, ask Him to do His work in and through those painful thoughts and emotions.

As you pray for people who are hard to love, you might need to start by praying for God to help you to be able to pray for them! 

And then over time, you can try praying for God to change their heart—for them to see the harm they’ve caused and to come to a place of repentance. And maybe one day, you can even come to a place where you can pray for their well-being and flourishing wherever they are.

And even if they never change, you want God to have access to heal and transform the part of your heart that was hurt by them—not to excuse what they’ve done, but so the hurt they caused doesn’t hold you back from being able to love others and to also be able to receive love from others.

Because love is our purpose and calling as followers of Jesus. It’s even our birthright as children of God because we’re not just meant to give it but to also receive it.

So…

Let’s love one another with empathy and presence.

Let’s love one another by living for something bigger than ourselves.

And let’s even allow God to transform us when it’s hard to love.