“Does anyone see me, or am I invisible?”
I was confused. In the big auditorium where five thousand staff were gathered, I looked over at two of my coworkers in the seats next to me. They were in tears. I had no idea what was happening, because all I had heard from the speakers on stage for the past thirty minutes was encouraging updates about their ministry. What could have made my friends so upset?
Every two years during July, Cru puts on a conference at Colorado State University where their United States–based staff gather for connection, learning, and worship. It’s quite an impressive production: huge television screens, skits, speakers like Tim Keller and Francis Chan, and even Christian bands like Rend Collective and Tenth Avenue North.
This conference is also quite a phenomenon for minorities, as the attendees are over 85 percent white. I still recall when one of my local Colorado friends who visited a session remarked, “I’ve never seen this many white people in one room before.” It can be a shock for those who live in more racially diverse places in the world.
But minorities can feel “invisible” in ways other than demographics. As I turned to ask my coworkers why they were crying, I learned that a painful experience in their organizational past had just been spun into a positive report by the speakers up front at the conference. As a result, they felt unseen by the organization and their leaders.
It then struck me:
Positivity can be blind.
When Organizations Refuse to Address Pain
Over the next couple of conferences, I noticed there seemed to be an organizational commitment to share mostly uplifting stories of progress and success. On one level, it made complete sense. I mean, who goes to a big rally only to walk away, depressed and sad? However, over the years I started to sense a frustration and hopelessness from the minority community, and finally I started to get it.
It wasn’t that minorities didn’t want or like the positivity of the organization. They were more bothered by the seeming refusal to address difficulties, challenges, mistakes, and oversights.
• When the organization didn’t address challenges, it didn’t see or acknowledge the unique realities many minorities faced—pioneering, fundraising in new ethnic communities, and so on.
• When the organization didn’t address mistakes, who were the ones these mistakes had most impacted? Minorities.
Put another way: by refusing to acknowledge pain, the organization also refused to see or acknowledge the people in the most pain—minorities.
After all, pain is a very important part of reality. If organizational conferences and leaders don’t publically and consistently acknowledge pain, they can quickly become out of touch with reality, and with minorities who must constantly navigate additional layers of pain and complexity. And if minorities continue to feel invisible in this way, they may question their fit or place in the organization.
When History Lessons Are Blind to Minorities’ Pain
Of course, this dynamic of blind positivity has happened throughout history. I am fortunate to have two daughters, and my oldest, Amanda, is currently in elementary school in southern California. She had to do a report on American history, detailing the journeys of Christopher Columbus to the New World. In the paragraphs she had to read, there was no mention of the many unjust ways that Columbus treated the Native American people he encountered—from putting them into slavery to brutal violence to trying to convert their language and religion.
While some may consider these details inappropriate for children to learn, it reminded me that even at age six, minority children are learning the (inaccurate) “Master Narrative of American History.” Indeed, in An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, Native American activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz calls this the “Columbus myth and the Doctrine of Discovery,” because Columbus didn’t discover anything—the Native Americans were already there!
I was struck that I never heard this side of history even as I got older. Instead, I went through middle and high school playing “educational” video games like The Oregon Trail, where the hero of the game is a white settler who journeys West amid the excitement of open territories and new technology like the railroads. I didn’t hear about Plains Native peoples (e.g., Pawnees, Sioux, Cheyenne) whose way of life was decimated by the hunting of the buffalo and the transformation of the prairies by new technology.
Dunbar-Ortiz describes the brutal history behind many terms that are used insensitively today. For instance, the Washington Redskins are a popular football team, but many believe the term “redskin” was used as a name for mutilated and bloody corpses of Native Americans that whites left in the wake of scalp-hunts.
I played games like The Oregon Trail without even thinking about or questioning the history behind it. Native Americans were invisible to me. How many other minorities have been forgotten by history? I think of the Chinese workers who were recruited to build the First Transcontinental Railroad and the Central Pacific Railroad. They were used for the job because it was cheaper: the construction companies paid them less and wouldn’t pay for their board or lodging. These Chinese workers were exposed to such dangerous working conditions that thousands lost their lives due to explosions and avalanches. Yet who remembers and tells this part of history?
For the majority culture, and those in power, it’s easier to stay “positive” and talk about the peaceful Indians and wonderful stories about the pilgrims and Thanksgiving. It’s easier to talk about how intercontinental travel revolutionized the economy and settlement of North America. Yet for minorities like Native Americans and Chinese Americans, this portrait of history ignores them and makes them invisible.
When Pain is Addressed and Those Hurt are Seen
It doesn’t have to be this way. Through books like Dunbar-Ortiz’s and Living in Color by Randy Woodley, many historical details are filled in to help us to understand, and to remember. I’ll never look at games like The Oregon Trail, nor watch a Washington NFL game in the same way again.
During Cru’s conferences in 2015 and 2017, I noticed that there was a concerted effort to address challenges, mistakes, and pain—and with some special attention given to cross-cultural relationships and dynamics. The speakers and panels gave space and voice for minorities to share some of their struggles. On the campus where the conference was held, there were posters with quotes from minorities sharing the hardest parts of their experiences at previous conferences. It made a difference for me, as I felt that my pain as a minority was more seen and heard. I didn’t feel as invisible.
Other organizations such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, CCDA, and Lausanne have also led the way in terms of diversifying their platform speakers, content, and worship. These are some of the many attempts to give voice to minorities so they can be heard, seen and valued for who they are.
*Taken from The Minority Experience by Adrian Pei. Copyright (c) 2018 by Adrian Pei. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Photo Credit: Unsplash/Tan Giang