We often stay silent and do nothing by convincing ourselves the offense isn’t actually that offensive. Sometimes we don’t speak up because the injustice doesn’t affect our daily lives. We don’t understand the impact of a law or the injustice inflicted on others because it doesn’t impact the people closest to us or it isn’t a matter of our heart or heart language.
Queen Esther may have been able to avoid getting involved if it wasn’t for the actions of her uncle Mordecai. In Esther 3, when the king ordered all royal officials to kneel before Haman the Agagite, Mordecai refused. There is a passing mention that others in the king’s court knew Mordecai was Jewish, but it’s unclear whether Mordecai’s refusal was a religious or personal protest. Regardless, Haman was offended by Mordecai’s behavior and blamed all the Jews, not just Mordecai. Haman asked the king to issue a decree to have the Jews destroyed. The royal secretaries were summoned, and they made sure the message was clearly communicated:
They wrote out the script of each province and in the language of each people all Haman’s orders to the king’s satraps, the governors of the various provinces and the nobles of the various peoples. . . . A copy of the text of the edict was to be issued as law in every province and made known to the people of every nationality so they would be ready for that day. (Esther 3:12, 14)
In response to the decree, Mordecai persuades Esther to appeal to the king on behalf of all the Jews. Esther became invested in seeking justice because it affected her personally.
At the Pilgrim Celebration, when I saw that many of the parents were judging the woman who was dressed inappropriately, I had just enough courage to go stand with her because I know what it feels like to be judged by my appearance. I’ve been the focus of teasing, bullying, and sexualization my entire life due to my physical characteristics as a Korean American woman. I stood with the woman, not because I was Native American or had friendships with Native Americans who could’ve told me about the pain and danger of stereotypes, but because I had faced similar situations.
I knew in my gut that stereotyping and racist depictions of the Wampanoag people was wrong. So why wasn’t that enough for me to speak up to the teachers in charge of the event? At the time, the offense didn’t cut to my heart deep enough to compel me to act. But now I realize that we can’t wait to act until we are personally affected by something. If we wait to have a personal interaction with everyone of a different ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc., before we act or speak up against injustice, it will take an eternity.
A good and painful example of this is the #BlackLivesMatter movement that emerged in 2013. It was started by three black women in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager. It seemed that an armed adult man’s sense of safety was valued more than Martin’s life, and people publically questioned on both social media and in their communities whether or not black lives mattered. The movement gained traction in 2014 with the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the choking death of Eric Garner in New York City. Anger, pain, and a call to action spilled out into the streets. Protesters demanded the public take notice.
As things in New York City and Ferguson were percolating, I was on sabbatical after fifteen years in vocational ministry. I was supposed to be resting and recovering, dreaming about what might happen professionally and personally in my next chapter of life, as well as asking God for a burning bush of clarity. Instead I found myself unable to turn away from the news coverage of the violence against black women and men—not because I was in similar danger, but because I was and had been purposefully listening to black friends and colleagues who had lived and were still living this experience.
As a Korean American woman, I have learned to expect to be catcalled or be on the receiving end of racist, sexist epithets. It doesn’t matter where I am—in the city, at an airport, or in my neighborhood. It’s usually in city settings where men of any and all skin colors think it’s fine to say to me, “Hello, lady! Why don’t you give me a smile?” and expect me to respond in kind. I don’t. Greeting me with “Konnichiwa!” is also unwelcome and not likely to get a positive response. I spent most of my childhood in the suburbs and can still remember the bullies, even in high school, who didn’t like the way this so-called “chink” looked, stood, or breathed.
I grew up with a healthy suspicion of police officers, but when I got pulled over in 1993 for the first time because I was speeding just south of Green Bay, Wisconsin, I never feared for my life. In fact, I wondered if the officer and I would recognize each other because I was a local newspaper reporter at the time. My parents never warned me about interactions with law enforcement. They also never considered calling the police when rocks were thrown through our window or trash was thrown on our yard.
I was unnerved as I watched the Ferguson situation unfold on the news; Michael Brown’s body laid on the hot pavement for hours. It was heartbreaking and frightening. I felt it deeper than I had in previous similar situations because I was also following the reactions on social media of my black and brown friends, friends and colleagues—people I didn’t have earlier in my life. The racism of the situation was familiar, but their specific experiences and context were new to me.
Through their own deep pain, anger, and fear, they were teaching me a new language and framework to understand racial injustice. I more clearly understood the unjust laws and rules, written and unspoken, that affected their lives. I began to understand those edicts—defined by skin color—that had been written against and for them and their communities, just as I had learned to understand similar injustices that were reserved for Asian Pacific Islanders. You learn to understand injustice and better speak about it when you are immersed in it.
It’s no coincidence that there was an uptick in addressing racism, sexism, and faith in my social media presence and when I spoke in public. The more I read books by authors of color, the more I listened to my Asian and Asian American, Latino, Native, and black and brown friends and colleagues, and the more I was willing to make mistakes and understand points of connection between “them” and “us,” the more clear the injustice became.
*Taken from Raise Your Voice by Kathy Khang. Copyright (c) 2018 by Kathy Khang. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com