Lenses and White Moderates


I am reflecting on how I communicate to the world.

Many people (including those I have not spoken to in years) speak up every once in a while thanking me for the articles/posts I share, noting that these things help them think, or speak to something that they are reflecting about, or challenge them, or inform them.

Though there have been people who have opposed things I have posted or had critiques about aspects of what I share, I have not had anyone be antagonistic toward anything I have said or shared.

For most of my life, I have been neutral or apathetic toward sociopolitical issues, without teaching on how to critically engage society and politics. All I knew about society and politics I read from the newspaper or learned in class– everything was distant and factual. Things were, and that was it. When people had opinions, I saw both sides and felt no leanings either way, except that I wished that people would be nicer to each other. Sometimes, I felt frustrated that I lacked strong opinions. I wanted them, but had no tools for forming them.

Now, I am understanding more about who I am and have tried various lenses for understanding the world. Some of my favorite lenses are feminist, postcolonial, race-critical, queer, postmodern, and historical-critical. I am an Asian American woman who has personally witnessed how the patriarchy hurts men and women (and now understand how it affects trans* folks as well), daughter of Green Party Taiwanese parents, a believer in the fluidity of sexual orientation/gender identity, curious about how history and culture affect the Christian canon and the Hebrew Scriptures, and a millenial from California. Of course those are my favorite lenses– they are the right prescription.

I am realizing more and more that it can be hard for people to understand my point of view, and find myself bumping up the most against people who are white and moderate. My lenses work for me and they make everything come into focus, and show me what I am interested in looking at in a way that I can understand. It makes sense that someone who does not share my life experience would find my lenses fuzzy, or too sharply focused to the point that it strains their eyes.

I hear from people who are white and moderate that sometimes when people ask them to wear some of my favorite lenses one too many times, that it turns them off. They talk about how they feel like issues are polarized, and they are forced to pick a side, and how those decisions make them feel less like wearing my lenses. They don’t say what their alternatives are, but I feel that implicitly, they are trying to say that being asked to wear my lenses makes them long even more for their lenses, or for sunglasses that would darken their vision, and mute out what they see as noise.

I love the quote from Martin Luther King, Jr’s letter from a Birmingham jail about white moderates, because I feel like it is true.
He writes: “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.””

However, I am worried that it is uncharitable. On the one hand, I feel that people who are forced to clarify their positions will clarify the positions that are truest to them, and however firm I stand in my position has no bearing on whether or not they will choose to stand alongside me. On the other hand, I have heard from many who are more moderate that the volume with which I announce my position does make a difference, with the implication seeming to be that if I were quieter, then they would by and by, come to see things my way, or not. The louder I am, it seems, the more put off they feel.

What do you think? I will not be replying, because my intent is to focus on listening. Please feel free to share your thoughts, with compassion and understanding.


2 thoughts on “Lenses and White Moderates

  1. Dear Karen,

    I always admire when somebody writes a post like this one, which really invites people who don’t see eye-to-eye with them to share their own point of view. It shows a desire for intellectual integrity, and understanding where other people are coming from, which is definitely something I’d like to see more of in the world. But I noticed nobody responded yet! (at least online…) So I thought I’d try to provide some return on your investment of openness, with some hopefully constructive feedback.

    Speaking as a white male—and somebody who is moderate on at least *some* socio-political axes—I’m not terribly surprised that there are plenty of white moderates who feel uncomfortable looking at politics through the types of “identity politics” lenses which are common in the academic humanities these days.

    Imagine (to change the metaphor from lenses) playing a game where the ground rules are that, no matter what you say, your opinion is judged based primarily, not on your individual personhood or your general humanity, but on what group or tribe you happen to belong to, in order to highlight the fact that cultural experience affects our opinions. I followed this rule in the opening of my previous paragraph.

    The second rule is that the two most important group memberships are the ones you were born into: namely color of skin, and gender; though there are some others with more flexible entry rules such as class or disclosed sexual preferences. The third rule is this: for the particular color-gender combination you happen to have, it is permitted to say terrible things about it, and forbidden to say good things about it. On the other hand, for most of the other (historically and/or currently oppressed) identities, it is forbidden to say anything even slightly bad, and pemitted only to say things which are good. Remember, anything you say will be labelled (implicitly or explicitly) based on your group membership, so you aren’t allowed to make comments outside of this structure. If you want to play the game, you have to either ritually bash your own group to fit in, or else find some other oppressed cagtegory (e.g. queer) to identify with.

    Well, I think you can see why people in the disfavored category might not want to play this game, when the rules seem so stacked against them. Most of the time I don’t have to participate in this game, since physics ain’t exactly humanities, but I’d have to be blind to not notice it happening elsewhere.

    Is this an oversimplification? Absolutely! But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel this way to many people, especially those who haven’t learned enough about the playbook to navigate the system. Is this stigmatization trivial compared to the difficulties that many minority individuals face? Undoubtedly! But that doesn’t make it an unreal or imaginary experience.

    An example is found in this post, where you compare white people who disagree with some of your political opinions to people who opposed the Civil Rights Movement. You worry that this is uncharitable. What I can say for sure is this: with no other race besides white would this type of generalized condemnation be remotely acceptable (in academic circles, there are of course other social contexts in America where the rules are quite different…). Is it possible that your current educational context has encouraged you to think uncharitable thoughts about this particular group of people?

    And how “white moderates” feel about the situation is important: first because if they feel unwelcome they won’t help you eradicate the injustices you care about; secondly, because they also are people created in God’s image, who are entitled not to be treated as tokens for something else.

    Of course I acknowledge that being a white male comes with many privileges in our society, not least of which is that (outside of the humanities) people will take my opinions seriously without pausing to ask how they fit in with my race and gender. But I feel no guilt for this, because I think that privilege is a good thing! I wish that other people were equally privileged; I don’t think that respect is a zero-sum game.

    None of this means you should be any less zealous in promoting the causes of social justice which you believe in; the Bible certainly expects us to actively pursue justice for the oppressed: such as the poor, aliens, widows and orphans. At the same time, as a political moderate I am suspicious of religious groups where the Gospel of Jesus Christ turns out to be identical to either political conservativism or political liberalism (it’s so much bigger than that!). As far as I can tell from reading your blog, the crowd you’ve been hanging with shows many warning signs of being just such a group, but I might be wrong.

    Please forgive me if I have said anything offensive.


    PS The following link is kind of relevant to the types of political dynamics I’ve been talking about,
    but is in any case well worth reading:


  2. Dear Aron,

    Thank you for taking the time to write a thorough, thoughtful reply. You are right– you are the only person who has responded to my request (next to Pastor Tim who has kindly invited me for an in-person chat)! I am thankful for your willingness to share your reflections and your sincerity.

    I find it curious that you changed the metaphor from lenses to a game. I try to be intentional about my word and imagery choices, and I chose lenses as the operating metaphor because it rings the most true to me. When I think about the way I look at the world, it is really about looking at the world and understanding it. It is about living and being, not taking a role and playing. Another metaphor that works for me is the idea of a banquet. This is less individualistic, and more communal, and in that sense, seems to fit well with my Christian faith. In both the metaphor of lenses (looking) and potluck banquet (eating, sharing food), there are no winners and losers, which the game, with the rules you delineated seems to imply. Each lens is a choice of what to see in the world and to interpret one’s experiences, just as each dish is a choice of what to take in from the world and to nourish one another. I envision a potluck banquet wherein there are no rules leading to winners and losers, although there are expectations working toward the purpose of enjoyment of food and company. The more we share dishes, the more we can understand and enjoy one another.

    Slatestarcodex’s article is also insightful. I find it interesting that his operating metaphor is one of war or inherent conflict, and people are necessarily in tribes. His war/conflict metaphor and your game metaphor share concerns over social acceptability, whether it hinges on popular opinion (Slatestarcodex) or censorship (your comments). This concern over social acceptability seems to break down in the lenses and banquet metaphors, wherein choices of lenses and dishes are subjective decisions, and when sight and nourishment (rather than social acceptability) are at stake. War/conflict/game metaphors require the ingroup/outgroup and the judgment of winner/loser, right/wrong, victor/victim. Lenses and banquet metaphors don’t require that zero-sum judgment or those binaries, and are not concerned about “fitting in” or “scoring points.” You’re right– respect should not be a zero-sum game. Our imago dei demands more generosity and abundance than that!

    I think it is important that identity-politics lenses and contextual/pluralistic interpretations are viewed as lenses and banquets rather than wars, conflicts, and games. First, because I have found these lenses and interpretations to be life-giving and nourishing, and have helped me to illuminate my readings of Scripture and understandings of theology in a way that fed my soul. Second, because from my social location and in my relationships with those with queer/black/brown/differently-abled/lower class identities, I find that identity-politics and contextual/pluralistic approaches to life and sacred texts must come first, by virtue of the way that others have perceived their humanity and how the world has socially-constructed their identities for them. For instance, passages about Sodom and Gomorrah are fraught with tension for my colleagues who are queer, and they cannot ignore this. My colleagues who are black must wrestle with passages that assume slavery as a norm, and now with the racial equality movement coming out of Ferguson, with non-indictments coming out of the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, it is a matter of survival for them to read that Jesus would have been in solidarity with the black community, or even that Jesus should be understood as black, as in the case of The Cross and the Lynching Tree (James Cone). For a long time, I ignored the fact that I was Asian, and sought to define myself as “neutral,” without race. Coming to a small seminary in Missouri, I find myself the only Asian American student on campus, and found that as anti-racist as this institution attempts to be, there was a time when I was surrounded by classmates who I consider my friends, who unwittingly reminded me of my outsider status by calling me a geisha or making jokes about bad driving in my presence. To me, it is a prophetic task to unveil my identity and the identities of others, and to convey that plurality can be illuminating and life-giving (lenses and banquets), rather than death-dealing, divisive, or trivial (wars and conflicts or games).

    It was helpful when a professor of mine described different modes of conversation: apologetics, debate/dialectics, and dialogue. Dialogue is based on relationship, requires both parties to be willing to be changed by one another, and is where healing and reconciliation takes place. I find it difficult to maintain an honest dialogue without bringing all of myself and without understanding the entirety of the other person. The more I can understand about myself and the other person, the more we can share life together and the more we might thrive. In short, I find it necessary for me to know the lenses that work for me and the dishes I like to make, just as it is necessary for me to try others’ lenses and share others’ dishes, and it is my hope that others would want to share my lenses and dishes as well. It is a lonely business to go star gazing and birdwatching alone or to eat one dish at a long banquet table by oneself. It is much better to share the telescope and the binoculars, and to share a table with others. I was raised to share the lenses and eat from the dishes of white moderates. Now, I want to share my lenses and share my dishes. When I encounter defensiveness from those who seem to identify as white moderates, I am fearful that I must see and eat alone.

    Again, I am thankful for your thoughtful response. I am not offended by most of your reflections, although I find it troubling that you allude to the idea that I am “hanging out with the wrong crowd.” I thought that I would no longer have to deal with these parental concerns when I left the house at 18, and I find it amusing that one might assume that I have a crowd to begin with!

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