Attending a White Conference

In less than two weeks, I am flying halfway across the world to attend a writing conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I am thrilled in many ways to learn at the feet of seasoned writers, meet fellow writers, but mostly it feels really empowering to invest in a costly trip like this for my own writing career. I am making a bold statement that my words matter. 

As an extrovert, I am not daunted by the prospect of conferences and meeting lots of new people (though I do despise small talk), but there is one thing that takes my breath away in panic. Although the speaker panel for the conference is well represented by many people of color, as far as I am personally aware, all the attendees I know who are going are white.

A majority white population of faith-people gathered in the midwest—I’ve been in this situation before and it was hard, hard, hard. I was an “international student” in the predominantly white Christian college at Wheaton, Illinois, back before I had any language to describe a racialized campus environment with a white majority.

My struggles at Wheaton were unique to me. As a foreigner, I did not experience race in the same way my African American or Asian American peers do, having not grown up in America. However, even all the way in Taiwan where I grew up, whiteness had an impact on me. As a missionary convert, I had asked a white Jesus into my heart. I had internalized a worldview where being a Christian often equates to behaving with the respectabilities of white culture. Because of this, I remember with profound regret, the ways I dismissed the struggles of those who grew up as a racial minority in America, because the white Jesus in my heart taught me personal piety overlooks a multitude of systemic racial sins.

the white Jesus in my heart taught me personal piety overlooks a multitude of systemic racial sins.

The white people on my campus were so incredibly nice to me, and I, in a valiant effort to push onward in Christian discipleship, mirrored their nice-ness back to them. In this way, I also internalized and absorbed racist behavior towards my own self. I gently corrected person after person for mistaking me as other Asian students on campus. When a professor assigned her students to interview international students, I said yes to my white friends who literally treated me like a project for class. When I developed a crush on a white man, I looked in the mirror and thought it impossible he would be attracted to someone with dark hair and yellow skin like me.

Microaggressions, I later learned, was the word used to describe my experience of having my humanity chipped away little by little.

Learning the nuances of race, racism, white supremacy, colonial theology, oppression and injustice has helped me to interpret my own experiences and those of other racial minorities. But the head knowledge cannot overcome my visceral reactions, and the way panic rises in my heart when I envision stepping back into a predominantly white environment in less than two weeks.

No one will probably be able to tell the anxieties brewing in my spirit while I’m there. And that’s because I have learned expertly to operate in white spaces. I’ve learned to speak English without an accent, I’ve devoured English books written by white people, I’ve watched movies directed by white men played by predominantly white actors/actresses. I’ve also learned how to pretend like my own culture and history and language doesn’t matter in everyday conversations. Mostly because I am quite weary of having to explain my world to white people through their lens.

It feels painfully ironic, that going to a conference to develop my own voice, I am already mentally preparing how much of myself I’ll need to make invisible for it. But I can do it. I know this because I’ve done it a hundred times before.

I don’t say this publicly to host a pity party for myself or to make any white writer friends at the conference uncomfortable. I write this, as always, to tell my truths in the hopes that my fears will have less power over me. I am grateful to the coordinators of the conference for placing a diversity of speakers on the panel. I can hardly wait to hear Zadie Smith and learn more from Drew Hart. This kind of representation on the speaker lineup is something I look for and do not take for granted.

But mostly, I am excited to meet some of my online writing friends who have only existed in the two dimensional computer screen, albeit via their dynamic written words. My prayer and hope is that I can do my best to represent my most authentically whole self before these new friends.

Festival of Faith & Writing 2016 – here I come!

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  • Ellie

    Thank you for saying this. The people in Grand Rapids need to hear this – both white people who may be blind to it, and people of color, to know they’re not the only ones feeling this way. I hope you don’t feel like you have to hide yourself when you’re at the Festival.

    • I hope so too, thank you for your kind words.

  • Rea

    First of all, jealous! Someday, maybe. Enjoy the conference!

    Second “I had internalized a worldview where being a Christian often equates to behaving with the respectabilities of white culture.” I’ve been thinking about this over the past week, specifically as it relates to Native American expressions of faith. I had forwarded an email to my pastor to give him a picture of an organization I had just started volunteering with and his response struck me as odd. Instead of commenting on the work the organization was doing he zeroed in on the story that the (Native) co-founder told of a vision he had that eventually led to what they are doing now. And I wondered if my pastor would have responded in the same way had it been couched in a narrative more like what we’d expect white Europeans to experience.

    (OK, that was probably a little off-topic, but that line you wrote sparked the words that I’ve been wanting to spill out for the past week.)

    • I’m so glad to provoke some writing and processing. I’m sorry you can’t make it, but it’s good to connect online.

  • Alia_Joy

    This freaking kills me. I was doing ok with the fact that so many of my favorite people are going to be there this year and I am not but now you’re going? Sigh. I relate to so much of what you said. Always the only, and if not, mistaken for whoever else is Asian or Asian American no matter how different we are. “And that’s because I have learned expertly to operate in white spaces.” Me too, but it’s it’s hard because you’re never fully yourself. And naming the ways we’ve absorbed those things matters. Thank you for these words, I’m so bummed I’m going to miss meeting you this year.

    • I’ll miss you too. 🙁

  • I always appreciate your perspective, Cindy. Thank you! Also, I am going to be there, too! It’s my first ever conference like this. I hope we can connect. 🙂

  • Rachelle Gardner

    This is breathtaking, Cindy. You’re so honest, and I deeply appreciate it. I can’t imagine how hard this is for you, every time you step into a “white” situation. I can see how it would be hard, hard, hard, and yet you’re really good at it because sadly, you have plenty of practice.

    As a white person, my feelings are hard to describe. Desperately wanting to NOT be “that” white person, but knowing I am. Wanting to be the person who lets you know you’re seen and heard for who you are, without stereotyping or thinking I know anything about you. Feeling guilty for my lifetime of ignorance. Feeling defensive because after all, I’ve just been living my life and doing the best I can and trying to be a good person and love others, and really, having NO awareness of my whiteness until the last few years. You’re saying the things that need to be said, so that we all, every one of us, but especially the white ones, can get out of our self-focused fog and really SEE others, HEAR others, and do our part to bridge the divides.

    I truly hope the upcoming FFW conference is different for you. I hope it’s better. I hope you are seen and heard in the way you want to be. I hope you experience zero microaggressions. And I hope your anxiety is not just held at bay but actually is far less than you expect. I hope you feel the love.

    • I know it’ll be different because I’m a different person than I was when I went to Wheaton. It will be interesting to process this event being who I am now. I’m glad you’ll be there – I know I’ll feel safe with you!

  • I went to FFW for the first time in 2014 and loved it. It’s one of the best conferences I’ve been to and I hope you’ll love it too, if only for the chance to be face to face with online friends. While I was heartened by the diversity of the speakers, you’re right that the attendees were overwhelmingly white. I gave that critique in my feedback and asked they figure out a way to diversify who they market to as an attendee. So maybe this year will be different. I hope so.

    On the other hand, I grew up in Wheaton, though I didn’t go to the college. I am sorry for what you experienced there. I can envision it all too well. I don’t want you to be or feel invisible at FFW but that’s not my call to make. I can say I’m looking forward to meeting you there. I hope you’ll feel fully affirmed for who you are and inspired as a creative.

    • I was so naive when I attended Wheaton, but I did have lots of good memories – including the first time I ever saw snow. I hope FFW will be an affirming time as well – look forward to meeting you in person.

  • I’m so grateful for you speaking up here, Cindy. Not because I feel like it’s a pity-party or a call for me to be uncomfortable, but because you’re helping open up my world and make me consider a new vantage point. Which is what good writers do, right? Thanks for using your voice. I have no idea how much time you and I will be spending together at the conference, but I do hope that those of you who are bringing unique perspectives have space to do more mind-opening and sharing, when and if it’s not exhausting for you 🙂 I pray that those of us who don’t normally have to think about those vantage points are not thoughtless or careless with our privilege. Father, make room for everyone at this table, that we would all be uncomfortable, stretched, challenged together.

    • I hope we’ll get to find some time together!

  • Thank you so much for this. It is beautiful prose and heartbreakingly true. I hate that as a white woman I can so be a party to this. Thank you for redirecting us even before we get on planes. I hope I’ll get to meet you at FFW, too.

    • I hope we get to meet too!

  • lepton

    I have lived in Grand Rapids for eight years and as someone with multiple disabilities without steady employment have been othered by these very people you’ll meet. They are not bad people but are incurious and averse to discomfort, and I make people uncomfortable. I’ve even been told that by my mom and the only Wheaton woman I ever went on a date with.

    As for getting more people of color for the conference there are plenty of them in Grand Rapids and there is an easy way to do that–just make the conference free and give out free bus passes (Calvin is on the Rapid line) and promote this fact in the disadvantaged congregations and ministries that work with the poor. $215 is a week’s worth of wages for a lot of these people and for them it would mean skipping meals or not making rent.

  • Ooooh….excited you’ll be there! I’m coming too – did you sign up for the East meets West circle?

    • Not sure what that is?

    • Marilyn Gardner

      SOOOO wish I was going to be there and the East meets West sounds great! One of my favorite Orthodox writers will be there – Scott Cairns.

  • Thank you so much for this post.

    • Thank you for reading!

  • Aaron Hemphill

    Hi, Cindy. The Wheaton in Exile group led me here.

    Well said!

    My wife and I are both ’99 Wheaton graduates. Be encouraged that many of your white peers from Wheaton are growing and learning and discovering a more beautiful multicultural world and recognizing what a colorless (and oppressive) world a white-dominated world can be. A day at a time we are all learning more and more, thank you for sharing.

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