Archive for the 'Ethnicity & Culture' Category

Avatar, Eye-Candy, & Rhetorical Racism: Moving Beyond Tokenism

(This post has been sitting on the back burner for a while, but life with school, ministry, travel, got to a point where this wasn’t able to get out when I wanted it to. Oh well – better late than never.)

I saw Avatar in the theaters and was at first in awe of visual eye candy.  No question it is one of the most visually stunning films ever produced.  I’m colorblind and I was impressed…I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a full spectrum of colors at my disposal to consider how beautiful it would be.

But as I thought about it more, I realized that Avatar was more like the magazines in the check-out aisle of the grocery store: air-brushed eye candy that is pretty superficial and devoid of significant substance or content.

Now don’t get me wrong – Avatar isn’t in the gutter with Transformers 2…that was just awful.  It was as if that film was using the article I blogged about regarding male hormones as a script to help attract men.

But in some ways, Avatar is more dangerous because people take it far more seriously.  I mean, it got a stinkin’ best picture nod.  We’ve already heard enough about the comparisons to Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai.  Instead of Native Americans and Ancient Warriors we get supersized smurfs that bear a striking resemblance to African Tribal people.

The message of the film is pretty direct: all of the characters who are seeking to expand the empire are white American men (except the hero, Jake) and Jake becomes the hero by leaving his culture and people and saves the people who are not his own, but in the end he becomes one of them.

There are several indirect messages this sends – I could critique the film at length.  I’ll focus on two:

1. On the surface, it seems like such a nice politically correct story.  Jake becomes the hero by becoming cross-cultural and becoming one of those who were marginalized.

But let’s just think about this for sometime.  First of all, Jake might be in body one of the supersized smurfs, but culturally he is still a white American jarhead.  What does it say that he becomes the hero of this people? Why not a leader who was actually native to the planet? What is it about Jake that allows for him to become the leader of a people who aren’t his own?

I won’t leave these questions at rhetorical – I think what this communicates is indirect racism that covertly implies that the redeemed white american is one who still “saves” those who can’t save themselves.  It’s covert imperialism. It’s implying that there is something special about Jake that allows for him to be the leader of the people.

And it’s racist.

What it is indirectly saying is that the Navi people are not capable of developing indigenous leadership in order and require leadership from outside to survive attempts of cultural imperialism.  So, in essence, they are saved from cultural imperialism through…cultural imperialism.

Silly James Cameron; simplistic plot lines are for kids.

2. While this is going to sound like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth, I’m going to address the other end of the spectrum here.  As I’ve said before in other posts, I’m an equal opportunity offender.  And here is where I’m walking on eggshells…and I’m about to make some omelets here.

Americans have a tendency to idealize other cultures as a reaction to being perceived as imperialistic.  I own American imperialism – it is real and it is dangerous.  It’s tragic that a standard of beauty that causes women to whiten their skin with toxic skin whiteners and receive plastic surgery.  That women view themselves in comparison to the Western standards of beauty is dishonoring and dehumanizing to their people made in the image of God.

I’ve worked with young men of several different ethnicities who feel their standard of masculinity is considered subpar to the culturally-biased stuff that is broadcast in Christian Bookstores like Wild at Heart and helped them realize their cultural form of masculinity is by no means less than that of whites.  (BTW, I liked the book. It was important to me. It’s just very culturally bound to White american men.)

Working cross-culturally when I wasn’t the dominant culture has taught me so much on masculinity and femininity that I can’t begin to describe  how much I’ve grown because of it.  Living under the leadership of those not like me have stretched me more than I ever dreamed.

I am one of the only people I know who has had the opportunity to be under the leadership of folks of four different ethnicities (Asian-American, White, Black, and Latino) and both genders for an extended ongoing period of time (at least one year). This is something that I can honestly say has been one of the greatest opportunities for both blessing and frustration, and has grown me and stretched me tremendously.

What I can say from this experience is this: power is what typically reveals cultural strengths and cultural dysfunctions.  We are getting a glimpse of this as we get more global in just a snapshot of current events that causing dissonance.

Was the apology of the Toyota executive sincere?  If it was sincere, what are we to say of the supposed management practices of Toyota that suppressed safety information that may have been contrary to that which management wanted to hear?

For what reasons are babies being born at a rate of 120 boys to 100 girls in China and Northern India?

And what are we to say about the chicken pills taken by women in Jamaica?

If you subscribe to the worldview of Avatar, and you are a white american male like myself, you shouldn’t ask these questions.  It’s offensive.  The rules say you are only able to focus exclusively on the positives of other cultures.

But that methodology is only good for entertainment purposes at a theater…and it’s worth about $10.

When we subscribe to the worldview of Avatar, we idealize the minority on the one hand, demonize the majority on the other, and indirectly say that we the ideal minority is unable to develop it’s own leaders and has to import them from the demon majority, we live in a dangerous world that is unable to move to reconciliation.  Our response is even more dangerous: tokenism.

The response leads to develop minority leadership that is “token” in nature – in other words, minorities are put in leadership for the sake of their presence as minorities in order to appease internal white guilt.

And it’s belittling to minorities.

I got a glimpse of what it means to move beyond tokenism as a part of the search committee that brought the new pastor of my church.  We did not know that one of the leading candidates we rated for our pastor was a Jamacian born Black man.  As we continued throughout the process, we were very up front and honest with him about recent issues of race that were divisive in our church to the point of a staff person leaving.  Evanston is a diverse community, but our church is about 85% white.

Yet it became clear to our entire committee that this was the man whom God was calling to our congregation.  We knew we were asking this man to enter into something potentially difficult.  And as we made the decision, we even received racist hate mail.  But the decision has been clearly one that only God could have orchestrated in his timing, and one that only could have been led by his Spirit.  Not a spirit of political correctness, not a spirit of tokenism, but one that is reconciling people to each other and to God.

And I had a front row seat for an incredible show.

As I worshipped at our installation of the Pastor, I couldn’t help but realize the shallowness the worldview of Avatar.  Like the name of the film, it’s only skin deep.  It will never allow the deepest wounds to be healed. It will just be a vain superficial cover.  Real reconciliation requires moving beyond tokenism, image management,  and simplistic cultural caricatures to true understanding through authentic friendship.

And truthfully, that is just harder than most people really want to work.  But I still hope and dream that in my lifetime we move beyond eye-candy ethnicity and toward real reconciliation.


An Open Letter to Betty Brown (House Rep – TX)

Hi Betty,

My name is Andy Bilhorn.  You don’t know me because I’m from Chicago, and you live in Texas.  We’ve never crossed paths – and I don’t really go to Texas much, so I don’t imagine we will. But I’m sure it would be nice to meet you.

I heard about you in the news because you’d like some of our fellow Americans of Asian descent to change their names in order to make it easier for voting purposes.

You know, something somewhat similar happened in my family over 170 years ago.  My family name was changed five generations before mine when my family emigrated from Oberammergau in the south of Germany in Bavaria.  It used to be Puehlhan, but a circuit court judge in Mendota, Illinois thought it would be easier for the folks in the states to say Bilhorn rather than butcher the German umlaut.

That judge was Abraham Lincoln.

But don’t worry, I’m not comparing you to him. But you can be like him in some of your actions if you learn a little more about what it’s like to be a minority in this country in this century.

I’ve wondered why I actually know something that happened five generations ago in my family.  Most people I know don’t know their great-great-great grandparents names, let alone what happened surrounding the development of their name.  I know in large part because I am proud of my family – because we’ve made it a point to keep that story in our family.  I’m sure you’ve benefited from those in your family who have gone before you as well.

I think we would both agree that helping Americans preserve their heritage is important.  We’re a better nation because of it.  So why are you asking a large number Americans to change their names?  For the sake of voting? Why not ask a much smaller minority of voter registration folks to learn a few Asian last names? Wouldn’t that be easier?

Though you may have the best of intentions, the way your words are received by Asian Americans today is as an assault on their identity that they aren’t “American” enough.  It’s probably what happened with my great-great-great grandpa too. Since he was white, and the rest of the nation was mostly white, that was pretty easy to pass as an American.

But that was before the civil war – and Betty, the times are changing.  Sure – your district is 80% white – that’s great.  But the rest of the state is very different.  Your state already has no particular ethnic group as the majority – so what is, “normal” in Texas, anyway?  What is “standard?”

I ask because it’s a real question now that is hard to answer.  The rest of the nation will catch up with Texas in the early 2040’s when we have no ethnic majority, though experts think that could even change to the 2030’s. I know you’ll be in the grave by then, but I ask this question because you are propagating the assumption that people that look like us are “standard” and then I have to go and talk to my Asian-American friends who aren’t seen as “standard” and try to live in harmony with them. They are hurt by your dehumanizing comments, and even though they are well-intentioned, they hurt America.

To be honest, we live in a world where good intentions aren’t good enough.

Here’s what is worse – your words put those of us who are white who are in relationships with Asian Americans feel guilty by association and then your words make things difficult between us.  The easy thing for me to do is to say you are some dumb white woman who just doesn’t get it.

But if you were elected as a representative, I’m doing my best to suspend that judgment and hold you in high regard.  I do think you need to understand those whom you serve.  You should ask someone other than me since I’m a white guy from Chicago, but you should definitely ask someone.

So, Betty, here are couple ideas you can check with people who know more than me about Asian Americans than I on what you can do to undo the damage you did. You need to start by saying just two small words: “I’m sorry.”  A sincere apology would go a long way.  So would asking for forgiveness.  Don’t be political about it, don’t be overly dramatic – just say you’re sorry.  But only if you mean it.  The media is telling us that you don’t want this to be a big deal about race.  It’s too late for that – you already did it. Make it right by saying you are sorry.

But there’s more – you need to make good on your intent on serving Asian American voters.  You know that Asian Americans are very underrepresented in elected public offices? After your words, I can see why – it doesn’t seem like a welcoming place for them.. And it would be helpful if you included them in your census report in 2010 rather than lumping them in “other.”

Wouldn’t it be great if you were seen as working towards making public service more inviting towards Asian Americans?  Ask some of your fellow Asian Americans in politics what needs to happen for that to work.  Because if you were to do that, it could go a long way in not only undoing the wrong you did with your hurtful words, but it would help our democracy better serve it’s people in all it’s diversity.

So, here’s your chance to make some lemonade out of lemons.  But it means being humble, teachable, contrite, and finding creative solutions.  You know – like President Lincoln.  We have big enough problems right now facing our country.  If you did that, it could go a long way to making things better.

If you don’t, and do nothing, especially by not apologizing, then you’ll leave the next generation with a bigger mess to clean up. And trust me, it’s hard enough already.

Please choose option the former rather than the latter.  We need it.


Andy Bilhorn (Puehlhan)

Nailed Again by SWPL.

I swear – the folks at stuff white people like are stalkers…

Best line: 

Thankfully, since white people only keep their most original and creative ideas in the Moleskine, many of them will only be required to purchase one per lifetime.


Still doesn’t compare with this clip, though. I’ve considered what this kind of response would look like to the SWPL crew.

How ’bout dem apples?

Out with the old, in with the new? New Feet, New Year.

2008 felt like one of the longer years in my life.

When I was driving back to Chicago from Wisconsin, I called my good friend Sandra and realized that while I love being with my family, this particular year wasn’t a very “restful time.”  It’s especially so in this year that has been more weighty, impending, and ominous with the sun setting on the life of a cherished member of my family.

So, when I was talking with Sandra, she texted me the next day and said that she thought I could use a break and asked me to come over early to her husband and her’s new year’s party.  Karl knows my family well also – he was a student of my brother Josh and was a housemate with him his first couple of years out of school.

Sandra gave me directions to her new place on the west side of the city, and I drove to meet her.  She told me to meet her at the public library, and as I came outside of the door she greeted me, saying, “You know, there are times where I am stressed out and just need to be in a place that feels like home – where I can be myself and be among others like me.  Because life is just sometimes hard, you know?  So I thought I’d help you find a place where you can relax like I relax, and feel at home.”

I breathed a sigh of relief.  We started walking, me fully expecting to go to pub of sorts where I could grab a Guinness and enjoy another in a long succession of great conversations with my friend and partner in ministry.

Was I in for a surprise.

Sandra stops short into this trendy, refurbished building with all of these voices…but these voices aren’t deep like the droan you hear in a bar.  And the lighting wasn’t dark, either.  And the smell was what was most jolting…and then I realized I was in for something totally unexpected.

“Welcome!” I saw a woman who looked like a Hispanic Lucille Ball, who greets me with a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

(That’s not normal pub ettiquette, in case you didn’t know.)

I look at Sandra, probably with the look of a scared dog in my eyes.  I can feel my face turning red because I’m embarrassed.  Why?

I realize I’m in a beauty salon, surrounded by probably 20-some Hispanic women.  I’m the only white guy in the joint.

(The song from Sesame Street runs through my head, “One of these things is not like the other, which one is different – do you know?”)

And Sandra signed me up for a pedicure behind my back.  She said, “Andy, there was no way I could get you to do this yourself, so I surprised you. SURPRISE!”  A devious-yet-innocent smile comes across her face…

I got totally punked.

I think to myself, “Somewhere my father is hurting and he doesn’t know why.”

Do I have to turn in my man card for this?

I regain my composure.  I think to myself, “OK, Andy, this is just another cross-cultural experience.  Everyone is speaking Spanish, and you can pick up about half of what is being said. Almost everyone around you is a woman, so just smile and nod.  Just remember to have an open posture…ask questions…you know, all those things I’m supposed to remember in the approaching differences diagram… like a good cross-cultural student.”

That was a lot easier when the coffee and rice pudding came. I can do this.

So, for the next hour, I get a pedicure (I’ve since learned that this is abbreviated, “pedi”).  I have ugly feet.  They’re calloused and mangled…not exactly worth looking at. The poor woman pedicure giver-er…

But I must say, this woman did a phenomenal job on my feet.  They felt lighter as I got them out of the little foot-bathtub-thingy, and I realized that this woman sanded off my callouses…I must have lost a pound in the process.  And my ugly feet got a little less ugly.

So, here’s to a new year – to great friends, funny pranks, and losing the callouses from the hard walk of life that keep us from seeing what really is.

An Emo-Ref 30th: When worlds apart come together.

I’m writing you looking out the balcony at my home for the week – I can’t give the details of my whereabouts for safety concerns, but I can tell you I’m in Egypt and it must be one of the most beautiful places on the planet. The view is glorious.

A quick update from the conference: students from 12 Arab nations are gathered around this conference. We’re tackling some really tough issues – and I’m amazed at their faith. It’s true, two-handed faith that doesn’t take easy answers or pithy sayings. I love this kind of faith.

One student I spoke with just fascinated me. He lives in Lebanon, and in the past three months six of his friends have been killed from random acts of violence. He looks at me, deep into my eyes, and I can see honest and genuine hurt that we men don’t often show unless someone really knows. He tells me that it will get worse with the upcoming election.

I wince.

But I ask him how this affects him, and he gets quite personal. He tells me more that he doesn’t even know how to plan for a future – to buy a home, to raise a family – because he doesn’t know how much longer he will last. The effects of violence are devastating. He works 14 hours a day, five days a week, and makes under $300 a month.

If you do the math (some of you already are) he earns $.50 an hour. The corruption in the government drives up the price of gas and other necessary items for survival – food, water, clothes, etc. He is barely making ends meet to pay for gas and his phone.

As I ask more questions, there is just this feeling inside of me that looks at him and knows that he has seen far too much for a 21-year-old man. I ask him if he would leave his country if he had the chance. He said he would in a heartbeat.

Every part of me wants to tell him to stay, to fight the good fight, that in the end God wins and righteousness and justice will prevail. I want to tell him that God honors those who are faithful, who choose to stick out the hard times, and that his present cynicism will be overcome by hope and we can celebrate victory today for what was already won in the past that has determined the future. I want to be clever and pithy and say faith is knowing that at the end of the song, God wins; hope is the decision to dance to the music today.

But today I can’t tell him that – because, more often than not, I wonder the same things and argue with God about them in my own life. I’d love to tell him that this is different for the people of God, but I’d be lying through my teeth. I’d love to tell him that the church would save the day, but I have far too much experience seeing the body of Christ look more like an ugly whore than a beautiful bride.

How can I say anything different to him? I tell him that I pray God will be with him; really, it’s the only thing He seems to promise.

It’s something when you are hearing stories like this in the news; it’s another when you see them in front of you, a young man who has learned to tell this story well enough in his non-native tongue because he knows it matters.

When the worlds that you thought were worlds apart come near, the world in which you live can never be the same.

I’m getting emotionally-reflective (emo-ref) on this last day of my 20’s and enter my 30’s on the 30th. So forgive the navel-gazing thoughts. But I wonder, at times, what my life would have been like if I had never encountered the worlds I have in the last 30 years.

I wonder what would have happened if I wasn’t a Bilhorn. If I wasn’t the middle child in my family. If Grandma never moved in when I was 1. If Dad’s promising business ventures were amazingly successful. If Jennifer wasn’t killed in the car crash. If I wouldn’t have gotten the scholarship that took me to IIT and instead decided to go to school in Milwaukee. If I went through with my overanalyzed thoughts on not joining my fraternity instead of trusting my gut. If I didn’t take that job with IPM. If the West Side of Chicago was still a scary place because I never chose to live there. If I didn’t come on staff with InterVarsity. If I didn’t take the risk to go to Egypt last summer.

I wonder a lot these days – not just in the past, but in the future as well. I wonder what decisions I will make that will reap lots of consequences like I have so far – enough to prompt me sitting on a balcony in a place I had only studied in my world history textbook, writing a blog entry about a man I never intended to meet, and reflecting on events that if you told me would happen when I was 15 I would have said you were crazy.

(I ask people more often now if they think I am crazy…and one responded, “Andy, crazy people don’t ask if they are crazy.” True, but neurotic people do…and they also make up words like “emo-ref”…)

This morning I reflected on Jesus’ comments to those who called out his disciples for not fasting compared to John the Baptist telling his disciples to not. I would have skipped over it, but it came up again in this evening’s seminar that I listened through my new best friend in Egypt: my translator. I asked God to speak to me today, so I figured this might be more than coincidence.

Jesus, in typical cryptic form to weed out the superficial folks, tells one of those weird parables that tends to make no sense to 21st Century Americans. He says,

No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘The old is better.’ “

Cryptic, eh? Jesus is calling the old religious institutions like old wine in comparison to what he is bringing. The old religious system of rules and regulations just doesn’t fit his new way of living. Fasting doesn’t work with celebration – there is indeed a time for it, just not now. And the old system just doesn’t work for the changes that are coming. New wineskins = new system. Old wineskins = old system. New wine doesn’t fit in old wineskins. Jesus doesn’t fit in old religious system.

Change is required – on the inside, not just on the out. New wine is really good; but it requires change.

Change and the presence of God are the only constants I’ve come to bank on in this life. To adapt to change, I think I need new wineskins as often as I change my underwear – daily. Cyncism must be replaced with expectancy; skepticism must by supplanted by hope. If God is indeed good, new wine, and we are in need of change, it’s not only the environment around us that will change; it’s the stuff within us. It’s the stuff within me.

The difference in change is that we have the choice to change what’s inside; we don’t have a choice on what’s around us.

My friend from Lebanon gets this – he is outside, playing soccer like a madman. I imagine him scoring a goal, celebrating like a madman despite the circumstances to which he will return. It’s a bit of heaven breaking into a hell-filled world. He’s chosen to hope.

Will I?

So, here’s to choosing new wineskins for some new wine for a thirtieth birthday celebration. Small problem, however – I’m at a student conference in a Muslim country, you can probably bank I won’t be enjoying any wine today…so drink a glass in my stead and celebrate the opportunity to change.


Why contrast is helpful

I’m colorblind.

I found out when I was in third grade in Mrs. Witek’s class when we were looking at some of the pictures in our workbook and I commented on the brown grass. One of my friends said, “That’s not brown! That’s green, Andy!”

I cried.

Shortly afterwards, I got glasses and I took one very visible step further along the path to geekdom. For any third-grade boy where I grew up glasses were a symbol of “emerging geek” and impeded the progress of an eight-year-old’s social standing and dominance of the diamond or gridiron at recess.

My colorblindness was confirmed later when I was a high school senior applying for an Air Force ROTC scholarship. I took one of those color blindness tests where there are several dots that combine to form a alpha-numeric character. The retired lieutenant opened up the first page and asked what number I saw.

“There’s a number?” I replied.

After a couple more pages, the initial assumption was made pretty clear – putting me in the cockpit of a fighter plane would be a bad idea. A very bad idea. The United States did not achieve world superpower status by employing pilots who couldn’t tell the difference between communist red and jihad green. So I chose to study things where color didn’t matter – like dirt, spreadsheets, steel, and how many tons a concrete beam can hold until it busts. Cool stuff like that.
But there are a couple advantages of being colorblind – my visual receptors that pick up darkness and brightness, contrast, have become more sensitive and allow for me to see things that not everyone sees at first glance. I see better in the dark. And because most folks are so dependent upon their color vision, in rare instances I actually see things that others can’t.

(It still is a lousy trade off. I just live this life with a closer understanding that what I see now is, as the Apostle Paul put it, “but a poor reflection as in a mirror.” Heaven will definitely be far superior to technicolor.)

This last week, I got to see contrast that most others don’t. I lived in a village just outside of Cairo, Egypt called Mokattam (pronounced Mo-ah-tam in Egyptian Arabic) where the economic engine of the community is built on garbage. Literally – this is a village of garbage collectors. Over 3,000 tons of garbage enter the community each day, and are manually sorted by the people of the village. The result is that over 65% of the waste is recycled – which is nearly triple the efficency of the United States. Often the waste is processed and sent back as raw material to be reused to produce other products. It sounds amazing in theory.

Until you actually go there. The smell as you enter the area is pungent – and that is putting it kindly. I went in spring – when it is still cool. The blistering hot summer of Egypt only increases the strength of the stench. I was walking around with my colleague and she gagged twice. She still feels sick days later.

There were some things I saw that made me sick in my head. In a meeting among some folks trying to make a difference by creating a recycling center for boys, one of their leaders makes his living by recycling medical waste.

Let me say that again: he makes his living by sorting medical waste. By hand.

And he doesn’t have hot water in his home to wash his hands afterwards – he has to go to a neighbor. For $50 US, a friend of mine (ironically, who works in the medical waste industry) provided the resources to have hot water to wash his hands. He only asked for the opportunity to share the situation with those in leadership in his company to end such practices.

Later I was walking with a friend in Mexico City who has spent significant time in Cairo working among Sudanese refugees. She recounted a story where she witnessed a pedestrian get run over by a car and die in Cairo. She was horrified – unbelievably shocked. Shocked at the lack of response of the pedestrians, and letting the man die on the street before getting him to a hospital. As she told the story to one of the Sudanese persons she worked with, the Sudanese person said, “Yes, sometimes that happens.”

Sometimes that happens!? Like a certain bodily function?

This is the reality of life for the half of the world that live on less than $2/day. Yet, I can’t say I’ve been more welcomed by any group of people in my life. I was welcomed in peoples homes, laughed heartily with what little Arabic and English could be said, and realized how the gift of hospitality can transcend language.

Contrast helps me understand why affluence satisfies so little and provides a false veneer for community, yet poverty brings the necessity of community closer to reality. More contrast to come and I begin a deeper journey in understanding why the poor are blessed.

March 2019
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