A public apology to our Asian American brothers and sisters

we at youth specialties really screwed up. big time. i’m ashamed and embarrassed and horrified (and fairly angry, also), and i personally beg the forgiveness of our asian american christian brothers and sisters. i write as an individual christ-follower with responsibility for the systems in our organization which allowed for this offense; and i write as a spokesperson for youth specialties, apologizing on behalf of the whole organization.

in the fall of 2006, we published a book called “skits that teach.” the book contained a skit with a “chinese delivery man” character whose characterization – and, particularly, whose phonetically-spelled accent – was horribly, inexcusably, and unquestionably racist. that this content would appear in a youth specialties book has kept myself and others at ys sleepless this week – not only in our efforts to correct the problem, but in our sorrow over our addition to the prejudice perpetrated against asian americans. if there is ANY place we should expect an exception to the cultural norms on this kind of prejudice, it should be in the church. this kind of racism (intentional or not – that is not at issue here) goes against everything we believe here at ys.

while there was no intention of racism on our part, i do believe this blunder has exposed some systematic issues we must face. what I mean is this: if the character in the skit had been an african american, with similar racial characterization and phonetically-spelled accent, it would not – i believe – have slipped through the administrative cracks in our development process. but, somehow, the characterization that did get printed didn’t register high-enough on the radars of the people who saw it. this, while we might not want to admit it, reveals a systematic racism. and it’s one that I am committed to addressing, in myself (first), and in our organization.

here are the steps we have taken, and will be taking, as it pertains to the “skits that teach” book.

actions already taken:

– the day this issue was brought to the attention of jay howver (our publisher, who was also not aware of the content until that moment), we froze the remaining stock of 1700 copies in the warehouse of zondervan.

– within a day or two, a new version of the pages containing that skit had been edited and designed, and a new edition of the book is already at the printer. the new version should be in stock by mid-march.

– i entered into dialogue with dr. soong-chan rah, a pastor, professor at north park college, and the person who brought this issue to my attention (at about the same time as i was learning about it from within our organization). after several emails, dr. rah and i schedule a phone call for this morning (friday). i wanted to wait to chat with dr. rah before posting this apology, as i wanted to make sure i wasn’t assuming what all the issues were. i wanted to learn more about the background (various christian publishing and ministry issues that have occurred in the last few years). this, to say the least, has been a very educational week for me!

action to be taken in the next week:

– we will link to this public apology in our weekly email next wednesday (which is distributed to approximately 30,000 youth workers).

– we will link to this apology from the front page of our website for a period of time.

– i will personally receive any phone call from an asian american ministry leader who would like to talk, yell, complain, or ask questions. my number at ys is: (619) 440-2333. my email is: [email protected] (that goes directly to me, not to someone who screens my emails – you will receive a response directly from me).

– we will destroy the 1700 copies of the book currently “frozen” in the zondervan warehouse. normally, the stock of a discontinued or out-of-print book is sold off as “remainders” at a highly discounted price, to book liquidators. we want to be sure that not one more copy of the original version of this book sees the light of day.

– we will gladly offer a free copy of the new version of the book to anyone who has the original version. if you have the original version, simply tear out that skit (pages 13 – 16), and send it to youth specialties (300 s. pierce st., el cajon, ca 92020, ATTN: mindi godfrey). be sure to include your shipping address. we’ll send an entire replacement book at no charge to you.

– while there is no way for us to do an actual “recall” of the products that are already in christian bookstores, zondervan will certainly accept returns of that book (as they would of any book).

– our CORE manager (the CORE is our one day training seminar, which takes place in 100 cities over the next few months) just told me she’ll contact all the hosts for this weekend (about 8 or 10) and have them pull all the copies of this book from the sales tables.

i would also like to be clear that zondervan, our parent company, had nothing to do with this mess. they are not involved in our editorial process in a way that anyone at zondervan would have had an opportunity to raise a flag on this.

personally, i look forward to a few things:

– i look forward to the good i believe god can bring from this. i don’t pretend to know what that will look like; but my faith is built on a hope that god loves turning our sin and mess into beauty and restoration.

– i look forward to further interactions with asian american church leaders I have met through this painful process. i welcome your further input. all of us at ys welcome your input.

– i look forward to continuing my learning about the unique prejudices tolerated in our culture against asian americans. i asked dr. rah for a couple book suggestions that would further my understanding, and have already ordered the two he suggested.

a handful of comments and updates:

— first, i want to express my deep gratitude for the wonderful expressions of forgiveness in the comments below, as well as the emails i’ve received. it’s been meaningful in a way that goes beyond my ability to formulate it into words.

— i continue to be blown away and saddened by my ignorance, and our collective cultural ignorance, about prejudice toward asian americans. while i instantly saw the character in the skit as something i was embarassed by, and didn’t want in a ys product, i have still had my eyes seriously opened this week as i’ve read blog after blog and comment upon comment expressing the hurts and prejudices perpetrated against asian americans. my parents — two of the most godly people i know — and i were email-chatting about this in the last couple days. they have spent their lives in missions, particularly to and with asian cultures. we grew up with asians and asian americans in our home constantly, with asian pieces of art on the walls, with a dad who few to asian countries long before people traveled by air as they do these days. in other words, i would like to think me and my parents had a heightened awareness of asian american issues, and a deeper experience base of real and valued relationships with asian americans. but my parents expressed that they sobbed when they read this public apology; and one of the reasons was because their eyes were being opened to the depth of the pain and hurt we all have caused (and how unaware we have been). i am “soaking in this” now, trying to listen to god as to what he would have me do.

— i had a twinge of “OH NO!” today, in response to a gracious email from an asian american pastor’s wife, who mentioned something about the non-church leaders who are impacted by prejudice and caricature (most of my thinking has been of church leaders, since that’s who we deal with predominantly, here at youth specialties). what hit me was a vision of an asian american kid sitting in a youth group somewhere, in a mostly white church, where this skit was being performed. i know i can’t feel the depth of what that would be like: but i think, in that moment, god gave me an emotional-taste of that sense. i began weeping instantly. in that light: please, if you are a youth worker who has purchased this book from us, please do not use that skit whether you have asian american kids in your group or not. please send it back or tear it out. argh. i know “that kid” isn’t just a metaphor, or a symbol. that kid is a real kid who will be dying inside, and, likely, seeing laughing faces looking to him (or her) for justification that “this is ok, right?”

— a word about the editor and the authors. several have asked me, in the comments below and in private emails, to address them. these requests have come with a variety of tone — from those who seem ready to lynch the editor and authors, to those who are just curious. first, let me say this: i have intentionally NOT been naming them for a couple reasons:
first, i know these three guys (the one editor and two authors). and i know their hearts. i know they are good and godly guys who had no evil intent. i know they are sickened (really, physically) by the pain they have caused.
second, and more important to me, is that i believe (and felt conviction from god this week) that naming them is passing the buck. in other words, i felt that naming them in any context was setting them up as scapegoats, and positioning ys as “not completely responsible.” and i don’t believe that to be true. whatever person or persons were involved in this, we (ys, the organization) have to take full responsibility for it. it would be a coward’s move to do otherwise, and would — i believe — draw attention away from the real issue, the ignorance we (caucasians) all have when it comes to asian americans.

— that said, i do want to specifically mention the skit guys, now, at their request. they have posted an apology on their site: please read it here. i realize that many will think their apology is too late. i would humbly and gently push back on that, for a few reasons:
first, i know the journey these guys went on in the past couple weeks. my journey, from horror laden with defensiveness, to a simple and pure desire for forgiveness and growth, could only have been greater for them. and, as i said above, i know these guys and i know their hearts. yes, what they wrote was stupid and clearly showed the ignorance that i, myself (and, as i’m coming to see, most caucasian americans) share, when it comes to asian americans.
second, they needed to process their understanding. people were frustrated with me, also, that i didn’t respond publically more quickly. but i was convinced that i needed to spend some time on the phone with dr. rah first, so that my response was truly from a place of understanding, not just more uninformed presumption. i think the same has been true for tommy and eddie.
third, i would ask that you make the choice to trust the honesty and sincerity of their apology. you may be tempted to discredit their apology for one reason or another. i’m telling you it’s sincere.

— one final thing for now: a few have asked me to share what books dr. rah recommended. you bet! i asked him for one that would help me understand these issues in a broader cultural context, and one that would help me understand them better in a ministry context. for the former, he recommended Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, by Frank Wu; and for the latter, he recommended Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, by emerson and smith (this latter book isn’t specific to asian american issues, but pertains to race and the american church).

165 thoughts on “A public apology to our Asian American brothers and sisters”

  1. I just wanted to say thank you for being thoughtful and taking action during this incident. This was a real example of humble and responsible leadership.

  2. Dear Mark,

    My name is Sandy Lee Schaupp and I work with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a campus ministry and am a part of our Asian American Ministries. I just read an article from Today’s Christian and your apology. Thank you for your willingness to engage with Rev. Soong-Chan Rah and with this whole journey. I am moved by your willingness to see your mistake and the large steps you are taking to correct it. Thank you very much.

    To be honest, last week was a very emotional and difficult week for me as a Korean American with the Virginia Tech tragedy. I just felt so much mourning for everyone involved and concerned for the way others would see and treat Koreans, having already experienced racism in this country. So, to read about your story today was great timing. It was very encouraging.

    I read a comment on your blog from Helen Lee, an author of a recent book about growing healthy Asian Am. churches. I liked what she said about passing on what you’ve learned to other publishers. Wherever that is possible, we as ethnic minorities would be so blessed to have an advocate in you. There are ways, you as a white person have such greater hearing than we do as ethnic minorities. This would be a profound way that you could partner with us in our journey.

    May God continue to walk with you with peace and joy in this learning journey. May God give you wisdom and grace as you are walking a challenging road. Thank you for your courage to step into this. I see you as partner, even though I’ve never met you!

    May God’s blessings pour forth to you!

    Sandy Lee Schaupp

    p.s. Thank you, Laden, who identified himself as a “black dude”. I appreciate your advocacy as well. I think you’re right about the difficulty for us as Asian Americans with such few positive media images.

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