For some people speaking up when they know they’re right, or when they see an injustice, is just part of who they are. They feel compelled to take action. Not me. I spent a big part of my younger years screaming inside about things that frustrated me at work, church, and even in my personal life, but the outrage never escaped the audience in my head. In real-time, I was just sitting there…silent…paralyzed with fear over whether I would be hurt professionally or personally if I faced the conflict head-on and said something out loud. I was well into my thirties before I realized how liberating it can be to use your voice while fighting for a cause bigger than yourself.
That’s why Kathy Khang’s latest book, Raise Your Voice: Why We Stay Silent and How to Speak Up, resonates with me. Khang offers practical advice and forward-thinking leadership from a Christian perspective on how to find your own personal voice for the good of the community and sharing God’s Word — particularly when race, ethnicity, and gender are at play. But even for her, it took time to get to the place where she is now.
“As a Korean American woman, I really wrestled with whether or not it was appropriate to raise my voice, whether I had anything worth saying,” Khang says. “Maybe if I had something worth saying, would anyone listen? Would anyone care?”
Khang, a columnist for Sojourners magazine and a writer for Duke University’s Faith & Leadership, the online magazine of leadership education at Duke Divinity, talked with Urban Faith about her new book, the politics of race and evangelism, being a woman of color with something to say, and why many people don’t speak up.
You mentioned that finding your voice has been part of a 10-year process. Can you tell me more about what you were struggling with and how your faith helped you push through it to complete the book?
This wasn’t, you know, a 10-year process in my twenties. This is my late thirties, early forties, where I’ve already been a professional journalist. There aren’t a ton of examples of Korean-American, Asian-American women, women of color in safe circles writing books. There are more now, but definitely not when I was in my formative years. And those were not the authors I read to shape my faith, to shape my Christian worldview. Those books were all written by white men, by and large, and a lot of white women. And so, I just had to really work through why is it that I feel like I have nothing worth saying when clearly there are tons of people who have no problem figuring out that they have something to say. Having to walk through that with myself and with God. Spending time listening to God with the help of a spiritual director and some great Christian mentors, and supervisors who were encouraging me and saying, “You know, you do have something to say.”
If you could go back in time and talk to the 24-year-old you, what would you tell her about race?
I would say to her, “Keep doing what you are doing and learning vocationally.” So in my twenties, I was a newspaper reporter and I’d say ‘Don’t be afraid of talking with your editors and fighting for the story or fighting for the wording because it matters.’ I think there were a lot of times where I thought, ‘Well, this isn’t the fight I wanna fight.’ And there’s wisdom to that. But I think that there were other times where I was just so worried I would get fired. I would also tell that 20-something self that it’s important to care for yourself in order to care for your community. I learned that later — the idea of being a self-sacrificing Godly woman is communicated in various ways in different cultures and in different churches. I certainly felt it. I wish I had heard that more consistently in my twenties to encourage me, you know?
What is it that is holding people back from speaking up and being who God called them to be?
Fear. And some of that fear is rooted in a fear of a failure. For me, I’m a bit of a recovering perfectionist. I would encourage people to not only think about the cost of speaking up and raising your voice, but also the cost of continually remaining silent. What does that do? What does that say about what you say you believe in? What does that do to your soul and who God is encouraging you to become?
You’ve been outspoken about racism in the church, especially on social media. How we can come together when we see the world so differently?
You raise your voice mindful of the backlash. I don’t wanna be overly dramatic, but I also don’t want to ignore the fact that I know many, many people of color, myself included, and particularly women of color, who speak out against racism in the church and we get the most horrifying and disgusting responses. You get an email. You get a direct message. You get a tweet back at you. I will be very honest, I’m not sure on this side of heaven we will see a time where that gap is fully bridged. However, I think it is very important that the work is not left up to people of color to raise their voices. We need teachers, preachers, authors, artists to continue to speak into those spaces, to call that out and to present the various alternatives. What would this world look like? What would the church look like if we were able to bridge that divide? What will the world and the church look like if we do not? Because it can’t be left to people of color. We need our white allies and we need them not to be afraid of making mistakes and offending and screwing up.