The Popular and Problematic Race-Relations Model: 
A Review of Beyond Colorblind by Sarah Shin
The Popular and Problematic Race-Relations Model: 
A Review of Beyond Colorblind by Sarah Shin

InterVarsity Press has been on a roll lately! With titles like Seeing Jesus in East Harlem by José Humphreys and Rethinking Incarceration by Dominque Gilliard, it really seems like IVP is setting the pace for Evangelicals of color advancing important stories and messages about justice for the twenty-first century church. This has been really encouraging for me to witness. It wasn’t that long ago that Christena Cleveland (also an IVP author) was challenging the publisher to pursue more authors of color. It seems they have taken her challenge very seriously. And I’m encouraged by some of the titles that have just been released, like Twelve Lies That Hold America Captive and the Truth That Sets Us Free by Jonathan Walton and Hermanas: Deepening our Identity and Growing our Influence. I’m looking forward to reviewing those soon.

Beyond Colorblind: Redeeming Our Ethnic Journey by Sarah Shin would certainly seem to be among these exciting new titles from IVP. It has all the outward signs: a young author of color who is a rising star in InterVarsity, a subject matter tangentially related to justice, and an accessible paperback format with beautiful cover art. What’s else could you possibly need? A lot, apparently. Beyond Colorblind left me frustrated and confused for two primary reasons. It operates with a model of understanding race and ethnicity that subtracts systemic and institutional racism. This model could be called “race-relations.” And it centers the experiences, feelings, and stories of white people. For these reasons, I think the attempt to help white people grow in their understand of race and ethnicity is actually counter-productive.

The intent of the book is fine. I applaud Sarah Shin for writing a book on this subject. I believe the subject of people exploring their ethnic identities in the context of a loving faith community is a very important one. I also applaud the author for her ministry among college students. If even half of the stories in this book are accurate reflections of her impact, she is the next Billy Graham! Everywhere she speaks, people are coming to faith left and right! Provided these folks land in a loving community that will support them in their new found faith and help them grow in discipleship, I think that’s wonderful. I also applaud her for sharing about her own journey of exploring her identity as a Korean American woman. I think that’s probably the best aspect of this book. It’s vitally important that women of color know their worth and embrace their power in a society like the U.S. that continually degrades them. If Beyond Colorblind were simply a narrative about the author’s ethnic journey of discovery and a few highlights from her campus ministry victories, I could imagine it being a fantastic book. Unfortunately, it moves beyond that to become highly confused and confusing. 

White is Not an Ethnicity

One of the most confused and confusing aspects of Beyond Colorblind is the way it vacillates between understandings of race and ethnicity that are contradictory. For a book that is meant to clarify distinctions like these, I was surprised by how unsuccessful it was. For example, eleven pages into the book the author retells the story of a gathering where a woman named Kristin apologizes on behalf of white people for the racism that people of color have experienced. But it’s how the story ends that struck me as very confused.

You must have a whole lot of Jesus in you. This was a comment from a non-Christian black man who was undeniably affected by the story of a white woman sharing about how Jesus was redeeming her ethnic identity as a Christian white woman.” (12)

While this book is called “Beyond Colorblind,” eleven pages in the author has already confused “white” for an “ethnic identity.” Then, on the very next page, the author offers readers a glossary of terms to help them navigate the book more easily. The very first term she defines is “Ethnicity”!

Ethnicity is more distinct and specific than race (Norwegian versus white, Taiwanese versus Asian). Ethnicity refers to common ancestry, tribe, nationality, and background, often shared customs, language, culture, values, traditions, and history. Race, on the other hand, is the classification of people according to their supposed physical traits and ancestry.” (13)

These two definitions of race and ethnicity are precisely correct. It’s that precise distinction that the author failed to make on the previous page. “Kristin” isn’t identified as Norwegian American or German American or Irish American or any other actual ethnicity—not even “European American”! “Kristin” is only identified as “white,” which is a color and a race. If this was the only time this happens in the book, it would be immensely forgivable. Unfortunately, this continues to happen throughout the book.

Beyond Colorblind contains a chapter entitled “Ethnicities Made for Good” that begins with a story about white people receiving a gracious pronouncement of goodness over their white identities. Notice the disconnect between the chapter title and the story? Say it with me: white is not an ethnicity! The author’s intent to talk about our God-given ethnicities being good is beautiful and laudable and important. She simply fails to recognize that in talking about “ethnicities” she lists only races. But God did not create races! Human beings created “races” and racial hierarchy, and they are pure evil.

This lack of clarity throughout the book between race and ethnicity bleeds into several other glaring mistakes. For example, using “ethnic” to mean non-white. I’m ashamed to admit my own denomination (the Evangelical Covenant Church) has employed this language, even though they are deeply connected to their own Swedish American immigrant roots. This language supports white cultural normativity and otherizes and exoticizes non-white cultural and ethnic groups. It’s racist. The author employs this language while describing the diversity of ECC churches. No doubt she likely lifted that language directly from the Covenant itself. But in a book that seeks to clarify ethnic identities, this obscures and harms.

The author also describes “white, black, Asian, Latino” as “macro-ethnic groups” at one point. I don’t know if “Asian” and “Latino” are “macro-ethnic groups” or not. But I do know that “white” and “black” are races. This leads to the main reason why this book is problematic: the "race-relations" model of racial reconciliation.

Racism is Prejudice Plus Power

The primary problem with the “race-relations” model of racial reconciliation is its aversion to discussing racial justice directly. More specifically, it almost entirely ignores systemic and institutional racism. The few times Beyond Colorblind does name racism, the author talks about it exclusively as a phenomenon of inter-personal prejudice. But this is a very incomplete understanding of racism. Racism is racial prejudice plus power. In the United States, racism is the systemic and institutional reality that produces racially unjust laws, policies, policing practices, economic inequity, and many more harmful effects. Racism isn’t just an isolated instance of harmful speech or action. The author’s treatment of racism is as something that can be solved through in-depth conversations and dialogue. Now, I’m all for dialogue about race and racism. But if that dialogue doesn’t include the systemic and institutional reality of racism, then that dialogue is part of the problem!

In one instance, the author recounts the story of a white man named Brent who is somehow the hero of a story about racial righteousness. She writes,

“[Brent’s] story has helped white Southerners realize the places of racism in their hearts; his story of loving the enemy has helped people of color realize where they have nursed hate for those who have wronged them.” (84)

The phrase “places of racism in their hearts” betrays the author’s view of racism as inter-personal and a “heart issue.” But what happens when those same folks leave that room where they had warm fuzzy feelings toward one another, and yet the laws haven’t changed, their community is still deeply segregated, and their new black friend is profiled by police on the way home? Beyond Colorblind does nothing to address these systemic realities.

In fact, at one point the author seems so determined not to name systemic racial injustice that it produces something quite ugly. She describes the murder of Freddie Gray like this:

“Freddie Gray, a twenty-five-year-old black man who was taken into police custody and then sustained spinal injuries in a police van, slipped into a coma, and died days later.” (89)

Why can’t she simply say Gray was killed by police? That’s what happened! Or are we supposed to imagine his spinal injuries happened spontaneously without any help from police? Are we supposed to imagine he injured himself while riding in the police van? This is simply an obvious attempt to state the facts without indicting the police. Later she writes, “students were drawn to conversations about ethnic brokenness…” Let me be crystal clear: “Ethnic brokenness” didn’t kill Freddie Gay; Baltimore police officers did. And Baltimore police officers unjustly killed a black man in the same way that black men are routinely killed by police. What killed Freddie Gray was anti-black racism!

The determination to avoid discussing systemic and institutional racism due to the "race-relations" model of racial reconciliation renders Beyond Colorblind more harmful than helpful.

The Highlight Reel

In addition to the harmful effect of the race-relations model employed throughout this book, it also takes pains to highlight the incredible fruit that is produced by the race-relations model among college students.

I remember reading a book on prayer in Bible college about Dutch Sheets and the Welsh Revival. It was one miracle story after the next. On every page people were being healed and becoming followers of Christ. Of course that’s encouraging, to a point. After a while though, it got to be far too repetitive and grew tedious. What’s going to happen next? Let me guess, more miracles and mass conversions? Yep! I remember commenting that it was like Michael Jordan’s highlight reel: nothing but beautiful fade-away jumpers, amazing dunks, and gravity-defying acrobatic lay-ups. Beyond Colorblind is like that too.

Those of us who have served in multiethnic communities for many years know that there is such a beautiful demonstration of the Spirit’s power and the power of the Gospel when people open up to people with very different experiences of life, walk along-side each other, learn from one another, and grow to become close friends. It’s why I continue to believe in the multiethnic church. But those of us who have served in these ministries for extended periods of time also know that multiethnic community is also intensely challenging, and sometimes utterly heartbreaking. Sometimes people can’t take it and leave. There is white fragility, justice fatigue, vulnerability hangovers, and good old fashioned fear and pain. The highlight reel of the amazing episodes from the author’s college ministry starts out encouraging, but by the end feels very self-aggrandizing and tedious. What’s going to happen next? Let me guess, the author is going to tell white people they too have an ethnicity and everyone in the room will become Christians! Yep.

I know that InterVarsity is a wonderful ministry. I’m very grateful for the work they do. I think a few poignant examples would suffice.


Beyond Colorblind had great potential to be a wonderful guide for people exploring their own ethnic identities. I could imagine the author sharing about her own journey, throwing in some amazing stories about her ministry with InterVarsity, and giving readers some practical next steps for embarking upon their own journeys. That would have been a great book. Unfortunately, the relentlessly confusing way the author talks about ethnicity and race interchangeably, while simultaneously telling readers they aren’t the same at all, caused my frustration to overshadow my encouragement. The book also suffered from an aversion to discussing the realities of race and racism, their present, systemic and institutional existence, to help readers understand how their own personal ethnic journeys must be conducted in the context of these realities, not in a vacuum. Unfortunately, the “race-relations” model of racism operative in Beyond Colorblind renders this book harmful. It will undoubtedly embolden white readers to embark on their ethnic journey in complete isolation from the realities of race and racism. Ironically, it’s precisely this model that produces “colorblind” people.

Readers who are interested in racial reconciliation/justice/righteousness would be better served by reading a book like Roadmap to Reconciliation by Brenda Salter-McNeil (who is also affiliated with InterVarsity) or Disunity in Christ by Christena Cleveland or any number of other wonderful books.