Nothing says controversy like an Internet fight over racism in marketing and design. If you weren’t familiar with last week’s blow-by-blow, Asian author and professor Soong-Chan Rah called out racism at worst and insensitivity at best in the marketing and design of the book Deadly Viper Character Assassins by Mike Foster and Jud Wilhite. Rah accused Foster and Wilhite of fueling racial stereotypes and co-opting Asian culture in order to market their book. It was an especially interesting challenge because Foster and Wilhite’s book is all about integrity and character. The conversation exploded with hundreds of comments and eventually led to a conference call between Rah, Foster, Wilhite and moderators.
Thankfully this messy situation seems to have come to a gracious solution. Both Foster and Wilhite of Deadly Viper and Rah have apologized for how they handled the situation and have agreed to move forward in reconciliation. What started with ignorance and lack of awareness has turned into an opportunity for education and greater sensitivity. For all of us (our own review of Deadly Viper completely overlooked these issues, for which we apologize).
A lot of folks have offered lessons from this confrontation, and we encourage you to check those out. We learned a few lessons ourselves from watching this conversation unfold, especially as it relates to communication and marketing:
1) Be aware of cultural and racial issues.
It’s been more than 40 years but the dream still hasn’t come true. Racial issues have and will continued to plague humanity, and the church is not immune. What’s perhaps most discouraging about this issue is that it’s not the first time Rah has spoken out against Asian stereotypes in Christian publishing. As church communicators we have a duty to be aware of what’s offensive and make sure those kinds of portrayals have no place in our marketing. That sounds brain-dead obvious, but as this situation shows, it’s easy to plow forward and not realize your own cultural insensitivity.
2) Use cultural design elements appropriately.
One of the major complaints here is the way the designers used cultural symbols with seemingly no regard to their actual meaning. (There’s some debate here. Rah said symbols on the book’s cover were meaningless, Foster insisted they had meaning.) Any time you’re tapping into visual elements of a culture there’s opportunity to mess it up. Especially when it’s a culture you’re not familiar with. In this case the complexity of Chinese language makes it even harder. The bottom line: If you’re going to use cultural imagery, make sure you’re doing so with the utmost respect.
3) Seek guidance and second opinions.
None of us knows it all. It’s through interaction with others that we learn and sometimes even realize we’re offending somebody. So seek out second and third opinions. And when you’re asked for your opinion, speak out in love. [Well placed plug: The Church Marketing Lab is a great place to get second and third opinions.]
4) Conflict happens. Resolve it gracefully.
Maybe I’m over-stating it, but I think this is a beautiful example of how to do that. It wasn’t perfect and the conversation got ugly, but everything ended in a place of love and grace. That’s the way it should be. We can learn a lot from how this conflict was resolved.
Update: Zondervan has issued an apology for the book and are pulling it from shelves. Mike Foster and Jud Wilhite have shut down the Deadly Viper site.