Posted by: edsohn | December 3, 2007

Challengers And Bargainers, And When To Be Either At All

At the airport yesterday, I picked up the most recent Time because my hero du jour, Barack Obama, was on the cover with the catchy title, “The Contender”. What caught my eye was one of the side commentaries about Obama regarding his racial identity. The article described two types of racial identity:

Challengers are those members of a minority, especially but not limited to the black community, who position themselves opposite to the majority culture (white people). They approach white people with a premise of challenge, an assumption of bias from their opponents. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are challengers.

Bargainers are those who “make a deal with white Americans that gives whites the benefit of the doubt: I will not rub America’s history of racism in your face, if you will not hold my race against me.” According to the article, Oprah Winfrey is the most visible bargainer in America today. The article goes on to talk about how Obama is a natural-born bargainer while Clinton actually identifies more with challengers, very interesting politics.

I stopped and abstracted the ideas of challengers and bargainers to identity outside of race, and wondered about my own life. After a little thought, I decided that I am a bargainer. It doesn’t prevent me from arriving at a well-reasoned conclusion bigotry when I do encounter a bigot, and those encounters have sadly been increasing (the most recent being a guy outside of my apartment calling out as I passed him, “Go back to Tokyo, motherf—er!”). It’s a rule with some exceptions, but in general, I am a bargainer.

But what struck me was this: both challenging and bargaining requires a belief that racial bias is a matter of blatant ignorance in the face of truth, which it IS. Racial prejudice is a lot more wrong than it is right, and that idea appeals to a fundamental sensibility of equality. (If you want to argue with this, I welcome your comments, but my sense is that very few would.)

So, the question arises: in matters not relating to racial bias, do we sometimes challenge and bargain when we shouldn’t? If there is not a fundamental sense of ignorance and truth at stake, do we still find ourselves challenging or bargaining with those whose identify with a position different than our own? Are we sometimes so convinced of our own opinions sometimes that we elevate them too highly to the status of “truth”?

A challenger assumes a predisposition on a person on the basis of what subgroup she belongs to with the premise that such a subgroup is inherently WRONG. If what is at stake isn’t really a fundamental truth, that can become extremely dangerous and narrow-minded. Equally dangerous is the bargainer who compromises opinions in both directions for the sake of reconciliation or unity. Derek Webb calls us to repent for “trading truth for false unity.” The mistake of the challenger is someone who is overeager to fight; perhaps the mistake of a bargainer is one who is overeager to compromise. And sometimes, it’s just not worth it. I’m thinking philosophy, theology, but even things like our pettier opinions of what makes a successful dating relationship or the best kind of barbecue sauce.

Are we lacing up gloves over stuff that’s not to be fought for? How can we tell?

Yes, there are times when we need to be challengers or bargainers. It’s necessary in the face of a fundamentally flawed culture to extinguish ignorance with awareness and to fight off the ill effects of prejudice. But perhaps we are often arming ourselves to challenge or rolling up our sleeves for bargaining when the truth itself is not so unequivocally worth fighting for. And maybe there’s a third option: putting aside our adverserial-ness and allowing the co-existence of different opinions, conversing with each other while still maintaining their integrity.



  1. something that i’m beginning to realize now as i study the negritude movement in one of my french lit classes is that blacks against racism were taking ownership of the word ‘nigger’ and redefining it so that it would be a way to identify themselves with no shame. while this sounds like a good thing, it just occured to me (i’m taking a break right now from writing a paper on aime cesaire, one of the major starters of the movement) that they were still kind of trapping themselves. can you ever really redefine an existing word/meaning when all you have are words/its meanings that the opposing system has ingrained in you? at this point, i realize i’ve strayed from the subject of your post..

    i guess those of the negritude mouvement would be challengers [particularly of racism established by french colonization] and although they were attempting to take that necessary step towards expressing their rights, some of them were questioned for equating redefining the self and opposing whites (bc that’s not the only way to approach racism right?) and consider the feminist movements too.. i’ve met a lot of ppl who define feminists as anti-males/man-haters/etc. i can see how something that’s worth fighting for can be diluted by.. hatorade.

    must return to my paper. it’s interesting stuff and makes me think, but college requires me to write it all down in an organized manner.. in french. tres difficile indeed. but this post provided a nice break and i hope this somehow related. merci!

  2. anakainosis, thank you for this thoughtful and challenging blog.

    I’ve often felt like a failure every time I play the role of a bargainer. Asian passivity is something I carry around with me like a backpack full of bricks. I don’t know when to challenge and when to bargain … any tips for me? anyone?

    Let’s give you some scenarios from my own experiences:

    1. I am standing at a freeway opening ceremony along the Mon Fayette highway in the backwoods of western Pennsylvania. I scribble notes. An old white man leans over and very cutely asks, “Why aren’t you writing in Chinese?”

    2. I am at a meet and greet with some of the top church leaders of America and am baffled by how many times I introduce myself as an editor at a Christian magazine and the first question I am asked is, “So are you Chinese?”

    When to bargain? When to challenge? Am I making too big a deal of this? Why are people so STUPID? Why do I get so ANGRY? Is it Christian of me to challenge? Is it Christian of me to bargain? What Would Jesus Do? (asimptote, hollerrr)

  3. Friend,

    I’m a challenger by nature. It plays out offensively. I’m told it’s why I’m loved and, well, why I’m hated. I think it’s also why I’m so glued to anything and everything Ron Paul does and says, even if he doesn’t win and the things he wants won’t work. What matters to me is that he is fighting against the odds.

    Maybe I feel comfortable in the fringes of culture because I know there I’ll have something to fight for. It’s probably because the fringe strongly holds to its interpretation of the world as the better, or even best, truth. Yeah, it’s not “postmodern.”

    I think this is why I have such a hard time embracing something like the mega-church as another good expression of Gospel.

    Maybe this is why I embrace so much the Emerging Conversation because I believe it to be a progression of the expression of the Gospel.

    I hate false unity. But I love too much exclusive solidarity.


  4. Right on, everyone. All the comments are really insightful.

    The post sort of has two points, which I could have made more lucidly if I took more time. One, are you a challenger or a bargainer? And two, are there times when we instinctively move towards whichever one when we shouldn’t be moving towards either at all?

    Or, in other words, 1) how do you confront the ignorance of others (racially or otherwise), and 2) when is that fight even worth taking up?

    And not to always turn back to theology, but that’s another area where sometimes we may be arming ourselves for battle when in reality, the existence of diverging opinions is a healthy demonstration of God’s infinity, not a conflict that necessitates resolution.

    There are other areas too, right? I’ve seen people get in huge fights or debates over politics, sports teams… you name it. When ought we challenge, when ought we bargain, and how often ought we do neither altogether?

  5. dont hate, educate.

    nieophyte, i find that people will listen to any respectful education from me. there are some battles that u just dont fight. and others u do.

    but most of the time people really dont mind non-angry, thoughtful and honest explanations of why they are being “accidentally” ignorant or even *gasp* racist

    i say “accidentally” bc people dont go around thinking that they are prejudiced even though they are.

    no need to pretend that racism doesnt exist or that racism is such an exceptional occurrence, but rather a given that needs to be constantly made known and dealt with.

    recognize that even though we ourselves know that we are individuals, we will still all too often be faced with being grouped and stereotyped by what is otherwise our most obvious marker – our looks.

    it is primarily up to people of color to critically think about these things themselves.

    it’s not enough to just say, “hey, the fact that you like to comment on your trip to china when you see me bothers me.”

    we need to articulate to ourselves why it does. bc if we dont then no one will. that is why ethnic/gender studies is so valuable.

    man i could go on forever. but i’ll stop here.

  6. […] the water we’re swimming in To the nature of our inner sin Are we challengers, or bargaining peace? Politics to theology, Economics made idolatry, The list of topics will never […]

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