by Guest Contributor Paul Matsushima, originally published at Eesahmu
Recently, while attending one of the most ethnically diverse evangelical seminaries in the nation, I found myself in an environment where I had to defend the argument that race still matters. Don’t get me wrong; students and faculty alike openly discussed ethnic and societal culture; and, although all were unanimous that racial prejudice is wrong and diversity is good, when it came to America’s original (and continuing) sin of racism, there were choirs of crickets.
I, in partial reaction, left. After stepping back from my enmeshment in the evangelical world, I gained some clarity for why I felt so isolated. Personal reasons aside, my qualm with the (white) evangelical community was its hesitancy to analyze–much less struggle against–the historical and continuing racial bias in America. This “don’t go there” mentality is further compounded within evangelical churches that are predominantly Asian American. Here are my speculations why.
1. Unity in Christ, aka Colorblindness
Firstly, we who seek to discuss race in the Asian American church go head-to-head against the banner of colorblindness. Colorblindness, while it may value ethnic diversity, seeks to ignore one’s race in order to avoid giving differential treatment on account of it. In other words, it attempts to treat all people equally regardless of race.
This thinking is interwoven into the Christian doctrine of the primacy of one’s Christian identity. Common phrases such as “unity in Christ” or “children of God” shape American evangelicals to value their Christian identity over any other. Tim Tseng, in his article “The Young Adult Black Hole,” explores how Asian American young adults leave their immigrant-ethnic churches for white or multiethnic ones because the influence of colorblind thinking. The message of one’s Christian identity as most important, combined with assimilation into American culture as good and being too ethnic (i.e., too Asian) as bad, is thoroughly ground into these young people’s minds. The result: many Asian American evangelicals believe “the goal [of Christian identity formation] is to shed, not affirm their [racial] identities.”
In 2009, the Urbana Missions Conference hosted around 16,000 attendees, 30% of which were Asian American. I was shocked and disturbed when I, along with three other conferees were the only ones who attended the Asian American prayer workshop, a session devoted to exploring how racial identity shapes the way one prays. Asian Americans flocked to workshops on international and missionary issues in Asia, but when it came to the single workshop focused entirely on Asian American issues, their attendance was extremely minimal.
I may never be able to “prove” why there were only four of us at that workshop. But it saddens me to know that Urbana’s Asian Americans were quick to delve into other issues yet not into themselves. For those who attended the prayer workshop, it was a sacred and healing space. We were able to share openly, honestly, forgivingly about the ways we have been treated as Asians in America, about how our Asian American-ness affects and shapes our everyday lives, and how to find solace from being misunderstood about this topic. That, in my understanding of spirituality, is both unity and solidarity.
2. Personal Religion, aka Bootstraps
The second perspective that restricts race-talk is the common notion that spirituality, much like life in America, is a personal matter. From prayer, to worship, and even to acts of compassion, American evangelicals find their worldviews thoroughly enculturated in individualism.
One of the hallmarks of individualism is what many racial scholars call “the bootstraps model.” This states that the key factor for an individual’s or groups’ success is their value system. Ethnic minorities achieve via hard work and sacrifice; Christians through effort and growing in the “Fruit of the Spirit.” The former perspective is usually espoused by those who believe America is a land of equal opportunity, where all people, regardless of their racial, gender, or economic backgrounds can attain the American Dream by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.
Asian Americans are held up as the bootstraps’ poster children. Since I will address this more in the next section, I’ll only say this here. Wonder why Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, rose to Time Magazine’s 2011 Top 100 People List? My speculation: to maintain the belief that hard work, sacrifice, and helicopter parenting are the “keys” to success. And Asian Americans, like Chua, have a monopoly on it.
Please don’t misinterpret me: value systems that include the aforementioned qualities are extremely important to progress. But this argument, when applied to America’s racial dynamics, works by ruling out all other external factors from why certain groups succeed and others don’t. It does not analyze how racial groups are treated differently on account of their race, both historically and presently.
Michael Emerson, in Divided by Faith, wonderfully demonstrates how this bootstraps argument is one of the main culprits for American evangelicals’ lack of racial concerns. As his research studies white Americans, he shows how they often perceive moral choices (i.e., value systems) as the root cause for why whites and Asian Americans do well while Latinos and African Americans do poorly. They are, thus, never taught to look at other institutional culprits that affect certain racial groups’ opportunities, access, and lives. For example, how Bank of America intentionally charged Blacks and Latinos higher interest rates than whites on home loans; or how research shows “blacks and whites use drugs at about the same rate, yet African Americans are 10 times as likely to be imprisoned for drug offenses.”
Despite American evangelicalism’s individualistic history, it brings me great joy to know that much of the American Church is returning to its roots of biblical justice. In particular, addressing the vast disparity between rich and poor is becoming a priority. Christians’ understandings of the causes of poverty and all its residual effects are becoming more complex than the oversimplification of poor life choices.
If Christians can make the connections between how structures of power shape and (can) determine the outcomes of people’s lives, perhaps they can expand this understanding to American racial politics. Forty Catholic leaders recently released a rebuking open letter to some of the Republican presidential candidates, challenging them to “reject the politics of racial division, refrain from offensive rhetoric, and unite behind an agenda that promotes racial and economic justice.” These Catholics understand how racialized and disparaging comments can perpetuate and reinforce the way race shapes our views, categorizations, and treatment of certain groups.
3. Middle-Class Asians as the Norm
This brings me to a final point about racial discourse within the Asian American Church. Perhaps the most restrictive factor in these communities is the portrayal of Asian Americans as hardworking, self-sufficient, non-complaining “model minorities” who vindicate the American Dream.
While this stereotypical portrayal may have aspects of truth in it, my intention here is not to critique its problematic dimensions. Others, Wayne Au and Benji Chan, Frank Wu, Stacy Lee, have done tremendous work to uncover its myth-like existence as a political and divisive tool.
What troubles me most is how many Asian Americans (not all, but many) buy into this self-perception. In mid-January, with Youtube’s explosion of the “Shit Girls Say” meme, the “Shit Asian Girls Say” counterpart saw little critique in its depiction of Asian American young women as spoiled daughters who benefit off model-minority parents/boyfriends. Perhaps worse is how some respondents confirmed this stereotypical portrayal with responses such as, “one of my friends says that all the time,” or “OMG so true, LMAO.” No one from the Asian American community took the time to sufficiently challenge these insensitive images, while other communities of color were in an uproar about their respective videos, as shown by Latoya Peterson’s blog post. I know this meme is nowhere near overwhelming evidence for my point. However, the video–and Asian Americans’ silent assent to it–could indicate that our society is at the point where viewing Asians as middle class is normal.
The effect of internalizing this middle-class identity is a critical mindset towards other low-income racial minorities. In my own experiences in Asian American evangelical circles, I occasionally hear racialized criticisms towards certain “people:” welfare recipients, day-laborers, and single-mothers, to name a few. The speaker often comments towards these faceless (yet highly racialized) people as if she/he is above them. It’s as if their discipline, responsibility, and middle-class values make them morally superior.
It pains me to know that this community who was once included in those dehumanized categories now perceives itself as better than, just because we think we’ve “made it.” Not even 60 years ago, Asians’ existence in this country was formally marked by fear, hostility, and exclusion. They were ranked as second-class citizens, and in some cases, deemed sub-human. It baffles me that many Asians now hoard their relative privilege when there is a nation of hurt continuing because of the racial bias etched onto America’s consciousness.
Perhaps the study of American racial dynamics offers a narrow, limited path by which to view the world. Not everyone, especially in their faith journeys, will travel through the ism of race as I have. But as I reflect back, it troubles me that I feel I must end with a defense that racial discourse is a legitimate area of study. I expect hesitation–even disagreements–from those who read this post’s title and disregard it as unworthy of attention. But for me, and perhaps for many other Asian Americans, the area of race is where I am most deeply wounded and where I find healing. This is the avenue I learn compassion towards those unlike me, even those who reject me simply because I’m “Asian.” My hope is that evangelicals, especially Asian American evangelicals, will learn the brokenness and tragedy in America’s racial history so that they’ll be challenged to heal their wounds, confront their errors in thinking, and be moved towards racial justice.
What’s Racialigious? Check these older posts:
Racialigious? [Series Introduction - Racialigious]
Confessions From A Christian [Racialigious]
Off and Running Toward My Own Identity [Racialigious]
The Dead, River Spirits, & a Magic Hat [Racialigious]
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