The Struggles of Discussing Race in the Asian American Evangelical Church

Reposted at and

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.

Our college group at Urbana 2009

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. 40 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.

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20 thoughts on “The Struggles of Discussing Race in the Asian American Evangelical Church

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  1. I resonate with much of what you have written here as an African-American who attended a predominantly white, suburban, middle-class evangelical church where I endured a lot of ignorance and a seeming lack of awareness of issues surrounding race.

  2. Pingback: Weekly Meanderings
  3. Hi Paul, I read your piece off of the racialicious link and really enjoyed it. The unity in Christ and racial identity conflict is certainly one that I identify with. Don’t have much time to write more, but am looking forward to your articles in the future. Wish I couldn’ve been in the Urbana Asian-American prayer meeting!

  4. About that “Asian = passive” and “they just need bootstraps” shtick, I’ll just leave this here: 😉

  5. Hey, I’m thinking that you’re the Paul that I hung out with last year, right? Really, really appreciated your in-depth wrestling with the overlooked issue of race among AA evangelicals. I think you might have picked up from our times together last year that, at least at EBCLA, or at the very least in my mind/heart, there is the growing conviction and practice that becoming a redemptive, multiethnic community must DEFINITELY involve resolving hidden and obvious self-hatreds and redeeming aspects of Asian cultures and stories as evidence of God’s presence. My good friend Dan Kuramoto, who is the founder and leader of the first successful jazz-fusion band built around Japanese- and Asian-American musicians and inspirations, taught me an important lesson long ago, one that I apply pretty regularly in our evolving multi-Asian and multi-ethnic church. Namely, that before you can get down and jam with others, you’ve first got to make peace with your own instrument and really learn how to play it.
    Currently I’m teaching a class at your old school and we’ve been taking a good amount of time to explore with my AA students how our cultures and histories still today influence how we hear and live out the gospel.
    Hope you’re doing well. And I pray that you keep up the thorough thinking, blogging, and questing around issues like this. You give me hope for the future of the AA church.

    1. Hey PKen, yeah I’m that same Paul in our mentor group. Thanks a lot for the encouragement. I definitely related with all your talks on AsAm spirituality. And I mos def agree that we have to make peace with yourself to jam with others. I really appreciate how you’re extremely affirming/encouraging to young ppl.

  6. Paul, this is a thoughtful and provocative piece. I will share it with Pastor Ken at EBCLA, who is very much an activist and advocate in the area of racial reconciliation in the Christian community and specifically within our church. I don’t fully understand what makes it so hard for Asians to move past our complacency with however majority society decides to cast us. I think this was mentioned in one of the LA Times articles on Jeremy Lin yesterday:,1,7871295.column,0,1690202.story

    Bill Plaschke points out that Asians tend to not defend themselves against stereotyping, whether positive (“model minority”, middle class) or negative (geeky, non-athletic). We tend to be passive (maybe that’s where the stereotype comes from!) – even demonstrated in the Issei and Nisei’s unwillingness – with a few exceptions – to stand up against the blatant injustice of the internment. Shikata ga nai, you know. Rather than fight against the injustices we’re dealt, we’d rather downplay our different-ness and identify with the majority group’s religion – Christianity. That makes us like them, right?

    I do agree with you – that “racial discourse is a legitimate area of study.” Absolutely it is. Which is why it is chilling that the school board in Arizona decided to do away with Latino/Hispanic studies, serving to further disempower an already marginalized ethnic minority. When one minority group is disempowered, I think we minorities all become suspect, and thus potentially the victims of other disempowering acts by the majority.

    Sorry for rambling!

    1. Thanks, Marian! I totally vibe with your feelings of frustration about AsAm passivity and all that…part of why I wrote the post in the first place!

    1. Latoya,
      Yes, please do cross post! I actually wanted to submit this to Racialicious but hesitated after reading your submission guidelines. I thought it wasn’t pop-cultural enough to make it. But I guess I overlooked the Racialigious part of your blog.

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