Proximity to Whiteness is a Lie

The Role of Asian American Churches in Affirmative Action

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By Jonathon Sun
Mar 05, 2019 | min read
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Asian Americans have been brought to the forefront of the news because of Harvard’s Affirmative Action case and the Asian American community has been divided about how to approach the issue. Some groups argue that Asian Americans have been systematically discriminated against because of racial quotas. Other groups argue that Asian Americans benefit greatly from affirmative action. Entangled in the debate around affirmative action is the Model Minority Myth, data disaggregation, and our churches. The Asian American church is not only a place for spiritual growth; community centers are having conversations around affirmative action, and we must consider the role of the Asian American church on this matter as well.

Rather than focusing on the stereotyping of Asian American applicants, this case has become focused on deconstructing affirmative action. To understand how this happened, we need to highlight a key actor in this case. The main driver of the case is Students for Fair Admissions, a group started by a white man named Edward Blum. Edward Blum is not new to affirmative action; two years ago, in the case Fischer v. University of Texas at Austin, he defended Abigail Fischer’s case against the University of Texas, saying she was discriminated against because she was white. The courts ultimately disagreed with this interpretation and ruled in favor of the University of Texas, saying that its affirmative action policies were sound.

Edward Blum continues to be a key player in the Harvard case. He is pursuing his aim to remove race as a basis of admission into the university system, and he is using Asian Americans as a wedge to do so. When Abigail Fisher failed to win her case against the University of Texas, Blum turned to middle/upper-class East Asian Americans to deconstruct Affirmative Action. Thus, Edward Blum’s key strategy is to pit middle/upper-class East Asian Americans against other people of color, using false information and fear to do so.

Issues in Asian America

To better understand some of the issues presented, I want to clarify three important issues pertinent to Asian America: what I mean by Asian American, the Model Minority Myth, and data disaggregation. The term “Asian American” originated in 1968 during a period of social movements led by students from the Third World Liberation Front. However, the term’s application to church congregations is unclear. A quick Google search shows how disparate Asian American churches are, ranging from Chinese, Chinese American, Korean, Korean American, and broadly second generation Asian American churches. Despite the differences in ethnic backgrounds, there are collective racial experiences that compel Asian American church-goers to congregate ethnically.

The Model Minority Myth is the myth that all Asian Americans are able to work hard and excel in society — an example to other minorities that (with hard work) it is possible to achieve the American dream. The Model Minority Myth is damaging to individuals by setting the expectation of upward social mobility. While this may seem to be a “good stereotype”, it can lead to mental health challenges for students who buy into it. Moreover, this myth erases the bedrock of white supremacy that our nation is founded on, and it pits communities of color against each other who have common stakes.

The other issue with the MMM is that it situates Asian Americans broadly without distinguishing ethnic background, an issue known as data disaggregation. Data disaggregation asks that data about Asian Americans be broken down by ethnic background, revealing stratification among Asian Americans. For example, when educational attainment is broken down by ethnic group, the data reveals that 75 percent of Taiwanese people have bachelor degrees, in contrast to 11 percent of Bhutanese people.

When the Model Minority Myth is considered with disaggregated data, it points to how some subgroups of Asian Americans, such as wealthier new Chinese immigrants, may subscribe to the myth due to their wealth privileges, even though the notion of the model minority is groundless to begin with. The lack of data disaggregation places Asian Americans in dangerous proximity to the constructs of whiteness and privilege, even though it is not true. More recently, issues of affirmative action have divided Asian American communities’ newer first-generation Chinese immigrants who believe that access to quality education is being limited; however, in examining the broader disaggregated data, affirmative action has benefitted other Asian Americans.

Given the context of the Model Minority Myth and the lack of data disaggregation, Asian American Christians must carefully consider our role, not just as individuals, but collectively as churches. Rather than question, “Where is the Asian American Church during tumultuous times?”, we must understand the impact of the Model Minority Myth and reflect on what our churches can and cannot do. Do our churches continue to bring people together who identify as Asian American, does our community look beyond unity and engage in liberation practices that our faith lends itself to, and how do we break down the lie of proximity to whiteness?

Church Proximity to Acts of Resistance and Unity

Before exploring the specific role of the Asian American church, it is important to remember how churches more broadly have brought minoritized people hope and community throughout the history of Christianity. For example, early followers of the Jesus Way met in secret to avoid persecution from governmental and dominant cultural norms of the time. Christianity as a spiritual identity was one that was persecuted in its cultural context, and it also brought people together. While recognizing the continuing historical injustices of spreading Christianity through colonialist means, Christianity has also brought together oppressed people and given hope of liberation and freedom. Today, this manifests itself in liberation theologies and its many iterations, such as Asian liberation theology and Asian feminist liberation theology.

Liberation theology asserts the necessity of engaging in radical practices as a response to the gospel. It explains why oppressed classes in Latin America fought to build more equitable societies, and why Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was able to engage in the radical practices of resistance during the civil rights movement. It explains why during the Ferguson Protests, the Greater St. Mark Family Church in Saint Louis became a critical space for organizing. The church should be a space that has the power to bring together marginalized people and create countercultural movements for change.

The church lends itself to making space for countercultural change, and the church also continues to be a place for community based on affinity. For instance, Korean immigrant churches in the United States have served as places of social support, discussion of politics, and organization support for the Korean independence movement in the early 1900s. Similarly, the Chinese Presbyterian Church in San Francisco served as an institution that published the first English/Chinese bilingual newspaper and worked to repeal an anti-Chinese mining tax.


When middle and upper class Asian American churches do not engage in liberation theology and practice, those churches sit in complacency and complicity to power, privilege, and ultimately whiteness. Such positionality requires dismantling, and our faith as Christians challenges us to be countercultural through liberationist practices. Although not every church will be a church that engages in liberation theology, churches need to be having conversations. We must recognize our own history of discrimination and exclusion, and for some of us, the power and privilege that we currently carry, as impetus to take action. How are Asian American churches calling its congregants to be radical in thought and action? How are Asian American churches taking stances on social issues? How are Asian American churches challenging the power and privilege that we have associated with our identities? How are Asian American churches considering their proximity to whiteness and power?

Although these are challenging questions to address, I would start with something much simpler: education. How can churches be radical in action, if radical thought has never been introduced? Church leaders need to organize educational opportunities around the Model Minority Myth and data disaggregation. We should prioritize awareness of issues of injustice in the community, and also be rooted in our community context. Radical does not always necessarily mean flipping over tables, but can begin with educational opportunities, because radical actions originate from radical thoughts.

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Jonathon Sun

Jonathon Sun is a student affairs practitioner in central New Jersey who’s work primarily focuses on diversity and inclusion. His research interests include race, religion/spirituality, student development, assessment and post-colonial theory. On his free time, Jonathon enjoys learning how to make data more accessible with R, music production, crocheting and running.

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