The Struggles of Discussing Race in the Asian American Evangelical Church

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By Paul Matsushima
May 05, 2018 | min read
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In 2011, I found myself having to defend the argument that race still matters while attending one of the most ethnically diverse evangelical seminaries in the nation. Don’t get me wrong: Students and faculty alike openly discussed ethnic and cultural differences. And although all were unanimous that racism was bad and diversity was good, when it came to more explicit discussions of institutionalized racism or white supremacy, there tended to be choirs of crickets.

I must admit that at the time, my understanding of race was perhaps more militant than that of my seminary colleagues. Trained at San Francisco State University, the birthplace of Ethnic Studies, I understood race as playing a fundamental role in the structure and representation of all people in our country. Race, in my view, was embedded in nearly every aspect of inequity in American life, and had to be considered in any pursuit of social justice or Christian mission. 

I was constantly exploring how my school engaged Christianity with progressive identity politics (e.g. race, class, gender, sexuality). While some faculty engaged in these discussions, I often felt disconnected with my Asian American classmates. I felt as if they didn’t agree or understand, or had other missional priorities. These are all understandable responses, yet the cumulative effect told me that my classmates thought that race, while still a problem, was not significant enough to dedicate as much attention to as other evangelical priorities like discipleship, evangelism, or theology.

In partial reaction, I left. After stepping back from the evangelical world, I gained some clarity for why I felt so isolated. Personal reasons aside, my qualm with (white) evangelicalism was its hesitancy to address — 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.

A Quick Caveat

I must first acknowledge that the following reflection was written in 2012, about a year after I left seminary. I, as well as the times, are much different from when I first wrote these reflections. Also, I write from a Japanese (East) Asian American perspective, and thus my use of “Asian American” is not meant to encompass all of the multiple and diverse Asian communities under the umbrella term.

My journey since leaving seminary has taught me that my previous views about social justice were woefully idealistic and devoid of life experience. I’ve discovered through the last half-decade working in the Asian American nonprofit realm that social change and progressivism won’t solve everything. Self-healing work revealed that my activism was largely fueled by an unhealthy need for validation and self-worth. Relationships with family and friends have reminded me that faith is about love for God and others, and that God can work through anyone, despite their beliefs. And after recently finishing my seminary degree, I have grown to appreciate this seminary’s racial justice efforts. 

On the societal side, today’s racial context is much different than 2012’s. Today is a time of Trump and the Alt Right, of the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, and of progressive Asian American Christianity. Anti-racism concepts like “white privilege” and “white supremacy”, while still highly contentious, are gaining increased acceptance with the millennial generation. And in the mainstream media, Asian Americans are becoming more a part of the American fabric beyond their stereotypical labels.

With all of that said, let’s explore my speculations on why it’s difficult to discuss race in the Asian American evangelical church.

1. Identity in Christ, aka the Deprioritizing of “Earthly” Identities

Discussing race in the Asian American church is difficult because of the evangelical belief that one’s Christian identity is of utmost importance. Evangelicals believe that while humans possess earthly identities like gender or ethnicity, authentic identity is found in Christ. While this is an important belief, the surreptitious side effect is the deprioritizing or delegitimizing of other forms of identity. 

Asian American evangelicals are particularly susceptible to this danger. Their racial identities are suppressed by both the prioritization of Christian identity and the pressure to assimilate into American society. In his article “The Young Adult Black Hole”, Tim Tseng argues that young Asian American evangelicals get inundated with the message that one’s Christian identity is most important, plus assimilation into American culture is good, and being too ethnic (i.e. too Asian) is bad. This results in many believing “the goal [of Christian identity formation] is to shed, not affirm, their earthly identities.”

The Struggles of Discussing Race in the Asian American Evangelical Church

This racial identity suppression is not necessarily a wholesale white washing, as if Asian Americans were to pretend they’re not Asian. Rather, Russell Jeung discovered in his book “Faithful Generations: Race and New Asian American Churches” that evangelicals only addressed racial identity (e.g. they’ll discuss the “Asian” emphases of hard work or overcoming shame) if it served as a means for some spiritual function. If devoid of these practical applications, those in Jeung’s study did not think racial identity was significant enough to warrant explicit addressals in public forums. In other words, racial identity was addressed only if it had a utilitarian purpose, rather than as a positive attribute to
intentionally explore.

In my own experience, I’ve found the exploration of my racial identity to be vital to my spirituality and self-esteem. As an adolescent, I took for granted my “Asianness”, as if its only purpose was to help me relate with others. It’s taken me the majority of my life to challenge the self-hatred and racism I’ve internalized, and instead see my racialized self as made in the image of God — that my race is not something to be ashamed of but to embrace. 

Just imagine how much healthier and impactful an Asian American church could be if it was full of individuals working toward healing and self-awareness with positive self-images. 

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.

One of the hallmarks of this individualistic thinking is what racial scholars call “the bootstraps model”.  This is the belief that hard work and sacrifice are central to success. Bootstraps thinking gets espoused by those who believe America is a land of equal opportunity, where anyone, regardless of race, class, or gender, can attain the American Dream by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.

While hard work is extremely important to progress, this thinking, when applied to America’s racial dynamics, suggests that inequality exists because certain groups work harder than others. It focuses solely on personal responsibility and blinds people from the notion that race could impact people’s lives through systemic and structural means. 

In “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America”, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith argue that evangelical theology is inundated with bootstraps thinking, and can be directly correlated with white evangelicals’ lack of racial concerns. They find that white evangelicals, more than any other group in the U.S. (including non-evangelical whites), more strongly believe that personal responsibility was the root cause for why whites succeed while African Americans don’t. The stronger whites subscribed to evangelicalism, the more they viewed the world individualistically and couldn’t accept that America has a race problem.

I’ve found many in my Asian American evangelical network to follow this trend in thinking. Maybe it’s because of their middle-class statuses, isolation from non-Asians, or belief in the model minority stereotype. Whatever the case, this worldview has limited our churches from challenging or sometimes even discussing racism. 

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 self-sufficient, non-complaining “model minorities” who vindicate the American Dream.

While this stereotype is problematic on many fronts, what troubles me most is how Asian Americans buy into it. One of the most apt examples was the 2012 “Shit Asian Girls Say” viral video (a snowclone of the “Shit Girls Say” meme), which depicted Asian American women as spoiled brats who benefit off of model minority parents or boyfriends. 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 “Exploring the Problematic and Subversive Shit People Say [Meme-ology]”. Things like this 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 mentality is a critical mindset oriented against other racial minorities. In my experiences in Asian American evangelical circles, I occasionally hear racialized criticisms toward certain “people”, such as welfare recipients, undocumented immigrants, and single mothers. The speaker often comments toward these faceless (yet highly racialized) people as if the speaker’s own hard work and middle-class values makes them morally superior. 

It pains me to know that this community that was once included in those dehumanized categories now perceives itself as better than, just because they think they’ve “made it”. Not even 60 years ago, Asians’ existence in America was legally marked by hostility and exclusion. They were considered second-class, even 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.

• • •

I acknowledge that the topic of race, just like politics, can be explosive. Church unity should be valued, so perhaps it’s sometimes better to avoid contentious subjects. But as I reflect back on my experiences of how the Asian American church has addressed race, I think about all the loss that has occurred because of its silence. This area has been one of the community’s greatest sources of pain, but it also has great potential for change. My hope is that Asian American evangelicals will discover the brokenness and tragedy in the legacy of American racism so that they’ll be challenged to heal their wounds, confront their errors in thinking, and be moved toward racial justice.

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Paul Matsushima

Paul Matsushima has a background in Asian American Studies from San Francisco State and theology from Fuller Seminary. In his work, he helps Japanese American young people connect with their ethnic community, culture, and history. He and his partner have a child named Marty.

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