Tuesday, February 19, 2008

In honor of Black History Month

Ten years ago this month, I attended my first InterVarsity Asian American staff conference. I found it very helpful; I was glad to have a context for fellowship with other Asian American staff and discuss ethnic identity formational issues and such. The next year, I attended InterVarsity's triennial multiethnic staff conference, which had smaller gatherings within the larger conference for our ethnic-specific communities - black, white, Asian and Latino. I went into the conference looking forward mostly to the Asian-specific times and the opportunity to catch up with my fellow Asian staff.

Several things surprised me during the conference. One was that during the Asian track times, many of us were convicted of our own need for reconciliation with other Asian communities. Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Taiwanese and others have long and complicated interrelated histories of oppression and pain. Many of us grew up in households that resented other particular Asian groups because of various wars or aggressions, or we looked down on other communities because they were not perceived to be "as good as us," whether educationally or socioeconomically or spiritually or whatever. So we needed to do some of our own pan-Asian community work and admit our own need for forgiveness and reconciliation.

Furthermore, when discussing whether Asians could play a mediating role between blacks and whites in racial reconciliation, one of our leaders pointed out that we were not quite in a neutral position. Many of our Asian parents were themselves prejudiced against blacks, and those toxic attitudes continue to affect how we relate with our African American friends and colleagues. Many Asian Americans, while still experiencing minority status, have not experienced the same degree of systemic injustices and racialization that blacks have endured. And Asians, while not immune to prejudice and discrimination, still tend to be in a somewhat privileged position in many ways.

This reinforced to us the significance of knowing and owning our own particular histories, as well as learning all we can about other people's stories. All of our communities have been shaped by particular historical events, whether the legacy of slavery, or the WWII internment of Japanese Americans, or the Trail of Tears and the loss of native lands, or discrimination against Americans of Irish or Polish or German or Jewish descent. We can't minimize any of these or relativize them - all of them continue to have repercussions in how society functions and how we relate to each other, sometimes as oppressors, sometimes as oppressed, always as broken people in need of healing and shalom.

So what ended up being most significant about this conference was not the ethnic-specific times, but the interaction between members of all the various communities, and learning from one another's perspectives. It was a powerful time of sharing joys and challenges together, and committing to one another in partnership and fellow travelers.

At the end of the conference, during an open mike time, I shared that what God had been impressing most upon me that week was my own indebtedness to the African Americans who have gone before, who for decades have suffered and fought for equality and civil rights. Even though things are not yet what they ought to be, I am grateful that our country has come a long way, and it is a far better place thanks to the perseverance of blacks. If Asian Americans have a place at the table, it is only because African Americans have paved the way for us.

So while I have said these things in various settings, let me blog this publicly to my African American brothers and sisters - thank you, thank you, thank you. It is an honor to follow in your footsteps and to walk alongside you in this pilgrimage toward justice and peace.


Aaron said...

Oh man! I have always wondered why there was such a disconnect between the Asian and African American communities. As an Asian American can you share why this so?
Asian and whites seem to have a fair respect for one another. There are more and more Asian/White marriages going on (usually a white man marrying an Asian woman) and yet black and Asian marriages are few and far between.
I have to confess that I have often been mad at the Asian community. As a minority I have always felt like we as minorities should stick together but felt in some ways that the Asian community was "selling out." Obviously this is a very ignorant and uninformed view. Help me out here.
I am planting a church in the bay area and we have a wonderfully large Asian population (many different cultures). I want to be able to speak to the issues at hand as well as bridge the gap between our communities. HELP!

Great post and I look forward to hearing your reply.


Al Hsu said...

Aaron - Wow, where to start? Maybe the first observation I can make is that the cultural "distance" is relatively smaller between Asians and whites than it is between Asians and blacks. I remember once getting into an argument with one of my uncles, who was dismissing African American churches as "just emotionalism" or something like that. I tried to explain that African American culture tends to be more expressive and emotive than Asian culture, but he saw it as a spiritual deficiency. It occurs to me now that historically Asian culture has valued things like reticence, deference, reserve, etc. So African American styles of conversation and worship can feel threatening or off-putting.

Also, there are historical reasons for Asian Americans wanting to assimilate into white culture as a survival mechanism, especially after the Japanese American internment camps of WWII. Japanese Americans (and some other Asian Americans) tended to feel that the only way they could make it in American society was to be as "white" as possible, for fear that being too distinctively "other" would land them in the camps (or worse - the Holocaust had just happened over in Europe, and because of the internment experience, such a thing was not unthinkable here).

I'll also take a guess that because Asian society tends to be hierarchically ordered, our Asian parents naturally ordered American society by what they perceived to be most successful to the least. That usually meant whites automatically ranked at the top. Paul Tokunaga writes that in his family and his own perception, whites were 10, and the best that Japanese Americans could ever get was maybe a 7. After whites, we'd then rank our own group next, followed by other Asian communities (if we're Korean, we'll say that Koreans are best of the Asians, and then Japanese or Chinese; if we're Chinese, then Chinese are best, and then Korean or Japanese - this is sheer ethnocentricism, of course!). East Asians (Chinese, Japanese, Korean) typically ranked over Southeast Asians (Cambodian, Laotian, Thai, Filipino, etc.), and while respect was given to South Asians (Indian, Pakistani) for their educational achievements (lots of doctors), their skin was much too brown to feel much kinship. Only after all that were Latinos and blacks. (Arab/Middle Eastern people weren't quite on the radar screen back then.) I'm of course not excusing any of this - I'm just saying that this is how it often played out. Folks from more (supposedly) egalitarian cultures might not be so obvious in their prejudices, but in a hierarchical (Confucian) culture, ordering society in this way is important for the social order. It's assumed that this is just the way it is and that society works best when everybody "knows their place" (and this also applies to elders over youngers, men over women, parents over children, etc.). Christian Asian Americans have a lot to work out in navigating all of this, trying to reject the bad parts and hold onto and redeem what's worth keeping.

Oh, another Asian trait tends to be collective identity, often described as Asian "clumping" in our campus groups and churches. While there's certainly a lot of this in other non-Western cultures as well, it often means that Asians identify only with other Asians (and not even that - often just Koreans, or just Chinese, etc.) and do not identify with the larger minority community. It's only in intentionally multiethnic contexts (like my InterVarsity experience) where Asian Americans are encouraged to see the value of interdependence and solidarity with others who are not of our own particular group.

And as far as the number of Asian/white marriages (of which I am one) compared to Asian/black, that's another huge topic! You're right about the numbers - I only personally know one black/Asian couple, while I know plenty (maybe dozens) of Asian/white couples. Some of this is simple demographics - there are a lot more whites out there (than either Asians or blacks) and so a lot of us naturally end up meeting, dating and marrying whites. But another part of this dynamic (not the only one, of course) is that Asian women have been idealized in white men's cultural imagination as exotic/sexy/submissive, etc. And I don't know if the black community perceives Asians in quite the same way. I'm not sure I want to get into all this, but there are similar dynamics with black women getting upset at black men dating/marrying white women as there are with Asian men getting upset at white men dating/marrying Asian women. I've heard of Asian churches where some of the Asian guys are almost like bouncers on the lookout for single white guys who come to their church looking to meet Asian women; the Asian guys act as "greeters" to keep the white guy visitors occupied so they can't be predatory stalkers on the Asian women!

One more thought on reaching out to your Asian neighbors - you will definitely need Asian American staff or church members to partner with you on this. For many Asian Americans, so much is wrapped up in deference to elders. So if you have an Asian "elder" on staff or in leadership, it is much more likely that Asians will feel comfortable visiting or joining your community. (Especially if folks in your church tend to be gregarious, expressive African Americans! :-)

Anyway, there's a lot more that could be said, but hope all that helps. If you want to know more about Asian American cultural identity, check out the following books: Losing Face and Finding Grace by Tom Lin, Following Jesus Without Dishonoring Your Parents edited by Jeanette Yep, Invitation to Lead by Paul Tokunaga, and More Than Serving Tea edited by Nikki Toyama and Tracey Gee. Some good books on multiracial churches are United by Faith (Michael Emerson, etc.) and One Body, One Spirit (George Yancey). Thanks for asking and your willingness to hear!

Aaron said...

Wow Al Hsu! Man you just put me on a wonderful journey. Let me first say thanks for taking the time to process and write. That was alot of info for a blog and I am truly grateful for that. I am going to get those books you mentioned. This really did shed some light on the situation.

I am the leap pastor of the church plant right now so it may be a while before an Asian "elder" is on staff. If you know of any who want to work in a multicultural setting please let me get there contact info. Anyway do you have any pointers for now while I wait for that Asian elder? I rub shoulders all the time with folks here who are Asian. The coffee shop I go to is run by Phillipinos (they have the best donuts!), my neighbors to the left of me are Asian. If I could be a learner in some way now that would be great. Any tips would be wonderful.

Thanks again man for your willingness to walk me through some of this stuff. I am copying your response onto a word doc so that I can have it handy!


Al Hsu said...

Glad to be of help, Aaron. As far as pointers for now, I think you have a great opportunity as a church plant to set the tone for things on the ground floor. If at all possible, starting off with a multiethnic team and community will be helpful not only for reaching Asians but folks from all backgrounds. And an "elder" doesn't necessarily need to be chronologically way old - anyone can be an "elder" if it's someone who engenders respect and is perceived as providing wisdom and guidance. If most of the demographics of your community are twentysomethings, a thirtysomething or fortysomething could be an elder.

I'd mostly encourage you to have a posture of learning and listening and getting to know Asian neighbors on their terms. It could take time to build trust, but I suspect that if you ask people to help you understand their culture, they'd be willing to share with you. You could talk in terms of "We're starting a new church plant, and we want to make sure we don't unnecessarily offend the community or potential visitors. We want to welcome people from all backgrounds. From your perspective, what should we know? Is there anything we can do to best communicate honor and respect to our visitors?" Just a thought. Hope that helps!

Pilgrim said...

This is an interesting post--especially since I'm just starting Gilbreath's Reconciliation Blues.

I wonder what effect Obama's candidacy will have on these issues--maybe leverage the country forward a bit? (whatever forward may mean)

I read where he said America will look at itself differently the morning after he's elected. And the world will look at America differently. I think that's true. (If he's elected.)

Al Hsu said...

Julana - I love Ed's book and commend it highly. It's a great blend of reporting and personal narrative.

And lots of folks have commented about how Obama is perhaps iconic of what racial issues look like in the post-civil-rights era. He certainly has the potential to be a transformative, unifying figure (rather than the divisive, polarizing kinds of approaches that other folks have been in the past).

Pilgrim said...

With Obama's candidacy, I kep remembering Marshall McLuhan's, "The medium is the message."
I agree with some, not all, of his policies; his heritage plays a role in my support for his nomination. (My nieces and nephews range from African, Mexican, Peruvian, Austrian, and Dutch, to Jewish and German descent). I have signed up to knock on doors tomorrow for his campaign here in Ohio.

I started Charles Marsh's _God's Long Summer_ this morning. How convicting his narrative is.

(I've been reading from the Calvin Faith and Writing Festival list, which includes Edward Jones, as well as Gilbreath and Marsh.)