In Hybrida, Brooklyn Poet Laureate Tina Chang writes, “I’ve come to terms with the fact that I never truly confronted the full spectrum of race in my past, at least not enough. Race was never a vessel but a land that bled into the tide. It surged, carried me, and then I arrived at my body.”
After suffering the worst of the racial trauma and spiritual abuse of my time in white evangelicalism, I increased my own confrontation of race and struggled for flourishing for myself and my brothers and sisters. One of the ways I worked for this was by pushing for more equitable practices and inclusivity of people of color in leadership within the organization. The result was the formation of a “diversity team” along with a Black male colleague and a South Asian female colleague.
There were warning signs from the beginning. After our first meeting, two white senior told me they had issues with how my Black colleague had said some things in the meeting and pressured me to tell him that he needed to change his tone in order to be “trusted” or just not be on the team.
To be clear, tone policing like this is a function of white supremacy. Further, by going through me for communication, they made me the spokesperson for their anti-Blackness. With deep regret in hindsight, I gave in to their pressure in that situation. It hurt both me and my Black teammate. We repaired our relationship and worked extremely well together after that, but I don’t want to pass by how deeply ingrained anti-Blackness is in much of the Asian American community and how crucial it is for us to resist it. Frank H. Wu is right: “If the integration of Asian Americans is not to further the segregation of African Americans, our abundance cannot be used to excuse their absence.”
This was a clear manifestation of the way white supremacy has formed racial hierarchy in the United States. Grace Ji-Sun Kim captures the history of this development well in Invisible: Theology and the Experience of Asian American Women when she says, “From the seventeenth century, American white supremacists (imported from the English, Spanish, French, and Dutch) viewed race as biologically determined rather than socially constructed. Race was based on skin color differences. Asians were labeled yellow in the nineteenth century by the West. The color yellow was a racial marker that had been imbued with new meaning in relation to the white norm. Whites were at the top and Blacks were at the bottom of a fabricated, yet enforced, racial hierarchy.”
There is a long history of how this has perpetuated a deep wedge between the Black and Asian American communities, perhaps most famously in the LA riots of 1992 in the aftermath of the unbelievable acquittal of the 4 white LAPD officers who had brutally beaten Rodney King as well as the shooting of 15-year old Latasha Harlins by a Korean store owner.
There is also a beautiful history of solidarity between Asian and Black Americans, but for our “diversity team,” the way our white leaders acted was a small microcosm of the white supremacist racial hierarchy of US society. Over 2 years, we submitted five formal proposals, an organization-wide survey on attitudes towards diversity, and had countless meetings, yet our senior white leaders had done nothing substantial, only speaking of their good intentions and trying to use me as a spokesperson to appease my Black and Brown teammates.
Then the massacre of Asian women in Atlanta on March 16, 2021 happened. Even though I—and several other Asian American staff members—spoke up about how deeply the tragedy had impacted us, nothing was done or said by any senior white leader. I had finally had enough. As Tina Chang writes, “I’ve untied myself, uncuffed the arms and neck. I didn’t know I was hurt like that. I didn’t know there was a force pulling me downward toward bedrock, lulling me to sleep.” Soon afterwards, I began my exit.
Antony Alumkal, Associate Professor of Sociology of Religion at the Iliff School of Theology, describes and laments the complacency of Asian American evangelicals when he says in a challenging essay that “many second-generation Asian American Christians do not appear to be interested in developing their own contributions to Christian theology.” Instead, the fruit of our assimilation is that we prefer to utilize theologies articulated by white American evangelicals. Even now, many Asian American Christians continue trying to earn social acceptance through assimilation to whiteness by living under the white gaze, making white pastors and theologians their primary teachers, and attending majority-white evangelical churches that do not adequately address the systems and structures that perpetuate racial injustice.
Alumkal continues: “Creating a distinctly Asian American evangelical theology would require Asian Americans to step out of the comfortable certainty that the contemporary evangelical subculture promotes.” In other words, there needs to be an unassimilation that happens. There needs to be a death — to the “model minority” — so that we would resurrect with a burning Yellow fire that means joining in the struggle towards collective liberation from the bonds of white supremacy.
I want to acknowledge that there is certainly controversy in thinking about reclaiming “yellow” as something that describes Asian Americans. In a thought-provoking article, Kat Chow says, “‘Yellow’ has long been considered noxious. To some, it’s on par with Chink, gook, nip or Chinaman. And yet. And yet. I sort of love yellow. The idea of calling myself yellow stirs in the pit of my stomach, the same place where bellyaches and excitement form. It feels at once radical and specific. Though it’s a slur — in fact, because it’s a slur –– I believe “it’s the type of word that could force people to face its long, storied history of racism and resistance directly, every time they hear it.”
Kat Chow calls back to the 1960s when “Asian American” was coined as a term of political advocacy, which is also a period often referred to as the “Yellow Power Movement” while also acknowledging how “Yellow” is a term that does not solve how Asian Americans are flattened in some way.
However, she still says, “In the pinnacle of the civil rights era, activists used yellow as a term of empowerment — a term they chose for themselves. In some ways, I’m still seeing that today…I don’t know if I’ll walk around in the world calling myself yellow — maybe to people who have similar experiences to mine; certainly not around people who’ve flung slurs at me.
Even so, having different words to choose from is itself a comfort. Having yellow in my arsenal makes me feel like my identity doesn’t hinge on just one thing — one phrase, one history or one experience.”
So whether it is expanding our vocabulary of empowerment to include “yellow” or intentionally identifying as “Asian American” with its original purpose of political advocacy and solidarity, increasingly more Asian Americans ought to consider these words from Mari Matsuda: “If white, historically, is the top of the racial hierarchy in America, and black, historically, is the bottom, will yellow assume the place of the racial middle? The role of the racial middle is a critical one. It can reinforce white supremacy if the middle deludes itself into thinking it can be just like white if it tries hard enough. Conversely, the middle can dismantle white supremacy if it refuses to be the middle, if it refuses to buy into racial hierarchy, if it refuses to abandon communities of Black and Brown people, choosing instead to form alliances with them.”
In taking up Matsuda’s call to resist being the middle of the racial hierarchy, our collective ambition must be to put to death the dream of assimilation and the idol of being the “model minority”. However, the beauty of resurrection is seeing that the God of abundance wants us to join in the beautiful symphony of the collective cry for the flourishing of all peoples and ethnicities. It means divesting from “whiteness” and daring to make our own contributions to Christianity in a prophetic manner.
For Asian American Christians, the irony of no longer centering white evangelicalism is that we find an even larger, global community that has already done the same, including Asian peoples in our countries of origin. Muriel Orevillo-Montenegro unpacks this in The Jesus of Asian Women, declaring that “Christology should not endorse the oppressive structures in culture, religion, and society by being silent and by hiding behind metaphysical concepts while the broad masses of Asian peoples, mostly adherents of Asian religions, suffer poverty, exploitation, and marginalization under the imperial powers of this world.”
Tina Chang was right in saying, “Race was never a vessel but a land that bled into the tide. It surged, carried me, and then I arrived at my body.” Our resurrection is, in some ways, a return to the courageous and imaginative spirit of our immigrant ancestors.
May more of our brothers and sisters be empowered to live into this spirit, captured well by Đỗ Nguyên Mai in her poem entitled “Chinatown”:
We are the stars,
to become signs illuminating
our way across every street. Our feet
pound red pins into cement cracks,
lay down pillars to a home –
we are the map