How Asian Americans Can Gain a Voice in the Conversation
PASTOR Ray Chang | SEPTEMBER 13, 2018 | 10 MIN READ
In 2017, the rapper Lecrae, who had been openly embraced in white evangelical circles, said he was leaving white evangelism. His announcement caused ripples of confusion and debate in the evangelical sphere. Pastors and theologians began to address the topic of majority white evangelism and whether or not people of color felt welcome. Pastor Ray Chang was a part of this conversation and wrote an essay in which which he addresses how Asian Americans are often left out in conversations about evangelism in America and how they can be included. A version of this story was originally posted on his blog: https://raymondchang.wordpress.com.
If you’ve followed the conversation on Lecrae’s reverse exodus from white evangelicalism, you will know the following has taken place:
Lecrae released his new album, “All Things Work Together”
Lecrae mentioned his divorce from white evangelicalism on a Truth’s Table interview.
John Piper wrote an article on Desiring God and Christianity today responding to Lecrae’s departure from white evangelicalism expressing his gratitude for Lecrae’s faith, asking questions about the role of racial identity development in the church, and asking what Lecrae’s loosening from white evangelicalism means for multi-ethnic relations.
I responded to the question about what Lecrae’s loosening from White Evangelicalism means to multi-ethnic relations in an open letter to John Piper.
Bryan Loritts’ responded affirming what was written in my open letter, while also expressing his exhaustion being in white evangelical spaces. He then called for people of color to create their own spaces and invite our white siblings in Christ in.
I provided an affirming reflection on Bryan Loritts’ response suggesting his solution was a necessary, but ultimately insufficient way forward. I called for a unified diversity over a segmented unity. I also said I would write a follow-up to Bryan’s response from the standpoint of an Asian American.
This is that follow-up.
Jeff Liou wrote a pointed response to Loritts from an Asian-American perspective titled, #THANKYOUBRYANLORITTS, but no thanks: Why talking over Asians still happens.
Asians are viewed in society (including the church) in a way that ultimately suppresses the Asian/Asian-American perspective from being centered and from allowing Asian/Asian-Americans from contribute all that God has deposited into us. This is the result of being reduced to the stereotypes people have about us. This is problematic because it prevents the Asian American voice from being valued and taken seriously.
Asian are often talked over, stepped over, and overlooked within the spaces we occupy. I don’t think this is ever intentional on the part of others, but this does happen quite a lot.
In light of the fact that Asians are perceived a particular way, which leads to the way we are treated, here are a few reasons why others feel like it is appropriate to speak and step over Asians in the United States.
Asians tend to be overly deferential. The high-power distance many Asian countries/cultures possess tends to transfer into our position as minorities and as subordinates.
Asians tend to listen before speaking. This disadvantages Asian Americans when we are in an environment where the first to speak has the advantage and can shape the direction of the conversation.
Asians tend to stay silent unless given space. It is fairly common for Asians to say nothing instead of speaking up. We will often leave the conversation with an important insight, analysis, idea, or suggestion without uttering it from our mouths.
Asians tend not to engage in direct conflict. This is why Asians tend to prefer indirect communication, which creates challenges in working with the direct nature of communication the West takes.
Asians struggle with self-promotion. The inner Asian voice calls for attention to be deflected away from us. This keeps us silent about the ways we can contribute.
Asians tend to wait until they are invited in. We hold it in until we are overtly and explicitly handed the invitation to participate and/or lead.
Asians are reluctant leaders. This is from Paul Tokunaga at Intervarsity. For some reason, there is a strong reluctance to volunteer to take leadership roles as Asian Americans.
Asians elevate the collective above the individual. The body is more important than the part.
Asians value harmony. As such we avoid conflict where possible.
Asians don’t have a robust understanding of how racial dynamics play out on a systemic and structural level.
This puts Asian Americans at an advantaged disadvantage
These contribute to the Asian American status as a model minority, which both helps us and hurts us. According to the model minority myth, Asians are perceived to work hard, perform at a high level, and follow the rules. We are perceived as people who don’t rock the boat or cause trouble (this is why people don’t know what to do about prophetic and bold Asians – they break the mold). We are expected to tow-the-line, follow the leader, and to know our place. We are suspected and expected to be docile, quiet, and submissive. This creates the false perception that Asians are good rank and file workers, but not good leaders.
There is a danger of clustering all Asians together. For example, multiple studies show there is a strong disparity between East and Southeast Asians in terms of educational attainment and the income gap, and mental health issues. Further, experiences vary drastically based on gender. Asian men are often perceived as emasculated and women are often objectified as sexual objects.
For those who are achieving and acquiescent, the model minority myth is helpful. For those who aren’t, its harmful. When we are high achieving and acquiescent, doors open up for us. If we aren’t, challenges and barriers arise in the form of further marginalization or lack of opportunity.
The advantages only go so far
The bamboo ceiling keeps Asians from assuming meaningful culture shaping leadership roles (which is essential for the church as we move forward).
According to one Harvard Business Review article, “Asians are [perceived as] particularly high on competence (they were seen as successful and intelligent) and low on social skill (nerdy, antisocial).” The article continues, “More problematic is the inconsistency between Asian stereotypes and the traits people tend to value in leaders. While business leaders are often expected to be competent, intelligent, and dedicated, they are also expected to be charismatic and socially skilled — along with masculine and dictatorial or authoritarian. This puts at a disadvantage Asian Americans, who, like women, are often seen to fit low to midlevel management positions but not top-level leadership. (It’s even harder for Asian women — they comprise only 3.1% of executives in the five tech companies mentioned above, while Asian men comprise 13.5%.)”
These stereotypes don’t just exist in the marketplace, but are highly evident within evangelicalism. As an Asian-American Christian, gaining a voice in culture shaping positions is not easy. Far too often, Asians are overlooked when it comes to leadership roles.
Take a look around evangelicalism and you will find very few (if any) Asian-American speakers, leaders of denominations, authors, radio hosts, college presidents, senior pastors (of churches that are interested in becoming multi-ethnic/cultural), and almost never, a keynote. Go through the list, and few Asians have been invited onto the national stage – maybe except Francis Chan, but you almost never get a sense of how his Asian-American background shapes his faith.
The way of 1 Corinthians 12:12-27
In a radio interview, I argued that the 1 Corinthians 12 gives us a framework for how we ought embrace diversity within the church. We know that the vision of God’s Kingdom is one where a great multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language will gather together before the throne of grace. Until then, we are to live as one as Christ prayed before his brutal execution in John 17. 1 Corinthians 12 gives us a necessary key to do so.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul writes about the value, importance, and significance of every member of the body. He writes, “The body does not consist of one member but of many.” Then he says:
15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
The problem with evangelicalism is that certain parts are neglected, minimized, or dismissed altogether – and they usually fall along the lines identified by sociology of gender, class, and race. Typically, if one member suffers, it either sends a short term missions team to it or says its not a Gospel issue and thus discards it. It addresses things on an individual level, but refuses to acknowledge the systemic reality. As a result, we are where we are as the “11 o clock hour is the most segregated hour in America.” Evangelicalism has moved toward division through segregation instead of unity in diversity through equity.
Here, Paul argues that all parts of the body are critical. By doing so, he conveys both equality and equity. He communicates that each part is equal to the others. Then he calls for equity. Where equality refers to inherent value, equity refers to elevating every part to the same level. For example, equality is being fair by giving everyone the same amount, while equity takes into consideration socio-historical factors and gives to each person what they need. Paul says, the parts that seem weaker are indispensable and given more honor. This is radically counter-cultural because it essentially says every part matters equally and we need to be equitable by giving “greater honor to the part that lacked it.”
What this means for Asians
The Asian American perspective is important to body building and body life. On this side of eternity, we don’t know what “body part” we play, but we certainly play an indispensable one if we take the Bible seriously. This is why the Asian America voice is needed in the greater evangelical discussion taking place in America. As far as we know, we could be the eye, but due to a multitude of factors, the body could be wearing a patch that prevents it from seeing what it needs to see.
As Asians, we need to learn how to speak up, rise up, and assume positions of leadership. We need to be bold in our witness and confident with the ways God has uniquely shaped our stories. We need to not be ashamed that God created us to be who we are and see that we have something important to contribute to the body of Christ.
We need to support each other and help our voices rise to the ears of those outside our tribe. Far too often, we have bought into the same stereotypes imposed upon us and keep each other down. We need to make sure our societally shaped biases aren’t used against our own or other marginalized groups. A part of the reason Asian Americans are not represented in the broader evangelical conversations is because we have come to believe and behave in ways that suggest we are inferior to others (except in some industries). By and large, we have bought a bill of goods that says we don’t have much to contribute to the greater conversation around Christianity and culture.
The unique position Asian Americans hold
I actually believe that Asian-Americans, among the four major racial groups, are best positioned to bring everyone together. More than anyone else, Asians are positively received in white spaces, while also understanding some of the experiences that our black and Latino brothers and sisters face. There is less suspicion around Asian Americans because we are viewed to be safe and non-threatening, but also because we generally take a more “humble” stance. Further, Asian Americans are able to travel across communities as they have had the most time in each of the spaces. For example, it is a common story for Korean immigrants to have lived in predominantly black or latino neighborhoods. In fact, most Koreatowns throughout the United States are nestled within predominantly Latin American areas. Despite our strong ethnocentricity (and sadly, even blatant racism), it shaped our imagination in ways because we were minorities among minorities trying to navigate this new world.
More than anyone else, Asian Americans are able to bring everyone to the table, even though the Asian perspective is still not valued all that much unless there are a lot of us there (one thing my wife pointed out was how most of the churches reaching out to me about my Open Letter to Piper were from Asian American saturated areas). If they have a race consciousness and intercultural competence, Asians are able to navigate around the black-white dichotomy without minimizing the significance of the black experience in America (though you will notice that the most prolific Asian American speakers and writers are known because they stay within the black-white binary). Asians need to be given the opportunity to shape the conversations and invite other leaders in.
Gaining a voice at the table
I should say that overall, the responsibility should be placed on leaders of various organizations to see the valuable contribution Asian Americans can make, and create space for voices to flourish. However, there are things Asian Americans can do to carve out our own spaces within or apart from dominant group organizations.
In order to gain a voice at the table, we need to have influential voices at our own tables. This is what Loritts’ argued for in his response to my letter. And the way we do this is by germination.
Asians need to support each other by helping each other sprout. When a seed germinates, it emerges from beneath the soil and becomes visible to the outside world.
The most basic way is by developing formal and informal networks and inviting each other to speak at churches, conferences, and retreats.
We can also do this by showing up to events and conferences hosted by and for Asian Americans (like Sola in California or Oil in Illinois) and sharing articles/sermons/books by Asian-American authors and speakers on their social media accounts.
Further, we can do this by investing in these events, conferences, or media platforms. These things cost money to execute and the white evangelical space is able to do this because they have developed giving patterns that sustain such efforts.
Ultimately, however, we must remember that our voice and our influence is not to be used for ourselves. We must remember that as we gain a platform, we need to use that platform to “give greater honor to those that lack it.” We must not forget that “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” This means we must make sure that our black and Latino and Native American brothers and sisters are rising with us.
Ray Chang is a pastor/preacher who was born in Chicagoland and has lived all around the world, including Hawaii, Los Angeles, China, South Korea, Guatemala, Spain, and Panama where he served in the Peace Corps. As an avid traveller, he has visited more than 40 countries throughout Asia, South America, Europe, Africa, and North America. His travels have also included extensive volunteer, speaking, and consulting roles. Ray received a Bachelors of Arts (BA) in Communication from Wheaton College, a Masters of Divinity (Mdiv) from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Higher Education from Azusa Pacific University. He is happily married to Jessica. He works at Wheaton College in the Chaplain's Office. Follow him on Twitter: @tweetraychang