by Dr. Hak Joon Lee
I am known as a Martin Luther King, Jr. scholar among my colleagues at Fuller. It is an honor I received after publishing two books on Dr. King. Over the last several years, I have delivered numerous lectures on him on various occasions and preached at black churches, and even had several interviews with the news media on the topic of King. However, people’s interest in me does not focus on my scholarship. Usually, the first question people ask me in the interviews is: how did you, as the first generation Asian American, come to be interested in Dr. King? Their question is more of curiosity and surprise rather than affirmation.
Although King’s name is well known internationally including in Asia, not many people know that King is a Baptist pastor and his movement was launched and organized by black churches. He is well known more as Dr. King than as Rev. King. Unfortunately this ignorance or disinterest is found among many Asian Americans, if with a slightly lesser degree, even though the nation celebrates Dr. King’s Birthday every year. King and African American communities are not the topics of interest for Asian Americans. Asian American Christian leaders and laypersons know very well about celebrity white Christian pastors such as Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Tim Keller, John Piper. They also buy their books, listen to their sermons, attend to their seminars, and take a pilgrimage to their churches. However, I wonder how many Asian American evangelicals know black churches leaders and their books, and listen to their sermons. Asian American evangelicals look up white celebrity pastors and speakers and try to emulate them in their spirituality and ministry. For them, white Christianity is normative and what white Christians and churches do is important for their churches.
This indifference to the black Christianity reveals the mentality of many Asian Americans as “honorary whites.” As the survey of the Pew Research Center indicates, many Asian Americans think of America virtually as “a white nation” if not in terms of population, then in terms of culture, history, and tradition. They came here to study at white institutions, and partake in their culture, power, and prestige. They identify the white dream as the American Dream as they want to succeed in the USA.
Asian American distance from African Americans also partly reflects their stereotyping of African Americans as lazy, violent, primitive, or simpleminded, and potentially criminal, which is reinforced by the images of the mass media and through the experience of many Asian American immigrants in slums and inner cities. Their conclusion is that there is nothing so valuable to learn from African Americans. Having grown up in Asian American families and immigrant churches, Asian American pastors also adopt a similar attitude.
However, Asian Americans do not realize that there is one missing category, which is critical for the personal and social wellbeing of Asian Americans: Race. White Christians, especially evangelicals, rarely talk or preach about the issue of race; it is a personally uncomfortable topic for them. They avoid this topic by citing Paul’s words: “there are no Jews and Gentiles, man and woman, slave and slave masters in Jesus Christ.” For them race is irrelevant because Jesus has overcome all racial categories. Furthermore, they assert that we are live in a post-racial society, and the Obama presidency is its prime evidence. Buying into this white evangelical narrative, Asian Americans are missing what has defined their history and is still defining their existence in this nation.
Having bought into this myth, they assume that they are immune from racism. Many Asian Americans personalize the issue of race and treat it as their private problem. They are discriminated and abused in work places and schools but they tend not to problematize it. They quit rather than fight racism; they blame themselves rather than pointing out systematic injustice and racism engrained in institutional culture. Asian American churches rarely preach or teach on the topic of race, and their members are seldom educated on how to address this issue when it happens to themselves or their family members and friends.
What is hidden behind this myth of an honorary white (or a model minority) is white racism (deep “orientalism”) toward Asian Americans. Even today, Asian immigrants become the frequent targets of abuse and discrimination. They are regarded as permanent foreigners no matter how long they have lived in the U.S., and how fluently they speak English. Unlike other, particularly white, immigrants (e.g., Irish, Italians, Jews, etc.) who shed off their “foreign” status within a single generation, this stereotype of “perpetual foreigner” is unique to Asian Americans, tenaciously stuck to public perception, and reinforced by the large influx of Asian immigrants in recent decades. While honorary and model, but foreign, Asian Americans become socially invisible, excluded from the protection of laws. Meanwhile, the public tends to be eager to tolerate with the abuses because “foreigners” are not fully entitled to legal protections.
The vulnerability of Asian Americans is evident in the fact that racism against Asian Americans (by whites and other race groups) is still quite pervasive and seldom discussed in the media, although political and social conditions have improved considerably. For example, although the genocide of Native Americans and the slavery of Africans are now well-known to the public, racism and abuse against Asian Americans still do not get fair attention in standard textbooks and the media, which contributes to creating the misperception that Asian Americans do not experience racism at all.
The idea of Asian Americans as “honorary whites” is not something solely imposed from the outside (together with the Model Minority Myth) but something that Asian Americans naively internalized. A fight against racism should begin with the deconstruction and de-internalization of this myth of Asian Americans as “honorary whites.” “Honorary whites” can never be full or real whites. An “honorary” is still a guest and not a full member of a community. The attempt to be “honorary whites” is self-deception, which is detrimental to their self-esteem and common wellbeing. We are not on the way to being whites. God created us to be Asian Americans.
The idea of the model minority is not an honor (that Asian Americans are better than other minorities) that Asian Americans welcome and celebrate. We cannot be whites, just as we cannot be blacks. If Asian American churches cannot identify what Asian American issues and struggles are in this society, they will be losing their relevance. Why would people seek the fakes (or copies) when they can get the originals? Asian American pastors with this mentality of an honorary white will lose the best of their members to white celebrity leaders and their churches, and we have been watching this flight over the past decades in New York, Los Angeles, and other major cities.
Asian American evangelicals have many things to learn from the black churches’ rich history and spirituality. The struggle against racism has been an issue of life and death for them. Deprived of their basic rights and freedom they have found their spiritual resource and power in God. The thrust of African American churches is consistently (more adequately reflect) a holistic message of God’s reign.
The black churches, with MLK as the exemplar, show the best example of balancing between the personal and the public, with worship and ethics. The black churches have been indispensable for the survival and wellbeing of African Americans. Without the black churches, the Civil Rights Movement, desegregation, and even Obama’s presidency are unthinkable. Thanks to the churches, African Americans earned their places and respect in the US. By fighting for their basic human rights, they opened the door for many others, including Asian Americans.
The celebration of the Black History Month is the celebration of the victory of human spirit and God’s faithfulness. It is true that just as there are no Jews and Gentiles, or men and women in Jesus Christ, there is no black, white, and Asian in Jesus Christ in terms of salvation. However the Kingdom is not the place where we lose our identities and cultural richness but rather one in which we celebrate and affirm them in God. “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands (Revelation 7: 9). For those who do not know their identities and cultures, the Kingdom will be a strange and even lost place. For only those who know their cultures and identities would understand what Jesus has achieved and how rich His Kingdom is, and how he has restored God’s creation in its richness and diversity (Gen. 1).