Asian American Christians' Secret Affair with Whiteness

Sometimes ideas linger in the back of one’s mind like dirt at the bottom of a swimming pool - dormant, unnoticed yet hiding in plain sight. They are left lying at the edge of one’s consciousness for years because they’re too unsettling and difficult to articulate. Only when a cleaning implement rustles them that one becomes aware of how filthy the environment really is. 

For decades, I had suspected an affair might exist but the fact of it eluded me until a recent disruption. The problem with this tryst is that its hidden from one of the partners. The relationship functions at the subconscious level. The rustling started with conversations some friends and I had about race, ethnicity, and culture. This dialogue birthed a desire to read a book or study a curriculum together on the topic. One friend recommended Daniel Hill’s White Awake, a book about diagnosing the hidden cancer of white supremacy in American evangelicalism.

Earlier this week some members of this book club did a Google hangout with the author. Hill, who is white, mentioned he had just recently returned from speaking at a retreat for a large Asian American church, 65% Korean American and the rest mostly Chinese American. He explained how, at first, the retreat participants were confused on why he was addressing the topic of diversity to an ethnic-specific group. However, his topic concerned race and culture not just diversity and as the retreat progressed, the mood turned somber and then eventually into a time of lament and deep sorrow.

It turns out Hill was unaware that South Korea is the global leader in plastic surgery. Many Koreans (including Korean and Chinese Americans) opt for blepharoplasty, double eyelid surgery, in an effort to make their eyes look larger, the Western ideal. I have known about popularity of double eyelid procedures for years and yet didn’t draw a direct connection with whiteness. The reasons for double eyelid surgery are complex, race being only one of many factors, but this touched a chord with the retreat attendees. They did not realize how they had been inadvertently chasing whiteness through their cosmetic choices. They had been hooking up on the down low and had no clue. But what's wrong with looking good for your married boyfriend?

Im not completely convinced (yet) that Asian American Christians are sleeping with white supremacy but we are certainly guilty of chasing whiteness, of uncritically adopting the values of white evangelical culture. Educated Asian Americans who grow up in major metro areas attending ethnic churches are most susceptible to this strain of infidelity. This describes Hill’s retreat audience and my own journey: becoming a follower of Jesus in Atlanta as a 13-year old and then attending a Chinese church in Silicon Valley. I grew up singing Vineyard, Hillsong, Matt Redman, and Chris Tomlin. I came of age reading John Piper, Elizabeth Elliot, and A.W. Tozer. I don’t regret their contributions to my spiritual growth but after attending a couple white mega-churches, I remember the pain of comparison with my English ministry’s worship service and feeling overwhelmed with inadequacy. The popularity, production values, and teaching of the mega-church represented a spiritual hotness that I hoped to someday bed.

After the talk with Hill, a non-Asian friend posed a bold question to me: “How many Asian Americans do you think attend multi-ethnic churches for racist reasons?” The implication is that Asian Americans, out of a desire to be closer to whiteness, opt out of ethnic churches and join multi-ethnic ones, typically with white leadership. I responded with a laugh: “Umm . . . all of them - whether they realize it or not”. I’m certainly no exception. Like double eyelid surgery, the reasons for Asian Americans leaving the ethnic church are complex, one huge reason being the cultural tensions between immigrant and American culture. And yet the connection with whiteness is also undeniable. There’s aspects of self-loathing and ignorance that should not be overlooked. We seek in our lovers that which we do not ourselves possess. We seek in our lovers an idealized version of ourselves. 

Educated Asian Americans love whiteness because we benefit the most from it. Among all minorities, we derive the greatest perks from our proximity to white culture. We are called the model minority because we play by the rules of whiteness and we lose less than any other group of color. We excel at the education game. We excel at corporate work culture. We are well-mannered doctors, lawyers, and engineers. We get and stay married. We adore the stuff white people like. We are the worker bees of the elite ruling class - the foundation of the 9.9 percent. We are the trophy wife without the ring.

We buy into the meritocratic ideal of the American dream because it rings truer than the dream any Asian country can offer. This helps explain my discomfort and struggle while reading Hill’s book. I took issue with his definition of race. I’m still not sold on it being 100% social construct. I felt like I straddled both being white and being a person of color. I went through the denial phase, as Hill describes in one of his chapters, because since I hadn’t personally experienced overt discrimination, it must not exist. It also helps explain why Asian Americans in predominantly white churches often feel uncomfortable with diversity initiatives. We joined for white people and white culture so please don’t start targeting people of color because we want to retain our privileged second class status. We don’t want our secret affair exposed because it threatens our identity and the pleasures of privilege. 

Asian Americans, along with the rest of the world, stand on the shoulders of Western civilization's giants. Much of today’s Christian thought has been profoundly shaped for good by theological streams dating back to Augustine and other Western church fathers. The language I employ in this post to critique whiteness was gifted by Western civilization. And yet one byproduct of this cultural tide is white supremacy. Thus, I believe most educated Asian immigrants have no problem with it. I imagine they view cultural superiority as a necessary byproduct of ANY civilization. It is a fundamental aspect of tribalism found in any and every culture. Cultural superiority is the reason why Chinese world maps have China in the center. A major theme of the book of Acts and Paul’s epistles is opposition to Jewish supremacy and its fixation on the physical (Jews: circumcision vs. today: skin color) as a sign of favored status. In the language of economics, the superiority complex of white culture is a negative externality of Western civilization. Its part of the baggage that goes along with living in this country and immigrants will take it over the rival supremacist baggage of their Asian homelands. Asian immigrants can be more honest about the affair because their identity is more firmly rooted in their home country. We have less of that luxury being born in this country. Whiteness was the main lover we were presented with.

I wish I could just vacuum up these thoughts and dump them in the garbage. But I’ve swallowed the red pill and there’s no going back. This awakening to white supremacy does not diminish my appreciation for Western civilization. It does however temper my enthusiasm and helps me to be more reflective about seemingly innocuous motivations. I believe Asian Americans live in this ignorant cultural bliss. 

We need to be rustled out of it. 

We love whiteness because being a distant second is far better than being last. We fool ourselves into thinking we’re independent and capable apart from our lover. But we’re happy to be his first mistress if we can’t be his wife. 

Comments

  1. This post exposed me to some ideas I hand't considered before. Thank you for sharing!

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    1. You're welcome and look forward to continuing the conversation in-person!

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  2. Hmmm ... the way I understand this argument, anything and everything that Asian Americans desire, achieve, strive for is solely based on our (meaning Asian Americans, I specifically a Korean American) subconscious and conscious desire to achieve whiteness or approximation thereof since that's what we are most comfortable and familiar with once we assimilate into the mainstream society, I mean mainstream white society. Therefore, there is no such thing as achieving the American Dream, just WHITE American Dream.

    What were we thinking? That we could almost become white by excelling in schools and in the work place, being rewarded by being labeled as the model drones, a term used if not coined by one of our own here. Forget about wanting to be the CEO or better yet, form our own company and be the founder and the CEO. Yeah, but that's also approximating whiteness. Wanting to go to IVY League schools and getting professional degrees, pursuing well paid jobs and living in the McMansion in the wealthy suburbs and driving BMWs and M-Bs, yep, all white. OK, if Black people did that, are they being sellouts? Basketball, football, baseball, and hockey, not to mention boxing, OK, not hockey, not yet anyway, the entire mainstream sports that were fielded almost exclusively by white people in the beginning. And golf and tennis, although not in large numbers, Tiger Woods and Williams sisters kicked ass. All sellouts, bunch of white wannabes. Not to mention dominant number of blacks in football and basketball, yep, they excelled because they all wanted the White American Dream.

    Getting back to blepharoplasty, double eyelid surgery, in an effort to make their eyes look larger, you say it's a Western ideal. I guess all the ancient Egyptian men and women that painted their eye areas to make them look bigger were trying to be white too. Wanting to be tall, is that a whiteness too? How about liposuction? Yeah, what about Lip augmentation procedure to give you fuller lips? Oh stop it, all plastic surgery has overall basis in wanting to achieve whiteness.

    The nerve, to go to multi-ethnic church run by a white guy, the horror. Yeah, but does that change anything if the multi-ethnic church was run by a charismatic Asian American pastor? Why the arbitrary hard line between ethnic church and multi-ethnic church? What if we attended a white church instead? Does that make it even worse? Or make us out to be simply delusional, that we are white, instead of white wannabes?

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  3. Part 2 ...
    How about this? Who is more guilty of what you are preaching? An Asian American man marrying a white woman, who happens to be fluent in your ethnic language and culture and can whip up an ethnic signature dish on a whim, attending an ethnic church. Or marrying a second gen Asian American woman who cannot speak the ethnic language and does not know the culture in question, same way the husband does not, attending a multi-ethnic church. What if your parent's ethnic church cannot meet your spiritual and other needs? Does attending white run multi-cultural church make you a self loathing ignoramus? I take offense to your characterization of your so-called "Whiteness" as being akin to salacious infidelity, a cesspool at the bottom of the pool. I find your argument to be more self-loathing and hypercritical. Many of us are keenly aware of the boundaries and the limitations imposed by racism, not just overt racism but subtle and nuanced passive aggressive racism that some whites are supremely adept at. We are also not unaware of such behaviors permeating among us. Therefore, you are not entire wrong in your supposition. But to say our so-called white choice being equated with white supremacy is bit much.

    "In the language of economics, the superiority complex of whiteness is a negative externality of Western civilization" ..... good God man, what does this even mean? Where did you copy this?

    "We love whiteness because being a distant second is far better than being last. We fool ourselves into thinking we’re independent and capable apart from our lover. But we’re happy to be his first mistress if we can’t be his wife." .... Your self loathing is abundantly clear here.

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    1. I changed the language of economics sentence. It still doesn't really make sense but I liked the sound of at the time. Your comments makes some good points. I'll address some of them in a future post.

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    2. "Many of us are keenly aware of the boundaries and the limitations imposed by racism, not just overt racism but subtle and nuanced passive aggressive racism that some whites are supremely adept at."

      An excellent statement. I am tired of people from the left saying that Asians are "virtually" or "essentially white." Do other minorities face worse racism than we do? In many cases, probably. But it's as if the sufferings of Asians don't count or don't matter. It's only when a white person bashes a black or Latino person that it's a big deal.

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  4. 1.5 gen Korean American, attended ethnic church for 45 years, white church for 4 year.
    I can be reached at zanypoet@gmail.com

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  5. More interesting is how this came into being, a twisted tale of colonialism, imperialism, Social Darwinism and Cold War politics... The what

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  6. More interesting is how this came into being, a twisted tale of colonialism, imperialism, Social Darwinism and Cold War politics... The what

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  7. Not quite sure the term "white supremacy," with all its historical cargo and connotations, is really apt here.

    Asian-Americans are not necessarily trying to be white because they are content being a "second-place" finisher in a hierarchy. Whether we Asian-Americans like it or not, the United States of America was a historically majority white country. Yes, Native Americans and African-Americans both occupy an indelible and very important role in the formation and development of the United States. But given it was whites who established the institutions - government, military, public education and universities, postal service, etc... why would it be surprising that second (and now third) generation Americans of Asian origins would be "white-ish" in their vocabulary, habits, and values if whites comprised the majority population?

    I found your essay fascinating, and the political events in America in recent years, along with the rise of identity politics (best exemplified on the right by the "alt-right" and on the left by groups like Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ movements, and other groups which seek "safe spaces" and which denounce "white supremacy) did lead me to do some thinking.

    That said, even if there are members within Asian-American communities and/or Asian-American church communities which prefer to be "whitish," that in a way is inevitable.

    If you were to look at other countries in the world where Asians have migrated to in large numbers - Canada, Brazil, Peru, Argentina, or even Japan, which has a huge expatriate Korean community dating back 100 years - the Asians born in later generations assimilate. They inevitably pick up the social and cultural mores of the "host" country. It is not a surprise that Koreans born in northeastern China use Korean mostly at home and Mandarin with each other (and of course with the Han Chinese). They are distinct from South Koreans of the same age - racially/ethnically, they're the same, but by virtue of different environments, Korean-Chinese are a rather different group from native Koreans. The same exact analogy can be made with Koreans of younger generations born in Japan. They consider themselves Japanese, oftentimes speak Japanese only, and assimilate into Japanese society as best as they can. I have in the distant past made the error of bashing Japan due to history in front of Koreans from Japan who became quite angry at me. As a Christian I apologized; reconciliation followed, and they later came to Christ (not because of my witness, obviously).

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    1. I don't disagree with anything you're saying. I'm asking for a greater thoughtfulness and critique of ANY culture that an immigrant population assimilates into. The assimilation is inevitable and yet not all aspects of it are. At the least, there is room for awareness and then repentance from idolatry of the prevailing culture.

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    2. I could see that some Asian-American Christians might be guilty of what you're describing. My responses to your essay reflected what is a fatigue and frustration I have had for a few years now. Whatever political ideologies or views you may have, I for one have grown weary of what I view as the "grievance industry" that exists in the left.

      Now, I'm not going to condemn advocates for slavery reparations; whatever the merits or demerits of their arguments, it's undeniable blacks in this country have suffered a lot.

      I was going to spell out several arguments I see from the left, but as doing that would direct me away from replying to you and away from your essay, suffice it to say that while I know you had no ill intent and you want fellow Christians to think about their positions, I have become sensitive about claims of privilege, status, etc. that I presumably enjoy as an Asian person and/or as a man. I have seen many cases of double-standards and outright hypocrisy which liberals are quite content not to even look at, and I have also seen this set of ideas infiltrate churches.

      I have Christian friends who are male who told me that growing up, it was not whites who bullied or beat them in school; it was mostly Latinos and ESPECIALLY blacks. What privilege do Asians possibly have given we in childhood and adolescence are often smaller and physically weaker than blacks (and whites, in many cases) and are susceptible to bullying?

      Let me ask you this, Mr. Mok. In America today, if a white person commits murder against a black person, the media goes crazy and there are nationwide uproars. Look at Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin. It's not always cases involving cops. Even when it's civilian-on-civilian.

      Where's the uproar when Latinos and/or blacks assault/rape/murder Asians? Have you seen cases of the "knockout game" when blacks have punched and killed Asians in their 60s and 70s? I have come across cases of Asian women who were raped by nonwhites and non-Asians. Why do crimes against us not generate the same outrage in this country?

      Mr. Mok, we're both Christians and I do not wish to flood your blog; you are evidently a lover of Christ and of justice, which is wonderful; many Christians fall short on both accounts. I'm simply tired of being told that I as an Asian have "privilege." I'm sorry, but I'm just tired. What am I supposed to do? Must I somehow be made to pay for crimes I didn't commit to help people who weren't alive when those crimes were perpetrated?

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    3. I have no problem with anything you're expressing. Racism against Asians is real. Racism from other minorities is real. I also experienced bullying and racial epithets from non-white groups when I was a teenager in Atlanta. This post is not asking anyone to pay back anything for crimes, it's about awareness and full honesty about sin, including sin areas we're not fully conscious of. That's partly the premise of the book White Awake - sin doesn't only exist at the conscious level. The question of what to do is understandable but inappropriate. We hold both our privilege and the racism against us together, in tension. We straddle both sides of privilege and oppression. Our socioeconomic status, occupation, education level, neighborhood/city, ethnicity, etc. influence the precise mix.

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  8. I don't know you, but you're evidently a brother in Christ and I thank you for this obviously very heartfelt piece. But I have become a bit weary of reading critiques of Asians in the U.S. who are somehow perceived to be obsequious towards whites. The overwhelming majority of us in our youth and very possibly in our recent past experienced racist epithets thrown at us by whites (and in my case, blacks and Hispanics as well). I have no desire to "whitify" myself or my family. If the language required for me to function in this country is English, and if speaking and writing it with sufficient polish and erudition is a prerequisite in my line of work, I see no inkling of being involved in some kind of ungodly relationship with "white supremacy." I am not white, cannot be white, and am happy as such. What I want to do for my children is to raise them to be godly people in the United States. This also includes wisdom and being able to survive once they are adults, for this is the duty of a loving parent.

    Additionally, as a minority we Asian-Americans do at times face racism from whites and from other minorities. That makes life tough as it is, and I struggle with reading that we "love whiteness because we benefit the most from it" while we also happen to be victims of injustice by people whose agendas is supposedly the advancement of fellow minorities. Asian-Americans have initiated lawsuits against universities because Asian applicants with solid credentials were denied admission whereas students from other minority groups with far less impressive credentials were granted admission - all in the name of affirmative action.

    If you are willing to have your children sacrifice opportunities in their future for the sake of other students whose grades are notably lower than your children's because this would be part of your fight against what you call "white supremacy," I respect your decision. But I am angry that this could potentially happen to my children. There'd be no fairness and no justice. What did Asian kids do to deserve penalties for measures against "white supremacy?"

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    1. This is a very thoughtful comment. If you read my previous post, I would actually challenge the premise that my children lose out on opportunities due to affirmative action, mainly because the education system is broken and I'm not sure I want to play by its rules. My oldest child is going to college next year and his grades aren't stellar but I'm not worried about him because I'm confident he will find sufficient opportunities despite being handicapped by being an Asian male. I have mixed feelings about affirmative action but that's another discussion.

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  9. You're talking mostly about East Asians here, by the way. East Asians are heavily into whitenss.
    Southeast Asians are jungley and don't get a seat at the table. We keep telling you guys what's up...in Asian American Studies and Leadership Conferences. We've been saying this for years. So, don't lump us in now that you guys got your Aha Moment.

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  10. I am Chinese-American and I left the whole white-worshipping, Israelphilia christian religion because hours of church was useless for my depression, Luckily my friend introduced me to meditation which was more useful than going to church, praying, or reading the Bible.

    I shortly converted to Buddhism and back to my Asian ancestral roots.

    Namo Amitabha.

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    1. I 'm glad you've found Buddhism "useful". It is not without irony that in returning to your Asian ancestral roots that you're actually playing into what sociologist Christian Smith termed "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism". It's the idea that you adopt whatever religion "works" or in your words, is helpful for overcoming some kind of felt need. That's a recent Western phenomenon.

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