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 it’s 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?
I’m 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. It’s 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.