Cultivating Ethnic and Religious Identities for Chinese Americans

This past summer I continued my readings in social scientific and popular readings of ethnicity, race, and religion. In one popular reading I was introduced to early 20th century Chinese history through the perspectives of nationalists and Christian converts. More than a work of history, it is an invitation into Chinese mythology and the sense of the spiritual that animates the minds of many young people.  

Noted author and artist Gene Luen Yang, a second-generation Chinese American, recently published a two-volume series called Boxers and Saints. Told from two different perspectives, it revisits the Boxer Rebellion of the early 1900s as seen from two young Chinese people, a man and a woman. Boxers, the larger of the two works sets the stage for the events that are retold in Saints. It’s reminiscent of the two-part film series by Clint Eastwood chronicling the Battle of Iwo Jima from the perspective of US forces (Flags of Our Fathers) and Japanese forces (Letters From Iwo Jima). For film fans, both Eastwood and Yang’s works are preceded by the classic film Rashomon directed by Akira Kurosawa.

For those wanting to know more about the Boxer Rebellion, Boxers and Saints is an easy introduction into this pivotal moment in world history. I say “world history” because while it takes place in China, it is very much the story of western imperialism and evangelicalism which prompted these events in the first place. Yang, an educator at heart, ends both volumes with a list of readings that helped shape his understanding of the events he chronicled. My focus in this post is on the work’s significance for Asian Americans, particularly those with a religious background.

Boxers invites us into a world filled with Chinese gods and demigods who inspire and empower young peasant men to resist what they see as an encroaching Western presence in their homeland. Westerners and their foreign religion of Christianity are cast as devils that must be purged from the land, and only the power of China’s old gods can resist them. Saints similarly imagines a world visited by Catholic saints from the perspective of a young peasant woman who is introduced to this religion by foreign missionaries from the west and converts she meets along the way. She is empowered by Saint Joan of Arc to side with the religious Westerners, Catholic and Protestant missionaries and new Chinese converts. Interestingly, from the perspective of the Christians, the Boxers’ violence is not spiritualized as demonic but rather remain an earthly violent force set on killing them. The turn to the saints is for physical protection.

What struck me was the introduction of this spiritual dimension which plays a significant part for both the participants in the Boxer movement as much as the Christians. In typical readings of these moments, the spiritual is irrelevant apart from a few sidebars of the folklore that ran through local villages who encountered the Boxers or the Christians. But for Yang, the spiritual is very much a part of lived reality and whether it is “real” in some scientific sense may be less important than the notion that spiritual characters motivate people to act in heroic, compassionate and violent ways. Such is the power of belief whether Chinese mythology or Western Christianity, at least during this period.

Boxers and Saints accomplishes more than presenting two sides of an event. For readers who are second-generation Chinese American (or know someone who is) and searching for a sense of rootedness, this work highlights a part of the history that they likely have not heard in any course they have taken in school or college. And perhaps it is not told by their family members who are often working long hours to make ends meet. In the contemporary context, without available resources to help young Chinese Americans take hold of their Chinese roots, their ethnicity might signify little if anything. Boxers and Saints becomes an important means by which ethnicity can be socialized for young people. Sociologists note that ethnicity and religion are both social constructions; understanding Chinese identity and Christian identity require materials that describe the origins and meanings for the group’s existence, along with rituals, and relationships with others who help reinforce what one is learning. In this way Boxers and Saints, geared at a younger audience, is one such material resource to help inculcate a sense of being a part of the folk religious Chinese people and Christian Chinese people.

Given the fairly strong presence of Christianity within Chinese American circles (about 30 percent based on last year’s Pew Research Center survey on Asian Americans), the second book, Saints, serves a similar function as Boxers by conveying a sense of rootedness with a faith that perhaps seems distal to their Chinese heritage. Reading Boxers and Saints still conveys a sense that Christianity is not Chinese culturally; it is imported by white Westerners. But it does remind readers that Chinese Christians have been around for more than a century. Wrestling with this reality, and coming to terms with it is an important exercise, and perhaps one that could be done in community for these young men and women.

Boxers and Saints extends beyond the Chinese American community as well; second-generation Asian Americans have fairly diverse networks relative to whites and blacks. For those who have friends in the Asian American community, this work can help introduce a perspective that is altogether new as well. It invites non-Asian Americans to consider what it might mean to be both Chinese and American (read: Western). In particular it asks us to think about what it means to be rooted in a culture that is animated by a pantheon of gods rather than one God? With that in mind, what might it mean to encounter the god of foreigners particularly in the midst of geopolitical turmoil involving exploitation? As Chinese immigration continues steadily through the 21st century, successive waves of second-generation Chinese Americans will continue to face these same questions of identity be it religious, ethnic or both. Boxers and Saints could prove a useful tool in helping individuals and groups understand their place in the world, and their place in history.

 

The March on Washington remembered

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington from which we gain many of our most iconic images of that era and the Civil Rights Movement. Thousands have arrived in DC today to remember that moment. Here is a youtube clip of Martin Luther King’s speech:

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And here’s a link to catch current coverage (as of 2pm EST):

nbcnews coverage

President Obama will give a speech approximately at 2:45pm. It might be interesting to compare and contrast King and Obama’s speeches, to understand better what has changed and what has stayed the same.

 

 

Religion and Income Inequality: The Paradox of the South

Originally posted in the Huffington Post: 7/29/13

By: Julie J. Park

The New York Times recently reported on a new study by economists from Harvard and UC Berkeley on income mobility across the country. The research team found stark differences by geographical region, with the odds of moving to a different income bracket being lowest in the southeast and higher in major metropolitan areas. They identified four broad factors in areas that contribute to income mobility: mixed-income neighborhoods, two-parent households, better schools, and higher rates of civic engagement, “including membership in religious and community groups.”

Why religion? There are numerous reasons, but I’d like to highlight one in particular: Religious communities as a source of social capital. As Robert Putnam addressed in Bowling Alone, religious institutions such as churches, synagogues, and mosques bring people together in a way that strengthens community life. This is vital in a society that is increasingly fragmented. This connectedness likely affects income mobility via social capital—the relationships and relational networks that lend themselves to the exchange of knowledge and resources. For instance, in a religious community, people might form relationships that lead to helpful information about finding a job, navigating social services, or starting a business. Rich relational networks also have payoffs for education, which has natural dividends for income mobility. Being involved in a religious community gives kids the opportunity to have multiple adults in their lives who are invested in their well-being, as documented by sociologist James Coleman and others. These overlapping social relationships (e.g., knowing an adult from the neighborhood, but also attending mosque with them) can reinforce social norms that are beneficial for educational outcomes.

Another perk is that social capital networks can help people access valuable information that can help them navigate the educational system, which has particular dividends for low-income students. In a study of first-year college students, I found that Korean American low-income youth had a particularly high rate of taking SAT preparatory classes. Taking SAT prep was higher for Korean Americans who identified as Protestant, and I suggested that these students are able to access information about applying to college through social networks in economically diverse immigrant churches.

Such social connections can potentially happen in any type of civic organization (and the Harvard/Berkeley study highlights the role of membership in non-religious community groups), but religious institutions tend to be relatively enduring. They often provide a joint social service function, especially among immigrant populations, and can provide rhetorical frameworks that help people endure through difficult times (“Remember Moses wandering through the desert…”).

Given all of the benefits of religious involvement, why is income mobility lowest in the South, given its high religiosity? As a social scientist, I am curious to know whether there is something different about religion in the South, or is it that the other elements that boost income mobility (two parent households, mixed-income neighborhoods, good schools) are somehow lagging in the South? Or is it some combination of all of the above? One hypothesis might be that Southerners are more likely to worship in megachurches, which might be less likely to foster the social relationships and networks that contribute to income mobility. A map of megachurches in the U.S. provides some evidence that there are more megachurches in the South, but we need more research on the social interactions that take place in these churches to draw any conclusions. Another idea is that White evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, a prominent Southern demographic, tend to support individualist explanations and solutions for inequality. This trend is documented by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith in their book Divided by Faith. By individualist, I mean “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” versus questioning whether there are bootstraps there to begin with. This tendency may lead to diminished support for government spending—not just federal, but also state and local—on schools and other policy initiatives that could enhance income mobility. I recommend David Swartz’s The Moral Minority for a fascinating read on the political diversity of evangelicals.

Overall the causes for low income mobility in the South and elsewhere are difficult to isolate because they are most likely interconnected: In the South, high religiosity likely has some positive dividends for income mobility, but the effects may be blunted by other ramifications of religious practice and belief. Naturally there is diversity both within and between religious traditions. There is no neat and tidy answer for the pervasiveness of income inequality, but understanding how religion affects people’s beliefs about the solutions needed to strengthen families, schools, and neighborhoods is a critical part of the puzzle.

Julie J. Park is an assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action in Higher Education (Rutgers University Press). This post was originally posted on Huffington Post.

Race Talk in Colorblind Churches

In the wake of the weekend verdict over George Zimmerman’s shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin, my Facebook page was ablaze as various news outlets repeated the same story and as some friends expressed shock and a few fear. In the midst of this a colleague asked her friends for their reflections on how churches in America ought to respond to this moment that clearly bespeaks of the continuing racial divides in our nation. She sent us to noted progressive evangelical Jim Wallis’ reflections as a conversation starter. It got me thinking that I had left tabs open to several blog posts from noted Protestant Christian clergy, so I took it as an opportunity to synthesize the comments with Wallis’ post to start.

Wallis’ words are engaging as always. He joins some Christian bloggers in using this moment to speak directly about the anti-black racism in our nation, and how Christian can work against it. What focused my attention was his solution, the importance of multiracial churches, churches that have no more than 80% of its congregants reflecting one particular racial group. From here, Wallis contends, white and black parents can speak with one another, learn from one another and ultimately stand with one another against systemic injustices that are targeted against some but not others. Noted conservative evangelical John Piper echoed the same point in more theological language of “reconciliation.” His point is the same as Wallis; reconciliation requires some kind of exchange where individuals and groups address a grievance and restore a broken connection. Such an exchange presumes a preceding relationship, and for many Christians the relationships at church take precedence. Hence for racial reconciliation to be effective, multiracial churches must be part of the solution.

While I advocate the importance of racial diversity in our churches, I am not confident in their efficacy to raise the kind of awareness that many are calling for. Sociologist Korie Edwards observed a predominantly African American church as it tried to transition into a multiracial church.  Her observations were telling: even when African American Protestants led the church and were the larger numerical group, the culture of the church conformed to the new members who were white. Rather than an equitable exchange and compromise among both (or all) groups, inclusion of whites in non-white congregations often results in acquiescing to their perspective and cultural assumptions.

This results in colorblindness in matters of structural racism, while still maintaining the veneer of diversity. That is, a lot of churchgoers like the idea of diversity these days, just so long as we agree to “focus on Jesus” and remain silent and ignorant about injustices that affect people of color, women, sexual minorities and other vulnerable groups. So we can look like a racial mosaic while never really understanding that our fellow church members don’t experience their day-to-day lives the same way.

But again I want to support the importance of these churches because these form the largest voluntary organization in the US, and sadly the most segregated. Frankly, if we were to take Wallis’ idea to heart, American Christians have more opportunity for interracial interaction in the workplace and in some neighborhoods as well, much more so than their churches at present.

And yet, I suspect that even in our neighborhoods, our schools, and our workplaces, there is still limited conversation on matters of racial injustice. If my guess is right, our everyday discourse is individualistic at its root; each of us, in theory, is only responsible for our own outcomes. Even when we are in a group, a team, a business, a church, the default attitude seems to be individualist. This way of thinking and seeing the world is so taken-for-granted that many bristle when someone makes mention of anything systemic. It feels artificially injected somehow to bring up talk of racial inequality. So if Wallis’ point is that multiracial churches are key because they allow for conversations among Christians across different racial groups, I would say, let’s look at all the other contexts that different Americans should be having these conversations, in theory, and ask why aren’t we having more conversations outside of church?

To be sure, African Americans, Christian or not, are having these conversations. And the shared sentiment of lament, moral outcry speaks to me as a sociologist: the patterns of interpretation are so consistent and racialized. Compare the reflections from Wallis and Piper with theologian Reggie Williamscampus minister Sean Watkins, and Wheaton College professor Shawn Okpebholo. While not an ideal setting, their posts have helped bring their voices to my mind when I have no one in my network at my place of work who echo a similar sentiment.

While there’s no study out there I know of that can document whether this can work, I suggest that the key is to dialogue within deep relationships that engage the mind, the emotions, and the body. I picture this: coworkers in the breakroom talking about anything but work; one of them mentions this “thing he read in the news the other day” which seems, from his perspective, like racism. Repeat this scene on a semi-regular basis, and perhaps someone might speak up and say “yeah something like that happened to a friend of mine last week.” At first some coworkers will find this unbelievable, exceptional, and dismiss it off hand. But if the stories keep coming in, and different coworkers speak up as well, then we are witnessing a conversation that brings structural racism into the fore. Regular exposure to this kind of structural awareness may nudge more people, churchgoer or not, to reconsider the notion of colorblindness.

For multiracial churches to promote structural awareness, they have to raise the community’s consciousness away from the trappings of individualism both in its beliefs and in its practices as an organization. Frankly this is a very difficult road to travel and requires more commitment intellectually and relationally than most people want to give to a congregation. Churches may have the advantage of more opportunity for relationship building than the workplace, but few have the wherewithal to create real deep relationships that demand giving up “me time” for the sake of getting to know others who face struggles that are completely foreign to one’s experience. It’s not surprising then that many churches emphasize “me and Jesus” Christian individualism. And if a church emphasizes “us and Jesus” Christian collectivism it can still suffer from colorblindness, even when the church is noticeably diverse. All you need is a community culture that does nothing to promote deeper engagement with others beyond a hearty handshake and hymns sung in unison for 60 minutes once a week.

Beyond the challenges facing a typical congregation that would like to have richer relationships across racial boundaries, we should consider the education of the clergy themselves. To what extent is their theological training in any way equipping their worldview to think in terms of structures (apart from the church)? I suspect that today’s seminaries too often describe racial difference in paternalistic tones or in a tourist-y/ buffet-style understanding of culture. It’s this thin understanding of culture that can create a church that has a sense of “we-ness” and still be oblivious to systemic inequalities. Of course it’s important to know that some traditions worship differently; it’s more important to know how these traditions reflect the way blacks and whites have lived in American society as sociologists Jason Shelton and Michael Emerson explained.  Understanding the historic role of systemic racism in cultivating theological traditions and practices is a first step that seminaries can take in creating structurally-aware multiracial churches.

For now, perhaps we can heed the suggestion of Eugene Cho, a pastor in Seattle:

Can we just take some time to hurt and mourn with many of our Black brothers and sisters?
Can we take some time to hurt with many Black churches and communities?
With our black friends, co-workers, and neighbors, can we commiserate with them – however limited we may be in that commiseration?

For us – as Christians – if our Black brothers and sisters in Christ are hurting…If they are truly our brothers and sisters in Christ; And if we are truly the Body of Christ as we profess…can’t we just shut up, listen, and mourn with them? Can we possibly try to listen, hear, and capture a glimpse of why they are upset, concerned, anxious, worried, and even fearful?


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