Asian American Evangelicalism and Middle Class Individualism

About every 3 years or so, a collegiate parachurch ministry called Intervarsity Christian Fellowship holds a national week-long conference named after its original meeting place, Urbana. I was reminded that the next meeting would take place this winter break. It also helped remind me of some news pieces I had been meaning to read on how young Asian American evangelicals (like the ones who will attend Urbana 2012) think about race. In referring to young Asian American evangelicals it’s important to point out that this is a highly selective group. When we think about young white evangelicals for example, we normally don’t consider nativity, immigration, or physical appearance as salient characteristics of this group. Young Asian American evangelicals on the other hand are typically the first in their families to be born or raised in the US; according to the Pew Asian American Survey, while 68% of Asian Americans are Protestant Protestants are foriegn-born, 32% are native-born (and of the 32%, most (22%) are second-generation, and the remainder (10%) is multigenerational (p.172 of full report). Put in big numbers, if there are about 17 million Asian Americans, about 3.7 million are Protestant, and of these 822,800 approximately are second-generation Protestants. What’s more, since the most recent major immigration wave started around 1965, most second-generation Asian American evangelicals (as well as most second-generation Asian Americans in general) are children of baby boomer-era and pre-baby-boomer-era Asian immigrants. This means while post-baby-boomer white evangelicals were growing up and going to college in the 80s and 90s, the typical Asian American evangelical they might encounter would be second-generation.

As I posted recently, about 6% of undergraduates in the US are Asian American; if groups like Intervarsity were proportionally present on US college campuses, then about 1.3% of their target audience might be Asian American Protestant undergrads. From this perspective, we would not expect there to be a large Asian American presence in this organization. But that’s not the case since Intervarsity and other parachurch groups are more present in higher-profile schools than in smaller or lower-profile schools. It’s at these higher-profile schools where Asian Americans are generally over-represented in the aggregate racial figures. Even though only 22% of Asian Americans are Protestant, the greater presence of Asian Americans in high-profile schools increases the potential pool of participants in groups like Intervarsity. This explains to some extent why the proportion of Asian American evangelicals is so high in this organization. A glance at their website of Intervarsity’s Asian American ministries statistics we see the following:

  • 20% of the students who participate regularly with Intervarsity are Asian American (5,758) a 32% increase in the past 5 years
  • 29 Asian American monoethnic groups or chapters, and
  • 230 staff workers of Asian American descent

Judging by the comparative figures for Intervarsity’s African American and Latino student ministries, Asian Americans form the largest minority group in this religious organization.

(Nerds will notice that the figures don’t quite work out the way they should – The main organization’s statistics say there are 180 Asian American staff for example, and the number of Asian American students divided by the number of undergraduates who participate in this organization is more like 16%). While it’s hard to gauge the validity of numbers reported by these organizations, numerous news pieces and books have noted the remarkably high percentage of Asian American evangelicals in these organizations (see this previous post with links to some of these works).

In short, Intervarsity has placed staff and considerable resources toward developing Asian American evangelical spirituality. This has been part of their larger strategy to engage issues of racial and ethnic identity awareness in their ministry by developing multiethnic and monoethnic subgroups. This strategy reveals the complex reality of conveying a universal faith to the cultural particularities of a diverse audience. But in a provocative essay by Paul Matsushima (and reposted on racialicious – a blog site on race issues), providing resources aimed at cultivating ethnic identity awareness may not be enough, and its current efforts might be falling on deaf ears. He argues that Asian American evangelicals by and large are influenced by three social scripts: colorblindness (the view that differential social treatment of groups based on race has no bearing on life outcomes), individualism (life outcomes are strictly the result of personal effort alone), and middle-class identity (those who achieve middle class status are morally superior to those who remain in the working and lower classes). In each of these scripts, Matsushima provides examples of how evangelicalism justifies them through spiritualizing these beliefs. The poor are poor because of their immorality, not as a result of structural barriers, especially racialized structural barriers. Spiritualizing a script for American middle-class mobility has important consequences then for second-generation Asian American evangelicals. It would be one thing if the evangelical script had a balanced perspective that not only accounts for personal effort but also the contexts that limit opportunity for some but not for others. Sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith noted over a decade ago however, that this combination of beliefs creates a firm anti-structural frame of thinking of which African American Christians are perhaps the most immune.

This brings us back to Intervarsity and other parachurch groups. It’s clear that racial difference is on their radar, and they have made efforts to address racial difference through groups aimed at celebrating and understanding difference in multiethnic and monoethnic settings. But to what extent are these settings unintentionally reinforcing the same anti-structuralism that is pervasive in American evangelicalism as Matsushima and others ask? If they offer alternative scripts, is it a viable consideration for second-generation participants in these groups? I wonder whether Asian American evangelicals are aware of the particular advantages that many of them have from being born into highly educated families, or families that sacrificed a great deal to provide even better educational opportunities through entry into predominantly white neighborhoods and schools. How many of them have considered the possibility that they and their families were viewed as an acceptable minority in contradistinction from those other minorities who were denied the same opportunities. If they are aware of these advantages, I wonder if the response is very often an individualized one: give back to one’s parents through a successful high-paying prestigious career. In other words, I wonder whether many second-generation Asian American evangelicals (and other Asian Americans in this same social position) grow aware that their advantages result (in part) from colorblindness and anti-structuralism, and yet resolve it through a colorblind and anti-structural solution (e.g. avoiding social justice, focusing only on career).

Sexism in Racist Tones

Last spring UCLA was the site of a YouTube rant by a former student who was white non-Hispanic, about “Asians in the library” including her version of “Asian speak”- sociologists call this and other derogatory verbage against a group ethnophaulisms. Much of the work on the sociology of race focuses on the influence of the dominant group over subordinate groups; in the case of the US it usually refers to the influence of white non-Hispanics over non-whites. The Alexandra Wallace case is one of these. This is pretty straightforward racism and its significance is due in part to the public platform of YouTube used to convey her thoughts and feelings.

But I was reminded of the Wallace incident because it was implicitly linked to a more recent incident that seemed somewhat ambiguous. On Tuesday November 27th, the Vietnamese Student Union of UCLA had a banner in the student union building where (I think) each student organization has a space to promote their group. It goes unmanned for many hours a day. So on Tuesday morning some members of VSU found a paper with the words “asian women R Honkie white-boy worshipping Whores” tacked onto their banner.  The following day, a similar phrase was found scrawled in one of the women’s bathrooms in Powell Library. The question everyone is asking: who would do this?

Because Wallace was mentioned in the reporting, we’re led to believe that these are similar in nature. Maybe. Perhaps a white student may have done this but in this discussion by the online news site “The Young Turks” they suggest that it may be more complicated than our race-sensitive intuitions might suggest.

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Notably as they point out, the remark is not merely about race but about gender – it’s an attack on Asian American women. It specifically accuses them of “white-boy worship.” We have to agree with the news discussion and ask, why would someone white promote this? Instead we might consider turning attention to the complex matters of interracial dating, and the perceived differences in dating patterns among white and Asian college students. From this perspective, this incident is the ranting of a unique individual, probably Asian American, who feels frustrated about rejection (real or perceived) and externalizes his insecurity by making a public show of his emotions.

So this story does not actually seem similar to the Wallace story at all. The news reports also made mention of another incident at UCLA of anti-Latina sentiment earlier in February 2012. In that one, sexist language was used again with a racial tone. It was not enough to make an ethnophaulism against Latinos, it was specifically aimed at women, and most likely women’s agency in crossing racial lines (evidenced by the phrase “Meximelt”). At this level, perhaps the real issue is sexism. Certain ethnic minority males feel threatened by their female peers in the decisions they make regarding who they will and won’t date. Perhaps that is where the problem rests.

But we should ask further still: in a post-racial America, why would an ethnic minority male feel threatened by dating preferences that cross racial and ethnic lines? Perceived threat of this sort presumes a lack or loss of power by the threatened, and the available power by those they feel threatened by. In these two instances of public sexist-racist remarks, the perceived power of minority women to date outside of their ethnic community is the primary target. But implied in the messages too is a perceived threat of white males who date interracially. Why would white males be perceived as having more power than ethnic minority males? In a society that privileges white masculinity, some non-white males will be particularly sensitive to the difference (i.e. unfair treatment) they experience or perceive in their day-to-day lives. This combination of sexism and racism reflects what sociologists describe as intersections of power which cannot be reduced to one social category or the other. Both racism and sexism structure the kinds of language one uses to express hostility such as the cases we see here.

The upshot is that if both the anti-Asian and anti-Latina sexist remarks are reflective of irresponsible young non-white men, it works to create a climate of fear and insecurity for all. Perhaps that was the aim of those responsible for the rants, but in the end this doesn’t improve their chances at dating someone from their own culture-group. The effect of their behavior chills relations between men and women within these ethnic communities, and promotes distrust between ethnic minorities and whites. If this is the case, those responsible are basically saying “I want everyone else to suffer for the anger I feel from rejection.” In sum, while race is certainly a factor in these incidents involving defacing private, public or communal property, it cannot be decoupled from the sexism that work together in a matrix of inequality that privileges white masculinity.

Racial Exclusion and Selective Inclusion: One Student’s Observations

Since I teach an undergraduate course on racial, gender and class inequality I am always on the lookout for new examples that are pertinent to students’ experiences. The biggest story in terms of race in higher education is the possible shift in affirmative action during college admissions based on a case by a white female student who did not gain entrance at the University of Texas at Austin. I’m still awaiting more news on how this will end so I will save this discussion for another time. It’s these larger systemic solutions of addressing systemic racial and gender inequality in the past that is more difficult for students to understand than the everyday racism that has a certain immediate feel. At the same campus where these deliberations are taking place, reports have emerged of minority students being “bleach-bombed”– this refers to the experience of being hit with a balloon filled with bleach. Incidences like these receive reasonable attention and they reflect new ways in which racial antipathy is projected today.

Baylor of course is no exception to this, and I unfortunately don’t pay enough attention to the student newspaper to realize how often issues of racism occur here. Most of it doesn’t make the news understandably. When you’ve been called ethnic slurs or experienced subtle (and not so subtle) discrimination from a prof or classmate, the immediate solution is to brush it off, soldier on, and don’t make a big deal of it. So for many minority students this is a learned response that traces back to earlier schooling and probably a talk or two with concerned adults who have struggled with these same issues themselves. What amazes me more is when I hear students like sophomore Asiah Phillips utter a phrase like, “I have had no issues with race until I came to Baylor.”

To give a little context, Baylor first-year students are required to attend chapel services twice a week, and in one of these sessions special speakers come in to share their reflections on a topic or issue that the organizers deem important. Given the requirement for first-years to attend this function, any talk here commands an audience of several thousand new students. So Ms. Phillips had an enormous opportunity to share her thoughts on a topic that is of interest to me, but was not of interest to her, until she came to Baylor.

If you’re in a hurry, move to the 20 minute marker where her talk begins.

Her first observations were about awareness of institutional exclusion and what we might call token institutional inclusion. (Caveat: Ms. Phillips doesn’t use these terms in her talk, I’m taking her narration to exemplify these concepts.) For Asiah Phillips and other Christian students who were raised in non-white-evangelical-influenced church contexts, chapel worship experiences are jarring. “Where’s my type of praise?” she asks. As of her third semester she recalls no African American faculty; moreover all 15 faculty she has had were white.

Her elation in participating in Homecoming festivities was tempered by the realization that she could not find another person who resembled her racially based on a casual glance of her social surroundings. Notably (and this is partially what I mean by token inclusion), the only black faces she saw at Homecoming were the victorious athletes parading through the main procession. “Where were the rest of us?” she asks. “What about people like me?” For many minority undergrads and their parents Ms. Phillips experiences and interior reflections resonate deeply:

“So after various parents asked my mom if her son played football here or if her daughter ran track, I got tired. Is the only way people can fathom me going to school is if I’m an athlete? Why can’t I be here on academic scholarship like you? It seemed like people here didn’t treat me just like I was any other person.”

The other example she provides of token racial inclusion is of the notable presence of non-student minorities working in campus service capacities. She says: “It’s hard being in an institution where it seems that the only people that look like you push brooms and make cafeteria food.”

And if that were not enough, we might also add the personal experiences she has with peers outside the classroom:

“I can still remember nights when I went out with my friends, and I would be dressed up to go to a party, and I would be stopped at the door because there were “no blacks allowed.” In 2012 that is crazy to me, that I am still judged and taken aback because of the color of my skin. Shortly after, she notes too that she’s been the recipient of epithets including the n-word, and even the word “slave.”

In sum, Asiah Phillips sees and hears no examples of her Christian religious heritage, she sees minorities in campus-wide events largely on display alongside other noted white students, she is presumed by others to be a student-athlete (rather than a conventional academic student); her main examples of same-race non-student adults on campus is that of the blue-collar workers in service, and none in the professorate. I might add also, none in the administration. This is a recipe for alienation, and it has consequences for the culture of a university, the kinds of mindsets that will represent that culture when they graduate. I would predict that minority students who experience the kind of alienation that Ms. Phillips shared in her talk will likely:

-be aware of racial power imbalances in their day-to-day encounters in multi-racial settings,

-lack confidence that white-dominated institutions and white actors within them will identify with her,

-believe that cultural practices and traditions begun by white Christians will go largely unchanged

-believe that the pathway to middle class standing is not obtained by getting a PhD and teaching at a university.

Given that Ms. Phillips grew up and attended schools that were more diverse and inclusive students, and given that (along with most other graduates) will likely work in a diverse environment, I would also predict that she will compartmentalize her experience at Baylor as a “white Christian” school. These predictions focus mainly on how I think a young person might react in the absence of other factors that Ms. Phillips also noted. Asiah Phillips views herself as a Christian, a person of a particular faith tradition that conveys a belief in universal love of others. It is this belief that fuels her pursuit of racial affirmation and greater inclusivity. Notably she sees this issue of love and racial inclusion as a matter of spiritual calling.

Second, Ms. Phillips has counterexamples which she must balance with the other realities that she’s faced. She says that

“I’ve been lucky enough to have white friends who don‘t treat me any different than anybody else because they love me and they don’t see a difference just like I don’t see a difference.”

While she has witnessed numerous examples of exclusion, selective inclusion, and downright discrimination, she has also experienced friendship with white peers. And while there’s no direct mention of this, the very fact that the chaplain’s office, also largely staffed by whites, included this talk in their program suggests that not all white institutional actors will sweep such stories off to the side.

One final observation. I think that Asiah Phillips’s talk reflects a strategy that many will find uncomfortable, even though her fundamental belief is shared by all. Several times she notes that race doesn’t matter to her, and it didn’t until she came to Baylor. If we ask most Americans today whether racial inequities are justifiable, most would also say no. But here’s the difference. For many Americans, the solution to the thorny matter of racial inequities is to not talk about it. For others, like Asiah Phillips, the solution to reducing racial inequities is to talk about it, and indeed she has bravely, and lovingly done so.

Want to Fight the Man? Reform is Hard Work

In his recent column responding to the You Tube hit video, “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus,” New York Times Columnist David Brooks sent a clear message to many would-be reformers: if you desire reform, you are better off joining a movement tied to a tradition.

Tradition is hardly a word we hear anymore. When it is evoked, it is often used negatively. Many people distrust institutions that symbolize traditions, such as the government and religion. The free market–which can be considered a tradition in that it refers to a set of  principles on which our economy is based– has also come under fire. Change Washington, Occupy Wall Street, and give me Jesus without the church may be catchy phrases, but Brooks’s column leads us to ask: with what will you replace those traditions?

Although many critiques of government, markets, and religion may be right on, Brooks poses a challenge, which I paraphrase as: If you don’t like the tradition you see, look around for another tradition to which you would give authority. If you try to reform what you don’t like without knowing much about alternatives, you probably won’t persuade anyone to join you.

Brooks writes: [Read more…]