By Debbie Gin
A few years ago, one of the student groups at Azusa Pacific University invited me as a faculty guest speaker to talk about research I had done on Asian American ethnic/racial identity development. Pleased that a student group wanted to balance its more socially-fun agenda (i.e., parties) with more substantively-fun sessions, I didn’t hold back. After all, their invitation was precipitated by several racially-motivated incidents on campus which were being addressed by faculty and administrators and reacted to by students and other parts of our community. This group wanted to explore why more subtle “hate” activity continued in this supposed post-racial society.
In the session, I talked about how we come to an awareness of our ethnic/racial identity, the stages we come in and out of and repeat, all towards feeling comfortable in our own skin, particularly in a predominantly White context. I also talked about my own journey, how I grew up in predominantly White neighborhoods, learning to navigate between several worlds, thinking everyone had to do that, and never realizing that my lived experience was such that I had to expend double the energy that my White peers did just being a teenager. I expressed how I used to wonder why people would make such a fuss about race and intergroup relations: Didn’t God want us to get along? Couldn’t we just love each other?
One student approached me after my talk and explained how his sister was definitely in the “self-loathing” stage; she just didn’t know it. She’s Chinese American and part of our campus community that gave voice to the sentiment along the lines of “What’s the big deal? We’re making more of this than is necessary. Let’s just move on.” The student shared how he could see this “self-loathing” in his family. For instance, his sister regularly avoided groups that were Asian/Asian American, sometimes engaged in the teasing against her own ethnic/racial group, and tried very hard to be accepted by the dominant group on campus. He was sad to finally acknowledge this about her, and I was sad for him. I didn’t blame her at all. I was once the same. In fact, this phenomenon, and its related manifestations, is common among the 2nd generation of immigrant groups [see, for example, Pyke, Karen & Dang, T. (2003). “FOB” and “whitewashed”: Identity and internalized racism among second generation Asian Americans. Qualitative Sociology, 26(2), 147-172].
The thing about all this, especially as I reflect on one aspect of the AAU letter and the various incidents within evangelical Christendom that precipitated the letter, is that sometimes we can be our own worst enemy and not even know it. Again, I don’t place blame on those who were against the letter; rather, I call into question the systems we have in place to perpetuate the dominance of one group over others. All the –isms (e.g., racism, genderism), when internalized and not surfaced, can be a strong deterrent to liberating the community. (As a woman, I bemoan the fact that it’s often other women who speak loudest against women church leadership.) I recognize there aren’t easy answers: Asian/Asian American seminarians, for example, seldom feel compelled to explore their racial/ethnic identities or how these identities intersect with their understanding of God, opting instead for the latest “purpose-driven X” craze to grow their churches. The nature of norms also perpetuates a scenario where folks in the dominant group don’t have to explore their own dominance (e.g., Whiteness); they enjoy that luxury. Those among the non-dominant, however, feel the pressure to conform, be accepted, and try hard to succeed within established norms.
My answer? Self-exploration. System-exploration. Take time to read about your “people,” the history and accomplishments of your communities. Find mentors who are conversant about power, privilege, and dominance , and learn to think critically about systems that maintain inequities that are displeasing to God (e.g., reading the book of Amos and others) and that keep one group dominant without really hearing the many voices at the table.
Dr. Debbie Gin is Director of AAWOL (Asian American Women On Leadership). She is a Senior Faculty Fellow in Faculty Development at Azusa Pacific University and an Associate Professor in Biblical Studies and Ministry at Haggard Graduate School of Theology. Debbie and her husband live in southern California.