Ferguson: Speaking as an Asian American + Christian

This has been a pensive week for me. Ferguson, MO has been on my mind. But more specifically, the ringing challenge of certain Asian American friends who have called the relative silence of their fellow Asian Americans unacceptable, saying we owe a debt to the Black community because of the freedoms we’ve all gained in their fight for civil rights. And while these calls have unsettled me, I have been mulling on their challenge. After all, wounds from a friend can be trusted, right?

At the same time, as a (recovering) news and political junkie, I’m keenly aware that not only are there many sides to a story, but stories are often used to persuade and politicize. This is not new. This is, in fact, the power of story. In fact, I daresay, there is no such thing as a truly objective story.

But thirdly, as I mentioned in my previous post, I am still testing out my voice in the public conversation on race. This is scary for me because I’m prone to not only be misunderstood, but also maligned. As a learner, my beliefs are still fluid. But not all will read my words this way. But in this spirit, here are some continuing thoughts:

I stand by my belief that the race conversation in America, continues to be irrelevant to Asian Americans. Again, I am not saying that racial reconciliation or racial righteousness is irrelevant to us, but the conversation, as it stands, continues as if we don’t exist or belong. We are, predictably, perpetual foreigners to the conversation. E.g., this great article: 10 Ways White Christians Can Respond to Ferguson is addressed to whom? White Christians, not non-Black Christians, but White Christians (I do understand the sentiment though, because White Christians have a unique responsibility in America because of their privileged race). But I think it goes deeper than that, because as Asian Americans, we don’t quite identify with the Black experience or the White experience. Our experience is Other. I think this is why I took such umbrage to the headline: The Unacceptable Silence of Asian American Christians in Response to Ferguson (I realize now that the title didn’t really reflect the actual blog post). Because I felt like I was being co-opted into a story, on the basis of my race – that never truly included me. And this is why, predictably, you see Asian Americans who sympathize more with Brown, others with Wilson, and many others who are Other: they got other things to do. And lastly, at least for me, when I think of race relations, I almost never think of Blacks or Whites – because both have been among the fastest shrinking populations in the Bay Area, my home base. E.g., I have a Black neighbor now, but before he moved in, the family living there was Ghanaian. The two White neighbors I had: a Lithuanian and a Brit. The rest are Afghan, Indian, Filipino, Guatemalan, Mexican, Japanese, and Chinese. The race conversation, re-ignited by Ferguson, isn’t really about this kind of world. The race conversation that is relevant to me is multi-cultural among equally powered peoples, not bi-cultural between unequally powered ones.

As Asians, we’re slower to speak up in general. You might think that is a stereotype – which of course, it is. But I challenge you to have a Bible Study with a equally mixed group of Whites, Blacks, and Asians. You might have one Asian who is always willing to speak up, but more likely than not, you’ll find that Asians wait longer before speaking, prefer to speak in turn or when they are called on, and may go through the whole study without saying much at all. We are less likely to be external processors, more likely to fear saying something that is wrong. And by the time we’ve figured out something worth saying, the group’s already moved on to the next question! We need time, we need space, we need to be asked for our opinion.

Tensions exist between Asians and Blacks too. Wouldn’t it be great if in times of pain, we could just forget the past and just rally around one another? Yes, but that’s not how things always work out. Reconciliation is a prerequisite to community, and right now, there is still too much crap between Asians and Blacks. For example – and I don’t mean to throw my family under the bus here – but I grew up with a fearful and disparaging view of Blacks. It was rarely taught that explicitly, but when you see your parents lock the car doors enough times, pull you in closer enough times when a Black man walks down the street; you hear enough stories about criminal activity or lazy people – and they tend to always feature someone who is African American; you get told enough times that certain neighborhoods are “bad” because of crime, poverty, schools, and oh, there are a lot of Black people living there — eventually, you get the picture (thankfully, my parents no longer share these views — one of the benefits of actually having Black friends). It’s no secret among Asians that our community harbors deep racist attitudes towards Blacks. On the other hand, as some of my readers have pointed out, the experience Asians have had with Blacks has been disproportionately bad. In 2008, the city of SF found that a stunning 85% of physical assaults were Black-on-Asian. In 1992, Korean-owned stores were disproportionately hit by African-Americans in the LA riots — 45%. And in Ferguson, Asian-owned stores were also disproportionately hit. I pray for White-Black reconciliation. But I also pray for Black-Asian reconciliation.

We do owe a debt. Scott Nakagawa outlines “Three Things Asian Americans Owe to the Civil Rights Movement.” (1) The freedom to marry interracially, which Asian Americans are more likely to do than any other ethnic group. (2) The right to vote, which was won for all races. (3) The Immigration and Nationality Act which ended racist discriminatory laws against Asians. Many of us would literally not be here if it weren’t for the sacrifices made by Black Civil Rights leaders. At the same time, many of us have also benefited from White privilege as well (which again, is why we don’t fit neatly on one side or the other). In fact, those of us who’ve achieved any measure of success have often done so through paths well-worn by our White neighbors.

I still believe the Good Samaritan is the best paradigm for Christian response. Another thing that bothered me about Erna’s post was that, in the end, she appealed to our common humanity: “It’s not a Black problem- It’s a mothers and fathers losing their babies problem…a human problem.” That sounds compelling. But I do think it glosses over a crucial truth, namely that Ferguson is about race. And attempting to de-racialize Ferguson in order to appeal to our common humanity does violence to the reason people are marching on the streets (see more below). Moreover, as I mentioned in my previous post, while I can imagine losing my son and the grief I’d suffer – it’s a whole other thing to see my son in Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin. That is a story and history my family and I have not lived.

But Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan doesn’t try to extinguish difference. It is based on the truth that our experiences and our previous animosities exist. God always begins with the world as it is, not as we wish it were. Jew v. Samaritan, Black v. White, Asian v. Black – it’s all there, it all sucks, but it’s all real. But Jesus teaches that in spite of these differences and past animosities, it’s not about who your neighbor is, but whether or not you are a loving neighbor. If you see your enemy beaten down on the side of the road, you don’t stop to check first who the guy is before you help; you just help! And then, of course, Jesus ate his own medicine on the Cross. Different histories and past animosities do not present a chasm too wide for Jesus’ cruciform love and the new kind of community he died to give birth to. If this is not true, the whole Christian story is not true.

To distinguish my conflicting feelings, I’ve found it helpful to parse Ferguson into three overlapping narratives: the legal narrative, the historical narrative, and the personal narrative.

The legal narrative is about the “facts” of the discrete event between Brown and Wilson, and specifically who was at fault: Why was Brown stopped? What words were exchanged? Did Brown assault Wilson? Why did Wilson shoot, and why six times? And with respect to the legal narrative, there are still too many unanswered questions. I also fear the politicization of this case might make facts harder to come by. This is also why many of my Asian American friends have had little to say. The grand jury investigation is just beginning, and I pray that the facts of the case will make things clear.

The historical narrative is the story of the Black community crying out: AGAIN? In the historical narrative, whether Brown assaulted Wilson isn’t the point. Because his death – as an unarmed young black man – is yet more proof that America is still not a safe place to be Black. And the fact that Brown’s body was left there in the blazing sun in public view for hours on the street, the fact that the local Ferguson police responded with such military-style force to protestors, the fact that facts have been so slow in coming, the fact that a number of voices have been so critical instead of supportive of the Black community’s response of pain – seems to confirm this suspicion. The historical narrative is bigger than the legal narrative. The historical narrative is why Ferguson has become iconic.

And lastly, there is the personal narrative. This is the story most of us overlook (but to which Erna rightful directs us) – which is that beneath the political and social narratives, there is quite simply, a mother who has lost her son; a community has lost one of their own. And the legal facts are completely irrelevant. I have boys of my own, and I can’t imagine how losing a guilty son is any better than losing an innocent one. Loss is loss. Death is death. There is also the story of Officer Wilson. Journalist are trying to dig into his background, but we really have no idea what is going on in his heart and his mind:  fear, anger, guilt, confusion, regret, peace? In any case, I can’t imagine life being very easy for him anytime in the near future. And I hope against revenge.

So how do I think we should respond as Asian American Christians?

  1. Learn. Some other places have suggested books. That’s a steep first step for something that might be new to us. Begin by just reading quality news and blogs.
  2. Check your latent racism. I’m not suggesting that we haven’t been recipients of racism too in the Black-Asian dynamic. But as Christians who live under the Cross, which is purported to have dismantled the dividing wall of hostility between racial/ethnic enemies, it’s not about what the other community has done, it’s about what Christ has done. That’s not enough for reconciliation, obviously – but it begins there. Otherwise we just perpetuate it.
  3. Mourn with those who mourn. I have a few Asian-American friends who can truly empathize with the Black community. For the rest of us, let’s not be disingenuous and pretend we do. Facebook is full of enough posers. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to understand. Most of my Black brothers and sisters, when it comes down to it, are asking not for more analysis but compassion. Two sources that have helped me:
    This official statement from the African American leadership of our denomination, The Evangelical Covenant Church. It’s not just PR mumbo-jumbo. It’s real-talk with a glimmer of real hope.
    This video from the Washington Post & The Maynard Institute. Probably the most eye-opening thing I’ve seen that connects Ferguson to the historical narrative.

    Pray: “Though I cry, ‘Violence!’ I get no response;
        though I call for help, there is no justice. ~Job.

  4. Talk. One reason that I’ve been relatively silent is that no one ever bothered to ask me what I thought. This is one reason why I’m blogging out loud. And one reason we spent a huge chunk of time learning and praying about this at our church this past Sunday. And while the fruit has been varied, it’s been good. The most common response is that most people have “heard of” what’s going on, they haven’t had time to really look into it – and now they will. Others have responded with tears. The most meaningful response was from one of our church kid’s ministry workers, who is Ghanaian-American teen; she has two older brothers and came up to thank me for sharing about Ferguson and leading us to pray. Seriously, that made my week.
  5. Advocate with God & Man regarding Ferguson.
    So much is yet to come, and most of it is beyond our control. A 2-month long grand jury investigation has begun. Let’s pray for truth.
    While protests are dying down, we should all be distressed by the violence shown by both sides. Many younger demonstrators, in particular – and many outside groups don’t share the enemy- and peace-loving ways of their forefathers. Even the Ferguson authorities have acknowledged that much of the violence is coming from non-Ferguson residents. I’m so thankful for experienced civil rights leaders and the churches in Ferguson who have been doing their best to advocate for peace. Let’s pray for peaceful protest.
    Most – on both sides of the political aisle – believe that the various police authorities have much to repent for in response to this situation. Many are alarmed that local police forces now have hand-me downs from our Afghan military units. But imagine trying to maintain peace and order while fearing for your life. Let’s pray for the policing authorities.
  6. Advocate with God & Man regarding all expressions of injustice. As news cycles work, before long, Ferguson will fade into the past. While I do not share as grim of a view of our nation as some do–e.g., I think most minorities are happier to live in the America of today than the America of 50 years ago–I do believe that sin and injustice are stubborn weeds. God hates sin in all its forms. So with the energy and influence we’ve been given, let’s do what we can to pray, vote, advocate, and rally for a more just and peaceful society. And let’s always remember: our means must always reflect our ends.

Grant us, Lord God, a vision of your world
as your love would have it:
a world where the weak are protected,
and none go hungry or poor;
a world where the riches of creation are shared,
and everyone can enjoy them;
a world where different races and cultures
live in harmony and mutual respect;
a world where peace is built with justice,
and justice is guided by love.
Give us the inspiration and courage to build it,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Calling all Asian Americans to speak up about Ferguson?

This has been a disturbing week for America in the news as we’ve seen the unfolding events in the wake of Michael Brown’s death.

My reading of the events is that his death was wholly unnecessary (as I do nearly all gun-related deaths) and a deadly expression of a jacked up system that has been sinfully embedded in our national DNA for much too long. Since then, I’ve seen protest break out into the streets, calls for more transparency from the police, calls for the intervention by the UN, and calls for White pop stars to speak up. And then, I got “interrupted”…

First by this by a friend and fellow pastor whom I love I respect:

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And then this, by one of our denomination’s superintendent’s, whom I also love and respect. The blog post Greg shares is written by a Korean American, on The Unacceptable Silence of Asian American Christians in Response to Ferguson:

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The first post was jarring and convicting. It led me to allude to Michael Brown in my most recent sermon on Politics, although admittedly not by name. But the blog post really stopped me – especially the title. But this time, in a negative way.

I’ll be honest, I am pretty new to the public conversation about race. Just check out my previous posts; more people care about my thoughts on being a father of three than on my musings on race and identity. I’m also pretty new to a deeper understanding of the disturbingly unique experience of being Black in America. So rather than keep my thoughts to myself out of fear and shame, I thought I’d put them out there in hopes that the collective wisdom of the internet can teach me something (don’t laugh).

The short of it is I was very uncomfortable with the “The Unacceptable Silence…” blog. I know, boo-hoo, I was made to be uncomfortable. But let me share why:

  1. As an Asian American, the public conversation about race feels irrelevant to me. There I said it. I’m not saying it is irrelevant, but the dominant language, categories, and history don’t really include people like me. When I think “race conversation”, I think Blacks and Whites. And by most accounts, so do those who write about race in America (or at least those who get posted on Facebook). Don’t get me wrong, I am not insensitive to the pain Blacks feel. Last year, a young black man was shot across the street from our church by a police officer. I went to the vigil, on behalf of our church, to hear their stories and to stand with our neighbors as they grieved without answers; it opened my heart and my eyes. But I also left more convinced that the Black experience in America is unique. Even with the plethora of racism that my family and my kin have faced here in America, it stands in a category that is quite separate from being kidnapped, beaten, trafficked, sold, families rendered, and then systematically discriminated against to boot. Understandably, the Black-White relationship has been the dominant narrative. But that narrative has left me feeling somewhat outside of the conversation. Every time I read Ta-Nehisi Coates, I get it, but at the same time, I don’t get it. Get it?
  2. My experience of being Chinese American was less about violence and more about deep psychological insecurity. Just read American Born Chinese. It is the funniest and most sympathetic telling of my racial and ethnic story here in America (is it unacceptable that Blacks have yet to pick this book up in droves?). The short version is that I didn’t grow up fearing White people, I grew up wanting to be like them. Meanwhile, my parents implicitly taught us that we must work hard to be better than them. There were two racial boogie men in our family: the stereotypical dangerous black man, and the stereotypical lazy white teen. We feared the former, but feared becoming the latter.
  3. To hear that our “silence” as Asian Americans is “unacceptable” feels not only forced, but makes me feel disrespected as an Asian American. Why is our silence unacceptable? This is probably not the intent of the author, but the impression I get is that, of course we should join in the collective suspicion on White authority.  Of course we should stand in solidarity over our collective experience of racism. But see, that is not my story. That is not even the shape of my story. And to suggest that I have any reason to feel the same way that Blacks do when their Trayvon Martins and Michael Browns get shot feels offensive – not just to me, but I can’t imagine how that is not weird to Blacks. I do not teach my three boys to be suspicious of the police, when we see police officers we stop to ask if they have any stickers for my boys, and I do not see my sons when I see Trayvon or Michael. The relationship that young Black men have with the police or dominant society is categorically different than the relationship that my boys have with them. Now, would I grieve if Michael was my son? Of course. But the rallying cry in the blog is not based on parenthood, but based on being a racial minority.
  4. What I appreciate most about my friend Gail’s post is that what moves, angers, and disturbs me about Michael Brown’s death – it doesn’t come primarily from being Asian American (although, I’m sure there is some of that). It comes from the compassion of being a fellow human being who has felt helpless before. It comes from the ability to colorfully imagine Michael Brown being one my son. But most importantly, it comes from being a Christian – who in the pattern of Jesus, is called to not only care about injustice, but to care about the injustices suffered by people who have very little in common with me. Just read the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is a subversive racial story that ends with Jesus telling people like me: Go and do likewise. I am in no way saying that race has nothing to do with Michael Brown’s death. I’m just saying it’s hard for me to see what my race has to do with it. But I’m not so sure how much that really matters in light of the teachings of Jesus.
  5. I feel pretty convicted about what’s happening in Ferguson. I guess I could re-post stories and thoughtful commentary. I just haven’t come across too much that doesn’t just feed into the overly simplistic racial picture that we already know exists. Honestly, posting about injustice on Facebook – it’s tired and tiring. Give me a better way, and I’ll do it.

These are my honest thoughts. I’d love to hear yours. If you think I’m off-base, let me know. I want to learn.