Ferguson to Asian Americans: Deconstructing Silence

Ferguson to Asian Americans: Deconstructing Silence

It’s been 9 days since Michael Brown was murdered by the police in Ferguson, MO. It’s times like these that I abhor Facebook and shun social media because everybody has something to say and real feelings become obscured in sound bites and every single post is a tip of an iceberg that, for some, goes miles and miles deep—how could we ever truly express how we feel on social media? And yet the blatant oblivion of others, posting about food or cats or celebrities when black families mourn and rage… what’s the point of even sifting through all the posts and statuses when they only make me angrier? And my own silence. I don’t have the appropriate words to express my anger and lament, but if I did, why would I put it on social media?

Erna Stubblefield, with whom I share InterVarsity roots (wassup), wrote a post calling out the “Unacceptable Silence of Asian American Christians” and I wondered about my own silence as everything was going on. Perhaps, however, we should nuance our understanding of silence, especially in light of a crisis, especially in light of a crisis that repeats itself over and over and has been repeating itself over and over since this country started. I am so tired of this bullshit. And I believe that it’s important to take a stance but maybe there is such a thing as an acceptable silence. A silence that mourns. A silence that laments. A silence that rages. A silence that gives us space, finally, to actually feel what we need to feel instead of always running, always numbing, always asserting our opinions so we don’t have to actually face our own brokenness, our own hands filthy with the same injustices we protest. I am tired of opinions. I am tired of running away. I am tired of us using Michael Brown’s death to talk about anything but mourning Michael Brown’s death. I am tired of injustice both out there and in here.

What is happening in Ferguson is a damn tragedy. It is centuries of racial tension releasing itself in earthquakes. If you are not convinced by now that our Gospel must be big enough to include reconciliation between communities and not just abstract atonement for personal sin, then the church offers no prophetic assertion for the country’s greatest, most grievous sin, the sin that lies beneath all other sins this country commits, and there are many. If the “Good News” is not Good News for all of humanity, if it is only good news for white Christians or rich Christians or Christians like us, then it is not good news at all, it is only news that separates and divides and reinforces the status quo. I still don’t understand how some Christians sit idly by while the country burns in black and white, except that I do.

Yes, I too was upset about the lack of Asian American voices standing in support of Michael Brown. And yes, I was even more frustrated with the folks who seemed to actively voice other concerns while Ferguson was going on, almost as if to say, “There are more important matters for me today.” But I get it. I’ve been there. And while I echo Erna’s concerns, I cannot chastise us for our apathy because it is an apathy tied inextricably to a firm, subconscious, heartbreaking belief in white supremacy as it is embedded in the American Dream. But our apathy does not dissipate with reprimands; it is too deeply entrenched in our consciousness for that. We have to deconstruct it before we can destroy it, so let us pause for a moment before we apologize for our own brokenness.

I didn’t know how to care about racial justice until I had to. And that’s just it: 1) it’s not that we don’t care, it’s that we don’t know how to care and 2) we’ve never had to care. I can’t tell you how many times I heard this stuff in college, learning words like “privilege” and “systemic injustice” and “racial reconciliation” but never having a concrete framework for that information to be anything more than abstract: I grew up with Asian Americans. I go to church with Asian Americans. I went to school with Asian Americans. My distinctiveness, the uniqueness of my community, and the nuances in racial difference never crossed my mind because we were pushed into ethnic enclaves where race was taken for granted. I never had to think about it, so I didn’t. It’s not an excuse, it’s just the reality.

So when I moved to Chicago, living with white and black peers in a black neighborhood, for the first time in my life, I was confronted with my own distinctiveness. And we had great conversations on race, privilege, and injustice, but the players were always black and white. Our conversations on race did not include me.

This is precisely why Asian Americans are silent when it comes to racial justice. There has never been a place for us in the conversation on race and we don’t have a clue about how to assert ourselves because we never had to. The players have always been black and white and so we let the conversation rage on without us because we were always too in-between to know how to dress our experience in language. And so we continue on, silent, compliant to simply take up space on a black-white racial binary that lets us off the hook from ever knowing just how powerful our voices could be.

In Chicago, if I did not speak up, then my teammates would never hear from an Asian American voice. So for the first time in my life, I had to know who I was. I had to learn how to articulate my story. I had to use my voice. Because before my teammates could ever understand the Asian American perspective on race, I had to learn the Asian American perspective on race. So I did. I went to the library and I ate up every book I could find on Asian American history and identity. But if I had never been put in that position, I never would have learned.

The American Dream has necessitated our assimilation into whiteness for the sake of success. We don’t see Ferguson as “our issue” because we abandoned the black community a long time ago. To our families, the thinking went: why would you associate with the black community when blackness represents downward mobility? Our goal, then, was to talk like white people, dress like white people, play music like white people, and think like white people because white people were on top. And they still are.

And then we went to white seminaries because we wanted to be successful Christians too. So we went to Masters and Gordon-Conwell, bastions of white Evangelical theology, and we distrusted Union and Princeton because they taught scary things like Liberation Theology. And we studied Calvin, Edwards, Barth, Tillich, and old white guy after old white guy until we believed exactly what they believed and we ran our churches just like they did despite the fact that we possessed a very different story. And the “God” of white western theology never said a mumbling word about racism or injustice because those things never even crossed the mind of the white Christian. In fact, white Protestantism often supported racism and injustice (and still does). This is the Christianity that was passed on to our pastors. This is the Christianity we have bought into. It does not align with our story. It does not honor our personhood. It is not complete and it is not wholly just.

But we were just playing the game. We were just living off the script. And so our silence is a product of our assimilation. Our silence is us not having a damn clue about what Michael Brown has to do with our community. Our silence is us forgetting about Vincent Chin, Danny Chen, Harry Lew, Japanese internment, the Exclusion Acts, and the massacres. We willingly forget because why would we care about our ethnic identity when it is precisely our forgetting that has afforded us success in this country? And why would we challenge a status quo that has given us everything we deem valuable?

So many of us in the Asian American community have never been placed in a position where we had to learn who we were. So many of us have never had to use our voices. Because on our way to American success, we lost ourselves. We gained the world but forfeited our souls, trading in our God-given narratives for test scores and white collar jobs. Meanwhile, other communities of color watch us cater to whiteness and wonder why we left them behind.

So, as an Asian American Christian, I stand with Michael Brown and I mourn his death. I lament for Ferguson and I stand against all forms of white supremacy and injustice both out there and in here, in the ways I have internalized those lies in my heart. I believe in a Gospel that says something about injustice, a Gospel big enough to confront America’s greatest, most evil sin. I believe that Jesus came to make things right again. And I hope, more than my words, more than a Facebook status or a blog post, that my actual life, the decisions I make every day, reflect my belief in a God who makes all things new. Lord have mercy on us all.