Don’t Waste Your Race: Racial Stewardship (2)

Last time I introduced and argued for the concept of racial stewardship. Today I want to dive into some implications.

Getting Practical

My reflection upon racial stewardship has been undertaken from an Asian American perspective, so that will be my focus here.

How might Asian Americans engage in racial stewardship? How might they manage their Asian race and identity for the good of others?

First of all, Asian Americans need to redeem the model minority myth. We need to get the facts straight. The Asian model minority myth does not do justice to the still struggling Southeast Asian Americans, such as the Hmong, Laotian, and Cambodian communities, who have suffered 35-40% high school dropout rates in the U.S. The Asian model minority myth harms these Asian Americans as well as Black, Arab, and Latino communities by setting the “model” (read: good) Asian community against other “not model” (read: bad) communities. Remember, the term was coined by a white American sociologist, who may or may not have had good intentions. The proliferation of this myth made white Americans the arbiters of what ought to be considered as good and “model” behavior. They ended up calling “model” behavior anything that submissively assimilated into the prevailing culture and posed no threat to their dominant status.

The sad fact, however, is that for far too long, many Asians, myself included, have unwittingly accepted this model minority status as a badge of honor. “Asians are tough. The Chinese put their heads down, sucked it up, and built that railroad for a meager wage that white working-class Americans were too arrogant to accept. Look where that hard work has got us!” We’ve bought into the dominant American racial ideology. We’ve poorly stewarded our racial identity, and we’ve embraced simplistic sociological categories that only continue our alienation from whites and yet further increase our alienation from other non-whites.

So how might Asian Americans redeem the model minority myth? Like I said, it starts with getting the facts straight and rejecting the model minority identity along with its white American-conditioned ideological assumptions. This is part of the stewardship of privilege and the stewardship of oppression. To redeem the model minority myth is to be an active agent in the construction of the Asian American identity. To redeem the model minority, Asian Americans must model their present minority identities not by continuing to work hard and attempting assimilation, but by stewarding their yellow privilege as well as their oppression. They must manage their race unselfishly and with great compassion.

Stewarding one’s yellow privilege means recognizing that even if you are not the most privileged, you are also not the least, especially if various contexts are taken into account. When stewarding yellow privilege, one should also be conscious of the partial truths of the model minority myth. A lot of Asian Americans have indeed achieved “success” through hard work (over 63% of Chinese Americans from 2000-2010 had a bachelor degree or higher). While not embracing the myth, a steward of yellow privilege admits that the system has either worked in his favor or at least not been as oppressive toward him as it has been to other races.

Now let me give a couple examples of what this might look like. Stewarding yellow privilege means not pouting when the black or latino kids in our high schools who may have lower GPAs and SAT scores get into better colleges than we do or receive better scholarships. It means that even though many Asians have had to work harder than whites for success in America, they ought not to hoard what they have worked so hard for. Though Asian Americans’ belongings may have more value to them because they often had to work harder for them, we must not use this as a reason to be less charitable than whites towards those with still less privilege. Nor must we only vote for presidential candidates who will protect our bank accounts as opposed to those who might be better for the rest of society, even if at our own expense. Stewarding yellow privilege means utilizing one’s “non-threatening Asian look” to reach out to others with warmth and hospitality, instead of using it to get away with things that “more suspicious” looking people couldn’t. Whatever privilege we have (and it will even differ amongst different Asian Americans), we must use it to serve others. We who are privileged have an obligation to bear with the failings of the unprivileged and not to please ourselves (see Romans 15:1-3).

At the same time, Asian Americans are also called to steward their oppression. Most simply, we are called to have compassion and empathize with those who are less privileged. This means not looking down on FOBs. They are only one or two generations from you, and your parents or grandparents likely experienced what they are currently experiencing. Stewarding Asian American oppression also means showing compassion to non-Asians who are oppressed. Though no Asian American can know the black American experience, both can understand the multi-colored non-white experience in America. Stewarding this oppression means not shrugging our shoulders when other non-whites suffer. It means saying a quick prayer for Trayvon Martin’s family at least every time we put on our hoodies and go for an evening jog. It means not viewing #BlackLivesMatter as a noisy black supremacy movement, or one that has no relevance for Asians. It means mourning for the untimely death of Akai Gurley just as much as, if not more than Officer Peter Liang’s manslaughter conviction, no matter how much we believe that the government was trying to make a severe example of him instead of the white officers who have undoubtedly done worse.

This is my vision for Asian Americans. What if what it meant to be the model minority was not that one’s racial group in America had served as a good example of submissive assimilation, but what if it meant was that one’s racial group served others well out of the unique stewardship of their own particular race?

Can White People Steward Their Race?

I’m aware that in an increasingly racialized society, whites might feel left out. Although still a majority, many don’t feel like they have a racial culture or heritage to call their own in the way that non-whites do. After all, is white even a color? I recently heard about an exchange here in Edinburgh in which a caucasian American was invited to her church’s International Fellowship, to which she replied, “But, I’m not international. I’m American.” SMH! So I get that it’s easier for white people to forget that they still do constitute a particular “other-ness”, but racial stewardship is still something that they can participate in. I’m no expert on white privilege, and even less of an expert on white oppression, but what I’d like to do here is cast a vision that I’ve been thinking upon for quite a while. This is by no means a mandate, but merely a vision for the American evangelical church. It’s a vision for how white American evangelicals might steward their race, and rightly see “whiteness” as a gift from God.

Cities are all the rage these days, especially for evangelicals seeking to influence culture. After all, activism was always part of Bebbington’s quadrilateral, so when Tim Keller insisted on the significance of cities, you just knew that every evangelical and their mother was gonna want in. The logic goes that if you influence the cities, you’ll influence the wider culture. That’s probably been Hillsong’s strategy in NYC, LA, and soon in SF.

I’m not particularly against this movement to “reach the cities of America,” but I wonder if it might distract my white brothers and sisters from considering how they might steward their race in the States. Here’s why…

A hot question today that’s been fascinating the millennial generation is how Donald Trump has found so much support in our nation. It certainly hasn’t been from NYC or SF. Whether you believe American evangelicals do support Trump or don’t, many do, especially in working class white America. Many journalists and researchers have noted that Trump support is largely from those Americans who feel that they’ve lost their voice, who feel like sheep without a shepherd:

America’s non-voters tended to be poorer, less educated citizens who are fiscally liberal and socially conservative. Neither party listened to them, let alone represented this populist center, until Trump gave them a voice.

This begs the question: Who has been shepherding blue collar America? What missions have been sent to serve the under-served of working-class America? What is being communicated (or not being communicated!) from their pulpits that has influenced the worldview of these voters?

My next question, then, is who might be well-equipped to reach blue collar America or the Southern states? I wonder whether my white brothers might in many ways be better suited to reach such people. In all honesty, this vision, has been shaped by my own experiences in Indonesia and Philadelphia. When I visited a seminary for two weeks in Jakarta, there was an immediate level of comfort, understanding, and amicability between myself and the Indonesian students. They treated me very well as a guest, but not with the level of caution that they might have if hosting a caucasian. They were less anxious eating Indonesian food with me at every meal, comfortably shared their dorm facilities with me, and even got comfortable enough to talk to me about the girls they fancied! Doing urban ministry in Philadelphia was quite different. Most of the students I served were black American, African immigrant, or Puerto Rican, and they always made fun of my small eyes. I loved those kids, and I’m confident that they loved me, but there was always a disconnect. This is not to say that I had nothing to offer them, or that I wasted my time with them because I could’ve served in a place where I connected better. Nor is this to deny the power of the gospel and the Spirit to transcend social boundaries. Still, these experiences taught me, at the very least, the efficacy of race in ministry. Just as my race aided my relationships in Indonesia and somewhat obstructed those in Philadelphia, I wonder what ministry contexts the white race might aid.

Again, this is not a mandate, but a vision. What if white American evangelicals stewarded their race by going on mission in America to the South, the Midwest, and specifically to working-class America or even rural America. What if American evangelicals stopped considering, even if subconsciously, such people groups as insignificant missionary targets? What if Christian Trump-supporters (I can’t believe I actually typed that) were shepherded by nuanced and sensitive white Bible teachers? Let’s be real, there is a weight to a white person’s opposition to Trump that is absent from a non-white person’s opposition.

But this isn’t just about Trump and the South or MidWest. What if, in the cities and suburbs of America, caucasians sought to assist non-white lead pastors? What if they saw themselves as possible candidates to be “diversity hired” themselves? How might white ministers help already diverse Pan-Asian ministries move from reaching Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Filipinos, and Vietnamese to reaching whites, too?

I’m aware of the American evangelical temptation to over-strategize, so I’m not advocating the conventional Homogenous Unit Principle (HUP) of church growth. Rather I’m hoping to redeem the HUP by giving it an outward and missional focus rather than an attractional marketing focus. I don’t believe that only people of a particular race can and/or should reach people of the same race. Neither do I deny the power of the Spirit to work in a Filipino or Indian minister to revive evangelicalism in Appalachia. Still, I wonder if racial stewardship might serve the church well today.

I hope you’ll consider this proposal for racial stewardship amongst Christians of all races, even white Americans. Race is a gift from God. Let’s not waste it!

Andrew Ong

Andrew is a third-generation, San Francisco Bay Area ABC (American Born Chinese). He and his third-gen wife have two daughters and still live in the East Bay. After graduating from the University of California Irvine and Westminster Theological Seminary, he completed his PhD in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, researching Chinese American evangelicals and Neo-Calvinist theology. He presently serves on staff at Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, California. Andrew's a simple guy whose passions include: sushi, pizza, nachos, and the Golden State Warriors. On his less sanctified days he lives by the maxim: #ballislife.

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