To Make the Invisible Visible: Interrogating Race and Racism

Keun-Joo Christine Pae

Race matters in every part of human society – our church, theological education, economic systems, and everyday relations with others. Those who strive to practice God’s love and justice on earth must join the difficult and complex dialogue of race. As an Asian woman, I rarely feel comfortable sharing my personal experience of overt or covert racial discrimination that has occurred in the church and in American higher education.

On the one hand, this discomfort partially results from the fact that U.S. interracial dialogue is dominated by the black-white dichotomy. Asian Americans often fall into the awkward position – they are neither black nor white, neither victims nor perpetrators. On the other hand, I often need Godgiven courage to challenge – to interrogate – race domestically and internationally because this task reveals my own vulnerabilities in our globalized world. Nonetheless, I have to interrogate race as a social system, engage in interracial dialogue, and contemplate just racial relations because God wants all humans to live fully and abundantly in God’s image. Here I want to share reflections on Asian Americans as a racial and political category. What can the church do better to advance racial relations?

Asian Americans are diverse people representing complex and intricate relationships with their mother continent Asia, which is comprised of three billion people, seven different language zones, diverse religions, and various political and cultural systems. Asian Americans should not be viewed as one racial group. Many Asian Americans still hold strong ethnic and national identities as Korean Americans, Chinese Americans, Vietnamese Americans and so on. Considering this diversity among Asian Americans, Chandra Mohanty argues that “Asian American” is a political category reconstructed by Asian descendants who share similar political goals such as equal opportunity and just racial relations.1

Wars and Words

Although the construction of Asian Americans as a racial and political category has a strong tie with the civil rights movement, the American public’s perception of Asians reflects America’s involvement in wars in Asia. Chang-Rae Lee’s novel Native Speaker offers an insightful theory of etymology of the prejudicial word “gook,” which most Americans first heard during the Vietnam War. The narrator of the novel, Henry Park, theorizes that when American soldiers entered a Korean village during the Korean War (1950-53), the villagers shouted “Mee-Gook! Mee-Gook!” While Mee-Gook means America or American in Korean, American soldiers interpreted it as “I am a Gook.”2

Ethnic studies scholar Jodi Kim interprets Lee’s story as an important resource for understanding the racialization of Asian Americans. Kim argues that Americans publicly racialized Asian/Asian Americans prior to their migration into the U.S., and Americans continue to racialize Asian Americans in the post-Cold War era. The history of “gook” exemplifies the racial categorization of Asian Americans that reflects America’s interpretation of U.S.-Asian relations without considering how Asians identify themselves.

The New Immigration Act of 1965 dramatically increased the influx of Asians into the U.S. The American public celebrates the growing Asian presence by honoring diversity in culture, food, and religion. However, Asian Americans have never been freed from the racism that was interwoven with America’s military operations in Korea and Vietnam. The 1965 Immigration Act embodied America’s reaction to international criticisms of the Jim Crow law and racial segregation, while also attempting to spread free market democracy in Asia. America’s hidden desire in Asia in the early Cold War period is theologically articulated in Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History: Asians must be saved from communists, and this is America’s global responsibility. 4 Americans’ turbulent feelings about the Korean War (the so-called forgotten war) and the Vietnam War (the lost war) have stirred ambivalence and racial tension around the post-1965 Asian immigration ever since.

A Model Minority?

One of the greatest myths about Asian Americans is their “model minority” reputation. The “model minority” stereotype depicts Asian Americans as a hardworking, financially stable, and well-educated minority who has achieved the American dream. The flip side of this stereotype dismisses racial inequality as a structural issue. According to this complacent argument, Asians’ economically privileged status proves that America is the country of equal opportunity: Whoever works hard can be successful. However, most Asian Americans do not identify themselves as a model minority. Just as “gook” is given to Asians (specifically Southeast Asians) to reflect a derogatory ideology, the model minority stereotype is a socially constructed perspective that serves an ideology – the endeavor to maintain order, reinforce white supremacy, and discipline non-Asian people of color.

But a model minority myth is more dangerous than “gooks.” First, this stereotype does not accurately portray the realities of Asian Americans. According to Robert Teranishi’s empirical study, it prevents Asian Americans from equally accessing higher education compared to other racial minorities and whites. The high school dropout rate among Hmong, Cambodians, Vietnamese, and Pacific islanders is as high as those of blacks and Latinos, but the model minority myth blinds educational policy makers to these real-life statistics and conditions. Furthermore, Chinese, Korean, Indian, and Japanese Americans – core members of the model minority stereotype – experience inequality in their attempt to access educational resources if they live in inner urban areas of large cities such as New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The Asian American population is highly concentrated in these areas.

“Perpetual Foreigner”

The American public often misinterprets the visibility of Asian students in higher education – many of them are international students from Asia who do not share the experiences of racism or racial consciousness with many Asian Americans. Considering these international students only, many Americans fail to recognize the everyday racial injustice that Asian American students may encounter on campus. Americans’ lack of distinction between Asians and Asian Americans stems first from the relatively short history of Asian immigration, and second from the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype: No matter how long Asian Americans have lived in the United States, they cannot assimilate because of their race and unique cultures and thus are forever considered foreigners. Ironically, the perpetual foreigner stereotype contradicts the model minority stereotype.

What can our churches do better in the name of just racial relations? Here I would like to share one anecdote.

Throughout my M.Div. years at YDS, interning with a Korean-American church, I prepared for ordination in one particular Protestant denomination. Toward the end of my senior year, I was excited about the invitation to interview for candidacy. A few days before the interview, a person in the ordination committee told me that the church would not guarantee a job for me because Korean-American churches would not respect female leadership and general American churches would not welcome immigrants like myself whose cultural background was so different from their congregations’. Although I did understand this individual’s concern about the “right match” between a church and a minister, I took his comments as a sign of the church’s unexamined sexism and racism. How could he be so definitive about Korean-American churches and American churches generally, while many female pastors ministered Korean-American congregations and non-Korean congregations across the United States? Even if his observation was true, shouldn’t it be the church’s responsibility to challenge the congregations to work with the leaders whose gender, sexual, racial, and cultural identities were different from the majority? After this experience, my love for God and passion for God’s people remained the same, but I no longer wanted to stay in that denomination.

Understanding Power

This experience eventually challenged me to analyze racial relations in various Christian communities across the globe. Every major U.S. denomination provides racial justice training for church leaders and ministries of cultural and racial diversity. However, many congregations still have a long way to go to establish just racial relations inside and outside of the church. Most Christian churches are still racially segregated. On a surface level, some evangelical megachurches seem racially integrated, but they may avoid interracial dialogue or analyzing power differentials inside the church. Without struggling to understand how power and privilege relate to race, the church fails to preach about and live God’s love and justice.

I do not want to blindly support racial integration in the church, either. Asian-American churches sometimes need safe spaces where they could share cultural heritages, Asianized Christianity, and criticize white supremacy without fear. Unfortunately, many Asian-American Christians do not utilize their ethnic gatherings in order to analyze racism or to preach about racial relations. Without facing racial issues, Asian-American churches may repeat the same mistakes that many white churches do.

Immediately after the Los Angeles riot of 1992, Korean-American churches met in dialogue with black churches. In this way they could address racial conflict among people of color all the while naming white supremacy as the major source of this conflict. Twenty-plus years later, where is interracial dialogue happening in our churches? A racially integrated congregation may be ideal, if power differentials are analyzed, but in the meantime we at least ought to be attempting dialogue between members of racially different congregations. By cross-racially appointing ministers and seminary interns, churches can nurture interracial ministry and dialogue on a leadership level.

Finally, our churches and theological schools should consider the American church’s global connection to believers around the world. Keeping the origins of “gooks” and “perpetual foreigners” in mind, what roles do American churches play in instigating racism in Asia? Are American missionaries acting like saviors in Asia? Are American seminaries educating Asian international students to ignore analyses of racism so that they will consciously or unconsciously hold racist views when they go back to their respective countries? If the church takes its responsibility seriously to create just and peaceful human relations before God, it is not too late to repent of past racial injustices and examine its present faith in God whose will is to dismantle white supremacy.

Keun-Joo Christine Pae ’03 M.Div. is an Episcopal priest and assistant professor of Religion/Ethics at Denison University in Granville, OH.


1 Mohanty develops Asian Americans as a political category from a transnational and third-world feminist perspective. Chandra Mohanty, Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory Practicing Solidarity (Duke, 2003), pp. 68-69.

2 Jodi Kim, Ends of Empire: Asian American Critique and the Cold War (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), pp. 1-2.

3 Kim, pp. 3-5.

4 Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (1952; reprinted, Chicago, 2008), p. 57, 112. 5 Robert Teranishi, Asians in the Ivory Tower: Dilemmas of Racial Inequality in American Higher Education (Teachers CollegeColumbia University Press, 2010), pp. 63-68.

5 Robert Teranishi, Asians in the Ivory Tower: Dilemmas of Racial Inequality in American Higher Education (Teachers College Columbia University Press, 2010), pp. 63-68.