In 2016 Daniel Hotzclaw, a multiracial Asian American man with a white father and Japanese mother, was convicted of raping multiple black women during his time as an Oklahoma City police officer.1 Hotzclaw was convicted of targeting these women knowing that their social status—poor, black, and sometimes previously convicted of criminal activity—would undermine their potential claims against him of sexual assault. In short, Holtzclaw used his proximity to whiteness to violently exploit and abuse black women.2
Ki Joo (KC) Choi set out to write a book on Asian American Christian ethics. In pursuing this project, however, he realized he first needed to define “Asian American” as a category. This latter task required more careful attention than expected and is the focus of Disciplined by Race. A second volume focusing on normative Asian American Christian ethics is forthcoming. The heart of Choi’s argument in this first volume is that Asian Americans are “disciplined” by race in such a way as to always be racialized according to standards of whiteness that they can never fully embody and even define what it might mean to be Asian.
As a multiracial Asian American man, I have spent countless hours thinking about Holtzclaw, his crimes, and the systems that enabled him to perpetrate them. As an Asian American Christian who has also spent much of my professional life working with people racialized as black, brown, yellow, and white for racial justice, I believe that part of what it means to be a person of color3 in the United States is to resist racism on a daily basis. Because of this experience I have long resisted the suggestion sometimes made that Asian Americans are “honorary whites.”
I am a person of color, too, and I have known that since I was young. I knew it when I was called a “gook” by a white peer as a child. I knew it when an elementary school teacher told a classroom full of students that they could be anything they wanted to be when they grew up but that I could never be president of the United States because I was Korean. I knew it when I was subtly and bluntly informed by others that I was not white or American “enough” in this or that way no matter my paternity.
So, I have resisted Choi’s emerging vision of Asian American Christian ethics because he is so clear that one of the great moral temptations Asian Americans face is what he has called elsewhere “Asian American whiteness.”4 Asian Americans, he argues, too often want to be white and are successful at appropriating some signals of whiteness: education, income, and a hatred of other people of color, especially black people. In this, we often find ourselves aiding and abetting the historic crime of white supremacy, especially its portions that are virulently anti-black.
We do not (have to) give in to this temptation, I want to insist to Choi, because we have faced our own history of racialized injustice. I live down the street from one of the many places on the West Coast where Chinese workers were gathered up like cattle and put on ships to China because of the racist fear and hatred of the white majority. As a child I went to the state fair on the same grounds that once served as an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. Though my name is McCarty and my facial features resemble my (white) father more than my (Korean) mother, I, too, have been made to feel like a perpetual foreigner who might be included in the next round of “yellow peril” that could sweep the United States. And so I know there are others with eyes more slanted, skin more yellow or brown, accent thicker, religion more Buddhist or Muslim or Hindu or Sikh or Shinto, who surely must feel solidarity with racialized others who have their own histories of oppression.
And yet, Holtzclaw raped. And yet, Asian Americans, brown and yellow, push forward lawsuits seeking to change affirmative action laws and policies with the hope that their children might gain some more access to power—often at the expense of our black and Latinx neighbors.5 And yet, too many Asian Americans embrace their model minority status as evidence of their virtue or worthiness while simultaneously seeing it as evidence that others browner and blacker lack some deep-seated something that might help them succeed in this country like they and their progeny have. And so, Choi’s argument about the racialization of Asian Americans forces me to wrestle with my own racialized identity and the racialized identities of my Asian American siblings.
Scholars of race in the modern world have taught us that race is not a biological category but a social construction that differs across time and space. However, more often than not they have focused their analyses on what these constructions look like for blackness, whiteness, or some gradation in-between. In this volume Choi fills an important lacuna by giving us a nuanced analysis of the racialization of those we call Asian American. Drawing on the social sciences, popular journalism and opinion essays, Asian American fiction, and Christian ethics, Choi weaves a complicated picture of the ways that Asian Americans are racialized to either be more “Asian” than American or, perhaps more tragically, “white” in their American-ness. Asian Americans are defined racially by others and never according to our own history or identities. We are either homogenized into the always-foreign, and threatening, category of “Asian” or we are allowed proximity to whiteness by being distanced from other people of color when we are branded the “model minority.”
In short, the racialization of Asian Americans is, in Choi’s words, “fundamentally restrictive.” The racialization of Asian Americans restricts what kinds of “Asians” or “Americans” Asian Americans can be while still being recognizably Asian American. This restrictive racialization also restricts what moral agency can look like for persons who are Asian American in a society so often defined by the categories of whiteness and blackness. To construct any normative ethic for Asian American Christians one must first face head-on the reality of these socially constructed and morally restrictive boundaries. In drawing our attention to the nuanced, sometimes contradictory, and always imposing way that Asian Americans are racialized as Asian Americans, Choi has helped us to see more clearly the challenges and opportunities for Asian American Christian ethics in a racialized and racially unjust society that benefits those racialized as white, oppresses those racialized as black, and plays those racialized otherwise against themselves to keep that structure in place. The work he has done in this volume is groundbreaking and will inform any work done in Asian American Christian ethics for the foreseeable future.
It is this argument that Choi’s four interlocutors—Jennifer Harvey, Traci West, Ramón Luzárraga, and Jonathan Tran—engage from their own racialized experiences as people who have been racialized as white, black, Latinx, and Asian American. And there are two impulses that arise in these four response: first, the impulse to name and struggle with the dominance or relevance of whiteness, blackness, and/or the black-white binary in their own work or experience (West, Harvey, Luzárraga), and, second, the impulse to insist that Choi’s work gives too much power to this frame and, therefore, unwittingly reinscribes it (Tran). West also reminds us of the importance of intersectional analyses of racism by pointing to areas where more work could have been done related to gender and sexuality injustice but are absent from Choi’s book.
The possibility of solidarity across different experiences of racialization is also raised by several of the authors, but is not pursued with much depth. This is the case, in large part, because the argument Choi gives us has reminded our four respondents of the importance of paying attention to their own racialization before attending to the work of cross-racial solidarity and justice-seeking. We see in these early responses to Choi’s work that paying attention to particular experiences of racialization can transform the way that Christian ethicists do ethics. This may be the greatest gift of Choi’s book; a gift for which I am grateful.
Camila Domonoske, “Former Oklahoma City Police Officer Sentenced to 263 Years for Sexual Assaults,” NPR.org, January 21, 2016, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/01/21/463867164/former-oklahoma-city-police-officer-sentenced-to-263-years-for-sexual-assaults.↩
I am following Choi’s use of Melanie Bush’s definition of whiteness as both “the compilation of institutional privileges and ideological characteristics bestowed upon members of the dominant group in societies organized by the idea and practice of pan-European supremacy” and the related “white racial frame” which uses “stereotypes, metaphors, images, emotions, and narratives” that “both emanate from and support systemic racism.” Whiteness, then, is both a social-structural system and a cultural production that reinforce and reproduce each other in societies organized by racialized categories in which “white” denotes those at the top of the social, economic, cultural, and political order.↩
I do not understand “person of color” merely to refer descriptively of all people who are not racialized as white. Rather, I understand “person of color” to be a moral-political identity that recognizes both the particularity of racialized injustice in the United States and the ways those particular injustices are the product of racial systems of white supremacy that harm all people not racialized as white.↩
James W. McCarty, review of Asian American Christian Ethics, by Grace Kao and Ilsup Ahn, Marginalia, January 18, 2019, https://marginalia.lareviewofbooks.org/asian-american-ethics-identity/.↩
Anemona Hartocollis, “Does Harvard Admissions Discriminate? The Lawsuit on Affirmative Action, Explained,” New York Times, October 15, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/15/us/harvard-affirmative-action-asian-americans.html.↩