Symposium Introduction

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.


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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/.

  5. 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.

Jennifer Harvey

Response

Asian American Identity as Racial Identity

Breaking the Binary without Losing Race

Right at the beginning of Disciplined by Race: Theological Ethics and the Problem of Asian American Identity, Ki Joo (KC) Choi reminds us of the importance of theological particularity. Particularity is necessary any time we aspire to make larger normative claims and contributions to the work of theological ethics. Taking this methodological commitment seriously, Choi proceeds to envision a project that will engage the particularities of the Asian American experience in order to “asses, integrate and learn from contemporary debates on racism” as these pertain to the work of theological ethics.

Ultimately, Choi delivers on this vision—at least, in part. Disciplined by Race is an excellent and critically important book. It takes up a number of truly difficult issues pertaining to race and racial difference in US-American life, including as these pertain to the relationship of Asian Americans to whiteness and white supremacy, as well as to the complexities of African American and Asian American relationships. Indeed, to Choi’s aspiration that his project will “assess, integrate and learn from” engagement with contemporary debates on racism, I would add “provocatively” and “constructively advance” our collective debates on racism. For that’s what Disciplined by Race does.

Ironically, it is the “in part” that makes this book so successful. A salient reason Disciplined by Race is excellent is because Choi first scales back—way back—on his initial ambition. Choi begins this book by being appropriately careful to acknowledge the innate difficulty of presuming to articulate anything approaching a normative claim about Asian American theological ethics. For what is the Asian American experience, after all? Is it even possible to speak meaningfully of such an experience? If so, how, given the “wild diversity” (Choi’s words) of Asian American identities? What could such a project hope to accomplish without reducing identity to a form of essence or falling into false and unsatisfying binaries that turn on claims of authentic or inauthentic Asian Americanness?

Choi is so appropriately careful that after setting out he quickly pivots to shift the locus of the book. Within the first several pages, he tells the reader he can’t actually pursue the project as initially conceived in these pages. He can’t write an Asian American theological ethics. Not yet. The question of “what it means to be Asian American” presents itself as such a fundamental methodological challenge that Choi must instead begin—and this is where he will choose to remain throughout Disciplined by Race—his much larger project by devoting an entire book to the difficulties and possibilities of making “a case for what it means to be Asian American.” It seems to me the portion of Choi’s larger project represented in these pages is best understood as an attempt to make a case that something can be meaningfully said about being Asian American in the United States; something so sound that theological-ethical scrutiny will not only become possible but, perhaps, even demanded.

The moment this narrower but razor-sharp purpose snapped into view, Choi had my full attention. This book will make many contributions. But what I am most interested in here is with the ways the early author-decision just described leads to a truly provocative and constructive advancement of our current debates over race and racism—not only within theological ethics, but beyond.

In Disciplined by Race, Choi endeavors to read Asian American as a distinctly racialized US-American identity, rather than merely or primarily a cultural one. He doesn’t claim, of course, that culture is irrelevant nor than it can be disconnected from Asian American life. But he engages the problematic many of us already recognize as pervasive in the Asian American experience. Namely, the ways peoples of diverse places of origin, of diverse generations, with diverse immigrations histories, living in diverse US geographical contexts complicate the answers that are possible in response to the collective “who are you?”

Choi demonstrates that the challenge of social or collective identity relative to Asian American peoples can be understood, at a distilled level, as that of continually having two options imposed. He argues that the question that constantly arrives is really this: are you “really white” or are you “really Asian”?

Choi helps the reader understand the extent to which both of these options are contained within a white racial frame. That may be more obvious in the case of the “white” part of the identity question (or perhaps it’s a loyalty question). Clearly this question presumes a falsely elevated norm or racial ideal played in a white supremacist key that simultaneously conflates whiteness with who gets to be considered authentically “US-American.” But Choi makes clear, as well, the degree to which the Asian American being imagined in the “really Asian” part of the question is also the product of a white imaginary. He demonstrates this beautifully through an exposé on the absurdity of presumptions of authenticity. Who is more authentically Chinese, a Cantonese or Mandarin-speaking person? According to whom? And in which part of New York City? What is authentic Vietnamese food? Who gets to cook it? And whose food can never be authentically Vietnamese no matter how it tastes? This “Asian,” he shows, is an identity framed for and by a white voyeur.

What I appreciate deeply here is that Choi’s decision to problematize authenticity does not proceed to then take a familiar turn. It does not become a reason to conclude that talking about or analyzing race is thus also an inherently dead-end essentializing project (and that the Asian American experience somehow proves that). I’m grateful because I’ve seen this far too many times both within and beyond the world of ethics. Instead, Choi makes a different move. Problematizing notions of authentic culture, Choi is able to successfully argue that anything less than a racial reading of Asian American identity will simply not be up to the task of adequately rendering the Asian American experience. So much terrain opens up as a result of this move; terrain that will no doubt be more fully explored in subsequent iterations of Choi’s larger project.

It’s worth noting that racializing the Asian American experience or reading Asian American identity as racial still leaves plenty of room to include attention to the ways hybridity and/or interculturalness also can and do help make sense of Asian American experiences. But Choi insists, and I think he’s correct, that ultimately neither hybridity nor interculturality are adequate to the task of assessing—let alone resisting—the ways whiteness constantly disciplines Asian American identities.

One major reason I find Choi’s move to argue for a racial reading of the Asian American experience so powerful is because Disciplined by Race begins to offer me language to more fully understand, and more meaningfully engage, critiques that have sometimes hovered in direct or close proximity to my own longtime work. Familiar to any reader of Disciplined by Race will be the ongoing critique that debates over racism in the United States remain rooted in or persistently pivot back toward a Black-white binary. My own project is to engage in critical assessments of whiteness with enough care—or particularity—that they too might make a broader, normative contribution to the work of ethics. As a result, in much of my work I engage the Black experience and the interracial relationships through which white US-Americans have constructed oppressive identify formations while simultaneously engaging in concrete, material and systemic legacies of violence, resource hoarding and more. I have long appreciated the Black-white binary critique as apt and important, and have assumed it to be relevant to my project—a weakness within it somewhere along the continuum of potential-to-

Still, while believing the critique to be apt and important, I have consistently struggled to respond to it adequately. Early in my scholarly trajectory, I attempted to move out of the binary by more consistently deploying triangular readings of US history; focusing on Native, African, European people’s relations. In more recent work I’ve used frameworks developed through assessing white and Black US-American relationships to think about white relationships to immigration issues and Latino/a communities, and to centering Native sovereignty amidst discussions of environmental ethics and climate change. But while these approaches are better, on their own they do not fully respond the binary critique.

In theoretical terms we cannot really articulate adequate understandings of the meaning of race in the United States while only focused on two (or even three) racial communities. In moral terms a binary (or even a triangle) renders non-Black or non-Native people of color irrelevant or marginalized in work on race and racism.

Yet at the heart of my struggle to meaningfully respond has been my inability to find a way to complicate the binary (or, triangle) in a manner that didn’t fall prey to a movement toward multicultural, or pluralist, or diversity-focused frameworks for thinking about the meaning of difference in US-American life. And that I’ve been unwilling to do. I recognize that non-Black and/or non-Native experiences are as salient, urgent and devastating when it comes to white supremacy. But I also know what white people—even those of us attempting to make assertions about equity, inclusion or even justice (within and beyond the academy)—do with multiculturalism or pluralism. Namely, they (we) LOVE IT. We love it.

What we don’t love are challenges that remain firmly rooted in the language of white supremacy. What we don’t love are challenges rooted in the language of race. And that is morally and ethically significant; it tellingly reveals that there is more work to be done precisely at those sites. Meanwhile, I’ve simply not figured out how to get out of the binary (or even triangle) bind in a way that doesn’t give whiteness some relief. So, work to more fully account for diversities of identity and experience notions of hybridity? Yes. Post-colonial frameworks? Yes. Mestizaje articulations of identity and the significance of borders and boundaries? Yes. Non-essentializing race-talk? Of course. But I’ve been so in touch with the consequences and risks of what has often seemed to me a kind of loosening of race talk in moments where the critique of binary (triangle) frameworks show up that—given my own project—I just have not figured out a satisfying way to move otherwise.

To that end Disciplined by Race is truly an intellectual gift. It articulates the Asian American experience as a racial experience. It uncovers layers through which we can understand it to be such and offers clear theoretical pathways that unveil how it should be understood, allowing us to see the Asian American experience anew in the process. In so doing it makes it more possible to contend with real inadequacies in binary/triangular work on race (in my own and in others), without giving whiteness and white supremacy any wiggle room.

Through Choi’s reading of Asian Americanness as a racialized experience, new questions become possible to ask and explore toward the end of more adequate contentions with white supremacy. To give just one provocative and compelling example, Choi deploys the notion of passing to demonstrate and expose the ways misperceptions of “racial immunity” and “transcendence” are experiences innate to the racialization of Asian Americans by whiteness. The very conditions that have made it difficult to speak meaningfully about the racism Asian American peoples experience are simultaneously the results of and serve to further strengthen whiteness and white supremacy. Choi also goes on to analyze the impact that the opacity of the actual racial experiences of Asian Americans has on both Asian Americans and African Americans; and, of course, on their relationships to one another.

I close by taking up one more entrée point Disciplined by Race opens that energizes me. It comes at the end and surely will be taken up further in the next installation of Choi’s larger project. Choi demonstrates that in addition to being harmful to Asian American peoples themselves, marginalizing Asian Americans in racial discourse grants more power to whiteness because it “obscures the fullness of the logic of white racism.” By successfully articulating the Asian American experience as a racial one Choi has enabled a question to become available—indeed, to become impossible to ignore in any work on race claiming to be morally serious about challenging white supremacy. The question is this: “What is lost if Asian Americans are not intentionally and more fully accounted for in how whiteness has continued to shape institutional and cultural life?”

It’s here that the reader begins to get glimmers of the ways this deep dive into the particularities of Asian American experiences can and will become precisely the ground on which normative contributions and claims critical for the larger theological enterprise will emerge. (Contributions that would indeed “be lost” if we do not more intentionally and fully account for Asian Americans relative to questions of whiteness and white supremacy.) Having succeeded in making the case that much can be meaningfully said about the Asian American experience and that theological-ethical is absolutely demanded, Disciplined by Race closes by drawing forth some of the implications the book’s able articulation of that experience yields.

Choi begins, at the end, to argue for the ways moral agency in Asian American life can and must manifest as resistance. This must include resisting the disciplinary power of whiteness that shows up in formations of identity. Given the particularity of the Asian American racial experience, Choi gestures toward the implication of the importance of developing stronger notions and doses of autonomy within and amidst our understanding of human beings as relationally constituted. He locates this imperative in a deeper, but all too brief, discussion of the ways anxiety in human life (all human life) compel us to take notions of identity and the self as answers, rather than recognizing them as the questions they truly are.

Choi suggests that articulating agency as one thinks about the Asian American experience may necessarily involve deeper thinking about the call to radical self-love. He suggests there’s moral value in being/becoming interesting, defiant and even “salty” in response to white racial discipling of Asian American identity. But he wants to root such value deeply in a norm of self-love turned outward, toward the benefit of others, and rooted in an acknowledgment of the web of relations that enable the self to be.

There is a lot here and the closing of Disciplined by Race left me wanting more. For here were gestures all too brief, but that begin to point at powerful questions about agency that are indeed universally salient even as they emerged through this deeply particular engagement of the specificity of whiteness and white supremacy in the Asian American experience. The brevity of these gestures, however, was not a weakness. It was merely evidence of a book well done. Choi has accomplished the smaller piece of the larger project in Disciplined by Race that he was clear, from the beginning pages, had to be accomplished first. And now, these rich, inviting, and creative implications and possibilities can be taken up with the fullness and depth that they too warrant. I look forward to reading installment number two.

  • KC Choi

    KC Choi

    Reply

    Response to Harvey

    One goal of my book is to establish the methodological importance of taking Asian American experience(s) seriously. This means to me approaching the authority of scripture and living within the Christian tradition always in dialogue (and sometimes in tension) with the truths that our experiences as Asian Americans point to. One of the convictions driving my work is that Asian American theology (and Asian American theological ethics, more particularly) has insufficiently grappled with the “Asian American” part of Asian American theology and thus the need to confront, interpret, and assess the many dimensions of what it means to be Asian American beyond conventional, simplistic formulations. This will lead to many uneasy discussions that, in my opinion, we as Asian Americans Christians have been reluctant to have, at least in any sustained manner. One of those difficult discussions is, as the title of the book makes plain, how Asian American life is disciplined by race, which is to say that who we are as Asian Americans is inextricably tied to the logic and aims of white racism. So, whether Asians Americans want to admit it or not, when Asian Americans insist on focusing on our cultural particularities on the assumption that there is no monolithic or, at the very least, shared understanding of Asian Americanness, then Asian Americans miss how we participate (or, more specifically, are made to participate) in one of the overarching narratives that drive US society, that of race. Thus, the black-white narrative of American racism is not an ancillary feature of Asian American life, but a central one.

    More on the yellow-black-white entanglement in my response to Professor West below. Here, I want to underline the following: this discussion ought not to be merely an intramural one, between and simply for Asia American theologians and the larger Asian American community. Another equally important goal of my book is to propose that focusing on the racial disciplining of Asian American life will be impactful for how theologians, whether Asian or not, think about a number of issues regarding racial justice. Professor Harvey beautifully identifies one of those implications in a way that I only attend to obliquely. In making it more explicit, Harvey shows, at least in one important way, why focusing on the racial disciplining of Asian American identity matters for Christian ethics, and not just Asian American Christian ethics.

    She notes that in moving away from a cultural construal of Asian American identity to a deeply racialized one, my book offers a way of talking about the experiences of non-black persons of color that does not resort to an affirmation of multiculturalism or pluralism, or at least an account of multiculturalism that is cheap. Such cheap accounts—i.e., in response to whiteness, we must affirm not only blackness, but also the “loveliness” of Latinx persons, native persons, Asians—too easily allows us to ignore the persistent force of white supremacy in modern life. I think, to some large extent, the language of diversity and inclusion that marks so much of how US college campuses tend to approach the issue of race falls into this trap. In a desire to respond to racism, what so many institutions have tended to do is to actually avoid talking about race by celebrating cultural difference.

    Such outcomes, as Harvey rightly notes, gives whiteness some relief at least in terms of our acknowledgment of its actual force on the way we live with one another (or not), and the kind of communities we decide to form (or not). In other words, celebrating cultural difference easily slides into an avoidance or ignorance of white racism’s hold on society. This is not to say that a celebration of cultural differences is wholly devoid of positives (I do not want to be misunderstood). But when it is devoid of critical attention to the larger systemic racial forces at play in our lives, it is not too far removed from the way we appreciate our grocery stores for being stocked with all kinds of cereals, cookies, crackers, chips, etc. Who would prefer less choice than more choice? Life is so much more interesting and invigorating with difference! But never mind that so many of our choices of, say, boxed cereals are choices for iterations of the same thing or idea. What we do not end up asking more often or consistently is why there is so much soy and corn being produced in the first place, resulting in an oversupply of processed foods? Difference in this sense distracts us from seeing the things we need to see to live in a more just world. On a similar vein, it is when we are sharply attuned to the ways Asian Americans are disciplined by race that we are less likely to be lulled into multicultural sleepwalking, that is, a consumerist vision of cultural pluralism, or celebration of diversity. This is an important observation that Harvey teases out from my book.

    To Harvey’s observations, I would only add that Asian Americans, if we avoid grappling with how we are deeply racialized, can end up being enablers or unwitting promoters of cheap multiculturalism and, to borrow from K. Anthony Appiah, its false anthropology, and, in fact, that is what we end up doing, I’m afraid. For instance, when recognition of Asian Americans in public life is anchored in the promotion of our diverse foodways and ancestral festivals and customs. Again, not to be misunderstood, I too love our food cultures, the innovations of Asian American chefs and artists, and a good lunar new year’s parade, and I want non-Asian Americans to appreciate the cultural kaleidoscope of Asian American life rather than not. But simply focusing on our cultural diversity or, more specifically, insisting on the need to recognize the value of our diverse cultural expressions, can communicate problematically that somehow there is such a thing as authentic or genuine Asian American culture and failure to recognize this devalues Asian Americans and what makes Asian American life unique. As I discuss extensively in chapter 2 of the book, there is no such thing as Asian American culture, but Asian American cultures. Even still, it is conceptually wrongheaded to think that Vietnamese Americans, Korean Americans, Chinese Americans, Bangladeshi Americans can be defined by, or at least lay claim to, a culture that is ancestrally particular. As I argue in the book, so much of what we as Asian Americans claim as our culture is appropriative and revisionist, which is to say that defining who we are as, say, Koreans or Filipino/a is always a selective process of what we think is important to our identity rather than an immersion into some set definition of it from ancestors we find authoritative.

    One example that I think is particularly illustrative of this point is the case of a Filipino émigré to California who chooses to eat, more than he ever has, tuyo, a kind of dried fish, as a means of affirming his Filipino-ness against the tides of Americanization that he fears his fellow Filipinos are falling prey to. What is so interesting about this story is how eating tuyo was an unremarkable feature of life prior to living in the United States. It is only when he is in the United States that it becomes a defining part of his identity as Filipino. That story, I argue, underscores the extent to which particular social forces or dynamics underwrite the kind of culture that persons embody. Our cultures are deeply selective and appropriative, and I also see this so plainly in how some Asian American Christians, especially Korean Americans, struggle over how or where they should worship. As a Korean American, for instance, should I stick with perhaps my childhood immigrant Korean church or should I worship in a non-Korean church; is one more reflective of who I am as a Korean American? What are the forces at play that makes this question of where to worship a salient question? What does one choice over another signal about who I am as a Korean American (or who I want to be as an Asian American), assuming that being Christian is somehow critical to being Korean American, which is debatable given that not all Koreans are Christian and many Koreans would say that going to church is only tangentially related to being Korean. This example and many others underscore how being Asian American in some cultural sense is often a negotiation of the social forces or dynamics that are at play in one’s daily life (and, significantly, it is through cultural construction that we typically negotiate these dynamics).

    I do not want to reduce culture to simply a function of social dynamics. However, I do want to underscore the reality that there is no good conceptual basis to argue for some objective account of cultural authenticity and the idea that somehow multiculturalism is about celebrating and respecting the inherent cultures of persons. (I think this is what Oberlin College students did not understand when, among other grievances, they criticized the sushi being served in their dining rooms to be culturally inauthentic and thus an affront to Asian Americans.) We should respect diverse cultural expressions, not because there are such things as authentic cultures, but because in doing so we are afforded the opportunity, in ways not available otherwise, to recognize the social positioning of persons relative to one another.

    If multiculturalism is an attempt at fostering recognition of persons who have been historically unrecognized, it does so in a way that employs a false account of who those persons are. By reducing Asian Americans to our cultural base points—as those who eat really interesting and tasty food, speak “exotic” languages, who wear colorful and artful outfits, as those who have so much awesome culture!—masks what I argue are the harder, less “loveable” realities, in other words, those social forces that define, constrain, or discipline Asian American life, specially, that of white racism. Calling attention to how social dynamics shape the cultural lives of Asian Americans is to not only observe the postmodern truism that culture, generally speaking, is constructed, but it is, more importantly, about noticing the logic of our cultural constructions.

    One question that I think we need to attend to more so than we have is how the force of white racism plays a role in crafting our cultural practices, the kind of cultural choices Asian Americans make. (How does race inform the ways in which, for instance, Asian Americans selectively appropriate ancestral customs?) In insisting on recognizing Asian Americans as disciplined by white racism, I do not simply mean microaggressions, stereotyping, or persistent suspicions of Asian Americans as foreigners, though I certainly do not want to be dismissive of those racial corrosives. In insisting on the racial disciplining of Asian Americans, I also mean the proposition that multiculturalism is a strategy that placates the desire for recognition but does so in a manner that is ultimately not to the benefit of persons of color. It subverts or circumvents a deeper kind of recognition, a recognition that, at least for Asian Americans, we are subjected to white racial hierarchies and ideologies and that, for example, the model minority myth, as well as the focus on Asian American as inherently a cultural rather than racialized identity, are parts of a larger whole, which is to say parts of a larger logic that aims to position Asian Americans to be either aligned (or adjacent to) whiteness or to be a certain kind of Asian immigrant. All of this raises questions about what kind of agency Asian Americans possess as Asian Americans, questions that emerge quite powerfully, I think, in contemporary Asian American fiction (a matter taken up in chapter 4). Rather than having agency of our own, I argue that we are disembodied, not unlike the ways in which Ta-Nehesi Coates describes the disembodiment of black lives (also a subject of chapter 4).

    I have extensively mapped out this question of racial discipline and Asian American agency in the book, so I will not rehearse it in detail here. I do, however, want to underscore that Harvey’s point about the problematic allure of liberal multiculturalism is an important reminder for Asian Americans that we have good reasons to be careful in how we go about seeking recognition as Asian Americans. White racism is not an ancillary feature of Asian American life but a defining feature of what it means to be Asian American; when it comes to the issue of racial injustice, we, therefore, have more than the proverbial dog in this fight; to argue anything less is to obscure the fullness of white racism’s hold on our lives in the United States. The multiculturalism question that we should be pushing, therefore, is: how do we foster appreciation for our diverse cultural expressions in ways that do not glaze over the racial realities of Asian Americans?

Traci West

Response

Confronting Asian-Black Conflicts

I am captivated by the ways in which K. C. Choi directly engages contemporary racial conflicts among communities of color in his critical study of racism in the United States, Disciplined by Race: Theological Ethics and the Problem of Asian American Identity.

Choi assails a New York Times opinion-editorial (6/24/2018) on the controversy over fair access to New York City’s specialized public high schools. The editorial mentions Asian American protests against a new integration plan. Because of the editorial’s concern with whether Asian American parents are more interested in aligning themselves with white New Yorkers “at the expense of African Americans and Latino/na communities” (14), as Choi explains it, he criticizes the editorial for ignoring how Asian American New Yorkers have been trapped by social inequalities and disadvantages. Therefore, he maintains, they are portrayed as removed from racist realities confronting other communities of color, namely African American and Latinx communities. Choi also cites “the uneasy, fraught relationship between Asian Americans and the Black Lives Matter movement” (9). He illustrates this tension by citing the details of an incident where African American activists beat an Asian American Milwaukee Sentinel journalist on the street. The Asian American journalist was trying to cover a Milwaukee police shooting of a disarmed African American.

Disciplined by Race sharply criticizes a “black-white paradigm” that has prevailed analytically in anti-racist scholarship and remains the dominant symbol of racism in the United States in both the popular cultural imagination and major reference points of its social history. In this common bifurcation, Asian Americans are “literally caught in the middle like a ping-pong ball bandied about between two competing players in American racial politics” (24). He argues that “Asian Americans also serve as convenient scapegoats for the injustices suffered by African Americans at the hands of white society, as was the case with Peter Liang” (24). Liang is the New York City police officer who accidentally shot Akai Gurley and then delayed calling for and administering immediate medical assistance. Gurley died. Officer Liang was convicted of manslaughter but sentenced to probation and community service.

Centered on Asian American racial identity, Choi fearlessly delves into some of the thorniest aspects of US racial politics when referencing examples that involve Asian Americans and African Americans. He analyzes certain dynamics of racial conflict that foment racist animus and perpetuate the racist structuring of privilege and advantage in church and society. Too many of us who identify as scholars in Christian studies want to have safely convivial sessions of hand-wringing about the evils of racism (or of class exploitation, heterosexism, sexism, and similar forms of the structural privileging of some at the cost of the disempowerment of others). Some of us, who are not drawn to this convivial tone, instead relish obstreperous condemnations of the evils of racism, but usually still maintain a safe distance. For in either case, convivial or obstreperous, we tacitly claim immunity to the toxins of racism by virtue of our hand-wringing complaints or condemning judgments. Clinging to such harbor, we refuse to tarry in the weeds of conflict. That is, we try to avoid the necessary negotiations of conflicting racial group interests and competing desires for empowerment. We try to hide from the distortedness of our humanity that can occur as a result of complicity with the racist systemic harm that such negotiations of political conflicts can reinforce.

With references to African Americans and their political tensions with Asian Americans so centrally incorporated in this text, Choi audaciously beckons to his readers. Actually, it is more than an invitation. He insists on deep, intercultural consideration of the impactful conflicts among people of color that are connected to white racism’s disciplining influence on Asian American identity. I embrace this insistence. Indeed, I welcome it as a crucial, though difficult, component for the development of anti-racist solidarity. Choi decries what he identifies as support for “black insensitivity to and, thus perpetuation of the stereotyping of Asian Americans” (18) in varying critiques. His subjects include Black Lives Matter movement activists and black and Latinx parents protesting standardized testing as the sole criteria for admission to a New York City public high school that I mentioned above, as well as racial comments of black pop icons Chris Rock and Steve Harvey, and the articulation of anti-blackness by anti-racist theological ethicist Katie Walker Grimes.

As I spent time with these critiques I admit that I found myself experiencing some discomfort. But my discomfort needs scrutiny. I must ask myself if my discomfort is grounded in a reflexive, race-based, and anti-intellectual defensiveness. After reading Choi’s account of Black Lives Matter activists beating an Asian American journalist as he sought to report police violence against an unarmed black person I winced with amorphous feelings of racial shame that might have also stoked some defensiveness. Additionally, I am not sure if my discomfort signals that I am succumbing to the tired routine of racial group victim-status competition. This recurrent phenomenon in public discourse can malignantly undercut any anti-racist ethical framework that takes seriously the multiple, differing manifestations of racist victimization that historically marginalized groups of color experience. To genuinely embrace consideration of intercultural conflicts that permeate an ethical dissection of US racism requires one to ask oneself such unsettling questions, right?

At the same time, I am certain that part of my discomfort emerges from the possible neglect of black subjectivity in Disciplined by Race. In its attention to “black insensitivity to and, thus perpetuation of the stereotyping of Asian Americans” this kind of neglect may contribute to a troubling obfuscation. Blacks are useful in these arguments about the racial marginalization of Asian Americans in US racial politics but attention to black subjectivity may be lacking in this text and thus the harms of certain structural aspects of anti-black racism obscured. For instance, attention to the human worth of blacks such as Akai Gurley, the black man accidentally shot by Asian American NYC police rookie Peter Liang, appears to be missing. Might Choi’s reflections on racist disciplining have incorporated more discussion of the lethal consequences of devaluing black human worth and how that devaluation might have been operative as those New York police officers—Liang and his partner Shaun Landau—panicked and argued over the best response to the mistake while Gurley lay dying?

Furthermore, I found myself wanting more engagement of the systemic benefits of racial assimilation for Asian Americans alongside of the focus on the identity constraints and confinement that racial assimilation performs in the racist disciplining process that subjugates them. There are systemic benefits for Asian Americans in claiming a status of not black—not a dumb-lazy-violent-angry black. For the New York Asian American parents insisting on maintaining a high school admissions policy centered on standardized tests, for instance, the systemic benefits of white racism for those Asian Americans may need to be considered. I understand Choi’s complaint about an explicit critique in the New York Times opinion-editorial that portrays “Asian American and white New Yorkers as, together, having benefited” from the admissions policy black and Latinx parents found unfair, thereby “advancing the perception of Asian Americans as disconnected to the realities facing other communities of color” (15). But the Asian American parents and their children did benefit from that policy and its commitment to the institutionalization of supposedly “race-blind” assumptions, did they not? I was not certain how such structural benefits fit into the identity-based claims of this ethic and its emphasis on the harms of white racism for Asian Americans.

There are also intersectional structural issues directly related to social identity with which I wished for more engagement in Disciplined by Race, such as how sexism and heteronormativity play a role in the white racist disciplining of Asian Americans. Gender and sexism, for instance, was a key element in the Harvard affirmative action complaint Choi mentions. The complaint, jointly brought by Asian Americans and white conservatives, claimed that “high performing male Asian Americans” are disadvantaged in Harvard’s admissions policies. There is already too much scholarly silence on how sex/gender norms enforce structural benefits for heterosexual Asian Americans in conjunction with punishments and stigma for queer and gender-nonconforming community members—especially in many Asian American Christian communities.

One of the most compellingly aspects of this Christian ethics text can be found in its conceptualization of white racism in a manner that refreshingly and consistently decenters white racial identity and white people’s authoritative voices and experiences as benchmarks for analysis. This decentering takes place as Disciplined by Race describes how the confining social process of the racialization of Asian Americans can hinder innovation and creativity that are crucial mechanisms for their resistance to racism. As I have stressed here, the book’s decentering of whiteness certainly does not lead to an evasion of the subject of racial conflicts. When Choi calls for a halt to the cycle of resentment caused by African Americans who “do not take seriously the realities of Asian Americans, which only then feeds into the susceptibility of Asian Americans to the manipulations of whiteness and racial resentment of African Americans” (108) my uneasiness and disagreement with such formulations about causation are awakened.

Yet, I relish the conceptual spaces of conflict that this text requires us to enter as it invokes lived societal conflicts. In its ethics vision of provocative and deep challenges of racism, black-Asian American conflict seems to function similarly to the ways in which Asian American hybridity is incorporated. They are deployed in Disciplined by Race in a manner that facilitates struggle with the intense terrain of racist toxicity, furthering the work of solidarity. And, solidarity is never a destination, but always a process.

  • KC Choi

    KC Choi

    Reply

    Response to West

    If Asian American life, as I argue, is disciplined by white racism, then that means, in part, that Asian American life cannot be adequately understood unless we discuss, in ways that we have avoided, our relationship with not only white communities but, equally important, black communities. This is why I am so heartened and buoyed by Professor West’s embrace of my attempt to jumpstart a long overdue dialogue on Black-Asian relations. At the same time, however, her reading of my book (especially the parts that she calls attention to) underscores to me why having this dialogue is so challenging and the kinds of misunderstandings that can emerge.

    One aim of this book is to facilitate a different kind of Black-Asian dialogue, one that is rooted in a shared conviction that the historically fraught relationship between African Americans and Asian Americans is strategically important to white racial power. Thus, in order to have the kind of Black-Asian dialogue that aims to subvert white racism’s dependence on Black-Asian suspicion or resentment of each other, what we need is a radically different way of thinking about the social position that Asian Americans occupy relative to African Americans.

    To be more specific, let me address the issue of whether I have insufficiently attended to black subjectivity, a question West raises in response to my discussion of a number of cases involving Black-Asian relations, especially the Akai Gurley shooting in Brooklyn, the Harvard affirmative action cases, the entrance exam for NYC’s selective public high schools, and the Black Lives Matters protests in Milwaukee (in 2016).

    I agree with West’s assertion that what happened to Gurley in Brooklyn was horrifying, displaying gross negligence on the part of the NYPD officers involved, particularly, Peter Liang, a Chinese American. My account of the incident makes abundantly clear that Liang, as well as his partner Shaun Landau, not only panicked after the accidental shooting, but showed callous disregard for Gurley as a human being as they engaged in a conversation about whether they should report the incident to their supervisor rather than attending to Gurley’s wound. But West misidentifies the larger point I am trying to make in highlighting this incident. I am not arguing that Liang was unjustly prosecuted for shooting Gurley, but rather that the ways in which Asian American communities reacted to the prosecution raises the question of the status of Asian Americans vis-à-vis other communities of color. In other words, I am primarily interested in how they responded, the kinds of arguments they leveled against the Brooklyn District Attorney, and what kind of self-understanding as Asian Americans as minorities such responses painted to the wider public. Additionally, I am interested in the ways in which white and black communities responded to these Asian American protests and what their responses indicated or did not indicate about their perception of Asian Americans, again, as minorities. This is also my point in calling attention to the controversy surrounding the fairness of the entrance exam used to determine admissions into NYC’s selective public high schools. (I personally think that Asian Americans are wrongheaded in their unqualified defense of the entrance exam’s validity.) These examples (actually, more like case studies), along with the ones in which some white supremacists have been goading Asian Americans to side with them in a potential race war, are all instances that raise the following question: What does it mean to be Asian American? Are Asian Americans, as Gary Okihiro famously once asked, white, black, or neither? Do Asians count as belonging to marginalized communities, or are we simply minorities only in the numerical, demographic sense of the term? These questions begin my book (they are the ones that frame chapter 1) and anticipate the larger argument I make throughout, that Asian Americans—our status as minorities—has been determined from without; the tragedy of Asian American life is that we can hardly be perceived as self-determining agents.

    The example of the journalist Aaron Mak draws attention to the significance of these questions in the starkest of ways. Interestingly, it is the example that West first mentions in her response to my book. Mak, a journalist with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, is attacked by a group of African Americans during a Black Lives Matter protest. In highlighting this incident, my intention is not to, as West suggests, call attention to the fact that African Americans were assaulting an Asian person. As I discuss in the book, Mak recounts how another African American intervenes by yelling to the assailants that Mak is a minority and not a white person. After the dust settles, the black woman who comes to Mak’s aid asks with befuddlement, “You’re Asian, right? . . . Why are you even here?” What Mak’s Good Samaritan could not understand was why he, a non-black person, would be interested in a Black Lives Matter protest. Surely, Asian American experiences and interests are different from or unrelated to African Americans? Aren’t Asian Americans different kinds of minorities?

    My book is a sustained attempt at trying to figure out what Asian Americans are and how Asian Americans should define themselves. The argument I advance is that who we are as Asian Americans is a function of being disciplined on multiple fronts by white racism; we are hardly our own persons. But, perhaps, the thornier part of this argument is that the white racist disciplining of Asian Americans includes the disciplining of other communities of color, black and non-Asian brown communities, to perceive Asian Americans in a particular way. As such, we cannot have the kind of dialogue we need regarding Black-Asian relations until we come to terms with how white racism has shaped (and needs to shape) the ways African Americans perceive Asian Americans, and vice versa. What do I mean by this?

    Let me try to parse this argument out by remarking briefly on another question West raises. She asks whether I have sufficiently called attention to systemic advantages that Asian Americans have enjoyed via, to refer to West’s language, “racial assimilation.” I agree that we need more conversation around how Asian Americans are privileged, and I endeavor in chapter 3 to map this out. (Elsewhere, I have treated this issue more specifically under the category I have termed Asian American whiteness.) A central feature of this cartography is the ways in which Asian Americans have benefitted from the ascription of model minorities. (As an aside, what I find interesting is how West’s concerns over the question of Asian American social privilege contrasts with Jimmy McCarthy’s reluctance to consider this very same question, that is, in his resistance to my discussion of how Asian Americans have been susceptible to embodying forms of whiteness (see his introduction to this symposium above). While such susceptibility is not inevitable, the social advantages that Asian Americans have accrued are a dimension of Asian American life that must not be ignored; it needs to be named and scrutinized. But, as I will indicate below, how (i.e., for what ends) we talk about Asian American susceptibility to whiteness, and, in this instance, through the model minority trope, is just as, if not more, important than that we talk about it, a distinction that McCarthy overlooks.)

    The model minority trope operates exactly in the way West suggests. Insofar as Asian Americans are regarded as having “made it,” and typically in the sense of being successfully integrated into the mainstream of US society, the social realities of Asian Americans are different from African Americans, and Asian Americans can, as West puts it, “[claim] a status of not black—not a dumb-lazy-violent-angry black.” I underscore the extent to which Asian Americans, in terms of their susceptibility to whiteness, and perhaps even in their desire to be white (for some), have fallen for the veracity of the model minority trope even though it is a myth. As such, Asian Americans do bear some culpability in the perpetuation of racial hierarchies that without doubt systemically and institutionally degrade black lives.

    However, one of the aims of my book is to not only call attention to the extent to which Asian Americans have benefited from the model minority trope (and have perpetuated it), but to call attention to why Asian Americans (and African Americans) should spend more time acknowledging and dissecting the model minority trope. We need to do so not only because Asian Americans (and African Americans) need to recognize the falsity of the trope. (The inaccuracies of this trope is discussed extensively in the book, so I will not rehearse them here; the short of it is that socioeconomic marginalization, discriminatory policing, and hate crimes are significant features of Asian American life that go almost universally unnoticed.) While discerning how the model minority ascription is untrue is an important task in itself, the more consequential move is to recognize that the notion that Asian Americans are model minorities—whether that means Asians are the new white people, can be counted as white, or are adjacent to white people—is an integral part of how white racism operates in modern US life. I am keenly interested in the overt ways in which white racism manifests itself, but also the very subtle but no less insidious ways it governs, disciplines the lives of persons today. That more covert strategy is exemplified in the model minority myth inasmuch as the maintenance of white racial hierarchies is, in addition to other strategies, dependent on a strategy that places wedges between communities of color. The model minority trope is one of those more sinister wedges that showcases the purported pulled-by-the-bootstraps achievements of Asian Americans in direct contrast to the almost “inherent” inability of African Americans to do the same.

    But who really benefits from this wedge? Its primary beneficiaries are those who have a vested interest in maintaining white cultural and social hegemony and normativity, or at least those who fear the loss of white cultural and social hegemony and normativity. That being the case, my argument is that it is insufficient for Asian Americans to simply acknowledge how some Asian Americans benefit from the trope, nor is it sufficient for Asian Americans to be continuously reminded of the ways in which they are purported to benefit from the trope—both moves, while important, do not get to the heart of the problem, or to the larger racial dynamic a play. What is needed instead is the recognition that the conventional conversation surrounding Asian American privilege vis-à-vis African American disadvantage is misguided and ultimately works against advancing racial justice. It is misguided if it simply means that Asian Americans need to fess up to our adjacency to whiteness and thus our complicity in white supremacy and normativity.

    The more constructive conversation that I think we need (and I see my book as laying the foundation for this kind of conversation) is one that focuses on the ways in which white racism needs African Americans and Asian Americans to perceive one another in particular (negative) ways. I am not denying that white racism is anti-blackness, but I am adding a critical piece of the puzzle that has been missing or at least avoided for too long, that the model minority trope is designed to perpetuate anti-blackness by convincing Asians that they are indeed privileged as well as convincing black persons that their agency is being undermined by such perceived privilege.

    To move forward, therefore, we need to acknowledge Asian privilege (or, more accurately, how some Asian Americans have enjoyed a certain kind of social privilege via the model minority trope) while also moving beyond it, recognizing how such talk of privilege ultimately serves to change the subject, which is to say, to mask the harder critical work that is needed to see the multivalent ways white racism seeks to undermine racial solidarity and put people of color, whether black, brown, or yellow, in their “proper” places. The truth of the matter is that if the Black-Asian dialogue cannot move beyond “Asian Americans benefit” and “African Americans don’t” (or, perhaps, Asians benefit at the expense of Black persons), then we will be stuck in the ways we have always talked about Black-Asian relations, right back to where we are now, which is suspicion of one another.

    Moving beyond the discussion of privilege (insofar as we recognize that such talk is what white racism wants us to have) forces us to reframe how we go about articulating solutions to racism in the United States, which, as I am trying to argue, operates on multiple fronts. These fronts are not separate but interrelated, a point I make in chapter 1 of the book. The advancement of the model minority trope is not simply an Asian American problem, if that means that it impacts only Asian Americans. But rather, the model minority trope entails the enlistment, wittingly or not, of Asian Americans for the larger goal of securing white racial hierarchies. In that way, the model minority trope disciplines African Americans as much as it aims to discipline Asian Americans. As I note in chapter 3 (and again in my response to Tran), such a strategy emerges post World War II as the United States pivots toward Asia in the building of a new financial system and, at the same time, responds to calls for greater civil rights in a manner that stresses individual achievement over institutional change. Whatever the historical specifics of its origin, the point is that the model minority trope, in telling the story of how Asian Americans are privileged, defines Asian Americans in such a way that Asian Americans and African Americans are necessarily (if not at least encouraged to be) positioned antagonistically, one being used as a standard by which to measure the other.

    I do not want to trivialize the need to properly attend to black subjectivity and to the systemic benefits that Asian Americans receive when counted as model minorities. That West encourages me to keep my attention on these two issues is important. However, there is also risk in such encouragement if it is not couched within a larger context. To focus on Asian Americans as privileged and thus insufficiently attentive to black lives (black subjectivity) is, I argue, exactly the kind of focus on Asian Americans that white racism would prefer that Black Americans have of us. (The converse is true too, to have Asian Americans regard African Americans in a negative, antagonistic light.) Why? Because it sets the terms of festering suspicion and resentment between both communities. When the terms of our relationship are such, then white racism comes out ahead, frustrating Black-Asian communities’ capacities to get past their resentments, which were fostered by white racism to begin with.

    There is so much more to uncover regarding the employment of Asian Americans for white racial ends. As West also observes, greater attention needs to be given to how, as she puts it, “sexism and heteronormativity play a role in the white racist disciplining of Asian Americans.” I hope my book inspires Asian American theologians and ethicists to dive deep into and fill those intersectional gaps in ways that I have not in this book. Yet, as I/we look forward to such desperately needed scholarship on relatively uncharted territories of Asian American experience, it is imperative that we do not lose sight of what I argue is the foundational dynamic informing Asian American life, that it is intertwined with white racism, and that white racism employs negative tropes of Asian Americans to discipline or govern not only how Asian Americans perceive themselves and relate to Black communities, but also how Black communities perceive and relate to Asian communities, all to advance anti-blackness for the sake of whiteness. If we lose sight of how the model minority trope serves as an impediment to recognizing Asian Americans in the fullness of their socioeconomic position, then, I fear, we will be less capable, further ill equipped, to grapple with dimensions of our experience that are even more ignored and less discussed (e.g., sex and gender) than our fundamental racial disciplining.

Ramon Luzarraga

Response

Asian Americans and Hispanics Dialoguing Along the Way

Any Hispanic’s response to K. C. Choi is complicated from the beginning. Choi writes that his project is to “move away from a cultural understanding of Asian American identity and . . . we need to think about Asian American identity in distinctly racialized terms” (2). Therefore, any Hispanic response faces a challenge because Hispanic identity has never been tied exclusively to any single racial category. A Hispanic can be as white as any European, as black as any African, and every single hue of skin color in between. Hispanics can be Asian too. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean immigration to Latin America has informed Hispanic identity. Filipinos are not usually considered Hispanic by Spanish-speaking peoples. However, any dialogue between Hispanics and Asians cannot ignore that culture produced by the encounter between the Spanish and the diverse peoples of that archipelago. If Hispanics cannot be unified by race, then what is left are the cultural qualities shared by all Hispanics, most notably a shared knowledge and use of the Spanish language, shared historical roots and experience in Spain, Latin America and, for US Hispanics, the United States, and a shared religious experience which transcends the churches Hispanics worship in. This means that the project of Hispanic identity is moving in a direction diametrically opposite the project Choi takes up. Despite this difference in goal, Asian Americans and Hispanics have overlapping experiences in their respective journeys, which this response will address.

Choi speaks to something all too well known to Asian Americans and Hispanics in US history, the motive for the development of one’s own identity is a response to being racialized and stereotyped by a white majority. Taking on Choi’s definition of racialization, Asians and Hispanics are a people who “inhabit bodies or forms of life that are molded by racial hierarchies of value and relationship” (3). A white, pan-European attitude of supremacy did this molding and imposed how Asian Americans and Hispanics ought to look and live from without, instead of recognizing and accepting the intrinsic diversity of Asian Americans or Hispanics as understood and defined by Asian Americans and Hispanics themselves. Whole peoples are locked into a set of very limiting stereotypes all too often bought into by the affected groups themselves. The motive practiced by whites ranged from outright prejudice to an impatience dealing with a people in their richness and complexity. The difficulty Cornel West had in identifying who Hispanics are (35) is a challenge shared by many. However, unlike West who had the good sense to not reach a conclusion about Hispanic identity, he is vulnerable (37) to making what too many people, in their impatience to generalize do: they lock Hispanics, Asian Americans, and other groups into narrow, fixed identities. This action is not unique to whites, and Asian Americans were not the first to suffer its effects.

In American history, whites racialized other groups who were later accepted as white by the larger US society. Consider the example of Italian immigrants to the United States. Italy did not become a united nation until 1871. Italians identified themselves by the region they migrated from. “Italian,” and epithets like “wop,” are examples of the racialization Choi describes, because from the late nineteenth century through the 1960s, those words carried stereotypes of a people, from diverse regions, speaking dialects of the same Italian language family, as exotic, idol worshipers, persons of great physical strength but dubious intelligence, with a propensity to violence.

Hispanics, unfortunately, have a history with their own marginalization of Asians, encapsulated by the phrase they apply to all Asians who emigrated to Latin America and who are also part of the US Hispanic community. “Los Chinos” (the Chinese) is the Spanish shorthand used to describe any Hispanic of Asian background, regardless of their actual country of origin. Asian Hispanics have used the phrase to describe themselves too. For example, when Alberto Fujimori, who hailed from Peru’s long-established Japanese community, ran for the presidency of his country for the first time, his ad campaign called on his fellow citizens to vote for “el Chino.” This phrase can be used by Hispanics without a conscious intent to be prejudicial. If one is unclear about the origin of a Hispanic Asian, that phrase is used to continue the conversation. However, regardless of the intent of the person using this phrase, to describe all Hispanic Asians as “Chinos” is prejudicial by any objective standard. This phrase encapsulates a generalization about Asian Hispanics which molds their identity according to a set of stereotypes. These stereotypes include comments meant to be complimentary as well as insults. Remarks about Asian Hispanics’ strong work ethic and family cohesion, comments about the children produced through a union between Asian Hispanics and Hispanics of another racial background standing outside the mainstream, and the cultural limitations bracketing the roles Asian Hispanics ought to fill (such as the stereotype that Asian Hispanics are best running groceries and dry goods stores), all serve as examples. This stereotyping of Asian Hispanics by their fellow Hispanics is a type of colorism, akin to the prejudice black persons in Brazil receive from their fellow Brazilians. This type of racism does not segregate these groups to the point of social exclusion from the mainstream of Hispanic culture and society. Instead, it limits the economic, political, and social opportunities where Asian Hispanics and Brazilian blacks may participate in that culture and society. White Hispanics have practiced this colorism against other Hispanics of African, Asian, and Indigenous ancestry.

This Hispanic racialization originated in the Spanish conquest of most of the Americas, and the Portuguese colonization of Brazil. These settlers brought with them the myth of a racial hierarchy that originated in the Christian reconquest of Spain from the Muslim Moors, followed by the expulsion of them and the Jews. The sangre azul (blue blood) myth was based on the fiction of the pure Catholic Spaniard, whose blood was unmixed with that of his Jewish or Muslim neighbor. In the Americas, it translated to the idea that the more Spanish, or Portuguese (in other words the whiter one was), the higher their level in society. Asian migrants to Latin America got placed into this racist, colorist, hierarchy.

Choi is correct to use the word “liminal” to describe the Asian Americans as sitting on the threshold between two cultures (63). Hispanics are in a similar situation. United States’ society often does not know how to handle such complexity, and seeks to marginalize the group in question into preexisting categories of race and culture. They are racialized according to Choi (65). Consequently, he doubts whether Asians, or Hispanics for that matter, could develop a new space as a people which can transcend this racialization. Choi also doubts whether the use of Virgilio Elizondo’s concept of Mestisaje to speak of Asian and Asian American experience as a unique creation, more than the sum of its ancestral parts (62), is an effective strategy to combat racialization from without. Despite the fact that Asian Americans and Hispanics, borrowing an idea of Roberto Goizueta, live “in between,” or what Choi identifies as a liminal space between the culture of our respective ancestors and the culture we encounter in the United States, he argues that racialization is such that both groups will gravitate to what whites want. Racialization regulates the terms of hybridity, expropriating it for its own purposes.

However, if demographic trends in the United States hold, and rates of intercultural and interracial continue to increase, the future of the United States may eventually overwhelm the racialized status quo. The Chua-Rubenfeld sisters Choi references (45) may be the future. It is what some commentators call the “Brazilian” future of the United States. Ethnic and cultural identities which Choi correctly points out have been challenged and destabilized will continue to be so, and with greater frequency and intensity, the more hybrid we become as a human species (46). He is correct to say, too, that debates about cultural originality and authenticity will get us nowhere, because such debates ignore the fact that ethnic and cultural identities are always subject to social forces and individual choices, some welcome, and others not, some freely chosen, and others imposed from without (51–52). Any claim to the contrary is to argue that there exists what Choi identifies as a normative standard for being a particular ethnicity or member of a culture (53). This is wrong on the grounds of anthropology and history, which demonstrate that such identity evolved over the centuries, and as Choi points out is still evolving.

Where does this take us long term, theologically? There are two extremes to avoid. One extreme is to declare ethnic and racial identity relativized in face of a shared essential human ontology. Racial and ethnic difference is acknowledged to exist, but its reality is trivially true, dwarfed by our shared human ontology which is located in the human soul. Its advocates would say it avoids the problems of essentializing race and culture Choi speaks of (41–42). But, to move in this direction is to risk Gnosticism because that move would result in denying our God-given embodied selves. The other extreme is to essentialize ethnic identity to the point that only those who belong to that group are authorized to speak to and analyze their own experiences about how they perceive their shared life and being. But, to do that would spell the end of the humanities because there would be nothing human beings could share and dialogue on. It would spell the end of the universal nature of Christianity, as it breaks up into schismatic ethnic and racial churches limited to their own radically contextualized religious and theological imaginations.

Contextual theology could be viewed as a dialogical strategy for Christians to approach a shared universal truth from increasingly diverse backgrounds. How to go about this dialogue, avoid the traps of racialization Choi articulates, and articulate a renewed shared humanity which can also be, as St. Paul states in his Letter to the Galatians, one in Jesus Christ, is a challenge for our time.

  • KC Choi

    KC Choi

    Reply

    Response to Luzarraga

    If Professor West, as I noted above, points out the need for Asian American theologians and ethicists to unmask further the role that sex and gender norms play in the racial disciplining of Asian Americans, then Professor Luzarraga indicates yet another area in which Asian American theologians and ethicists have not examined extensively, the intersections of race and Asian-Latinx relations. Luzarraga provides a compelling case for how complicated the relationship is and has been between Asian Americans and Latinx communities, and I am grateful for his articulation of features of this relationship that I know only cursorily.

    At this point, I would only add that diving deeper into Asian-Latinx relations is even more complicated by virtue of Asian Americans being both “yellow” and “brown.” That is a reality that is infrequently acknowledged. Luzarraga mentions my comments (that open chapter 2) on Cornel West’s struggle with identifying Latinx persons as black or brown, settling ultimately on brown, which means for him cultural and not necessarily racial. The point I want to call attention to here is that brown is now also Asian inasmuch as the geographic, ancestral, and religious lineage of Asian Americans have expanded to include those of South and Central Asian descent and, as a consequence, Muslim and Hindu (and not just Christian) communities. In short, brown has come to be more than simply a Latinx identifier. I mention this because colorism is not only an issue in Latinx communities (as well as Black communities) but increasingly one for Asian American communities with the browning of Asian American identity. In what ways are Indian Americans Asian in relation to Japanese or Taiwanese Americans?

    I do not want to exaggerate the problem of colorism among Asian Americans. At the same time, it would be wishful thinking that Asian Americans readily identify with other Asian Americans as Asians, despite the recent geographic-ancestral expansion of Asian American identity. That would gloss over the kinds of intra-communal tensions that do exist, just as Luzarraga points out is the case with respect to Asian Hispanics and non-Asian Hispanics. In drawing this comparison, I am struck by how Asian, Latino/a, and Black communities all face comparable problems. Luzarraga points out that colorism within Latin American communities has definite consequences, “[limiting] economic, political, and social opportunities.” That made me wonder about what social factors, concerns, or interests are at play in the ways Asian Americans grapple with the question of who does or does not, or who should, count as Asian Americans. Do these interests parallel or interconnect with the kind of social interests that shape the manifestation of colorism within Latinx communities?

    This kind of question is worth keeping in mind because just as I explained with respect to culture in my response to Harvey, identity, more broadly, is not necessarily static but reflective of the social forces at play in one’s life. These forces determine the kind of identity we want or end up living into. In my book, I rely in part on Iris Marion Young’s account of identity as a form of communication—that which communicates what she calls social perspective. I provide a more extensive examination of this account in an earlier piece, while in the book (chapter 2) I simply note that Young helps us to conceptualize identity as an expression of how one negotiates (i.e., contests, accepts, ignores, or lives in tension with) the various social forces that act on and confront us and, ultimately, positions us relative to others. As such, identity communicates how particular persons are situated in society, or the nature of the position they occupy within society’s social structures: how, for instance, they are positioned by racism, economic and political marginalization, public policy, and how they have responded to such social positioning.

    This notion of identity as a resource for communication, as Young would put it, matters because it helps to address what Luzarraga observes is a central challenge for contextual theology: Can we think about our humanity in ways that do not essentialize our particularities but also does not falsely universalize what it means to be human by trivializing our particularities? This is a task that faces Asian American theology, just as it does Black theology, and Latinx theology and ethics. As Luzarraga so pointedly asks, is one way of doing contextual theology only for those within its particular racial communities or are they sharable and interracially relevant? This book takes up that question, somewhat indirectly, by reframing what Asian American identity is, skeptical that Asian Americanness is only about cultural embodiments or principally defined by them.

    Calling attention to the racially disciplined realities of Asian American life, our identities as Asian Americans are, more constructively, a resource that communicates how Asian Americans are positioned in society relative to others, and how we have responded to or struggle to negotiate such social positioning. As a resource so defined, our identities as Asian Americans are critical parts of a whole (or a view of the universal otherwise unavailable), which is to say that an attunement to Asian American lived experience provides what have been long neglected insights into and assessments of how white racism has and continues to weigh on our common life in the United States. Without the Asian American piece to this larger puzzle of how white racism manifests itself in the United States, then our understanding and constructive responses to the sin of racism will only be partial. I take this to be the fundamental insight of Young’s overarching thesis that identity is a resource for democratic communication; democratic debate and deliberation requires the participatory recognition of all. Without “difference” in the public square, our understanding of the social dynamics at play in our lives can only be diminished, incomplete. This is why Asian American identity and the larger project of Asian American theological ethics matters to democratic politics.

    In the book, I encourage Asian American theology to consider the extent to which we are disembodied subjects (chapter 4), the applicability of the practice of passing for Asian Americans (chapter 4), the possibilities of liminality, hybiridity, or mestizaje for Asian American self-definition in a society built on white racial hierarchies (chapter 3). (And, given Luzarraga’s comments about colorism, that too should be a subject of deeper concern and study for Asian American theologians and ethicists.) I advance these proposals, however, not to claim that Asian American experiences are the same as those of the Latinx or African American communities—our embodied experiences are not identical. But I do so rather in the hope that we can name our particularized experiences of white racism in ways that are communicable and impactful across racial lines. Only then can we resist, as partners rather than siloed communities, those forces that lay siege on not only some but all of us, black, brown, and yellow.

Jonathan Tran

Response

October 22, 2019, 1:00 am

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