Covenanters Call for Dialogue on Asian American Stereotypes

By Stan Friedman

CHICAGO, IL (October 18, 2013) — Earlier this week, a coalition of Asian American pastors and church leaders released an “Open Letter to the Evangelical Church” decrying the use of stereotypes that they say have hurt their community. Two Covenanters, Kathy Khang and Helen Lee, drafted the letter and sought the signatories.

Kathy Khang

Helen Lee

Helen Lee

Major media outlets across the country have run stories about the letter, which is attracting additional signatories every day. To view the letter, click here.

The women decided to write the letter following two recent depictions of Asian Americans, one by Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren, and another by Exponential, a church planting group, during a conference at Saddleback.

A video at the conference showed a white pastor joking that he made his apprentice do menial activities. The apprentice responds by doing a parody of the “Karate Kid” that includes the pastor speaking with a Chinese accent, and the two engaging in karate before bowing to each other.

The incident occurred several weeks after Warren posted a photo on Facebook that depicted a uniformed member of the Red Guard, the violent government-supported student movement during the Cultural Revolution, during which millions of Chinese were persecuted. The caption underneath read, “The typical attitude of Saddleback staff as they start work each day.”

“Every time I hear those faux Asian accents or see Asian culture demeaned or mocked, it brings me right back to those memories of hurt and pain…” – Helen Lee

Warren took down the photo and apologized, and Exponential leaders also apologized. Other recent occurrences include the publication of VBS and Sunday-school curriculum that many Asian Americans considered racist.

The letter begins:

“We have imagined and hoped for such a different future for the church, one in which racial harmony would not be an illusion, but a tangible reality. However, as a number of incidents in recent years demonstrate, the evangelical church is still far from understanding what it truly means to be an agent of racial reconciliation. In particular, the Asian American segment of the church continues to be misunderstood, misrepresented, and misjudged.”

The letter concludes by listing several solutions that include convening a forum, calling on “Christian organizations, particularly in the areas of media and publishing, to see if there are systemic issues preventing Asian Americans from having a presence and a voice in the evangelical world,” and “committing to a higher standard of evaluating any media or public content to respectfully reflect Asian American culture.”

In an interview conducted by email, Khang and Lee share their thoughts about what led them to the action, why the signers are not being “overly sensitive,” and why their concerns matter to the broader church.

You were both on the organizing committee for the open letter from the Asian American Christian community to the evangelical church. How did you get involved with this initiative?

Helen Lee: Kathy and I were discussing the latest incident of cultural insensitivity that occurred at a Christian conference, in which we heard a video parody was shown with white pastors using Asian accents and displaying martial arts moves. We felt frustrated that this kind of stereotyping continued to appear in the church, and we wanted for Asian American Christians to respond in such a way that would catalyze true change and not be dismissed or forgotten as had occurred in past similar situations.

So we decided to gather a coalition of Asian American Christian leaders and to create a joint letter to express our collective opinion. Within 48 hours, we were able to easily gain the support of more than 80 notable Asian Americans to sign the letter with us, including numerous members of the Covenant. (Editor’s note: They included Eugene Cho, lead pastor of Quest Church in Seattle, Washington; missionaries to Thailand Bob and Grace Shim; Soong-Chan Rah, associate professor at North Park Theological Seminary; Peter Cha, associate professor of pastoral theology at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois; and Mark Tao, pastor of Immanuel Evangelical Covenant Church in Chicago.)

Then we sent our letter out via social media to gather additional support, and so far, the letter has been signed by nearly 800 people, both Asian American and non-Asians alike, including Covenant President Gary Walter. We hope this growing coalition can testify to the broader church that our concerns are not just those of a handful of overly sensitive online activists, but reflect deep areas of pain and frustration for a large segment of the body of Christ.

How have you seen this kind of portrayal be hurtful to Asian Americans?

Kathy Khang: Stereotypical portrayals of Asian Americans reinforce the narrative that we are the “other” and are not Americans. It pushes our voices, contributions, and participation in the church, politics, etc., to the margins because we are perpetual foreigners. The stereotype communicates the majority culture’s desire to keep a clear distinction between what is acceptable and what is not—our speech patterns, our physical features, our food, our arts are all kept at an arm’s length from American culture, which then gives permission to use the stereotype for whatever purpose, whether it’s for a joke or a costume or for “good intentions.” These portrayals remind Asian Americans that we are not “true” Americans. Imagine what that communicates when stereotypes are used within the church!

Seeing God’s kingdom come on earth isn’t so that we can all make fun of each other and laugh. It’s that we recognize and celebrate the diversity of God’s people. – Kathy Khang

The stereotypes have also been shaped into the narrative of the “model minority” which grants Asian Americans acceptance into majority white culture only if we follow those rules—succeed, chase the American dream, study hard, don’t complain. That myth has silenced Asian Americans who don’t neatly fit into that stereotype, making it difficult for more recent immigrants from Southeast Asia, who came to the U.S. under completely different circumstances than those from East Asia in the late 1960s and 1970s. It has made America and the church blind to the realities and real struggles facing Asian Americans—poverty, education gaps, immigration status, etc. And the model minority status bequeathed to us has also caused division between Asian Americans and other non-white communities who have not benefited from that type of “positive” portrayal.

Stereotypes in general are not helpful to further relationship and partnership. Christians often find ourselves stereotyped. How helpful have those stereotypes been to the church’s purpose of declaring the gospel, loving our neighbors, caring for the poor? It creates barriers and divisions that are not helpful. Our being Asian American or identifying ourselves as such isn’t the problem. The problem occurs when others use stereotypes to remind me that I don’t fit neatly into an acceptable category.

What do you experience when you are the recipient of cultural insensitivity?

Lee: Whenever I experienced cultural insensitivity, the message that I heard is this: You are a foreigner. You don’t really belong here in this country. You are a lesser person than those who are white. As a natural-born American citizen who has grown up entirely in this country and who speaks English just fine, I experienced pain and isolation from hearing these messages. But as a child and adolescent, I didn’t have the words to defend myself or the maturity to understand what was happening. So for many years, I grew up feeling ashamed of my ethnic background. I was angry with God for creating me to be a Korean American, and I truly believed that he must have made some sort of mistake in doing so—that if he truly loved me, he would have created me to be Caucasian so I wouldn’t have had to experience this kind of heartache about my identity.

It was not until I was in my twenties that I finally understood that my Korean American background was a gift to be cherished and not a curse. But every time I hear those faux Asian accents or see Asian culture demeaned or mocked, it brings me right back to those memories of hurt and pain, and it reinforces the idea that Asians are not truly part of the body, that it is all right for us to be marginalized in this way. And the church cannot continue to reinforce messages that perpetuate pain and falsehoods within the body of Christ.

What would you say to people who say, “Why does everybody have to take things so seriously?” or “People make fun of other groups all the time, including Swedes, Irish, etc.? “

Khang: Well, I don’t know if people making fun of other groups all the time is a valid reason to excuse that type of behavior of anyone, especially church leaders. And it deflects the deeper issues of respect, building trust and relationship between people and communities, and how we are to reflect God’s diversity with every tongue, tribe, and nation. Seeing God’s kingdom come on earth isn’t so that we can all make fun of each other and laugh. It’s that we recognize and celebrate the diversity of God’s people.

Someone at church asked me a similar question. The person pointed out that our own church members make fun of how Swedes always have coffee brewing at church functions. As a coffee drinker, I didn’t think it was a joke. But on a more serious note, making fun of drinking coffee isn’t quite the same as making fun of someone’s physical appearance or who they are as a person. Drinking coffee is not exclusive to Swedes and is an industry and social activity held in high regard; the joke doesn’t separate Swedes from American or church culture.

Kathy Khang is the regional multiethnic ministries director with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. She and her family have attended Libertyville Covenant Church in Libertyville, Illinois, since 2007, where she has served on the worship team and taught in the adult Sunday-school program.

Helen Lee is an author and speaker; she and her husband, Brian, helped to plant Parkwood Community Church in Villa Park, Illinois, in 1996, where she led the mercy and justice team and taught the confirmation class. She and her family attend Naperville Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois.

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