Editor’s Note: Due to a technical error, this post was not e-mailed on May 2 as intended. As a result, we are reposting it today. Thanks, PLG
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. How might Christian scholars effectively engage AAPI topics during this month and beyond? I had the joy of interviewing author, speaker, and activist Dr. Michelle Ami Reyes. She is a co-founder and vice president of Asian American Christian Collective (AACC)and the Scholar in Residence at Hope Community Church in Austin, TX. Dr. Reyes is the author of Becoming All Things: How Small Changes Lead to Lasting Connections Across Cultures, and she has a forthcoming book co-authored with Helen Lee titled The Race-Wise Family: Ten Postures to Becoming Households of Healing and Hope. Follow Dr. Reyes here: https://michelleamireyes.com/
- The term “Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI)” is frequently used in both public and scholarly spheres to capture the shared experiences of these communities in the United States; AAPI Heritage Month is an example of this. But there is much heterogeneity that also needs to be highlighted between the experiences of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and of course, within those groups as well. How can Christian colleges and universities meaningfully engage AAPI Heritage Month without falling into the trap of homogenizing the rich stories of diverse groups captured under this umbrella term?
You’re absolutely right. We are not a monolith. The Asian American population in the U.S. is estimated between 20 to 22 million. We represent 48 different countries in Asia as well as an Asian diaspora around the world, speaking hundreds of languages collectively. In addition, there is the reality of Mixed Asians like myself. I’m a bicultural 2nd generation Indian American. My mother is 100% ethnically Indian, though she was born and raised in Uganda, Africa. My father is of British and German descent. The 2020 US Census showed us that Mixed Race is the 2nd largest growing demographic in the country, and many Asian American Millennials and Gen Z reflect this in their ethnic heritage. I know several folks who are half Black and half Chinese, or (like my own children) half Indian and half Latino.
When we talk about Asian American and Pacific Islanders, whether on a college campus or elsewhere, we must recognize that no two Asians are the same. We are all unique types of Asians. Each of us are like all Asian Americans, like some Asian Americans, and like no other Asian American. There are two immediate applications for this. The first is, as best we can, be hyper local in our language. Don’t refer to someone generically as “South Asian” or “of East Asian descent.” Name their specific ethnic heritage (e.g., Sri Lankan), their generation, and whether they are bicultural or multicultural. Second, ensure that a diverse group of Asian Americans are represented in panel talks and events. Pacific Islanders (peopleoriginating or living in Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia) as well as Southeastern Asians, such as folks from Indonesia, Cambodia, Burma, and Thailand, are often overlooked. Allow diverse Asian voices to lead the initiatives and programs celebrating AAPI Heritage month and beyond. They are the ones whose radar will be highest for holistic inclusion and engagement.
- Do you have any advice for faculty teaching and mentoring AAPI students in Christian institutions? There is an increasing representation of AAPI students in Christian higher education (e.g., At my Christian liberal arts institution, Asian students are the third largest racial/ethnic group1 behind White and Hispanic students), but the continued invalidation or marginalization of AAPI stories stemming from the model minority stereotype remains an experiential reality.
Yes! The concept of the model minority myth (MMM) has been problematic since its inception. A white journalist, William Peterson, helped coin the term in the 1960s. His article, “Success Story of One Minority Group in the U.S.,” which featured in the New York Times Magazine on January 9, 19662, argued that Japanese Americans were racially smarter and more successful than other minority groups in the United States. Peterson’s article and others at the time ended up bolstering an image of Asian Americans as all being good at math, self-disciplined, and for the most part rich and successful. This image has continued to plague the Asian American community to this day.
Busting the model minority myth will take time and collective effort. Part of how we address the MMM is by elevating stories of Asian Americans failing at things. I know that might sound odd, but it’s an essential practice. We need to normalize stories and experiences of things not working out for us, of trying something and failing, and of not always being rich or successful. Incorporate books and films on Asian struggle in the classroom. Invite Asian leaders to campus to speak and share their story, including their own hurdles, challenges, and the things they learned they weren’t good at. Centering more conversations on struggles and failure will help us humanize ourselves and others. Asian Americans need to give themselves the permission to make mistakes, to not be perfect, and to know there are other career choices for them beyond math and science. We need to learn how to recognize our own brokenness, so that we can accept the ways in which we struggle, including the anti-Asian racism we experience, and address these pain points in healthy, appropriate ways, and so others can see and empathize with our struggles too.
- I find that this generation of students tend to be keenly aware of social issues and are already quite advocacy-minded even before they step into my classroom. At the same time, they are increasingly disillusioned by religion, turned off by the ways that some Christian communities have relegated relevant social issues impacting their neighbors as secondary concerns. How might faculty navigate this tension, for example, when teaching about AAPI issues?
Great question. I think part of our job as educators right now is to do what we can to awaken the souls of our students to more than the material world. In this cultural moment, we desperately need a holy reimagining of how the social and the spiritual go hand in hand. This, perhaps, is easier done at a Christian college. For Asian American students, especially those passionate about justice and advocacy, it is of utmost importance that we bring them into conversation with eastern theology and with the Asian American Christian leaders and activists of their own ethnic roots. For Asian American Christian students, their hero list should be expanded to include folks like Catholic Vietnamese theologian, Peter Phan; Indian activist, Pandita Ramibai; and Japanese pacifist and reformer, Toyohiko Kagawa.
Have your students read Jonathan Tan’s Introducing Asian American Theologies3and Mangoes or Bananas?: The Quest for an Authentic Asian Christian Theology4 by Hwa Yung? In the words of Norman Chen, the co-founder and chief executive of Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change, we need to be “soaking in the presence of Asian Americans,”5 so that their books are not only on our shelves, but their lives and actions are our models for pursuing advocacy in the here and now.
There has always been a history of Asian Christian activists, holding the Bible in one hand and the reality of their streets in the other, and seeking to make something beautiful for the kingdom in response. It’s our job to position these stories in front of our students and inspire them into a deeper, more spirit-filled engagement with the world around them.
- AACC really took off during the COVID-19 pandemic when there was heightened attention to anti-Asian racism. What’s next? And how can Christian scholars collaborate with organizations like AACC?
The mission at AACC is to encourage, equip, and empower Asian American Christians and friends of our community to follow Christ holistically. We are committed to amplifying the voices, issues, and histories of Asian Americans in the church and society at large, and our hope is that in the months and years to come that Christian scholars, including Asian American scholars, will push their research, writing, and speaking toward the intersection of faith and culture. How can we holistically engage in culture- and race-related issues of our day? What is the unique offering and skillset that Asian American Christians bring to the conversation on justice and racial healing? Why do our voices matter within the fields of religion, politics, the corporate world, and beyond? How are we equipping the next generation to lead in whatever area God calls them with a fully developed racial consciousness and a high level of cultural intelligence and humility? We also want the church as a whole to take a greater stance against racism of all kinds as well as anti-Asian racism related to the pandemic.
We will better live into the mission of advocating for Asian lives and dignity as we raise our voices, write, educate, and equip each other to do the work. AACC Reclaim Publication is a unique space as it does not shy away from leaning into the issues that are most relevant and pressing for Asian Americans today. We invite scholars to submit to our publication and be part of important conversations on Asian American Christian thought and culture.
- Office of Inclusive Excellence, Undergraduate student profile. Seattle Pacific University. Retrieved on April 15, 2022. https://spu.edu/diversity/faq/student-profile
- William Peterson, “Success Story, Japanese American Style,” New York Times Magazine, January 9, 1966, 20, 21.
- Jonathan Tan, Introducing Asian American Theologies (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2008).
- Hwa Yung, Mangoes or Bananas?:The Quest for an Authentic Asian Christian Theology. (Oxford: Regnum Books, 1997).
- Claire Wang, Survey finds that 42 percent of people in U.S. can’t name one Asian American. NBC Asian America. May 13, 2021. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/survey-finds-42-percent-people-u-s-can-t-name-n1267283