Who does the Black/White Paradigm Leave Out?

There are so many topics worthy of reflection swirling in my head, but I want to focus on the black/white paradigm and the way this interacts with Asian Americans.  This way of thinking has led to much ignorance of Asian American issues and silencing of those who have tried to share their experiences.  The black/white paradigm is however, a useful tool in analyzing why and how Asian Americans have been marginalized.  Amidst this journey, I have seen how Christian ethics can be contextualized for specific Asian contexts.

I want to start off reflecting on Robert Chang’s insight on the problem of coverage when using the black/white paradigm.  The problem of coverage is that, “It ignores the complexity of a racial hierarchy that has more than just a top and a bottom” (Chang, 1267).  The insight is that when we think about the black/white paradigm as only pertaining to the racial relationship between blacks and whites, it doesn’t consider all other races.  As a result, no one pays attention to the struggles and concerns of other minority races in America.  We hear their problems and then belittle them because they don’t match up to the horrors of black slavery and oppression in America.  To be honest, I’ve had some of these feelings myself at times.  As a biracial (black and white) American, I’ve had moments where I hear the distress of how the Latinos are feeling racial oppression, and in my mind, I think, “Yeah that’s tough, but try being enslaved for a couple hundred years.”  This black/white paradigm influences me to only consider race as it presents itself between blacks and whites.  The black/white paradigm is aptly named so because of how we tend to think of race in the context of blacks vs. whites, but the black/white paradigm speaks beyond just blacks and whites.

It’s easy to see how the black/white paradigm can be harmful for other minority races when understood as only being descriptive.  The black/white paradigm is more than descriptive though, it does more than just describe a particular state.  As Zhou and Ocampo point out, “This definition is, however, too limited and superficial.” (Ocampo and Zhou, 339).  It is also a conceptual tool where we position blacks and whites at opposite extremes where blacks represent racial oppression and whites represent privilege (Ocampo and Zhou, 339).  The black/white paradigm goes beyond only considering two particular races and allows us to analyze the social position of all races.  This fosters a genuine interest and concern about all minorities and consideration to the ways other races, in addition to blacks, are being viewed and treated.  This results in true solidarity where other races are concerned about the social position of another because they acknowledge the struggles of all.  It brings us one step closer to the sort of solidarity we are to have in Christ as Paul tells us in Romans 3:28 when we don’t let differences divide us.  

When considering the black/white paradigm more as a conceptual tool and not just descriptive, we start to see some of the peculiar ways that Asian Americans are viewed in America.  When we focus on how Asian American’s success has brought them privilege, we see how they begin to be viewed more and more as white.  The financial success of Asian Americans has given them many of the privileges that affluent white Americans enjoy.  Thus, we have people from the white community praising Asian Americans for their success and telling all other minorities to be like the Asians, and the creation of the “model minority myth”.  This results in Asians going from being considered “black”, to now being viewed as “white” (Ocampo and Zhou, 347).  The appearance of Asians occupying social positions primarily filled by whites has connected Asians with whites.  This disconnects Asians from other minorities and engenders animosity towards Asians from the other minorities who have now been shamed even more because they aren’t like the Asians, our model minorities.  This creates a frightening irony of oppressed people envying other oppressed people and divides the socially destitute. This tension brings challenges for Asian American Christian Ethicists who are working to engender racial solidarity among minorities when their race is being excluded from the group.

Asians don’t only experience the “joys” of white privilege they supposedly possess, but they also experience the black aspect of the black/white paradigm and encounter racial struggle.  Being non-white, Asians have experienced racial denigration from whites and been told they are inferior because of their skin color.  Race is peculiar because in some ways, the darkness or lightness of your skin tone has an impact on how you are viewed.  But at the same time, that isn’t the end of the story, because there is more than just skin tone that goes into defining a race. 

Some of the problems that Asians experience isn’t solely because of the darkness or lightness of their skin, but because their race signifies foreignness.  For Asians, it’s not just that they are foreign, but it is that their race has a symbol of being forever foreign, and thus somehow a threat to America or not “truly” American.  When it comes to white foreigners, it’s easier to see them as truly American and to forget their foreignness because their race gives them privilege to be counted as American.  For Asians though, it is on account of their race that it’s harder for them to get the full stamp of approval of being American, and so they get discriminated against with nativist notions that are predicated on race.

As much as Asians experience racism, they don’t always keep themselves pure from perpetuating it either (Kao and Ahn, 132).  Some may say that white racism and privilege has become a part of the Asian American experience (Kao and Ahn, 143).  But the way we speak about this gives me concern.  I’m not concerned with the suggestion that Asians engage in racism, because all people do, but I have some resistance to calling it “white” racism or that Asians experience “white” privilege.  My angst is that by adding this adjective of “white” we create a distance between Asians and whatever the word is that follows after the “white”.  In distancing Asians, we are shielding them from the fullness of their moral failure.  Theologically, Ezekiel 18:20 reminds us that each person is responsible for their own sin and I just want to be sure we aren’t lightening the reality of that burden.  

There may be something to be said about there being certain kinds of racism that are unique to each race, but if that’s the case then let’s start calling Asian racists out for committing “Asian racism” and not “white racism”.  My main gripe is that by saying Asians are involved in “white” racism, we are somehow blaming white people for the racism that Asians are acting out, and thus take away some of the moral responsibility due to the Asian community. I want to acknowledge that if Asians are acting in ways that white racists act in, then maybe it makes sense to say they are committing white racism.  I also want to not disregard the power of context and that growing up in a country that has a horrifying history of racism, it does make sense to suggest that Asians could be influenced beyond their will in some sense to think in what only could be considered “white racists” paradigms.  But even with those concessions, I do still worry that sometimes we implicitly blame whites for racist attitudes and beliefs in other races in virtue of calling these racist sentiments “white racism”.  In doing so, we don’t attribute the appropriate amount of moral failure to racist sentiments held by minorities.

Race is incredibly complex and dense.  As race scholars bring to light the realities of race and the way race works in society and influences people, it’s critical that Christians don’t remain silent.  We need to stay engaged in the conversation and show God’s disapproval of the injustice of racism and his firm stance against it.  We also need to show how to go about this fight in a loving and caring way that brings humanity together and builds community instead of isolation.  It is through Christ we are all saved, and it is through Christ we reach the Father.  Once with the Father, Revelations is clear that the diversity of our cultures and races aren’t negated but celebrated and so we should work to do that now.  And we need the perspective of Asian American Christians in order to do that properly.

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