Asian American Invisibility in Social Justice Work

Dear POC fam,

We need to talk. In the fight for social justice, we cannot afford to operate in our individualized ethnic enclaves. In the past couple of months, I’ve had a few close friends and family voice their frustration about being Asian American in social justice/ministry circles. I often write about navigating as a woman of color in predominantly white male spaces. This time I’m specifically addressing issues between Asian Americans and African Americans committed to social justice.  Full disclosure, this is somewhat uncomfortable to write because my culture tends not to publicly voice these sort of things, but I truly believe that WE all need each other if we desire at all to see social justice and equity for those who are marginalized. We can no longer operate in just a Black/White binary when it comes to racial equity in the United States.

I want to start a public conversation about Asian Americans in social justice work because I’ve had too many conversations in small, siloed spaces, and if we’re going to have any movement toward social justice then we’re going to need to start being real with each other.

The idea for this conversation started when my brother Rev. DJ del Rosario called me to share about a recent experience. “The last large church gathering I was at, someone commented on social media that the group was predominantly white. I told this person that while there were three thousand people present, I cautioned him that lighter-skinned people of color like myself are still persons of color and often overlooked or discounted. I was quickly engaged by an African American female pastor who essentially told me that I am white-passing.  If I am not accepted in any group because I am ‘white-passing,’ what do I do now?” Without knowing him, the pastor decided that my brother could not possibly understand what it feels like to be oppressed or marginalized. She assumed too much.

My brother was dismissed by being reduced to the phrase white-passing. This is a deceptive phrase that allowed the African American pastor to discount any forms of racial inequity he has experienced in his life while deeming her experiences of racism as more legitimate than his. The deception is in the idea that the only experiences that count are at either end of the Black/White binary.

Soon after my brother’s experience, I was at the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) conference in Dallas. There were almost 1400 attendees, and during one of the sessions, about 25 Asian Americans gathered to network.  One of the clearest concerns I heard from these community development leaders was, “We’re doing the work alongside of them, but they don’t see us.”

I began asking other Asian Americans about their experiences. One Filipino American pastor was so frustrated with the topic he exclaimed, “What do I need to do to be seen? Do I need to prove how woke I am?” He was exasperated by his attempts to be seen as an ally by his African American colleagues.

Julie Tai, worship director at Fuller Theological Seminary expressed herself this way, “The invisibility I experience in African American spaces is especially painful. To be made invisible by the very communities I support and stand with is its own unique trauma. This lack of mutuality perpetuates oppressive notions of scarcity that stunt our imagination to believe that there is room for all and that in order to have our communities’ stories matter, we have to silence another’s.”

Angie Hong, author, worship leader and MDiv student at Duke Divinity stated, “When I am in primarily African American spaces, I am a minority in a sea of minorities, and I wonder how small I must really be in that moment. I expect to feel this way in primarily white spaces—I’m really used to it—but in this POC space I mistakenly hope for more. When I finally realize that I’m just as invisible in the POC space as the white space, I feel blindsided by the hurt. Then they start treating me like a white woman, and I find myself fighting tears as I fight to justify myself as a POC. Finally, I realize that I’ve given into this dynamic, also called white supremacy, and right then and there I must stop.”

The theme in all of the experiences is “Asian Invisibility.” More specifically, invisibility amongst other people of color.

This is not a new phenomenon. In 1969 my newly immigrated parents got married in Greensboro, North Carolina. Because this was the South and only 4 years after the Civil Rights Act had passed as well as the Immigration Act, I was curious about how my Filipino immigrant parents were treated. My parents both recall, “We weren’t treated as poorly as the Black people. They just treated us as if we didn’t exist.” They tried different United Methodist churches in their neighborhood. After the service, it was customary for the pastors to stand at the door of the church to shake hands as people left.  My mother recalls how the pastors would look right through them as if they didn’t exist. Although they were standing right in front of the pastors ready to shake their hands, both of my parents were invisible.

While Asian American experiences cannot be compared to African American experiences in terms of the disproportionate and violent levels of brutality, fatality, racism, and incarceration, Asian Americans still have racialized experiences. Julie Tai describes this as not being killed by gunpoint but being killed by a thousand paper cuts. Either way, we all die.

I asked my class the other day to define “Race.” One student, who was trying to lighten the mood said, “A running event.” I knew he was joking, but I still wrote it on the board. What he inadvertently pointed out was that the social construct of “race” is something where there are winners and losers. And I think he’s right.

The conflation of class, race, and gender is all under the lens of institutional power. So Asian Americans are wedged between Black and White people having done better in the “class race.” Kenji Karumitsu explains the problem of the wedge here  But the fact is we are still in the race about race and there are winners and losers in this game. The reason is because the game is rigged. The game is designed for whiteness to reign supreme. The kicker is that those of us who do not and cannot live in the privilege of whiteness still help the system by turning on each other in what I can only describe as the race of all races, the “oppression Olympics.” We spend our time fighting over who is more oppressed or more privileged or separating ourselves from one other, while those for whom the game is rigged run right past us.

The perceived “success” that Asian Americans have in socio-economic class, makes it look like they no longer live under the institutional power. In other words, economic privilege belies any other issues of racism an Asian American may still face. Institutional power is still at play and white supremacy firmly controls that.

I’ll write more later since this issue is quite complex (like how Asian Americans must also confront our anti-blackness and white idolatry issues) but I’ll stop here and pose these questions:

  • Should Asian Americans fight for social justice?
  • If so, how do we pursue social justice faithfully without allowing the injustice of invisibility to immobilize us?
  • Why do so many ‘woke’ Asian Americans fight for non-Asian communities?
  • What are your stories of feeling invisible as an Asian American in social justice spaces?

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