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Internalised racism

Friday, 29 March 2019  | Grace Lung

That’s SO Asian.

I’m not THAT kind of Asian.

Asians. Those crazy baby-formula-and-vitamin-hoarding, buying-up-Australian-property foreigners. They might be depicted as being obsessed with brand names, displaying bad manners on flights or having no concept of queues. Those loud-talking, loud-colour-wearing, uncivilised Asians.

Of course, I would never say it out loud. I tell myself: ‘it can’t be racist if I’m Asian too’. But this is mistaken. This kind of stereotyping is not only damaging within the Asian Australian community, but it also destroys our fellowship and witness within the church.

Growing up Asian

Many of us may have forgotten what it was like growing up as a minority person in Australian society. In primary school, for lunch I brought seaweed, a crunchy Japanese snack I loved and which was popular within the Asian ethnic community. This was long before sushi appeared as a respectable option in the Australian lunch scene. ‘Ew, what is that? It looks like you’re eating poo.’ I thought twice before bringing seaweed again. Over time, we learnt to police ourselves.

‘Did you put your whole dinner in your sandwich?’ an Asian friend laughed as she pointed to another friend’s lunch: what looked like a Chinese stir-fry repurposed into an omelette sandwich for lunch in high school.

I learnt from my Asian superiors that, in a Western corporate world, I would have a better chance of success if I knew the ins and outs of cricket and AFL, and learnt to drink beer.

I learnt that speaking with confident Australian English in a Caucasian context as quickly as possible would let those Caucasians in the room know that I wasn’t ‘THAT’ kind of Asian and, consequently, I would receive better service at a restaurant or in a shop.

I learnt that Asian values of obeying teachers and working hard quietly were overshadowed by those who ‘paid out’ each other, spoke casually to teachers and asserted their opinions during class.

The extent of conformity with Australian Western values correlated with success. I was lucky, because I still had a very strong connection to my Chinese community through food, TV dramas and pop music. I would try to hold onto my heritage, knowing that a whole community was behind me. Many are not so lucky, especially those who came to Australia before strong ethnic communities were formed, or those who had to live in more regional and rural settings, isolated from the Asian community. It is even more difficult for those who have experienced blatant racist acts for appearing Asian and who have not received adequate support. It is hard to hold onto something that gets socially penalised.

There is nothing inherently wrong with learning a new culture and seeking to adapt to a new place. In fact, it is a good thing. However, an environment where one race experiences advantage over another[1] is a racist system. Within this system, the problem is when Asian culture is penalised and displays of Western culture are rewarded. In response, we start to subconsciously believe and behave in ways that demonstrate that Western culture is superior, and Asian culture is inferior. This is internalised racism: where we accept the identities imposed on us[2], ‘turning upon ourselves, upon our families and upon our own people the distress patterns that result’[3]. We in the minority have often ended up suppressing, denying or being embarrassed by our Asian heritage and/or by other Asian people – seeing them as a barrier to success and a threat to belonging as ‘real Australians’. We did what we had to survive, to belong and to succeed. After all, our parents had sacrificed so much to come here. But in the process, our family’s Asian quirks became more and more unfamiliar and strange as we began to embrace the Western values and behaviours rewarded in every other facet of our lives such as school and work.

The problem in our migrant churches

Within the Chinese church today, I hear story after story of first-generation migrant believers and their offspring, the second generation, not getting along and hurting each other. First-generation Christians tend to reflect Confucian values – collectivism, group harmony and respect of authority and hierarchy. Second-generation Christians tend to reflect more Westernised values – individualism, openness and egalitarian relationships. First-generation Christians tend to be modern, having faith in objective knowledge, moral absolutes and right personal behaviour. Second-generation Christians tend to be Post-modern, being more cautious of those who claim absolute truth and authority, and having a strong concern for social justice. First-generation church practices are viewed as captive to Confucianism: concerned with right behaviour, duty-bound and face-saving. Conversely, second-generation church practices can be seen as captive to Western values: emphasising one’s personal relationship with God and a personal assent to the correct mechanics of individual salvation.

The clash of these values has resulted in conflict and to what is referred to as the ‘Silent Exodus’: the phenomenon of second-generation people leaving their migrant churches or even their faith. This is well-documented in North American Asian migrant churches[4], and there is anecdotal evidence of a similar exodus from Australian Asian migrant churches. Those churches that do stay together can experience ongoing tensions, with the various groups working in silos or being in outright conflict with one other.[5]

The situation is most commonly viewed as a two-party problem. Current approaches seek to bridge the divide through more combined activities such as a combined service, sports social or special dinner. What is essential to this approach is also helping each group understand the underlying cultural and generational dynamics that cause misunderstanding and conflict.

But until we recognise the role that racism plays within our community, our current solutions within the church will fall short. These approaches often result in a stalemate, whereby, in a conflict, both parties are thinking and acting in accordance with their cultural and generational preference. Even if we are able to reach a place of mutual understanding, neither party feels the motivation to reach out to apologise or reconcile, since they do not consider what they said or did sinful. Yet the hurt remains.

We therefore need to consider this as a three-party problem: how might our cultural and generational differences function in a racial system? Second generation people with internalised racism may subconsciously write off and dismiss first-generation values and people as inferior, whilst elevating Western values, behaviour and even theology as superior. First-generation people may also be impacted by this system, which gives advantage to those who are young and proficient in the English language and culture. They may find their professional training is no longer useful in the broader community and see the church environment as a rare opportunity where they are able to exercise their authority and restore their honour.

Jesus addresses the problem

Our communities, including our churches, have been hurt by racism. Hurt people will hurt people, which is how internalised racism manifests, leading each to behave in a way that tries to demonstrate that some cultures are inherently superior to others, and as a result sinning against each other. It shouldn’t be like this, since God created all the nations out of one man (Acts 17:26), and Christ loves and died for all:

You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals; because You were slaughtered, and You redeemed [people] for God by Your blood from every tribe and language and people and nation. You made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they will reign on the earth. (Revelation 5:9-10)

Speaking as a second-generation person, collectively we are unable to resist the tendency to internalise racism without Jesus. If we recognise our brokenness and sin, Jesus can come to confront and heal us, helping us move out of the stalemate. Jesus can give us the true belonging and ‘success’ that we seek. We can acknowledge how internalised racism makes us feel superior to the ‘other Asians’. We can repent of our pride and the ways we have dismissed each other. If we first take this log out of our eye, we can clearly take the speck out of other people’s eyes. Conflict – both in churches and in the broader community - is inevitable, but the intensity of conflict can be decreased, minimising the impact.

Only when Christ deals with this baggage of internalised racism in us can we resist the forces that make us deny our Asian heritage. The Spirit can help us see past stereotypes, and see more clearly the beauty, and not just the weaknesses, of each other’s cultures. We can consider how Asian culture and theology can be a gift to the church. Then we can truly move toward genuine love and reconciliation between the cultures, not only in our churches, but also more broadly as we seek to reach new migrants and show them Christ.

Grace Lung is a graduate of Sydney Missionary and Bible College and Fuller Theological Seminary. She was a 2019 Anglican Deaconess Ministries Summer Fellow and is currently a Research Fellow at the Brisbane School of Theology Centre for Asian Christianity.

[1] Beverly Tatum, ‘Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?’ (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 25.

[2] Pyke, Karen, ‘What Is Internalized Racial Oppression and Why Don’t We Study It? Acknowledging Racism’s Hidden Injuries,’ Sociological Perspectives 53, no. 4 (2010): 557.

[3] E.J.R David and Annie O. Derthick, Internalized Oppression (New York: Springer Publishing Company, LLC, 2014), 9.

[4] See D.J. Chuang, “Silent Exodus: Asian American Christians Leaving Churches,” Djchuang (blog), December 14, 2017, https://djchuang.com/2017/when-asian-american-christian-youth-go-to-college/; Enoch Wong et al., and Listening to Their Voices: An Exploration of Faith Journeys of Canadian-Born Chinese Christians (Canada: CCCOWE, 2018).

[5] Michael Chu, Drawn Together for His Glory: The Relevance and Application of Cultural Intelligence (CQ) to the Pastoral Leadership of the Culturally Diverse, Congregational, Chinese Churches of Sydney (Morling College: Unpublished doctoral dissertation, 2017).


Siu Fung Wu
April 1, 2019, 9:45AM
Thank you for this great article, Grace. I really like your concluding remarks. Let us celebrate each other's cultures and value our Asian heritage — reconciling each other because of the reconciliation we have found in Christ.

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