In Part 2, I showed how my circumstances led to internalizing anti-Asian racist ideas. However, that’s just not enough. It’s important to see how internalized racism perpetuates racism in a feedback loop. We need to zoom out and see how my story fits into the bigger picture.
As I said in Part 1, internalizing racism means that BIPOC experience racial inequities and believe the source of that problem lies with their own racial group. Essentially, BIPOC adopt the racial prejudices of white people who hold power. When this happens, BIPOC can be used by those white people in power to uphold and defend racist policies. This explains how.
I’ll expand on this in the next post, but this is the basic feedback loop. The graphic below assumes that you understand the origin of racism as self-interest (a concept expertly articulated by Ibram X. Kendi) driving racist policies. If not, your homework is to read this article.
Take a minute and think on it. Then read through my examples under the headings below. I’ll follow a thread of anti-Asian racism, connecting historical events to things we still see and hear today.
Racist policies preserve and protect wealth and power.
An example: The Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.
In the 1800s, war, natural disasters and famine in China forced thousands to come to America. These Chinese immigrants were seen as a threat to white European Americans who held power. You can learn more with a google search, but the tl;dr (“too long, didn’t read”) version is that white America did not want competition for wealth and power from a new crop of immigrants they had little in common with and couldn’t control.
Therefore the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed; a law targeting a specific ethnic group, banning Chinese people from immigrating and preventing Chinese people from becoming naturalized citizens (i.e. owning land, voting). Originally considered a 10 year plan, it stayed in place for 61 years!
Racist narratives are used to justify racist policies.
An example: Chinese immigrants depicted as dirty, rat-eaters.
To justify the Chinese Exclusion Act in the minds of the majority of (white) Americans, several anti-Chinese racist ideas took root. This included referring to Chinese immigrants as “yellow peril“, depictions of Chinese men as dirty and immoral, eating rats, addicted to opium, stealing jobs and threatening white women.
Yes, the idea that Chinese immigrants frequently ate rats was so recognizable that it became a part of this brand’s image and product design. Were they insinuating this rat poison was just as effective at eliminating rats as Chinese immigrants were? Go ahead and be angry about that for a minute, will you?
Racists narratives are forced onto BIPOC.
An example: Chinese restaurant “mystery meat” rumors/jokes.
What do I mean when I say ‘forced’? I mean that racist narratives permeate all aspects American culture. BIPOC can’t escape these narratives completely. There are a million ways, large and small, violent and subtle, that racist narratives can invade your mind and make you doubt yourself.
I’ve definitely heard on more than one occasion that Chinese people ate dog meat and that Chinese restaurants frequently serve dog or cat (or rat) in their dishes. Yes, this is essentially the same racist narrative that has been around since the 1800’s. This racist narrative has so much staying power that family-owned restaurants have gone out of business because of local rumors; that it feels true enough for white Americans to find this meme funny.
Growing up, I never liked going to the one Chinese restaurant in town. I remember ordering a cheeseburger and fries instead. I knew some people believed I had a connection with Chinese food (being a half Chinese adoptee). I also knew Chinese food was sometimes seem as gross or suspicious.
BIPOC interpret the results of racist policies as proof of racist narratives.
An example: The Model Minority Myth.
This one is long, so stay with me. This shows us how racist narratives change to suit the policies and therefore interests of white people in power.
First, Chinese exclusion eased up in 1943 as the USA wanted China as an ally against Japan. (This is self-interest driving policy, btw.) To justify this about-face, a literal committee strategically recast Chinese people as great neighbors and good citizens in promotional materials to convince America accept them!
Then, in the 1960’s, the National Immigration Act gave preference to immigrants that could help the American economy. (Again, self-interest driving policy.) Suddenly, many Asian immigrants had PhDs and high-demand skills. They had less obstacles due to racism and experienced more financial success. So guess what? They made the wealth and education stats for the average Asian American go way up.
Overlapping all this was the Civil Rights Movement. White people in power used Asian American success to argue that racism wasn’t holding anyone back. Asian Americans became “proof” that America wasn’t racist. They claimed that it was hard work and good citizenship that made Asians just as wealthy and successful as white people! This is how Asian Americans were depicted as the “model minority”; the one all other minorities should seek to copy.
So, this is the model minority myth; a racist narrative used to excuse the racist policies that produced inequities for Black Americans! This myth pits minority against minority and protects the status quo of white wealth and power.
Today, an Asian American might believe the myth; that their family’s success is proof that if you work hard, you can overcome any racist obstacles that might exist. Therefore, this person may believe that racism is not the reason for the economic disparities between white people and other BIPOC.
Instead of connecting their racial group’s success to external factors (i.e. policies that removed obstacles and opened doors for them), they internalize it, believing that their racial group’s success is because they behaved better and worked harder than other racial minority groups.
Once internalized, it is easy to believe that racist policies are justified.
An example: Asians against affirmative action.
Affirmative action in higher education has been a big topic in recent years. In this example, the racist “policy” was actually the widespread practice of discrimination against racial minorities in higher education prior to affirmative action.
While many white people have been against affirmative action, a certain segment of the Asian American population is now against it as well. Research done in 2019 shows that this segment tends to be first generation immigrants; the ones benefitting from selective immigration (*) and who tend to have higher academic achievements.
Asians against affirmative action seem to have internalized the model minority myth (i.e. we earned this). Just like many white Americans, they would prefer solely merit-based college admissions, which would ignore how our educational system still hinders Black students. In this way, they seek to uphold the practice of racial discrimination in higher education.
(*) The Mere Mention of Asians in Affirmative Action, Jennifer Lee, Van C. Tran, Sociological Science.
Now the feedback loop has come full circle, where white wealth and power can keep creating racist policies to protect their wealth and power. BIPOC who have internalized racist narratives often get weaponized against other BIPOC who are trying to call out and correct racial injustices.
Racism, as a form of oppression, is constantly seeking to keep the oppressed down. So internalized racism functions to get oppressed people to do that work themselves, to keep themselves down. This is why it is important for BIPOC to untangle ourselves from this mindset.
In Part 4, I’ll talk about how white wealth and power exploits BIPOC with internalized racism. I’ll also add two key details to the Feedback Loop that help me understand how this wheel can keep spinning? Why can’t I just recognize that racist narratives are wrong and stop myself from going around this circle?
I’d planned on reposting a series I’d done on Facebook in 2018 that compared political cartoons from the late 1800s and early 1900s to issues we were facing today. Turns out a lot of those posts are mysteriously gone from my Facebook feed.
However, we can analyze this one today.
This one was titled ‘The Mongolian Octopus – His Grip on Australia’ and was published in Sydney, from The Bulletin [‘Australia for the White Man’], August 21, 1886.
Fears of the “Yellow Peril” were not a USA only problem. Pretty much any area colonized by white, western europeans also felt threatened by the mass immigration of Chinese people and east asians in general.
You can see how “small pox” and “typhoid” – the medical threats of the day – are associated with Chinese. Today, as Asians all over the world are sharing how they’ve been verbally and physically attacked because of a racist connection between them and the coronavirus, we see not much has changed. #IAmNotAVirus is only necessary in a world that associates anyone east asian with disease and infection.
Other labels in this cartoon (cheap labour, robbery, immorality, drugs), should remind us of the labels being put on immigrants and asylum seekers at the USA’s southern border. When you hear your aunt or neighbor expressing their concern about the criminals coming in from the US-Mexico border, it is the same thing. The fear of Chinese immigrant in the 1880s was no less real to them as the fear of the Latin immigrant is today. And no less racist either.
Today we know that all people are made in the image of God. Right? That there is no race or ethnicity, no culture or heritage that is inherently immoral, diseased, or criminal. I hope so. However, it’s clear we still have not fully eradicated these ideas from our collective cultural conscious.
When the news broke about Coronavirus and media/press grabbed any image of east asian people (images from unrelated events and places) they could find to attach to their articles…it was a false association with damaging effect.
It revealed how the former racist narratives of Chinese and east asian people still exists in our collective imagination. We’ve not done a good enough job of deconstructing these biases.
I think it helps to look at these things from history…look at something from a safe distance of “we know better now” because we can clearly see how wrong this cartoon is and how dehumanizing it is.
Then we can ask ourselves, in what subtle ways are we still doing this? Still tempted too or permissive of associated a racial/ethnic group with infection, disease, immorality or generally being a threat to ‘our way of life’?
I have a new article up at The Art of Taleh:
Here is an exerpt:
“It is not difficult to hate someone once we’ve perceived them to be a threat. The depictions (in words and images) of East Asians as the evil and threatening “yellow peril” have deep roots in our cultural history and COVID-19 is merely proving how little has changed. […] Yet God urges us throughout the Bible to resist all lies and deceptions; to take every thought captive (2 Corinthians 10:5). What might that look like during the rise of COVID-19?”
This was the 2nd book I got an advanced copy of in 2018. Makes me feel like a I’m in the book world’s cool-kid group. Seriously, though, it was an honor to get to put eyes on these books before they hit the shelves and engage with the authors online. The Color of Compromise is already making an impact. I’m excited to share more about that and how I hope to see this book used in Christian community.
When I talk to (usually white) people about racism, the idea of “complicity” is often a struggle; like holding onto a slippery wet fish. Especially when we start talking about complicity among Christians and the church in general.
The failure to act in the midst of injustice is itself an act of injustice. Indifference to oppression perpetuates oppression.Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise
Jemar Tisby helps us nail down that fish. Surveying over 350 years of American styles of racism and inequality, readers can see how the church has (as he put it) “chosen comfort over constructive conflict”, often creating but always maintaining a status quo of injustice.
So how does The Color of Compromise use a historical survey to present us with this information?
As I read, I saw three interwoven timelines, spanning from the colonial era of America to the present day:
Going chronologically, this book connects the dots between the 3 timelines to reveal the patterns of the church’s response (or lack thereof) to various forms of racism, focusing on the black-white binary.
For example, Chapter 2 starts with explaining a dilemma in the Virginia colonies over baptizing African slaves who converted to Christianity. The old-world custom was that spiritual brothers in Christ could not enslave one another. Therefore, if a slave converted, there was religious pressure to set him free. Therefore, many slave owners refused to let slaves hear the gospel. However, that didn’t sit well with the church. What to do?!
Tisby explains how the economic priority of free labor influenced the Virginia General Assembly (the governing body at the time) to dictate that baptism would not change someone’s status as free or slave. The church and the slaveholders no longer needed to be at odds over the spiritual salvation of slaves. Missionaries began to focus on the spiritual, not physical, liberation of Christian slaves, and obedience to their masters as a biblical concept. In other words, the church not only went along with chattel slavery but twisted truth to support it.
This clash of economics, politics, racism and the church over the status of slaves is how chattel slavery became law on American soil; 109 years before the Declaration of Independence.
Well, it’s one thing to read that “ancient” history and say…“Yeah, they were so wrong back then.” We are far enough removed from the colonial era that the truth of complicity back then isn’t as threatening to us today. So it’s quite another thing to follow the timeline of racism to our front door and realize how little has really changed in the church.
Yet that is what this book does. It keeps connecting the dots through the Great Awakening, Antebellum, Civil War, Jim Crow, Civil Rights era, turn of the century and on to today with a look at the varied responses to Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump as President of the United States.
Here is one example of how The Color of Compromise brings historical complicity home to the present day.
The idea that the church’s realm is confined to spiritual and ecclesiastical things (like individual salvation or church organization) as opposed to physical or societal things (like slavery or social justice) might be rooted in the early church’s struggle with heretical gnosticism. At any rate, the tendency to think this way was demonstrated in the above example of the Virginia General Assembly.
So it’s no surprise, then, that leading up to the Civil War, an influential southern theologian, James Henley Thornwell, would crystalize this sentiment into a doctrine of the “Spirituality of the Church”.
Tisby explains how this doctrine allowed pro-slavery Christians to sleep at night and kept others silent on the issue. Tisby doesn’t stop there, though. He connects the dots to how this doctrine is still selectively applied today for ignoring racism (e.g. “That’s not a gospel issue”), but is conveniently forgotten for other social, ethical and political issues (e.g. legalized abortion) where the church suddenly springs to action quite visibly.
By chapter 10, the historical survey is complete. The footnotes throughout are more than sufficient for us to do our own further research. Tisby could’ve stopped there, but he doesn’t.
He dedicates the final chapter to presenting solutions and suggestions for the church to break the pattern of complicity. These selective ideas are not exhaustive, but enough to encourage readers to action; to move against the current of racism, instead of continuing to go with the flow of racism by remaining still.
That is why this book makes such a huge impact. The Color of Compromise isn’t about shaming and blaming white Christians. Jemar Tisby presents the church’s racist history and present reality from a place of deep love for the church and desire to fight for true biblical unity and racial solidarity.
If the twenty-first century is to be different from the previous four centuries, then the American church must exercise even more creativity and effort in breaking down racial barriers than it took to erect them in the first place.”Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise
I believe The Color of Compromise will help us move beyond asking “Is there a problem?” and get on with the business of “Let’s fix this problem.” Any church community, whether or not it is currently racially diverse, can benefit by learning from our collective history.
The church can learn to be a credible witness in the midst of injustice and oppression. The church can learn to lead the way in love and unity, showing the world the power of the gospel to reconcile us to one another as well as to God.
I believe The Color of Compromise is an essential resource to that end.
There can be no reconciliation without repentance. There can be no repentance without confession. And there can be no confession without truth.Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise
It’s time to listen to and tell and retell the truth.
BUY THE BOOK:
LISTEN TO THE FIRST CHAPTER FREE:
Click here to open iTunes and listen to Jemar Tisby narrate the first chapter of The Color of Compromise. You will appreciate the gracious and loving way he introduces his book without diminishing the urgency of the church’s current situation.