“Hey, I can be Asian American, right?” an undergraduate who is white exclaims to me during a regional Christian conference I am staffing of about 800 students from throughout Wisconsin. “Ni Hao! Ahn Young Ha Saeyo! [followed by more Korean phrases]. How does my Korean sound? So am I Asian American now?”
I politely ask him to stop and clarify that I understand Mandarin (Ni Hao) but not Korean; that he isn’t Asian American. He continues uttering Korean phrases nonetheless and asking for affirmation or response from me. I tell him that if he doesn’t stop soon I will be offended and repeat my request several more times, each more firmly: that he shouldn’t mimic a racial group or mock a language spoken by some of its members, and that what he’s doing isn’t too different from a “ching chong ling long” taunt that many Asian Americans have experienced. After several more rounds I finally make as firm a request as I can without yelling. He realizes he should perhaps stop but is genuinely confused as to why I might be offended. I spend several minutes trying to explain but realize I’m getting nowhere. If I try any longer my anger may get the best of me.
I head toward the room where students from the Asian American college fellowship I advise are hanging out and preparing for a time of debriefing and prayer. As I walk, I remember how our newly affiliated Asian American-focused fellowship attended this exact conference for the first time 7 years ago with just 11 of us and over 700 other students. Only 4 other students at the conference were racial minorities (yes, I counted). Our group certainly stuck out but through the years the experience had always been positive. We’d come a long way as a chapter and a regional ministry: this year in addition to 50 Asian Americans from our chapter there were at least 70 other racial minority students at the conference.
Back with my chapter, we decide to take a few group pictures as we transition from games to smaller group prayer and debriefing. After the pictures, I overhear an exchange between two students that has problematic racial implications. I make a mental note to maybe speak with the students later if I have a private moment and I think they’re in a good place to listen. This may never happen, but I resolve to have the conversation should the opportunity arise. In case other students may overhear the exchange if it continues, I quickly shout, “All right! Everyone transition to your process groups!” to keep everyone moving. I attempt to briefly check in on another student whom I know is dealing with a difficult situation back home.
As we move into our process groups for sharing and prayer after the picture, I hear a group of giggling students gathered outside of our room.
“Oh my gosh there are so many Asians in there! Hey, come look at this!”
“There are so many Asians in that room! ”
“You’re right, wow! There are so many Asians in there! Have you ever seen that many Asians together before?!”
I take a deep breath, assuming that group of white students doesn’t know we can hear them even though the door is open and they’d poked their heads in to peek multiple times during their exchange; that they know no better than to view a gathering of racial minorities like an exotic exhibit. I turn to the group of students I am sitting with to ask them about how the conference is going for them and how they are meeting Jesus. Later that night, I have trouble sleeping. I am worried about these incidents while also thinking through the talks on the Historical Jesus and the Problem of Evil I am giving tomorrow. The audience will be a group of 50 mostly non-believing students from throughout Wisconsin seeking to learn more about Christianity.
Though rarely in such quick succession, my job as staff worker for an ethnic-focused ministry in a predominantly white region frequently involves incidents like these. I hate the stereotypes of the angry minority or political-correctness police, yet I feel myself becoming them.
I’m regularly asked to be an expert on all things ethnic-minority because most of my 94 white colleagues in the region want to grow in welcoming more students like the 3 of us staff who are minorities. I’m glad to help in any way I can because my region’s leadership and the vast majority of my colleagues want to be hospitable and grow in our ability to share Christ’s love with all students on college campuses throughout our region. But incidents like these wear on me, as does feeling like I could be the only person to speak up when something is done insensitively or in a way that is less welcoming to minority students. I tell an older staff member from another region that he probably shouldn’t refer to a conference speaker as “that Oriental woman.” I ask myself whether I’m informed and vocal enough about Ferguson and Eric Garner then try to muster emotional energy on behalf of a Hmong American hunter who was shot in a possible hate crime around the same time. Then I learn he’s from the same church as one of my students and the empathy comes involuntarily. I remind white staff not to describe me and the other two minority staff as “ethnic,” “multiethnic,” or “diverse.” I make a comment here or there about worship music or an introduction. I worry about whether staff or other students at conferences with our chapter may make ignorant remarks OR be terrified and walk on eggshells. I hear about a staff member who was skeptical about the whole “diversity thing” but has decided he can give me a chance. I do everything I can to place my students around staff more experienced with diversity and at conferences with more racially diverse campuses for the sake of my students’ exposure and growth opportunities; but also to protect them from such situations that could turn them off from Christianity or perhaps even traumatize them.
At the same time, I worry about offending staff by doing so. When I do speak up, I worry I come across as nit-picky, whiny, angry, unloving, or “not Christ-like.” I also worry my words and actions are still insufficiently confrontational on behalf of minorities. When I don’t speak up, I worry I’m letting down minorities or my students by not confronting. Or perhaps I’m hindering Christian mission for my organization because I could be improving our ability to reach minorities and our standing with secular liberal academia. Regardless of whether or not I speak up, I feel a Christian burden and a minority burden.
Christian blog decorum suggests I now say something about how it’s all worth it for Jesus or it’s all about the Gospel. For the most part it has been, or else I would’ve quit a long time ago; I do love our movement, my colleagues, and the students we serve. It’s been amazing to see Christ’s work but that doesn’t make this all any less tiring or frustrating.