The Value of Ethnicity

What are my ethnicity and culture worth, really?

The notion of “selling out,” as offensive as it may sound, is actually trying to name the price at which the value of one’s ethnic or cultural identity is for sale, negotiable, exchanged into a non-issue, assimilated, etc. Now, this negotiation is almost always happening to those who are immigrant / post-immigrant or otherwise minorities. The only time it doesn’t happen is when an individual (not at the collective level) decides to sell all of the stock, or that they will never assimilate. To a great extent, the latter position is only an option for the elderly immigrant where they might have the structures to support that preservation of lifestyle, be it a China Town or a Little Tokyo. The younger immigrant or children of immigrants don’t have that luxury. We are born into the negotiation. We trade stocks in identity daily. And depending where we are, what resources we have at our disposal, who befriends us, what neighborhoods we live in, and what churches we might attend – all these factors and more affect that negotiation, it affects the commerce of our very understanding of ourselves.

Some cash out early. For whatever reason, it behooves them to move on quickly. Others keep some, but feel like the stock drops every time they forget a word in the native language. Sometimes the only value it has is some familiarity with a menu at a now-even-exotic-to self restaurant. Still others may find it useful, profitable even to be both, so they start amassing stock in the new and the old. Some buy back in when they have children and want to re-capture the familiar sounds of their growing up. There seems to be so much freedom about it really, after all, this is America. We are all little capitalists of identity.

The immigrant church then mediates between two worlds, the mother land and the land of the free. In some cases, it tries to keep the value of the identity stock high simply because that is the chief characteristic that draws the gathering. At the same time, between the covers of the holy book, are alternating whispers of “remembering” and “new wineskins”;  the diversity in all of creation with distinct people groups and “new creation”. It speaks of judgment against the nations and also the glory of the nations being brought in to heaven. The work of the Bible, which itself has taken on the vernacular of our mother tongue and the langauge of commerce, speaks of a different world.

One of the significant insights the immigrant church has shown me is that both sides, the foreigner and the citizen, try to keep the value of their stock high, without delving into the tension of the Gospel. Sure, we sell when identity value is low and you buy when it’s high, but either way, I feel as though we’re still far from glimpsing the new thing that is reportedly possible of happening in our midst. Possible and yet rarely visible. The Samaritans don’t leave their samaritan-ness, nor does Paul lay down his Jewishness, but it seems they both become a new and different kind of person, with other aspects remaining the same. And yet the unchanged, congenital conditions seem to be informed by a different narrative — not one that effaces the givens, but adds to them a medium in which reconciliation increases in value; a means in which love is seen as profound and not happenstance. Not by not seeing, or ignoring, but by entering into the dialogue fully aware, ready to embrace, ready to let go if need be, knowing that the stock we have is worth something, but not taking any stock from anyone else.

And if the church will not put forth a gospel that sees the value in a person’s ethnicity and culture, then how can we say we know the price of reconciliation or the costs of love? I cannot devalue someone and offer them friendship at the same time. If God has placed a value in creating it, how is it that we discount it and offer it for sale so quickly? Is it any wonder we have no idea what our worth is? or the worth of others? Ethnic immigrant churches have to name that value as does every other church in America. How are new and yet still the same? and how can we value all of it?

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Comments

  1. daveingland says:

    David, this is a very well-written and concise post. You don’t post often, but when you do it is very eloquent and challenging. Someday I hope to be able to relay my thought half as well as you 🙂

    Regarding the post, I have a question about the worth of our ethnicity. You mentioned:

    And if the church will not put forth a gospel that sees the value in a person’s ethnicity and culture, then how can we say we know the price of reconciliation or the costs of love? I cannot devalue someone and offer them friendship at the same time.

    How do we assess a value on one’s Asian identity and secondly, how do we devalue someone if we don’t acknowledge that identity. For example, I’m not sure I bring anything of worth from my Japanese cultural perspective as a pastor or child of God. Looking at me from all angles, I believe the only giveaway to my heritage is my physical appearance–actually, it’s just facial features that show me to the world as being Japanese. So, how should I feel like less of a person if I my Japanese culture is not acknowledged when I am in a white, American church? Why should I be offended if I go to a church conference and there are only Caucasian Male pastors speaking from the main stage?

    As you know, I’m still in the middle of all of this and trying to discern how this all relates to me, as well as how my story relates to other Asian-Americans in the context of a culturally relevant gospel.

  2. David Park says:

    great questions dave. i think one of the things i wanted to express in this post was the fact that there’s a wide range of asian american experience. because of the metaphor of the identity stock exchange, we can assume that even little things like physical appearance, the experience of marginalization, etc. have value. and even if those things have no apparent value to you, they could to another group. we always stand for more than ourselves. that’s the beauty of race and ethnicity, actually.

    i think the point is, to humanize someone is to at least acknowledge those dimensions of ethnicity/culture/race. to de-humanize someone is to dismiss, cheapen, or consume those attributes. in your case, which is a complex one to be sure, is to say in some of this solidarity with other asian americans you may find a re-valuation of things as “incidental” as your physical appearance.

    the hard part is not looking for offense. whites are generally not malicious in the church, but sometimes they don’t consider others. it’s not their fault. just a byproduct of history, really. but you can stand for those others, because occasionally, it’s not just you who gets brushed aside, it’s all of us who can find solidarity with you. if that makes any sense.

    so the notion that we devalue others and offer them friendship at the same time is a posture of paternalism that is very common with whites, and is becoming increasingly common as asians assume a more privileged status. meaning that we do nice things for others who are less fortunate, with the assumption that we will always be givers and they will be receivers. that they have nothing really to offer us in return, least of which is that which is most intrinsic to them, their ethnicity and culture. hope that answers some of the questions, not to say i have this figured out either, but we’re in this together.

  3. elderj says:

    About a buck fifty I would say… just kidding of course. Your post is good and raises good questions as always. It is a hard thing especially in the US, and in the US dominated global culture that hugely encourages assimilation. In some ways I think it more costly and far easier to “sell out” our identities in the long term in such a system. Christians in Rome were radically counter cultural in ways that we are not, and believers that immigrate from other countries bring with them culturally embedded understandings of how to worship God and relationship with Jesus that challenges the cultural hegemony of the US church. Yet rather than allowing those embedded and counter cultural understandings to challenge that dominance, many immigrants almost immediately and certainly encourage their 2nd generation offspring to adapt and assimilate, so that what could be gained is lost, or at least dismissed as being inadequate, too ethnic, or not sophisticated enough.

  4. Dave Ingland says:

    David, I really appreciate the perspective you come from as you have obviously experienced a lot of issues presented in the argument and look at it from the perspectives of others’ experiences as well. I am learning a lot from you and am thankful that you take the time to respond in a clear and concise manner!

    You made this comment in the context of my original reply:

    …meaning that we do nice things for others who are less fortunate, with the assumption that we will always be givers and they will be receivers. that they have nothing really to offer us in return, least of which is that which is most intrinsic to them, their ethnicity and culture.

    This is something I’m not quite sure I get in the context of Caucasian-Americans vs Asian-Americans. Is your thought that Asians are viewed as less-privileged than themselves? For me, one of the things I have experienced has been a prejudice due to my being Asian and the assumed stereotype that I am smart–especially in math or with computers. In that instance it seems to me that some Caucasians could view me as being of privilege as being Asian automatically meant I would do well with math and that computer programming was in my blood.

    What struck me in that statement was the correlation to a marginalized group such as the homeless. Not just Caucasian-Americans, but I think many Americans look to the homeless as needing help and feeling good if they offer a few dollars their way. However, what many fail to realize is that there are a lot of examples of homeless people today having a far better education or having lived a more luxurious lifestyle than the giver ever had, yet they are homeless now. When they are no longer homeless their perspective will be changed. I see being homeless for a period of time causing them to have a culture shift that may reside in them for the rest of their lives. How this corresponds with being Asian in the eyes of white America isn’t coming through though. Not sure if I made sense or convoluted the issue even more.

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