For the first time in over 20 years, I’ve [Yulee] felt nervous to be Asian American. In 2020, COVID-19 began taking the lives of family and friends around the world. Exacerbating this trauma is the added layer of racist rhetoric and the dramatic increase of anti-Asian racism as coronavirus became erroneously known as “kung flu” or “Chinese virus.” The tone and posture underlying those racist phrases cut deep as memories of similar voices from my painful past made their way back into my present day. Remarkably, even in social isolation I’ve felt excluded; even with media attention, I’ve felt invisible—a common experience among Asian Americans.
The effects of anti-Asian racism are also taking a toll on today’s Asian American young people. As schools across the country begin to open up, data shows that disproportionately high rates of Asian American students are not returning to school. In fact, recent reports show that Asian American families fear their children will experience racism at school along with concern that elders in their multigenerational households will be increasingly vulnerable to the virus. Just like the histories of other BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color), Asian American young people are literally missing from classrooms.
We’re marked by scars that run deep and wide and through the generations. Sadly, my deepest scars are from deafening silence of the Christian community whose voices are lacking in the public discourse about anti-Asian violence. Until now.
The Fuller Youth Institute has invited several Asian American youth pastors and leaders to speak into the current climate of anti-Asian racism in order to learn how we can better walk alongside Asian American young people as they navigate racialized violence that transcends generations.
Jane Hong-Guzman de Leon - FYI’s Project Coordinator for the Living a Better Story (LABS) research project and Content Advisor for the Ministry Innovations with Young Adults (MIYA) research project. She’s a Korean American licensed pastor with over a decade of ministry experience pastoring youth and adults in two thriving church plants in Southern California.
Joyce del Rosario, PhD - After serving over 20 years in urban youth ministry, Joyce is now an assistant professor at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA, and serves on the board of directors for CCDA. Joyce’s heritage as a Filipino American informs her identity as a scholar, speaker, and justice-seeker.
Giovanny Panginda - Giovanny is a Project Coordinator at FYI and serves young people at two Indonesian churches, which is a great joy as an Indonesian American youth pastor!
What do youth leaders need to know about anti-Asian racism and its effects on Asian American young people?
Jane: Anti-Asian racism is harmful and it hurts. First, anti-Asian racism reinforces the false notion that we are perpetual foreigners and can never be American, even if some of us speak only English and have fully assimilated to “American ways.” Second, anti-Asian racism surfaces false thinking that the pain and struggles of Asian Americans do not matter. Some people point to the model minority myth to reinforce the false belief that Asian Americans don’t have struggles, or that the racism we face is not as bad as that which other people of color go through. This line of thinking is dangerous because it results in a lack of empathy towards Asian Americans and pits us against each other. Finally, many anti-Asian hate crimes are not even officially reported, and if they are, many are not recorded as hate crimes or taken seriously by officials, which perpetuates the feeling that our lives are not seen, our voices not heard, and we do not matter.
The injustices and the silence can be devastating to our young people due to the internalization of false beliefs and narratives. For some, this results in living with anxieties of never being accepted, feeling unsafe (both the youth and their loved ones), or feeling like they can’t be themselves or fully speak their minds. Others may feel rejection and erasure of their own cultural identity. Ultimately, racism affects young people’s formation of identity, belonging, and purpose because it attacks all three areas.
Joyce: Being Asian American isn’t a monolithic or singular experience, and yet we are treated as if it is. That is to say, Gio, Jane, and I have very different histories and languages and experiences in our own ethnic groups, our own family immigration stories, and our personal understanding of what that means to us. And yet, we are often treated as one group as with the case of “China virus” rhetoric. This is problematic when a non-Asian knows an Asian American who is not bothered by the violence and then assumes that must be the case for all others. This is also problematic in a host of other ways, including the idea that if one looks a certain way they deserve to be yelled at, spat on, and physically attacked. Anti-Asian violence stems from decades of Western Imperialism dictating that Asians are inferior and are meant to be subdued. This imperialism has been internalized as an oppression that is permissible and it simply is not.
Gio: I think youth leaders need to understand that the term Asian American represents more than 20 Asian countries, each with their distinct histories and languages. I think youth leaders should also understand the long history of anti-Asian racism in the US, stemming from the California gold rush and the start of the first Chinese immigrants who were used as cheap labor and were heavily discriminated against. The discrimination became legislated with the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Then in the 1930s, with the rise of cinema, Hollywood fetishized depictions of Asian women as exotic or Asian men as evil, creepy, and emasculated, including the decades-long practice of yellow-facing. We see further discrimination against Asian Americans when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor during World War II. The US responded by forcefully putting Japanese Americans—American citizens—into internment camps. We later discovered from declassified government papers that it was not just xenophobia or fear that led to Japanese internment camps, but White farmers who felt threatened by how successful Japanese Americans (fellow Americans) were doing in agriculture. And now in 2021, Asian Americans are being blamed for the pandemic when many of them haven’t even been out of the country. How does this all affect young Asian Americans? It makes them feel less than and foreign, when America is the country they were born into and is all they know.
In your experience, what keeps Asian American young people from raising their voice or taking action?
Joyce: Part of it may be cultural, particularly when it comes to speaking up against authority figures. Another part may be the general adolescent need to belong and therefore not risk sticking out by saying something that may be unpopular. But more and more with this generation of young people, I am encouraged by their willingness to speak out loud and fight for justice.
Jane: There is a fear that speaking up can cause more trouble and harm rather than good. Also, many Asian Americans feel so overwhelmed by work, school, and other responsibilities that they don’t think they have the time to deal with anti-Asian racism. So they try to ignore it, bury it, and hope that moving on will be a faster way to get over it. But the silence of that unprocessed trauma can lead to depression, anxiety, minimizing oneself, anger, and taking that stress out in unhealthy ways.
Gio: I think part of the reason is cultural and the other part is their innate desire to fit in. A lot of Asian cultures treasure peace, harmony, and not “making waves.” When Asian Americans do speak up, we feel it might bring shame on us and our families. But another reason for hesitation might be wanting to belong. In America, Asian Americans are seen as perpetual foreigners—even if they were born in America, they are perceived as foreign. So when we speak up, it draws attention to us, and our dissension might end up feeding into the idea that we’re “different” or “foreign.” However, I’m glad that this new generation is finding their voice and speaking up like never before.
What has your ministry done to overcome these obstacles Asian American young people are facing?
Gio: My church finished doing a 10-week series using Epic Movement’s “Exploring Asian American Faith: A Discipleship Resource.” Through it, we learned more about different Asian Americans and their history and contributions in the US. We also unpacked our own Asian American stories and how they tie into God’s redemptive mission. We even utilized the Asian American Quadrilateral from Fuller’s Center for Asian American Theology and Ministry by looking at our cultural selves through the lenses of heritage, migration, American culture, and racialization. The series was helpful because it got us to share our stories, which were sometimes common stories of shame or pain of being Asian American. But it also got us to see how beautiful and powerful it is that God created us as Asian Americans.
Jane: We’re talking about it and educating ourselves and others. But that’s just a starting point, and there’s so much farther to go. Generally in an Asian American church context (pre-pandemic) I haven’t heard much teaching or discussion on our racial identity, and the focus was more on our identity in Christ. However, I think we’ve lost a lot of healthy identity formation and empowerment by not including our intersectionalities of race in our discipleship. There’s a lot of unprocessed formation and pain there, and when we live in a racialized society that has systems in place to pit people of color against each other while not really letting any person of color have a full seat at the table, we need to learn how Jesus’ ministry included equity and equality, not “colorblindness” (or blindness to systems of racism and inequality). I think that would help revolutionize how we do discipleship and how we live our Christian lives. Even in our “community service,” it would look more like justice work and building relationships rather than food handouts, and our youth are here for that sort of change!
Joyce: I think the more I can raise awareness and educate others about Asian American history and social inequalities, the more we can understand our need for solidarity with other BIPOC communities.
When processing with Asian American young people, what’s been helpful, and what’s been not helpful?
Jane: As it would be for anyone, it is not helpful to assume that all Asian Americans are the same or are feeling the same way about anti-Asian hate. Some might feel disassociated with this because it is minimized and not widely talked about in general, some might think it doesn’t affect them, or some can internalize the racism themselves. However, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be talked about. It might be better to talk about it in a collective way first, and process externally or communally before bringing the topic down to an individual level. Also, ask thoughtful questions, build empathy, and make sure the conversation moves towards positive empowerment. If, at the end of the discussion, your young people feel disempowered, hopeless, or more ostracized by the larger society, that could harm and silence them even more. So, move towards healthy processing, healthy identity, connectivity, hope, and action.
Joyce: Teaching young people how to critically think about social engagement is important. I think that we often lean more to teaching young people how to love Jesus and be good Christians, but we also need to teach them how to love their neighbors—and what that means when their neighbors or they themselves are experiencing injustice.
Gio: It’s helpful for Asian American young people to hear about what their parents and other relatives had to go through while immigrating to the US. What experiences did they have with racism? What were some of the things they had to endure? What words do they remember being called by others? How do their experiences with prejudice shape how they see themselves as well as how they see others? This allows young people to: 1) empathize with their parents; 2) get a sense of the traumas their parents and relatives had to endure; and 3) learn how the trauma was passed down and affects them. I think it’s also helpful for Asian American young people to do the work and learn more about their roots and history, and for them to be encouraged to connect the dots in order to see how their story intersects with God’s ultimate story of hope. I’d encourage them to learn more about what it means to “love thy neighbor” and to be a neighbor, even when others aren’t very neighborly in return. How do you help others understand and empathize?
What’s one idea or suggestion you would give another youth leader who’s asking what they can do to encourage and empower their Asian American young people during this time?
Jane: Make space and time to talk about this beyond all of the horrible stories. On a personal level, Asian American youth need a safe space to figure out their own identity with all of its intersectionalities, and learn that it is good. God made us Asian and American. He brought us here for a purpose, and we have something beautiful to contribute to the fabric of this nation. On an outward level, we need to educate ourselves and others, whether that’s about our Asian American heritage, or how to work towards being anti-racist and build racial solidarity in positive ways. Unity doesn’t mean uniformity. We should all be able to flourish in our identity and diversity.
Joyce: It’s important for Asian American young people to know that their ethnicity and culture matters and that it’s good. This sounds simple enough, but we don’t always teach this explicitly in church. As much as we lift up all the great qualities each individual has, it’s also important to lift up that their heritage matters as well.
Gio: I think part of the work a youth leader has to do is to be a safe place for Asian American young people to go to. And that means the youth leader needs to put in some work in researching about Asian American history, reading up on articles, hearing stories of pain, and being a good listener. And I think another practical thing is to support and show solidarity with your students by rallying students and parents to attend AAPI marches. Asian American young people need to know you support them and that they belong just as much as other young people need to know, but especially now.
In my [Yulee’s] experience of studying and leading change in churches, I’ve learned that having eyes wide open to our past and present can catalyze a more positive future —we’re able to see with the gift of new eyes that refocus our attention on the full, abundant life found in Jesus described in John 10:10. In Christ, my story is no longer defined by fractures of pain; broken pieces of a story that paralyze forward movement. Rather, Jesus redeems these broken pieces and reconstructs my life and story within Jesus’ narrative for me—broken, but beautiful. Broken, but whole. With new eyes, I see that my scars glisten with generosity. They give me courage. They offer me strength. They help me know that I’m alive, I’ve survived, and I thrive. This abundant life is what Jesus offers young Asian Americans.
Perhaps the Kintsugi metaphor can illumine this further. Kintsugi is the centuries-old Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with a special lacquer dusted with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. Beautiful seams of gold glint in the cracks of ceramic ware, giving a unique appearance to the piece. This repair method celebrates each artifact's unique history by emphasizing its fractures and breaks instead of hiding or disguising them. Kintsugi often makes the repaired piece even more beautiful than the original, revitalizing it with new life.
Just like each piece of Kintsugi art, every Asian American teenager is an essential part that makes up the whole. Let’s remind Asian American teenagers that they don’t have to hide who they are nor the unique contributions they bring to the table. Let’s remind them that when they come together, they can reconstruct a stronger and more beautiful collective future where diverse people and churches flourish.
Tweet this: Anti-Asian racism in America is hurting the AAPI young people around us. Read insights from AAPI leaders to learn how we can better walk alongside young people as they navigate racialized violence.
Websites & Organizations:
Stop AAPI Hate with Russell Jeung
The William James College Center for Multicultural and Global Mental Health (CMGMH) Asian Mental Health Program, in collaboration with the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Center for Cross Cultural Student Emotional Wellness, created a helpful conversation guide for families.
- English - Guide for Parents of Asian/Asian American Adolescents
- Korean - Guide for Parents of Asian/Asian American Adolescents
Articles & Podcasts:
Let the church declare: Asian Lives Matter (Asian American Christian Collaborative)
Stand Up for AAPI Youth During COVID (Beyond Differences)
PBS Asian Americans Series
Ken Fong's Asian America Podcast
DJ Chuang's Erasing Shame Podcast
Therapist JE Ko's Full Well Therapy AAPI Mental Health Podcast
Progressive Asian American Christians Facebook Group
Asian Americans United Against Violence Facebook Group
For any adult wondering where or even how to start, this handbook provides you an overview of the reality Asian American youth face, fundamental principles of conversation, and 30+ ideas for next steps. Our toolkit is available digitally as well as bilingually in Chinese and Korean.
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