Learning Together: An Asian American Perspective On Racial Justice and Reconciliation

As our country takes a hard look in the mirror and acknowledges a long history of racial prejudice and injustice, we at Rooted want to observe things from every angle and every viewpoint. In this interview we’ve invited our friends Kevin Yi and Clark Fobes to speak with us about racism against Asian-Americans during the Covid-19 crisis, complicated issues of discrimination within the Asian-American community, and how racism particularly impacts teenagers. 

ROOTED: How does discrimination play out differently for Asian-Americans? 

Clark: Most Asian minors are raised to respect elders and authority figures, to keep to themselves, and to wait passively before talking or acting, in respect for those around them. This means that when they do experience racism, they tend to quietly submit until the racist act has passed, and likely will not speak of it after the fact. While racism towards Asians seems heightened today, it is only because the media has a greater eye on it due to the Covid pandemic. Racism towards Asians has always been around; we just haven’t been as outspoken about it ourselves due to our cultural upbringing of respect and passivity. 

Kevin: What Clark is saying is really important. When I was a teenager, race relations in Los Angeles were terrible leading up to and after the ‘92 Riots. I was bullied by Black and Latino students throughout elementary and middle school, and the way I dealt with it was to talk to my Asian friends afterwards and vent. But it was never brought to school authorities or brought up to parents. We did our best to ignore it in the moment, and only process it through an afterschool venting session or over a landline phone call. But now, those venting sessions are happening online. Asian students are posting angry and blatantly racial things towards people who have been giving them a tough time for being Asian during COVID-19 pandemic. Hate and racism are breeding more hate and racism, but it’s not in private conversations, it’s all happening online. This is a huge concern right now because we need safe places to be able to talk about these kinds of things and process through the racism we’re receiving, while dealing with the racism that’s brewing in our own hearts. Right now our teenagers need us to lead them and help them through these discussions, by providing safe and honest spaces for them to be able to share, grieve, and repent.  

ROOTED: What are red flags for youth ministers to look for in their ministries? How might youth ministry be a place where we speak into racism right now?

Clark: As mentioned above, due to the complicit demeanor of Asians out of honor and respect, we are often overlooked and unheard because we feel we cannot speak up for ourselves. Youth Ministers need to understand that passivity, silence, or a submissive demeanor do not mean Asian students are okay. Likely it means they are waiting for permission to speak up, share their opinion, and have their voices heard. Youth Ministry can help Asians feel safer to talk about racism, or even to share their opinions in general, by inviting them into conversation, rather than simply waiting for them to join a conversation that is so often dominated and controlled by the White majority.

Kevin: Even in a majority Asian-American youth ministry, this is not an easy thing to do. Our students are very tuned into what is politically correct, so it takes a while to create a place that’s safe enough for everyone to speak honestly about what is happening. There’s real hurt that we have to make space for, and there are real questions that we have to be honest about with regards to what forgiveness looks like. Without asking and creating a space where we’re willing to engage, it’s always going to be easier for Asian-American students to simply brush it under the rug or vent in more dangerous places (like online).  

ROOTED: Let’s talk about the specific heart issue behind racism and discrimination, specific to Covid…

Clark: While we obviously must be aware of how sin and the Fall have marred the image of God — down to a fundamental characteristic such as race — we must also be willing to identify the specific ways sin has affected our dispositions towards people of specific colors. Understanding the cultural and historical factors that have led us to this point can uncover the unknown or hidden racism in our hearts, and correct us on the image of God, not just generally, but specifically.

Racism towards Asians is not the same as racism towards Blacks and Browns. While our Black and Brown brothers and sisters have been looked at as inferior beings throughout our nation’s history, Asians seem to be more accepted socially. However, this acceptance is conditioned upon our ability to adhere to society’s expectations and stereotypes of Asians (passive, submissive, hard working, unassuming, etc.). While Asians seem to be marginally accepted in society due to being the “model minority,” the pandemic has reminded us that we still do not fully belong unless we submit. 

The heart issue behind this sort of racism is that Asians must stay in their lane in order to belong. Though Asians are seen as valuable to society for their industrious work ethic and intelligence, they are often barred from positions of leadership and power. 

Kevin: I think one of the key heart issues involved in racism is this: sin is inherently antisocial (Paul Tripp). When Adam and Eve sinned against God, they didn’t run to him, they hid from him. When Cain’s sacrifice was unacceptable before the Lord, but Abel’s was, Cain didn’t run to Abel for help on how to do it better next time, Cain killed Abel in jealousy. Sin is why people dehumanize each other so quickly in times like this. When the threat of the coronavirus started to loom over the US, and people started to look for a scapegoat, it became all too easy for the sin of racism to be unleashed. Rather than seeing Asians as people deeply affected by Covid-19, there was a rush to dehumanize and assign blame. Asians and Asian-Americans became objects of scorn and ridicule so quickly that it was a shock to many of us who thought that we had done the work of allowing ourselves to be isolated from this kind of response. But it’s clear that this issue is deeper than that, and there is much work that needs to be done at a heart level to address the sins that so easily dehumanize.

ROOTED: How can we better identify the racism that exists in our own hearts? 

Clark: Practically speaking, we must ask if we are placing societal stereotypes of race onto certain groups, and why it is we hold to those stereotypes. Are we afraid of Black people when we walk down the street? Are we surprised when we see Asians in forefront positions of leadership and influence? Answering these simple questions can help us be aware of racism that exists inwardly, even if we outwardly do not condone extreme or violent acts of racism.

When I talk with people of all races — not just White majority — I like to ask if they’ve ever been in a circumstance where they were the minority, and what that experience was like. Have you ever walked into a community where you were the vast racial minority? What was it like to have heads turn and give you confused, or even condescending looks? Many Whites can go their whole lives never experiencing this discomfort of simply walking down the street, hiding behind the veil White privilege covers them with. Have you ever interacted in a group of people where you were the racial or cultural outsider? What defenses, prejudices, or assumptions crept to the surface as you were quickly identified as the “other”? Many Asians can go their whole lives aware of their lack of privilege having Asian faces, yet may never venture out of their cultural comfort zone to interact with the racial “other.” Though they may be more acutely aware of the racism they receive, they may be completely unaware of the racism that broods in their own hearts through this intentional or unintentional racial distancing.

It will also help us if we recognize that racism is a complex issue, and that both Whites and POC have been complicit in racism. Asians have often been at the receiving end of racism not only by Whites, but also from Blacks. Even Asians are prone to racism, especially if they have grown up in strong cultural communities that have been impenetrable to outside cultures. Growing up in San Francisco, I was often the only White face in my social circles. Though I am half-Asian, I experienced my share of ridicule and racial slurs simply for being different, “Other.” It is a false belief to think that racism is simply a “White problem,” and that all People of Color are absolved of the heart work the Spirit must do on us to expose our prejudice towards the “other.” While POC experience racism on a much deeper level than Whites in our nation, both sides must be willing to admit how sin has affected our hearts in the matter if we hope for true racial reconciliation. 

Kevin: Clark is spot on. I have racism in my own heart that needs to be expunged by the Holy Spirit. My own racism comes from dealing with the pain and suffering as the Black community looted and rioted across Koreatown during the ‘92 LA Riots. It was a painful and frightening time, and I still think I have some fearful impulses when it comes to the Black and Latino communities in the inner city. But what good does harboring this bitterness do? What victory is won by withholding love from those who are different from me? Doesn’t holding onto pain and hurt in this way only continue my misery and prevent me from receiving the healing that flows from the blood of Christ? I’ve had to do much self-examination during the last few weeks, and there is much that I have been repenting of. The Lord has been confronting me with so much ugliness, and as hard as it is to see that which is in me, it has freed me up to begin to move in the right direction. I’m no longer willingly blind to my own biases and shortcomings, but rather, through a new gospel lens, I am seeing the opportunities that are present for me to be engaged in this conversation towards actual reconciliation.  

ROOTED: What do you want non-Asian Americans to know?

Clark: I would love for Asian-Americans to feel affirmed in their gifts, talents, and contributions beyond just their money and brains. I want to see more Asians stepping into positions of leadership and influence; but that will require a cultural shift for us, to have people in our corners championing us, giving us the affirmation we so often lacked as children, and telling us we do belong in society beyond just our own cultural ghettos. White leaders and authorities — especially in the Church — have a unique responsibility to not only invite Asians to the table, but to willingly pass off their leadership and influence to POC and learn from them and the insights they have gained as people on the fringes.

Going beyond our cultural comfort zones to have conversations and pursue racial reconciliation also requires us as Asian-Americans to identify the idols in our own hearts which the Gospel must tear down. Is our own self-doubt, fear, and sense of worthlessness preventing us from coming to the table for conversation? We must allow the Gospel to correct the understanding many of us are brought up with, that we are only as valuable as the dollar amount we make or the vocational status we obtain; we are valued simply by being in Christ. If we are indwelt with the Spirit, and we have an obligation to our brothers — even those racially not like us — then we have a responsibility to speak up, and not only when called upon. We must be aware of how our own prejudice prevents us from lovingly interacting with those unlike us, and ask how we can befriend and be in conversation with brothers and sisters from across the racial table.

Kevin: Yes and amen to all of that. On a personal and practical level, I think asking us about our stories and asking us about how we’ve been doing is really important. In light of the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, I’ve been far more connected with the various minorities in our local community, and there is a neighborly love that is growing because we’re willing to check in and have conversations about how we’re doing.  This invitation into processing with one another has been encouraging, but more than that, it’s been an opportunity for co-discipleship under the banner of racial reconciliation. So approaching conversations with more questions than statements is always a good way to engage in relationship building. 

A second practical suggestion I would have is to do some real cultural learning. Ask the Asian Americans in your church or your youth group to think about some cultural activity that can be done together. For example, sharing an authentic Asian meal, watching a “foreign” film together (with subtitles), listening to music (or watching a music video) and then talking about it.  Celebrating and being interested in Asian cultures is a way for Asians to be proud of their cultural heritage, and if you ask about it first, it’s also less uncomfortable for us because “showing off” is not considered to be a cultural priority. This kind of activity can be a fun way to build off of conversations. 

Check back on the Rooted blog Monday for a new episode of the Rooted Youth Ministry Podcast, where Kevin and Clark expound more on these issues with host, Davis Lacey.


Clark currently serves as the worship and college pastor at Sunset Church in San Francisco.  Before that he served as a youth pastor in the Asian-American context for nearly 10 years. He received his M.Div. from Talbot Theological School in Southern California, and is a Doctor of Missiology (D.Miss) candidate at Southern Seminary (SBTS). He is also an emeritus member of Rooted’s Steering Committee. He and his wife, Janet, have one daughter, and are committed to ministering amongst the least reached in San Francisco and East Asia. Kevin Yi is the college and young adults pastor at Church Everyday in Northridge, CA and has been serving youth students for over 16 years. He was a bi-vocational pastor for most of this time and has been in the animation industry for over 13 years. He is the founder of truthmattersministries.com. He and his wife Tracy are celebrating thirteen years of marriage together and have three children: Caden, Isabella, and Ian. He is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Theology at Talbot Theological Seminary.

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