an evangelical abercrombie. sort of.

Over the past few weeks Asian American Christian bloggers have been busy documenting the back and forth between Zondervan (a major Christian publishing house), the team that put out the Deadly Vipers (a book using some pretty lame Asian stereotyping, published by Zondervan), and a group of Asian American pastors/ministry leaders/academics who called out Zondervan for publishing the said Deadly Vipers. 

To their credit, after some early bumps in the road, the authors of the book came to recognize why the AA folks were so riled up, and Zondervan pulled the book. (You can read a joint statement from some AA leaders here and read backwards to follow what happened) 

The incidents brought up some memories from my time in undergrad. The first memory was when LifeWay, owned by the Southern Baptist Convention, put out a Vacation Bible School curriculum called “Rickshaw Rally.” Yeah, it’s as bad as it sounds, and even worse, it went straight to thousands of young impressionable minds. The LifeWay HQ was right down the road from Vandy, so I called and left an irate voicemail, and then sent an irate email. Although Prof Soong-Chan Rah (then still pastoring ccfc in boston) was able to mobilize some folks, there was definitely no admission from LifeWay that there was anything problematic about Rickshaw, etc. So in this deja vu, it was nice to see Zondervan, the authors, and AA folks dialogue and come to a mutual understanding of why AAs felt the way they did. This guy Andy Kim did a nice write-up on the AA evangelical community’s mobilization, the role of social networking, etc. [Kudos to David Park, fellow Vandy grad, for the link]

The other thing that the DV incident reminded me of was Abercrombie. I had to google it to refresh my memory, but back in Spring 02 this was the incident that irked, rankled, and mobilized a bunch of AA college students nationwide to protest the line of (once again, lame, stereotypical…do we see a pattern?) offensive images on a t-shirt line. I really hope that NAASCon keeps this history up here. I think a lot of us involved who have gone on to do (supposedly) cooler things are a little sheepish that we got all riled up about a bunch of shirts (talk about bougie) when there were bigger and badder battles that we didn’t fight. It’s easy to discount what happened, and a few months later people went on buying A&F.

Still, 1) Political consciousness has to start somewhere 2) In a day before Facebook and Myspace, it was the first nationwide APA student campaign mobilized by the internet [if you look at the website, there were demonstrations and whatnot mobilized in every region of the country] 3) The A&F campaign set the groundwork for a national network of campus activists who mobilized and lobbied for HR 333, eventually leading to funding for AAPI serving institutions. At $5 mill a year, the serving institutions aren’t exactly the jackpot, but they’re not insignificant either. You have to connect a few dots on this last one, and the 333 campaign is not beyond critique, but I think A&F still did open some doors.

Now whether that network has gone on to do anything worth its salt, I don’t know. It’s funny to look back and think that even though we may have taken ourselves way too seriously and some folks had trouble transferring their rage at the shirts to other causes certainly worthy of their attention, for the aforementioned reasons, A&F was a unique cultural moment, even if A&F has not exactly gone on to become the official clothing line of the Peace Corps.

So why am I thinking about Abercrombie while observing the wrap up of the DV, which in its own right is some sort of cultural moment for AA evangelicals. There are some parallels in the technology dynamic, for one, but the semi-randomness of people latching on to both events raises the questions of why Deadly Vipers and not Rickshaw Rally or the other lame stereotypical Asiany things in the media for decades past? Why A&F in Spring 02 and not A&F in Spring 99? Was it just a sweet spot where things just came together, people got other people’s attention, and everything just came together? There’s other complex stuff going on–including, as the Andy Kim post pointed out, a critical mass of APA evangelical leaders who are armed, dangerous, and connected to the interweb. In the words of Phil Yu, aka Angry Asian Man, hell hath no fury like an Asian American with an internet connection.]

I also see parallels in how both events evoked a deeply emotional response from the folks involved. Reading this response to DV reminded me of a response by a prof at Wellesley that was circulated during the A&F thing where she wrote passionately about how she had to protest because of the message it sent to her children, and how silence was complicity. Both testify to the symbolically loaded nature of both DV and A&F to their respective audiences. They are both examples of the politics of representation, a debate that tends to elicit strong responses from  middle/upper middle class folks than say people who can’t afford to buy a computer, let alone monthly internet service. I imagine that some critics of the DV movement played this card to discount the relevance of DV, perhaps saying things like, uh don’t you Christians have more important stuff to do like fighting global poverty? [and some are–talk about multitasking] There’s a legit critique in there (as there was in the A&F campaign) about privileged folks well, privileging the symbolic over the material. Symbol matters. It’s not all that matters, but it goes a long way and intersects with the material. [the personal is political, vice-versa, yadayada] That said, if it’s the only battle going on–then that’s no good either.

In the time that has passed since A&F and Rickshaw, I have picked up a treasure trove of academic-ese that gives language to what’s going on. Racial microaggressions, racial battle fatigue, and the like. But at the end of the day, not only do these things irritate us, they just plain old hurt our feelings. [cue: flight of the conchords…but seriously, they do] So one of the most encouraging things about the DV thing is that Zondervan is recognizing that. It’s disturbingly rare that people are willing to say those simple words: I’m sorry. And now, I’d like to go eat some racially reconciled bbimbap. (Just kidding. We’re having duck.)


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Melody Hanson on November 23, 2009 at 2:45 am

    Thanks for this. I’m not sure how I got here, but via the AA/DV dialogue. You’ve expressed some really good points here. We do get battle fatigue if I can compare it to gender issues. One can’t yell about every little things. I think the interest played a big part of this, with FB and twitter and blogs creating a flurry of energy… people get caught up. That’s why Zondervan changing/responding is so astounding.


  2. Posted by Calvin Chen on November 24, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    woo andy kim is my fellow great lakes west asian american staff (he’s at northwestern)


  3. Hey Julie, thanks for the shout out. I’m glad you made the connection btwn DVCA and Abercrombie. As a student and now a campus minister, I’ve been noticed a fairly strong divide separating the Asian American evangelical community and, for lack of a better term, secular Asian American activists (not that AA activists aren’t religious, but that they aren’t motivated by a religious agenda).

    At NU, where I a work and went to school, APAC and AAIV — two of the largest Asian American cultural organizations– had some membership overlap but hardly any formal partnerships.

    Here are some things I’ve noticed that played into that: 1) most AA evangelicals did not have the theological framework to value discussions on race and culture. 2) there was a general sense of distrust on the part of secular AA activists (sometimes fueled by tough personal experiences in the church).

    This is a whole extended topic I could get into, but here’s a question for you (or others): what do you think it will take for the secular Asian American activist community and Asian American evangelical community to work together on issues they share common interest? I’m definitely facing some challenges doing so in a campus setting, I wonder what the challenges will be in a broader context?


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