When my wife and I moved to Princeton, N.J., for graduate school, we started looking for a new church. Scanning Google Maps, we browsed church websites from across the area that represented different liturgies and denominations. However, it wasn’t the “our beliefs” or “join us” pages that I first visited on each site — it was the “staff” page. In a town like Princeton, churches often hire and highlight people across the spectrum of race, gender, and class.
However, as we began visiting churches, the diversity represented on these church websites felt surface level. We heard sermons filled with abstract, progressive jargon and surface-level illustrations about how our Christian faith speaks to liberation, justice, and life together. We were greeted by kind Black women and Latin@ teenagers, Asian elders made welcome announcements, and worship was usually led by a Gen Z worship leader. And yet nearly every pulpit was filled by a pastor who preached a message out of tune with the lived reality of the people in the pews.
This repeated experience throughout our early months in Princeton exemplified a certain kind of liberal identity politics that differed from the conservative identity politics at the evangelical Bible college I had just graduated from. Whereas my Bible college peers embraced a socially (and theologically) constructed identity that developed an internal agenda rooted in anxious fears of majority-culture displacement, the progressive churches I visited appeared to embrace a sort of pluralistic vision for the United States that “made room” for me yet failed to meaningfully live out these values in the worshiping life of the church.
This emphasis on “multiculturalism” or “diversity” without a commitment to changing structures, offering reparations, or pushing for a redistribution of power is not unique to churches.
As I have written elsewhere, identity politics are present within our institutions, faculty lounges, businesses, board rooms, et al. New York Times Magazine writer-at-large Jay Caspian Kang notes in his latest book, The Loneliest Americans, that one reason for this is our antiquated language of race, that creates a false social bifurcation that attempts to neatly fit humans into two categories: “white” and “Black.” Writing as a Korean American, Kang describes how Asian Americans “hang in a suspended state outside the Black-white binary,” forcing them to assimilate “whether by melting into the white middle class or by creating an elaborate, yet ultimately derivative, racial ‘identity.’” There is no third option, we are either Black, white, or “part of a demographic group headed in one direction or the other.”
Kang doesn’t argue for a “third option” called Asian American, but rather calls into question the inadequacy of an identity politics-driven terminology that relies on constructed categories like “Asian American.” In fact, Kang’s ultimate goal is to critique this generalizing racial language that fails to account for nuance and meaningful difference, as it relies on the superficial identity markers of boba tea, non-Latin alphabets, and filial piety. Kang calls for a deconstruction of social categories that homogenize minoritized groups and encourages readers to understand the diverse lived reality of Asians in America.
In turn, Kang guides us to what should be our main question: Does race provide an adequate paradigm in which to perceive the world around us?
I believe race and ethnicity comprise a primary, but not solitary, lens through which we must navigate human identity. Along with race, we must also include additional identities such as gender, class, and location, as well as other discrete identifiers. In taking this intersectional approach, we discover that race is a single piece of humanity’s complex social fabric. Therefore, when churches or businesses begin to understand human identity based primarily on race, it usually translates into declaring Juneteenth a holiday, singing a Black gospel song in church, or stamping an image of Sacagawea on a dollar coin. The emphasis here is on representation and performative participation, not structural change.
As an Indian American, I resonate deeply with Kang’s observations. I’m also concerned about decontextualized liberal identity politics where symbolic representation results in multiculturalism devoid of any meaningful change or true representation. Further, I believe liberal identity politics offers an oversimplified narrative that subsumes all “non-white” people into a homogenous group.
By “liberal identity politics,” I am referring to the way liberalism often assumes representation is what marginalized groups ultimately desire or deserve. For example, rather than supporting predominantly Black workers’ right to unionize, Amazon simply highlights “Black voices” on its streaming service as a way to promote “diversity” without making any significant material changes. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) can pay lip service to healing “racial divides” in a social media post but then refuse to support voting rights legislation. These ambiguous appeals to racial “diversity” or “solidarity” falsely equate minority representation or “raising awareness” with signs of social progress, even though there is no structural change.
The assumption about minority groups is that they want to be represented within current structures and systems. The logic goes that because they have been historically excluded from these structures and systems, they now have a desire to simply be included. But even the desire to simply be included can result in backlash. Even more, it is critical to note that this backlash is not exclusively coming from white people. There are non-white pastors, theologians, and politicians who don’t think racism is an issue, argue that Christianity and social justice are incompatible, or promise to ban “critical race theory” in public schools. These examples demonstrate that not only do individuals from groups with marginalized histories have different political ends, but that there is also a deep resistance to social justice movements that advocate for systemic change. Again, race alone does not provide an adequate account for these non-white leaders.
I believe the material histories and needs of marginalized people demand structural change and not merely a “seat at the table.” As ethnic studies professor Jodi Kim summarizes, “one does not have to be cynical to observe that this liberal or corporate multiculturalism, with its politics of symbolic, imagistic, or cultural representation has replaced, rather than complemented, substantive political representation or redistribution of wealth and power.” The language of representation can present progress but in reality, it is the path toward homogenization.
That said, it is important to clarify that representation of diverse identities is important and can build social cohesion and a feeling of in-group identity, but it must also be accompanied by a redistribution of power and material goods.
Theologian and Princeton Seminary’s director for the Center for Asian American Christianity, David C. Chao, recently explained in a conversation with me that, “The political power of diversity and representation is fleeting when divorced from considerations of social practices and political economies.” Chao further explained that “when our representation in majority spaces is performative and not influential, Asian Americans and other racial minorities are essentialized, tokenized, and used only to serve the representational politics of white liberalism.”
Kang’s observations about the language of race and its consequences placed along Chao’s observations help us better see how identity politics fails to create structural change as its main focus is on representation. Historian Jane Hong argues that we must move away from representational politics and toward material histories. Rather than simply including Asian children and LGBTQ+ flags in our murals and in our movies, for example, we must acknowledge the complex histories of race, class, and activism found in these communities. In other words, examining material histories must lead to material changes.
My wife and I eventually found a church in New Jersey — one that traded the melting pot approach for a more apt potluck approach. Here, Black seminarians preach sermons of prophetic justice and second-generation Indians and Latin@ immigrants lead the congregation in singing songs in Gujarati and Spanish. These material changes to the culture of our church community are not merely symbolic, they are structural and material. From preaching to potlucks, we seek to move beyond identity politics and gather together with those who are looking to materially change our nation and the church.