Friday, March 21, 2014

How to Travel Like a Christian. Second Edition: Respecting People, Also Known As God’s Creation

(This post is the second in a series. The first post in the series is "Caveats & Privilege," which you can read here.)

Dear Fellow Business Travelers,

Don’t be a jerk.

No, I’m serious. Don’t be a jerk.

This goes for all travelers, not just the business ones, and not just the ones who are Christian. I do think that being a Christian means acknowledging that all people are children of God. All people are sacredly human. And we are radically equal in terms of our created-ness.

Here are a few examples of how to live into that belief that God’s creation is sacred.

A flight attendant once told me one of his least favorite things a traveler can do is hold up her or his trash without looking up at the human being collecting said trash. Just because someone is there to serve you (and arguably, flight attendants are there for way more than to serve you) doesn’t mean you get to ignore them. It’s rude. Also, you know enough not to yell at a flight attendant, ever. Or throw anything. Or get really, really drunk and act out. Right? Good for you.

Yes, you travel every week, or twice a week. I feel that. That doesn’t give you (or me) license to give that poor parent dragging two kids and a bag down the aisle the stink-eye. You know what? That person is responsible for raising the people who will be running the world when we need care because we’re old. Be nice. Help that parent out. Be patient when the kid cries. Kids cry. Get over it. If we were more honest with ourselves, we might cry a whole lot more. Yes, I have almost whipped around and grabbed the little foot that was kicking my seat (thanks, Dad, for modeling that move for me in the car when I was a child). But what works better and is more appropriate than touching a child you don’t know is to say something to the parent. Kids don’t know! But the parents should. And if they don’t, their parents are probably to blame. So help a person out, yeah? Carry a bag, help fold up a stroller, let the parent/kid board with you if you board earlier than they do, etc.

Tip the housekeepers and the restaurant servers. This is because these are hard high-risk jobs that typically pay very little. Servers are on their feet, carrying heavy things, and have to be nice every single day. Housekeepers have to flip over heavy mattresses several times a day, because travelers like myself enjoy a really nice bed. Housekeepers have very little time to turn over a room (they only have one eight-hour shift to get through 10-30 rooms, or more), so pick up after yourselves. I have often asked to not have my room made up every day, in an effort to save time for housekeeping. But I just learned that if I and other guests opt out of housekeeping for the day, it could mean some housekeeping staff aren’t called in to work and lose out on a day’s wages and tips. Now I always get housekeeping, and I always leave a tip. Being a housekeeper in a hotel can be one of the most high-pressure jobs there is. The sloppier you are, the harder it is for these folks to do a thorough job in the time they have allotted to do so. These are also very underpaid positions. Do you know what happens when low-wage workers have enough money? They spend it on rent or food! It helps the whole economy!

Now, the exceptions to the rule.

Here’s the thing about being a jerk. Most of us (ahem, at least me) have been jerks at some point to someone because we sometimes have a bad day. Not like, “that last person I talked to was condescending,” but like, “my [insert relative here] just died, and I have three reports to write up, and someone hit my rental car in a parking lot, and I still need to get my kid a birthday gift and if I miss this plane I’m going to miss my kid’s party.” It happens (for me, it’s minus the kid, but you get the picture).  
Jesus was probably a jerk once or twice, if you count overturning tables and disrupting someone’s business being a jerk. And the yelling. But I seem to recall he was a jerk when merchants and money-changers were taking advantage of people who were trying to be diligent practitioners of their faith. It’s safe to say that if you stand up for someone, like call a fellow traveler on inappropriate behavior, that could potentially qualify as Christian.

Additionally, there is this funny thing called grace. If we slip up, and do something that isn’t very nice for no good reason whatsoever, we’re still loved with total abandon. Crazy, right? Nope, just Godly. Thanks, God. Let’s practice extending that same grace to others.

Here’s a story from a fellow business traveler. You may know that airlines are constantly changing their policies about who can pre-board (well, all their policies). At some point, this airline she was flying only allowed disabled people and people with very young children who had their own seats to board. She was in the boarding area when a mother with an infant-in-arms approached to pre-board. The gate agent wouldn’t let her pre-board, because her infant didn’t have a separate seat. Of course this parent is totally stressed out. She is traveling alone with a baby. The amount of stuff any kid requires is mind-boggling, and she would have to disassemble the stroller for it to be gate-checked at the end of the jet bridge, while carrying the baby and a bag. The gate agent was upholding the existing policy, and also being a jerk.

All the women in the boarding area are getting angry, and telling the gate agent that they could wait for this mom and baby to board. A middle-aged white man, waiting to board with the first class cabin, said to the woman, “Don’t go anywhere. Give me your boarding pass.” When the boarding for first class was called, he and the mother and infant approached the gate agent. The gate agent said, “She can’t board yet.” The man in first class said, “I believe you have the policy that I, as a Platinum member, can bring someone traveling with me when I board. She is traveling with me.” And the gate agent let them pass.

Dear business travelers: sometimes the drama happening in front of us between people we don’t know is something we can help change from drama to grace. Just a tiny bit of kindness.

Next Edition: How to Travel Like a Christian, Flying Edition

Resources
Creation and Humanity: The Sources of Christian Theology
Edited by Ian A. McFarland

Genesis and the Goodness of Creation (3 day retreat design – downloadable)

Covenant Economics: A Biblical Vision of Justice for All
By Richard A. Horsley

Seeking Social Justice (Being Reformed Curriculum)

And a resource for preachers:
Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary (3 volumes)


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

How to Travel Like a Christian. First Edition: Caveats and Privilege

I will begin with my usual caveats.

First, yes, I’m about to talk about what we might call Upper Middle Class Problems (or Upper Middle Income, but most don’t think about the difference between wealth and income, so I’m trying to keep it simple). This might seem ridiculous in the face of the reality that the vast majority of the world’s population will never see the inside of a plane. But I’m talking specifically here about a small portion of the world’s population: those who travel for work. A whole lot of us live in the U.S. Probably a quarter of my friends are like me: business travelers. Upgrade-hunting, frequent flyer mile-hoarding, million-miler, spending real money on high-quality luggage, hotel point-collecting business travelers. Now that I work at one of the six agencies of a mainline denomination. While I travel a lot, my travel schedule is paltry compared to the travel of many of my colleagues. I have many colleagues who fly to all corners of the world, not just the U.S.

Second, the travel thing. There is travel
Yay! I’m going to see my niece! All I need are a few pairs of jeans and some t-shirts!
Or
Yay! I’m going to see some grad school classmates, and we are going to learn a little bit and then go to the beach/drink/go on a cruise!

And then there is travel
I will be in four hotel rooms in nine days, work 12-15 hours most of those days, and pass through three airports! Bring the business cards!

In my life, I do plenty of the first category of travel. That’s because I have been moving further and further away from my family, and my friends are spread all over the country. I move for work. I live in the peachy state of Georgia, and am moving to Kentucky. Most of my family members (on my side) live in California, Oregon, and Washington. Name a major metropolitan area somewhere in the U.S. and I could name friends I could visit, or great colleagues I’d like to see. Travel is a fact of life for me.

In my work, I do lots of the last category of travel. That is how I spend most of my time, actually. I love it. I love meeting people, finding new-to-me locally-owned restaurants, visiting churches all over the country (world), and figuring out how to take public transportation in Chicago, or Philadelphia, or New York, or San Francisco. But it does mean I spend a whole lot of time considering how to be a better traveler. In terms of lifestyle, I have more in common with frequent flyers than with a parish pastor.

Third, the “like a Christian” thing. I am aware that carbon emissions from flights are a major contributor to climate change. In fact, air travel is one of the worst things I could be doing for the environment (see NY Times article "Your Biggest Carbon Sin May Be Air Travel" here), not necessarily outweighed by living in a reasonably-sized townhouse with shared walls (cutting down on electricity needed to heat/cool said townhouse), or all the recycling I do (my HOA board told me to take photos of the worst recycling offenses in our complex for circulation, because I’m that person), or that the two grownups in my household share one car, or that we grow our own herbs and a few vegetables. In fact, my heavy travel may be one of the least Christian actions I take, along with my strongly judge-y tendencies, the fact that I like to wear leather without knowing where it comes from or if it was ethically sourced (Boots, people! Boots!), and that I get really, really mad at slow drivers in the far left-hand lane on the freeway. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

What can Christians do? We can ignore what we’re doing. We could also consider building travel carbon off-sets into our budgets. Yes, what if the budgets of every non-profit and religious organization included a line for carbon off-sets? That would be amazing! It wouldn’t solve the problem, but could go a long way to acknowledging our Christian responsibility to caring for the whole creation.

(We could also cut back on travel, but just an FYI, anyone who works in a sector in the U.S. that isn’t exactly booming has already done that, and now is more discerning about travel versus some other kind of electronic interaction.)

Fourth, on privilege. Let’s be clear that those of us who have jobs that require travel have privilege. I have the creds to get the jobs I have held, which are all thanks to privilege. Education? Check (thanks, privilege!). Fluent in English? Check (only in the U.S. is English-only a privilege, but that’s another blog post). Appropriate work experience? Check (thanks, privilege!). When I travel for work, thanks to the privilege that gets me into these jobs, I get more privilege! Yep. Privilege begets more privilege. I get status on the airline I fly most, so now I get to board earlier than occasional travelers. I get free checked bags, whether I travel for work or for vacation. I get the seat I want, without paying extra. In a former job, I had the credit card that got me into the airline club. I didn’t have to pay for coffee or breakfast or snacks or internet access, because the club had all that. I saved money because my office paid for the credit card.

Privilege is relative. Travel is really hard on the body, and it can become a grind, especially when you realize you haven’t had time to do more than dump the last two trips’ worth of clothes on the floor, refill your little travel bottles of shampoo and moisturizer, and take off again. There are also those moments when you’re me (a 30-something woman of color), and you have to choose your lodging carefully, because violence is a fact of life. Or you’re me (30-something woman of color who stands at 5’4”) and people line-jump you because they DON’T EVEN REALIZE YOU EXIST. Or you’re me and you’re standing in a line of white middle-aged men in suits boarding a plane, and you realize how many of them get that airline status, and how few of you get that status. Privilege is still relative. I might have it, but I’m always clear how unique that is. When I could get into the airline club, I used to silently congratulate myself for being its integration, whether by age, gender, or racial background. My individual relative privilege, let’s be clear, doesn’t change the fact that the group I belong to (people of color), does not hold institutional power and privilege equivalent to that of white people.

There are exceptions, but by and large my experience (and most data show) is that white and male power and privilege are real. If you feel tempted to argue with this, just look at the composition of the first class cabin in your next flight. Those (mostly) white (mostly) men got there because they either bought those first class tickets (hello, class privilege), but on many flights, often because they are more likely than any other group to work in positions for for-profit companies that purchase full-price refundable tickets, allowing them to accrue airline rewards much more quickly than the average non-profit worker or one who travels infrequently due to family responsibilities or the particular job sector or position. These (mostly) white (mostly) men also have the family structure that allows them to travel a lot. If they have kids, that means they aren’t the primary care-giver. And that’s a whole other blog post.

Enough for this edition.


Resources to help Christians think through what to do about the environment, economic justice, and other contemporary social issues. Oh, and on white privilege.

Air Pollution: Inside & Out
Adult Downloadable Study by Megan Pillow Davis


Justice in a Global Economy: Strategies for Home, Community, and World
By Pamela K. Brubaker, Rebecca Todd Peters, Laura A. Stivers
  
To Do Justice: A Guide for Progressive Christians
By Rebecca Todd Peters & Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty

White Privilege
Adult Downloadable Study by David V. Esterline

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Power and the Black-White Binary: Forging Authentic Church Identities in the Midst of White Supremacy, Patriarchy, and Being “Other Asian”

Below are the remarks I gave today at Whitworth University in Spokane, WA at the Third Moderator's Conversation on Unity with Difference on Race, Gender, and Religious Differences (more information here). I include some suggested resources for continued conversation.

Presentation Summary: Being church together is challenged by the ways in which various church communities and individual church members interact with power based on race and gender, not to mention class status and regional identity. The church, particularly the PC(USA), includes people with diverse capacities for a real conversation. Through exploring the place of Asian Pacific Islander Americans (who in the PC(USA) can check either “Korean” or “Other Asian” for demographic information on some forms) and others dislocated by the black-white binary in church and U.S. society, together we seek a way to move forward toward being a church that allows for complexities of identity and addresses real inequalities.

Introduction
I am grateful to be here with all of you in this conversation. I love this church, and I believe that this time together here at Whitworth represents one of its better moments. I’m glad to be learning from all of you. Thank you to Whitworth University for the hospitality.

A shout-out to all my family and friends watching on the live stream. I’ll try not to embarrass you. And props to the students who showed up at 8:30am!

My name is Laura Mariko Cheifetz. Cheifetz is my family name, from my Polish-Ukrainian-Lithuanian Jewish family members who fled persecution in Eastern Europe over 100 years ago. If you know my parents, you know that I pronounce our name differently. I have no tattoos or body piercings and never snuck out at night to joyride or get high. Instead I pronounce our name differently. I’d like to think in the realm of parenting, that’s not a bad deal.

My middle name is Mariko, from my Japanese American ancestry. My great-grandmother was the first Japanese American baby born in the town of San Juan Bautista, CA over 100 years ago. My Jewish Polish great-grandmother wanted my parents to call me by my Japanese name, and please know how grateful I am that my parents stuck with Laura. It’s an easier cross-over name for my Spanish-speaking relatives, and explaining my family name is already a lengthy process enough. I’m hapa yonsei… multiracial fourth and fifth generation Asian American of Japanese and Jewish descent.

As you may or may not expect, my parents met in an archeology class at UC Berkeley. Both are now Presbyterian ministers. I’m also a Presbyterian teaching elder. I serve at the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, one of the six agencies of the PC(USA), and I’m grateful to be in ministry in an organization with measureable stated goals and support for racial, gender, and age diversity in its staff and its publishing program.

That is how I see myself. The question that most illuminates how others see me is: “What are you?” For those of you accustomed to navigating multiraciality or multiethnic identity or navigating looking not-quite-what-you-are-enough for others, this is the defining question. This is the question that is asked of me by both people and by institutions. Depending on my energy level, I either find this question annoying, angering, or just another day in the life. I know, I know, I could take the generous route, and think “these people are just curious. At least they ask instead of guess.”

I am generous with my second bedroom if you get stranded at the Atlanta airport. I am generous with food and drink. I am not generous when it comes to indulging the racial imagination of U.S. culture and American churches.  

Guiding assumptions

I too often assume that the people with whom I speak share a common understanding of the definitions of words I use, so I’m going to back up to share some of my guiding assumptions.

I believe there is more than one explanation and more than one right answer for pretty much everything, even if that is not how I talk. I have been well-trained by the dominant culture, and I love the fluidity of knowledge and experience – these two things are not always in sync. My own understandings of race and racism, gender and sexism, are always in development, and I look forward to learning more.

Race and gender themselves are not the problems obstructing unity. The problems here are racism and sexism. Who we are isn’t the problem, but how we live into oppressive constructs that separate us from one another is. What I will say this morning is part of a longer conversation we in the church need to have with one another, because even though we have been in this conversation for decades, we have yet to diminish our capacity to sin when it comes to relationship with one another.

Racism and sexism aren’t prejudice or dislike or ignorance. Any one of us can participate in prejudice or dislike or ignorance. “isms” are prejudice, or a belief in the inferiority of a group of people, whether this prejudice is intentional and conscious, or unintentional and unconscious, coupled with the institutional structures and the power to shape the lives of that group of people based on that belief in their inferiority.

A common coping mechanism I share with many of my friends who belong to particular minoritized groups is to make fun of people who operate out of isms. (If you don’t laugh, you cry.) But isms are not primarily about individuals. As the UCLA School of Public Affairs states, “The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture.” U.S. law tends to focus on intentional discrimination, because it is based on a dated understanding of what constitutes racism and sexism, such as blatant employment discrimination, and housing covenants that exclude certain named populations. But institutionalized discrimination is simply the consequence of maintaining power and privilege for the groups considered superior.

Another assumption I make is white supremacy and patriarchy are real. I’m not interested in sharing statistics that prove them to be real. I’m not here to convince you. If you do not already acknowledge these huge shaping forces in our culture, then this conversation will not make much sense to you.

You have read the Bible, and I’m not the best person to explain how as Christians we should care about how we interact in the church regarding race and racism, gender and sexism. I have moved beyond needing a theological justification for ending racism, or biblical interpretations for gender equality. Let’s assume that’s a given. I leave that to others who give more time and energy to it than I do.

I depart from the assumption that all of the history of what became the U.S. is important. While forced removal of Native Americans and chattel slavery shaped the south, where I now live, I grew up where Spanish colonialism and its precursors, Native American reservations, anti-Indian policies, alien land laws and Asian disenfranchisement, violence against Mexicans already on the land, and the use of migrant farm labor shaped the racial landscape.

Race and gender are social constructs. We conflate the social construction of gender with biological sex. Sex is about chromosomes. There are many chromosomal variations on the XY and XX combinations into which we assume the world falls. Gender is not a binary. I will probably be dead before the Presbyterian Church is able to come to grips with that fact and starts giving members the ability to classify themselves outside of the male/female binary. Gender expression is how we live out our own gender, and is tightly policed in U.S. society and particularly within the church. Definitions of what is gender and what is acceptable gender expression vary by culture – in some cultures, there are more than two genders. It is men that raise the children. Pink used to be a boy’s color in the U.S. It is only real because we say it is real.

I do not believe race is real. I believe it has no biological foundation. I believe race is real the way money is real – because we have given it value. Race as defined by the U.S. is a social construct. It changes constantly. Just take a look at every single U.S. census – the racial categories are different every ten years.

We as a society have constructed race and gender as real, constricting individual expression, disrupting solidarity, and giving us a series of tiny little boxes into which we might organize our limited understanding of humanity. However, I believe race and ethnicity lend meaning to our own identities both as a result of our rich heritages and as a result of racialization.

The last assumption I will name is that I am not particularly interested in talking everything to death. I want to see change. I’m not what you could call old, but I’m not exactly young, either. I’ve been in these conversations around race and gender in the church for 15 years. I know others have been in it for far longer, but I confess I’m impatient. I can do the long game, but I very much want to be in this conversation with others who can think collectively to organize for structural and cultural change. Other people before us died for this. I think the least we can do to honor them is change this church.

My Context

My context in regards to race, ethnicity, and religion is this: in my family there are Asian Americans of Japanese and Chinese descent, Latin@s of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent, white people, African Americans, white Jewish people, Arab Americans, and so many multiracial people that we could make our own cross-over feel-good commercials. In my family, there are Pentecostals, Presbyterians from More Light to Confessing Church, Episcopalians, atheists, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Disciples of Christ, Buddhists, and a significant population of “nones.” I grew up behind a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

And I am so so Presbyterian, and my remarks today will largely address the context of the Presbyterian Church (USA), because that is what I know best. I dabbled with attending Lutheran and Methodist churches. I grew up going occasionally to Assemblies of God and Baptist and Episcopal churches. My favorite seminary classes were at the local non-diocesan Catholic seminary in the same consortium as my Presbyterian seminary. But all these experiences have confirmed that I’m just a Presbyterian. Because I was born in California, and grew up in Presbyterian churches in the John Day Valley in eastern Oregon, and on Bainbridge Island and the Kitsap Peninsula in western Washington, I’m a particular kind of Presbyterian.

I never went through a confirmation class, so I’m the person who has to look up the creeds in the hymnal. I’m the person who feels no need to prioritize visiting the great American Presbyterian pilgrimage site of Iona. I didn’t know we had an ethnic heritage as a Scottish church until I went to seminary and heard that some churches have Sundays where all the men wear kilts. I was horrified. I had grown up feeling so different from Lutherans, who in my hometown sponsored the annual lutefisk-eating contest at Viking Fest, and it turns out my religious people were just as specific.

My context in regards to gender is this: my parents, early on in their relationship, were part of the Christian expression particular to Intervarsity and the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley in the mid-1970s. My mother once told me, “We went to a workshop on wifely submission. It didn’t stick.” But before our imaginations devolve into some sexist version of the nagging bossy wife and the husband who has to keep her happy, my parents are deliberately partners. They respect each other. My father, the one straight white guy in my home growing up (the poor dude got beat up constantly), has never once questioned my version of reality. He trusted me to tell him my reality, and he believed it to be true. I take feminism seriously because my parents raised me to take it seriously, and so did the churches that raised me.

I introduce myself in this way because I think there is more than one way to experience racism and sexism. There are over 300 million ways in this country, and over 1.8 million ways in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Our conversation cannot depend upon a generic experience of racism (usually defined by blackness) or sexism (usually defined by middle-aged white women) imposed upon other experiences. Racism is not just about color. It is also about language, culture, colonialism, national origin, and citizenship status. Sexism is not just about how many women get to be heads of staff of tall steeple churches or directors of church agencies. It is about how we continue to think about gender identity and gender roles, and how those thoughts are embedded in our culture and our policies. It is about earning potential; church policies around work hours, compensation, and family leave; about how well churches minister to the lived realities of women in their employ and women who choose to be part of churches. It is about the culture of church leading change in the culture of this country instead of propping up legal and cultural patriarchy.

I will focus primarily on racism in this time we have together, but know that I approach this, understanding we are not just one thing at a time, not just a person of color at one point and a woman at another point, but our identities are multiple, mutually constitutive, complex.

Challenge of Being Church Together

Church is hard. Even in a monoracial group, church is hard. I think it’s because church involves people. Just so many different personalities. We all bring our own sacred cows, our individual beliefs, our ideas of what are our collective beliefs. We bring our own expectations of what church should be.

I love this church and its people. But as a diverse church with almost 2 million members, we experience wide variation in our capacity to talk about race and gender in ways that are helpful. Some people do race and gender for a living, and can have very sophisticated conversations. Some people think talking about race and gender is racist and sexist. The varied capacities of people in the church to speak about the very real issues of sexism and racism makes these conversations challenging, and there are times when I just can’t. Trying to explain to you that just because we have a black president and a Filipino moderator that racism is still around… that just makes me tired.

The Black-White Binary

We in the U.S. operate out of a black-white binary. We assume the starting point for most of our racial conversations is slavery, and the ending point is either Jim Crow or Trayvon Martin. I prefer the “yes, and” approach. I believe the reason for Native American suppression and cultural genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, Trayvon Martin and the current crisis in incarceration rates is racism, and other reasons are economic. What is racist is that the lives and well-being of people of color are just incidental collateral damage to the power of white supremacy.

What is racist, too, is the ongoing divisions made among people of color. You know of divide and conquer? That’s what happens when we focus only on one thing, on one group. That’s what happens when the church tells us it can only work on one issue at a time. That’s what happens when the church gives us a tiny pot of money to be divided among multiple diverse groups, and we decide to passive-aggressively fight over it instead of work together to make lasting change. That’s what happens when we decide to say that our experience of racism is more real than someone else’s experience of racism, and we base our organizing and our solidarity on that decision.

For the church and our society to focus primarily on the relationship between white and black, there was another group here before both of these groups, and there is a giant growing diverse middle. You do know that by the middle of the century, there will be more of us people of color than there will be of white people. Now, I don’t delude myself into thinking this will mean there will suddenly be racial justice everywhere. Isms are about power. Patterns of wealth are racialized, and it will take generations to change any of that. But I do know that if we as people of color would like to organize for change, it would work a heck of a lot better if we tried working together, instead of each of our groups interacting with white people and avoiding each other.

What the “ism” of racism and the black-white binary both serve is white supremacy. I’m not talking about the white supremacy of neo-Nazis moving into Sandpoint, Idaho. I’m not talking about the white supremacy of the KKK in southern Indiana. I’m talking about garden-variety white supremacy, the kind that assumes whiteness is preferable, the kind that allows people to dabble in other cultures without accountability. White people running yoga studios for their own profit, and the daughter of the governor of Oklahoma wearing a Native American headdress, using the excuse that in Oklahoma, one is exposed to Native American culture and feels connected to it (as though there were one Native American generic monoculture).

In this atmosphere of white supremacy and the black-white binary, where is the identity of Asian Pacific American?

I have said before that I am Japanese and Jewish. I am multiracial. But for the purposes of demographics, I’m Asian American. I’m the model minority. Right? I got good grades and have two masters degrees and I work in a church agency. I’m a home owner. When I talk, sometimes people listen. So what right do I have to complain when it comes to racism and patriarchy?

The model minority stereotype reared its ugly head in the 1960s, suspiciously timed with widespread social unrest. Some people talk about the “riots” in black neighborhoods, and the Black Power movement. I find this interesting, because not long after, yellow power and brown power and red power movements were in full swing. Asian Americans were set up as the good people of color, the good model minority, even though they were engaged in social change movements.

You might be aware that there is more than one kind of Asian Pacific American. Many, many kinds, with different cultures, languages, ethnicities, foods, and ways of coming to the U.S. We are talking 34 countries in Asia, and within those countries, many more language and cultural groups.

I was taunted as a kid for being Chinese or Hawaiian or whatever people decided what kind of not-white I was (I could be Latina or Native American, too), because in the U.S. all Asians are Chinese. I found that in the realm of the national Presbyterian church, all Asians are Korean. I have filled out a few PC(USA) national church forms in my day that have a checkbox for “Korean” and a checkbox for “Other Asian.” Now, pretty much all Asian Pacific Islanders have a very distinct ethnic identity, and pride in spades, so imagine how annoyed I was with this.

The first problem with the model minority is that it jams together people whose countries of origin the U.S. invaded, people who worked for the U.S. government during the Vietnam war and who had to leave their countries as a result, and their descendants, and people who came last year on a highly specialized work visa. It includes people whose families have to wait 20 years for a visa to the U.S., and people whose ethnicities and languages show up in approximately zero U.S. government documents as a checkbox option. Asian Pacific American is not an accurate way to classify people, and if Asian Pacific Americans had our way, all the data would be disaggregated, so you can see how the group I belong to (Japanese Americans) are vastly different from other groups, like Hmong Americans or Iranian Americans.

The second problem with the model minority is that it presumes there are good people of color and people of color who are problems. It tells people in my group to not be like those black people, or, increasingly, those Latin@s. It helps perpetuate the labeling of all black people as the wrong kind of minority, despite all evidence to the contrary. It helps divide people of color from one another, and disrupts our organizing potential.

The third problem with the model minority... I hate to break it to America, but the politics of respectability is a lie. No matter how good you act or how high your household income or how nicely you dress, at some point someone is going to hurl a racial slur at you, or shoot at you, or stop you for questioning because you look like an immigrant or other kind of criminal, or not stop the cab to pick you up, or ask how your English can be so good. You will always belong to a group less likely to experience economic mobility, and more likely to experience higher rates of stress and discrimination than the white population. We as people of color can end up twisting ourselves into caricatures trying to make ourselves into the right people of color, instead of interrogating the very culture and system that demand such dehumanization.

Dislocated by the Binary

I felt included in racial conversations much of my growing-up, maybe because there were so few of us people of color. Then I moved to New York. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t special. This is important. It was fantastic. I didn’t stick out. I could just blend in. There were those annoying moments, like when a white guy interning at the UN asked me and another church intern, who was from Tajikistan via Amsterdam, if we were sisters. I said, “You mean in that general Asian way?” But I was also working with the UN World Conference Against Racism, and I ran into the black-white binary so hard that I started walking out of meetings. I had a vague sense that the struggles of Latin@s, indigenous peoples, Asian Americans, and others didn’t count as much as the struggles of African descendants, but I had no idea that this kind of meeting would bring up everyone’s internalized pain, which would manifest in blatant competition for resources and access to power. The U.S. non-governmental agency community was in constant conflict.

Attending school at McCormick in Chicago was another challenge for me. Even though the student body, just half white, and the city were plenty diverse, the two largest groups were still white people and black people. The primary participants in racial conversations were still black people and white people, and I will always appreciate the audacity of the Latin@ and Asian Pacific American students, and the space given to be part of a larger conversation. Giving into marginalization in that setting would have been giving up, and inserting ourselves into the racial conversation fought against our being relegated to the margins as “cultural others” or what I might call “window dressing.”

Conversations in the PC(USA) are often tied to the racial-ethnic caucuses and ethnic specific congregations. These conversations for people of color mean you’re either black or you belong to an immigrant group. And while I work hard to be in solidarity with immigrants, because we are all stuck in this crazy racialized category together, the most recent immigrant in my family is white and English-speaking. The majority of my family has been here for over 100 years. The issue for me is not language access (although that is important). My issues are not about my culture and the church’s inability to deal with my cultural differences (I know how to navigate whiteness and white culture. My people have been doing it for generations.). My issues are about the racism that has helped make this church what it is. Racism is embedded in our identity.

And I think we as a church have the capacity to forge an identity that recognizes our participation in colonialism, racism, and other isms, without giving these systemic evils the power they currently hold.

Moving Forward

So how do we do this?

Let’s start simply. Let’s, as a church, allow for complexity of identities. Let’s allow for a multiplicity of expressions. There is no one way or best way to be Presbyterian, or Christian for that matter. Jesus wasn’t white, nor did he speak English only.

Let’s also allow for a complexity of understanding how racism and sexism are experienced in the church and in society.

How a first-generation immigrant Filipina experiences racism is quite distinct than how a Native American man experiences racism. How a half Japanese half Jewish woman experiences racism is quite distinct than how an African American man experiences racism.

Let’s also quit using one another as props for our own theological or political campaigns. There is nothing more exasperating than white churches holding up “Hispanics” or “Koreans” or “international partners” or “young people” as a rationale for changing our church policies or not changing our church policies. While I believe advocacy is important, I think we tread too far in the direction of other more dangerous and exploitative territory. What was once held as a truism is rapidly shifting. No group is likely to be both theologically and politically liberal or conservative based on the definitions the church has relied on for decades. 63% of Hispanic/Latino Americans support same-sex marriage rights. Asian Pacific Americans as a group overwhelmingly (71%) voted Democrat in the last presidential election. Mexico City and South Africa and Brazil have legalized same-sex marriage. Many of the churches that are our more “conservative” partners around the world are also vehemently anti-free trade and oppose the kind of capitalism practiced by this country and our institutions, the kind of economic system that benefits us.

This just goes to show how complex are our belief systems, affiliations, and convictions. If we have a belief, how about we claim it as ours, and find a good way to substantiate our claims, instead of using these monolithic imaginary others who are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves, and often do speak for themselves, given the chance.

Let’s, as a church, address real inequalities. I have heard many churches, many of them majority-white, wish the Presbyterian Church would stop focusing on so many social issues and focus just on theological ones.

I’m sorry. Social issues are theological. It is a theological problem if Christians believe employment opportunity for those with varying levels of education, immigration, the criminal justice system, gun control, political gerrymandering, disenfranchisement, voter ID laws, the financial services sector, hunger, poverty, and economic inequality are not the business of the church. These are things that have a disproportionate impact on the lives of people of color. These are the problems that keep us from attaining a shot at racial justice. These are the problems that shape our lives because we’re always negotiating with banks to allow our in-laws to keep their homes, or finding lawyers so our mothers can stay in the country, or finding people to write letters attesting to the character of our wrongfully accused sons, or looking for ways to feed our families. We have to worry about elected officials who don’t look like us or care about our communities. This takes up a lot of time and energy, and it is our faith that keeps us going. These are the circumstances we bring with us to church every single Sunday.

It must be really nice to never have to worry about those things. Never have to worry about discrimination. Never have to worry about getting a loan from a bank. Never have to worry about laws regulating gun sales because you think your son won’t be gunned down in the street. Never have to worry how a police officer will react. What will drive us apart instead of together as the church is if you dismiss my real life as just the “fluff” the church shouldn’t be doing.

This might be weird, coming from the “other Asian” who is employed and has citizenship and all kinds of access, but part of being Asian Pacific American is needing to care about all these things. We are small, even if we are the fastest-growing group in the U.S. We encompass great economic and vocational diversity. And for anyone to care about our issues, we have to care about the issues of other groups. We are not so different from each other. And by building coalitions, by showing up for each other, we are more likely to get things done.

I know that some of the partners in this work are white. In the end, we are all on the same side, yes? Patriarchy and white supremacy serve no one, not even the white men among us, even if white men do (statistically speaking) stand a far better chance than others to benefit. Patriarchy and white supremacy in the United States continue to divide us from one another, disrupt our collective organizing power, compromise our Christian identity, minimize our capacity to act like Christians, and dehumanize each one of us. While I do not feel sorry for white men, I also know that the fullness of what it means to be a man is severely limited by patriarchy, and the fullness of what it means to be human is cut off at the knees in exchange for white privilege.

But people in power are going to have to start believing that oppression and marginalization are real, without putting the burden of proof on those who experience marginalization. And people with power will need to grapple with the realities of the privilege the current structures have afforded them. There’s no need to feel guilty, but there is a need to be honest about it, and to find ways to be good and accountable partners in this work.

Our church has a lot of statements, many policies opposing inequality and injustice.

You also know that our church and many churches struggle with allowing both diversity and unity to creatively coexist. How can we be authentically church in the midst of real disagreement about money, theology, sexual orientation, pastoral discretion, Biblical interpretation? How can we be authentically church when we do not like each other?

I’m straying into Biblical territory here, but I have heard we all have spiritual gifts. Some of us do the complex and cutting-edge thinking. Some of us do a great job of raising money. Some of us are activists, creating change by pushing from the edges. Some of us are subversive, making change inside large institutions, incrementally making these institutions more life-affirming for all people. Some of us are great encouragers. Some of us make sure there is food on the table. Some of us pray.

I believe I said something somewhere about showing up for each other. I meant that across racial groups, and I mean it for different genders and religious groups, too. We can’t hope to make change all by ourselves, all the time. Maybe some of us were trapped in schools that taught the whitewashed version of civil rights history, but the civil rights movements have been incredibly diverse. There were many philosophies, change theories, streams of thought. They were white and African American and Asian Pacific American and Native American and Hispanic/Latin@. Civil rights work was transnational.

So if we of varying races, genders, and religious groups show up for each other, and if we of varying spiritual gifts show up for each other, maybe that is a way of finding how to be authentically church. Maybe that is how we can create change.


Thank you.

Resources for Further Conversation

The Racism Study Pack, downloadable ecumenical studies for adults with sections on how to talk about race, white privilege, affirmative action, the Bible and racism, and a history of racism in the U.S.

Responding to Racism, downloadable ecumenical study for youth

Faith and Feminism: Ecumenical Essays, eds. Phyllis Trible and B. Diane Lipsett