That guy from Duke and the model minority myth

In Ohio, there’s a phrase we’d use to talk about Professor Jerry Hough: “God love him.”

It’s different than the Southern “Bless his heart,” which has a little bit of syrup and a little bit of venom, and is sometimes used to a person’s face.

In Ohio, as my friend Tami pointed out, we say “God love him,” through clenched teeth, conveying our exasperation and the fact that only God could.

Jerry Hough, if you missed the story, is the guy who said Black people are inferior to Asians. Not just “the guy who,” though. “The Duke University political science professor with three Harvard degrees who.” And not just “said.” Actually, “posted in a six-paragraph long comment on a New York Times article.”

The noteworthy opener, referencing the New York Times piece “How Racism Doomed Baltimore,” reads as follows: ““The blacks get awful editorials like this that tell them to feel sorry for themselves.”

The part where my people come in (Asians, not Ohioans), though, is here: “Every Asian student has a very simple old American first name that symbolizes their desire for integration. Virtually every black has a strange new name that symbolizes their lack of desire for integration. The amount of Asian-white dating is enormous and so surely will be the intermarriage. Black-white dating is almost non-existent because of the ostracism by blacks of anyone who dates a white.”

According to the News-Observer, the comment concluded, “It was appropriate that a Chinese design won the competition for the Martin Luther King state (sic). King helped them overcome. The blacks followed Malcolm X.”


For today, I’m not taking on Mr. Hough. You can always tell a Harvard man…you just can’t tell him much. (See what I did there? Since I went to Hopkins, that’s a classic illustration of “punching up.” More on that later.)

What I’m interested in is what the Asian response should be.


Mr. Hough’s comment illustrates really well why in some of the introductory anti-racism work I do, Asian Americans will sometimes say, “if the worst stereotype about me is that I’m better at math than other people, why should that bother me?” In other words, I win with the model minority myth; why would I give that up?

Rather than answer that myself with a long-winded lecture on how communities of color are pitted against each other and can never achieve full liberation while participating, even unwittingly, in our brothers’ and sisters’ oppression, I’m going to share a couple of my favorite Model Minority Mutineers’ perspectives on how


I really love the comedian Dhaya Lakshminarayan. (Do not miss her show Nerd Nation on May 30, selling out fast! I wish I were going to be in town!) I often say of her that part of why she makes me laugh is that she doesn’t rely on cheap caricatures of her parents like some children-of-immigrant comedians. (Much like my parents, hers are so rich for entertainment value without resorting to stereotypes.) The other reason is she makes me laugh without punching down. Her response to Professor Hough is this:


Forgive me if I’m overexplaining, but Dhaya decides to point out (a) the inaccuracy of his statements (because her name is Dhaya — not an integrationist name), (b) the fallacy that Euro-American=White=Normative (hers is not a “simple old American name” which Mr. Hough points out is desirable), and (c) that it is problematic to assume that names or efforts to assimilate equate to success, and that Blackness indicates a lack of success.

But it’s funnier when she does it.


There was a panel discussion today about #BlackAsianSolidarity at the Schomberg Center. The moderator started by talking about the end of the movie Do the Right Thing, where the Korean shop owner, trying to convince the Black people who had broken the windows of the pizza shop not to do the same thing to his store, “I’m not White! I’m Black!” She asked the question what it means to be neither White nor Black, what it meant to be Asian American in America.

The panel was shaped by ChangeLab’s call for a Model Minority Mutiny this past October, when Soya Jung noted:

The racial invitation that white elites offered to Asian Americans went something like this: “If you come here and assimilate into this anti-black settler state, if you behave properly, we will let you hustle for your prosperity. You won’t be white, but you might get close, and at least you won’t be black. You’ll be the poster child of the American Dream, and together we will squash the insurgency underfoot that threatens our collective fortunes.” [In smaller print: We might occasionally spy on you, round you up, and detain you; and some of you will have to stay in crappy jobs and housing. But it’s all to keep the Dream alive.]

I am really grateful for this analysis because for a few years now I’ve been wrestling with the tension between a conviction that drove me to anti-racism work, encouraged by the model of anti-racism training I went through (which has evolved and nuanced considerably over the years but is trapped in amber in my own memory), and between the more complex reality of my lived experience.

The conviction that drove me to this work is this: systemic racism negatively impacts all people of color (Asian, Latino, Indigenous, and Black) and advantages White people. In light of this, people of color need to know each other’s stories and have each other’s backs, without getting hung up on whose oppression is worse.

My lived experience was this: my experience of oppression was totally different than that of my Black brothers and sisters, not just in quality but in kind. Marginalization and invisibility weren’t the same thing as denigration and persecution.

Rinku Sen captured what I struggled with really well last year in her article in the Nation, “As People of Color, We’re Not All In the Same Boat.” Here’s the portion that resonated most for me:

At the beginning of my career, I’d often tell diverse groups of people, “We’re all in the same boat”—that is, we’re all hated by the same people, and our fortunes will rise or fall together. This rhetoric resonated, at first. For a couple of years, members would focus on their commonalities rather than their differences. But eventually, fissures would emerge, usually over the benefits of our organizing. Whose demands got priority? Whose social networks got the most attention? Who got the few organizing jobs that our groups generated?

I came to realize that the “same boat” argument didn’t hold up. Racial hierarchy is not a binary in which all whites occupy the lead boat and all people of color occupy the one left behind. Instead, it’s a ladder, with groups occupying different rungs of political, economic and cultural power. The gaps between rungs can seem minor—a few cents on the dollar at work, a few blocks’ difference in where you’re able to live—but to those who are affected by them, they don’t feel like being in the same boat. And blacks often find themselves on the bottom rung.

This is not to say that there isn’t plenty of discrimination directed against Asians, Arabs, Latinos and Native people. But studies revealing the depth of anti-black bias abound—basically, people would prefer almost anyone other than blacks as neighbors and employees.

Racist ideology relies on maintaining hierarchies, and these hierarchies play out in our own political spaces, too—even when we intend the opposite; even when we think we’ll be immune because we’re people of color ourselves.

So for those of us who are model minorities pawns in this racial hierarchy that we have inherited, sometimes without even having recognized it, what does it look like for us to participate in an alternative a Model Minority Mutiny?

  • It starts by recognizing that the Model Minority Myth limits our potential as well as helping us avoid uglier forms of racism. (If you don’t believe me, you may not yet have encountered the Bamboo Ceiling. Wait a while.) It also involves recognizing that the privilege we have is conditional on how White we are experienced as being, since in America, Whiteness is the substitute for what is normative, no matter how insistent people are that “American” and “White” are not synonyms. (Mr. Hough’s comment about normal old American names illustrates this point well.)
  • It means doing what Dhaya did: publicly rejecting the ridiculous assertion by Mr. Hough that Asians are better than Blacks because that assumes all Asians are the same, and that all Black people are the same. And ideally, it means making people laugh at the ridiculousness while you do it.
  • It means connecting with groups like 18 Million Rising who advocate for Asian and Pacific Islander rights but don’t do so at the expense of our Black brothers and sisters, including standing with our Black brothers and sisters when they invite us to.
  • It might mean engaging with Asians for Black Lives, advocating for Black lives, Black power and Black resistence as allies who recognize that our liberation is wrapped up in theirs, and that we in the Asian American community have to do some serious work on the ways that we participate in and benefit from the culture of anti-Blackness we stepped into when we (or our forebears) landed on these shores.
  • It might mean joining with the #IAmNotYourWedge campaign (or Asians for Affirmative Action), the Asian American group exposing the ultra-conservative White man who is pushing the agenda of “Students for Fair Admissions,” suing Harvard on the grounds that affirmative action robbed some Asians and Asian Americans of opportunities to study at the school. (Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Yang has a great op-ed on this, and 18MR has a petition!)

A ministry colleague of mine forwarded the article about Professor Hough to me saying, “Have you seen this b***s***?” I hope to keep working hard enough at fighting the model minority myth with people of all races that people will always think, “Sandhya needs to know about this; she would be PISSED,” because they know that I recognize that anti-Blackness hurts all of us, even when it looks like it’s helping Asian Americans.

I just wish I could make it funnier.IMG_3555



In honor of May Day, an excerpt from Pre-Post-Racial America

Today is a day that historically acknowledges workers and the struggle for basic human dignity for low-wage workers. Since around 2006, it has particularly lifted up the ways in which immigrant workers deserve greater dignity than our society affords them. In honor of workers, here is an excerpt from chapter two of Pre-Post-Racial America: Spiritual Stories from the Front Lines.

Our Christmas carols and march and food distribution for locked-out workers. I’m on the far left in the green hat. 🙂

I met Francisca when a handful of religious leaders joined with some workers protesting the Castlewood Golf Club in Pleasanton, California. The management had locked out some workers for not agreeing to a new contract where the workers had to pay all of their own health care (consuming up to 40 percent of some employees’ paychecks) in what the club had described as a record-breaking earnings year. I didn’t learn it until later, but Francisca was the janitor who had found a memo in the new manager’s trash can saying that his primary objective was to shut down the union (which had functioned without any conflict for over twenty years). And fight they did, almost imperiling the future of the club out of management’s belief in their right to not provide health care or fair wages.
What struck me about this campaign was that the union working with them had assumed U.S. citizens would be the most upset and willing to stand up for fair treatment. Instead, it was mostly immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, who stood on the picket line for month after month. “Most of the white people had good positions, like bartender,” Francisca explains. “The only two white people on our side, it was just because they knew better. One day one member told Miss Peggy, ‘You old hog; go home and die.’ We grew a thick skin. We Mexicans put up with everything. I told people I put Vaseline on my face every morning so what they would say will slide off me.”

Most of the workers on the picket line were from the kitchen or served as janitors. They were mostly Latin@. When Francisca reached out to one of the White servers to join their protest of the unfair working conditions, he responded, “With all due respect, what am I going to do there? I’m in front of the members serving them their food. If I join you, they’re going to know who I am. And with all due respect, it’s a bunch of Mexicans and Michael and Peggy.”…

On the picket line one day, a member bicycled by with a stroller attached in back. As they biked by, the toddler stuck its hand out of its fabric enclosure and gave the workers a “thumbs down.” The mother turned around and biked by again, and the toddler stuck out the other hand to do the same thing. I’m partly just impressed by the commitment to biking in such uneven terrain just to get your kid to harass picketers, but Francisca noted that the saddest thing to her was a parent teaching her child to hate because “we were on their land.” (Maybe it’s because I’m an immigrant or maybe it’s because I’m a Christian, but the notion that any of us have the right to claim stolen land as ours more than the people working it is a weird one to me.)

I joined the workers in a three-day fast over Mother’sDay weekend, where they tried to remind club members that many of the workers were mothers or were supporting mothers, and that this protest was taking food out of the protesters stood quietly with flyers about the conflict with management, and a woman came up to another worker, Maria (who had adopted two little children two days before she was locked out of her job; the theme of this weekend was very personal to her) and spat at Maria, “You are TEARING APART FAMILIES!” The woman’s son had refused to eat at the country club for Mother’s Day because of the workers’ protest. Maria had to work really hard to extend Christian love in response (although by then the workers were used to being catcalled and threatened with phone calls to Immigration and jeers to go back to Mexico).

Francisca had to fight the urge to not yell back, “Because, when you go back you need to go back with your head held high. They also called us uneducated and dumb and you don’t know what you’re fighting for. I wanted to be able to show them who had the education. I knew we were going back and I wanted to be able to look people in their eyes and not be ashamed.”

Rev. Dr. Alvin Jackson was the reason I became a Disciple of Christ, and I still consider him my pastor. I remember him, an African American addressing a mixed group of White and Latin@ and Asian people and saying of America, “We may have come over on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.” Some of us actually inhabited this land for thousands of years, but most of our forebears came here as slaves or indentured servants, or they came here to establish a better life. Like the Israelites, we came onto others’ land by choice or by force and had to find rules to live by that honored each other and hopefully created a better place for all of us. Like the Israelites, we did better by some people than others, and we did best when we were ruled by hope rather than by fear.

“An Obnoxious Peace”

Image from Urban Cusp, taken in Baltimore on April 23, 2015

Image from Urban Cusp, taken in Baltimore on April 23, 2015

Preached April 26, 2015 at Rockefeller Chapel, Chicago IL, dedicated to the people of Baltimore.

In the days following the Michael Brown verdict, that cold Thanksgiving week, there emerged a debate among my friends regarding the uprisings happening in my hometown and around the country. I called it the debate of the Kings. That is, my friends would quote these two Kings in defense of their positions.

On the one hand was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, I am still convinced that nonviolence is both the most practically sound and morally excellent way to grapple with the age-old problem of racial injustice.”

On the other hand was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, who said in 1966: “I contend that the cry of ‘black power’ is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for Black people. I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.


When #BlackLivesMatter, when #BlackandBrownLivesMatter, and when #AllLivesMatter

We really missed Pastor P___ at the interfaith breakfast two weeks ago. He has a powerful spirit and he’s involved in EVERYTHING in our community. And I was looking forward to hearing him talk about the Black and Latino clergy group that meets to talk about their shared commitment to one another’s communities, both under assault.

But Pastor P____ had to be with family. The night before, his mother-in-law had died at the border at the hands of a Coyote, a smuggler of immigrants.

We grieved, but I don’t know how many Americans grieved with us about another victim of the US-Mexico border. And I wonder how much Brown lives matter in America, even though Brown labor fuels the American economy.


Yeshua by John Bonifacio Moreno

In a faith community celebrating resurrection, I am not sure my community really wants to see a Brown Jesus rise.


Walter Scott shouldn’t have had to be famous. He shouldn’t have been chased and killed and framed. Unlike Pastor P____’s mother-in-law, we will all know his name soon if we don’t already.

In his Easter sermon, Rev. Osagyefo Sekou said that the blood of Michael Brown might ultimately be our salvation: we might find redemption in creating a world where no more Michael Browns will be slain. But today, unable to watch the footage of the hunting and killing of the father of four, I wonder whether that feels as unlikely to Rev. Sekou as it does to me.

In a faith community celebrating resurrection, I am not sure my community really wants to see a Black Jesus rise.blackjesus66


On Good Friday, I joined a worship/public witness in front of the courthouse and jail. We prayed ten stations of the cross, recognizing their intersections with the cruel treatment inflicted on Black people and Black communities, joining with the whole #ReclaimHolyWeek community. We chanted, “In Jim Crow America, the body of Christ is Black.” The leadership and coordination was mostly although not all Black. One of my sheroes from the Black Friday 14 personed the megaphone so we could hear all the speakers. (I participated in communion, offering the blessing over the cup.) And one of my favorite pastors led the opening invocation. She is proudly Black (and proudly queer) and she is fiercely committed to advocating for the dignity of her people.

And she said, “Black Lives Matter.” And she followed it with “All Lives Matter.”

Which is a controversial thing to say within the movement, because “All Lives Matter” is usually used to reject the campaign that says “Black Lives Matter.” And because until we live in an America that acknowledges that all lives will matter WHEN Black lives matter, we still have a long way to go.

But my radical and prophetic sister in Christ said it.

Because it was Good Friday.

And because salvation is for all of us.

And those of us gathered already knew that in America Black Lives don’t matter as much as White lives. And most of us also know that the American economy relies on cheap immigrant labor and forced prison labor so that Black and Brown output matter even while Black and Brown lives do not.

And we knew that we gather to worship a savior who rejected that kind of paradigm, and that is part of what landed him on the cross.

And we knew that all of ours souls are at stake because systemic racism misshapes all of us.


I wished in that moment that all of my brothers and sisters who are hurt and offended by the Black Lives Matter campaign could have seen what I saw and felt what I felt in that moment: that part of the Black Lives Matter movement is done for the salvation of everyone, saving us from the fear of Black people we are trained into in order to keep us divided, saving us from broken relationships where we cannot fully know one another and therefore can at best imperfectly love one another, saving us from a militarized police state where the people who join the police force to serve and protect us are trained to view many of us with suspicion and fear, saving us from not being who God made us to be.


I used to love that oft preached Good Friday sermon, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s a’comin’.”

It doesn’t feel like a Sunday world right now. It does not feel like a world ready to embrace a risen insurrectionist any more than it can embrace a Mexican woman longing for family and hope long before she is strangled at the border, any more than it can embrace a Black Coast Guard veteran and father of four long before he is shot for no reason.

The only consolation I find as a person of faith today is that while in a faith community celebrating resurrection, I am not sure my community really wants to see a Black or Brown Jesus rise, He rises nonetheless. And despite my heartbreak yet again, I see Him rising in us.

May we be an Easter people, a people of the resurrection for all people, because Black and Brown lives are at stake, and because that means that everyone’s life is at stake.

Can we talk about “the talk?” – teaching children how to protect themselves from “Protect and Serve”

I remember an incredibly uncomfortable Thanksgiving during Occupy Oakland. Not the cliche uncomfortable of Republicans and Democrats getting into immigration policy over the mashed potatoes and gravy.

A friend of mine who had been arrested during Occupy for carrying an umbrella (the citation indicated it was a temporary dwelling, which had been banned from the plaza in front of city hall) was regaling us with stories about what it had been like to be in jail, and how they sang together and made jokes to the arresting officers.

Across the table, another friend was clearly not amused, while his daughter’s eyes got wider and wider.

See, my friend had been working really hard not to normalize jail or prison as a regular part of life for Black people in his daughter’s eyes. He wanted his daughter to believe that to be Black in America did not mean an expectation that jail or prison would be a regular and normal part of life; even though they have people in their family who have been to jail and prsion. He did not want her to see it as “no big deal” or a laughing matter. Now, he was also raising her to know about civil rights and justice and fighting for fairness, and when she reached the double digits, they would likely start talking about the prison-industrial complex, because he knows how real the New Jim Crow is. But the light, comical treatment of jail life at the dinner table was the opposite of what he was going for at this moment in his daughter’s formation.

Parenting is hard. Parenting a Black child in America is harder.


Upon receiving the Christian Church of Northern CA-NV’s annual MLK Award

This award was given to me on January 11, 2015 at Lafayette Christian Church during the CCNC-N’s annual MLK service. Following are my remarks upon receiving the award.

Displaying IMG_3475.JPG

I find myself thinking a lot about the previous recipients of this award, because they have all deeply shaped me.

I’m in the land of Pacific School of Religion, and many of you know that PSR’s slogan is, help me with this, “a tradition of boldness.” And that is true. I am in a sea of boldness in this region. But as far as I know, there have only been five graduates of the Disciples Divinity House at the University of Chicago in this region, and … I am the fifth to receive this award, following:

  • Carl and Esther Robinson, who lost his parish in the 1960s for refusing to kick a gay youth out of his church’s youth group;
  • Robert Lemon, who lost his parish for standing in solidarity with Cesar Chavez and the migrant farm workers’ movement;
  • Vy Nguyen, who hasn’t been fired from anything yet, but is leading Week of Compassion and helping us respond to disasters across the globe and here at home;
  • and while David Kagiwada is no longer with us, his widow JoAnne received this award, acknowledging her work to make sure that Japanese American internment camp survivors received recompense from our government.

So in the land of the tradition of boldness, I’m grateful to have had the chance to import a little boldness from Chicago.

I am also shaped by other award recipients:

  • There is no one who stands with poor people more powerfully and inspiringly than Sandy Perry;
  • I have learned much of what it means to participate in civil rights from Clarence Johnson, who was at the March on Washington, but who was also an ardent worker alongside Stokely Carmichael, which is a reminder to us all that radicalism can be held deep within the most humble servants of God;
  • Ben Fraticelli was about the work of building multicultural community in Oakland decades before the Oakland Peace Center started its work three years ago; and
  • Jim Mitulski, who led us in the chant “Stand Up! Fight Back! Fight AIDS!” buried more bodies than most of us can count, because so few churches in the 1980s were willing to acknowledge the human dignity and divinity of the mostly gay men dying of AIDS.

I am an Asian American who was shaped strongly by Black civil rights: 4th grade was the first time I heard about India in school, when we learned that Dr. King’s commitment to nonviolence was shaped by Mahatma Gandhi’s anti-colonial movement in India. I was hooked; I read every book on Dr. King in the library, and for a long time it was the closest reference point I could find to make sense of my experience as an Asian American in northeast Ohio. (more…)