On D’Angelo, Warriors fans, race and culture

The intersection of pop culture and race is some complicated stuff.image

There came point at the D’Angelo concert last night and when the joy went out of the show for me. That’s saying something, because I spent a whole lot more money than I have to be there and have been looking forward to it for months.

It was the moment in the show where D’Angelo sang to the crowd, “Freddie’s dead but we ain’t. Let’s celebrate.” I get where the message came from. I see it as powerful, especially from the man whose last album was the soundtrack to this past season of #BlackLivesMatter and a love letter to Black activists.

The thing is, in the section where I was standing, we were maybe 25% visibly African American and I wanted to say to the guys grinding into my stomach with their butts, “HE’S NOT TALKING TO US! WE DON’T GET TO CELEBRATE THAT!” (And yeah, I get that part of the reason I didn’t want to celebrate was their butts grinding into my stomach. Anyone who saw my Facebook status update after the show knows that.)

Celebration is an act of rebellion. Everyone who has lived on the margins makes use of it. I love that. I love the power of laughter and joy and lovemaking in the face of abuse, oppression and death.

Heck, I just like a good party.

But this wasn’t my party.

It wasn’t my party because I do not live in constant fear of death at the hands of the people who are supposed to serve and protect me. I do not need to celebrate my survival. I don’t need to piggyback on his community’s party when I haven’t borne the same pain.

And yet, here we were, thousands of people, Black and White and Asian, and I understand he wasn’t expecting 2/3 of us to stop dancing, and I don’t know if the people around me knew which Freddie he was talking about to understand this wasn’t their party.

This stuff is blurry, our sharing of art and culture.

This might be on my mind because yesterday at lunch my friend Tami and I went to the Bengali sweet place in Fremont after church. As she stared at the Bollywood video above my head, she said, “all his backup dancers are white.”

I looked up at the screen and commented, “ah. Shah Rukh Khan. Bollywood’s biggest star. India loves its Muslim actors, but not Muslims in general.”

“That sounds familiar,” she responded, and I remembered the article in Saturday’s Chronicle about Warriors fans in San Francisco shouting racial epithets at Cavaliers as they boarded the bus from their hotel. We love our Black athletes and musicians and actors, but not our Black people in general. (And none of this is even addressing the anti-darkness culture of Bollywood that Tami was pointing out.)

A couple of months ago David Zirin spoke at an event at the Oakland Peace Center. Someone asked him why the NFL has nonprofit status. He connected some dots in a way that blew my mind.

In the 1950s, the NFL was considering expanding its teams. The senators from Louisiana said, “give us a team, and we’ll give you a nonprofit tax exemption.” The New Orleans saints were born and earned incredible amounts of money while pouring no tax dollars back into the city they called home and profited from.

What little money New Orleans had for infrastructure did not by and large get placed in places that would benefit the Black community (including shoring up the levees that eventually flooded the ninth ward.)

When the levees flooded, the only space for the flood survivors was the Superdome, which became dangerously uninhabitable within hours. The people that gave the Saints so much were no more cared for by the Saints than by their government. (And no, the name of the team does not escape me.)

I don’t have any conclusions except to say we borrow and exchange culture and art in this country and I love that. And yet there is a difference between borrowing and appropriating, and yet another difference between borrowing and exploiting. And if we miss the first line, it might make it even easier to miss the second one.

i don’t have any answers. I hope the next generation of racial justice warriors will, especially the many who were conceived last night thanks to D’Angelo’s mood setting music. Black Messiah may have been a love letter to Black activists, but I think it worked on the whole crowd. Because some kinds of celebrating ARE universal.

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



The wrong time to stay loyal – what the Tony Jones scandal says about us

So I’ll confess a couple of things up front:

So I never really warmed to Tony Jones. I kind of thought of him as the problem side of emergent Christianity. (As one of my friends described it, “I wanted to learn about emergent Christianity because I was tired of old, straight White men telling me what to do and what to think. What I got was young, straight White men telling me what to do and what to think.”) When a friend of mine was asked to speak on a panel with him, I told her to keep her distance. When a friend said he had been outright dismissive of the need to involve people of color in the planning process for a conference, I was unsurprised.

But I didn’t weigh in on the huge drama that emerged in recent months about the end of his marriage, allegations of abuse and his new marriage and custody fights. I felt like I didn’t have enough info. Plus, a number of friends of mine (albeit also young straight White men) rushed to his defense and encouraged people not to weigh in on the alleged victim’s side. Some of it was a general invitation not to pile on without adequate information, but a lot of it was expressed support and solidarity with the person they knew and respected.

A friend of mine recently sent me a blog post that I suspect is already sweeping the same circles that were following this story: The Evidence Against Tony Jones.

The article boils down to this: gaslighting and narcissism.

There’s a lot to grieve. There’s a lot to mourn. And in the midst of all of that, I hope that moving forward, we look for allies, friends, colleagues and mentors who exhibit the value of humility in their public life; it may help us avoid being gaslighted ourselves.

How Marcus Borg gave me hope

Renowned liberal theologian and Historical Jesus scholar Marcus Borg passed away yesterday at the age f 72. In honor of his life, here is my brief reflection on how his wisdom helped me in my ministry.

I only got to hear renowned theologian Marcus Borg speak once. It was interesting. I was grateful for the chance to reflect on my relationship to the divine through new eyes. But I came across his work after liberation theology had already broken my world apart and connected me to God in ways that would leave me changed forever. I deeply appreciated how he reconnected many of my friends to a relationship with God and the possibility of a relationship with the church, but he wasn’t my guy the way James Cone or Gustavo Gutierrez or Emilie Townes or Kwok Pui Lan were.

Until I heard a story, third hand, about the way he answered a random question at a lecture. And that story allowed me to remain hopefully engaged in the work of congregational transformation for almost a decade. More than any of the countless books I read or courses and workshops I attended, this one story continues to give me hope.

I tell this story almost everywhere I speak on congregational transformation (if I think the audience won’t be hurt by it), because at moments I feel defeated by the church’s struggle to change, I am reminded that of the privilege I have of living in this moment where the church is turning into something phenomenal and powerful, whether I want to be a part of that or not.

I didn’t even hear him say it, and it wasn’t the kind of thing he was famous for saying.

My friend Russ told me that a friend of his went to a Marcus Borg lecture, and someone asked the following question:

“Dr. Borg, what is the future of the church?”

Almost without hesitating, he responded, “Right now, the church is made up of two groups of Christians. There are conventional Christians who go to church because that’s what you do, who were shaped by an era where church was a typical part of the culture. And then there are the intentional Christians, the ones who don’t experience church as the norm but are craving spiritual community and are willing to invest deeply in the relationships and the rituals and the interactions with what is transcendent; they are also driven by the desire to be in deeper relationship with the community around them. In fifty years, all of the conventional Christians will be dead. The church will be much smaller, but it will be much more alive.”

Thank you, Dr. Borg, for giving me the hope necessary to do the work of congregational transformation even when it felt like Jesus himself would have struggled to effect change.

Christmas values – Day 6: Charity

“Scrooge was better than his word.  He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father.  He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.  Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms.  His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”

It feels like at this time of year, liberal or conservative, we all grow a little more tender hearted towards those in need.

Ok, our definitions of who is in need are sometimes head scratching: a friend of mine in the midwest recently started pastoring a church that runs a toy drive among its working- to middle-class congregation (a lot of nurses and administrators and so forth), with the toys going to their own children at the church’s big Christmas celebration. When he asked about whether they might want to give to children in real need, maybe through the town’s fire and police annual Toys for Tots project, they stroked their chins and acknowledged that one year, they did give the leftover toys to charity.

But that congregation notwithstanding, we all donate a little more and smile a little more and hope it all balances out when we claim our tax deductions in April.

Of course, there are some people who worry that even this season is becoming less charitable as a warped version of free market capitalism becomes laudable in certain circles (what Ayn Rand horrifyingly referred to as “the virtue of selfishness”). Witness here Jimmy Kimmel’s rendition of the Fox News interpretation of It’s a Wonderful Life: (more…)

Dr. King, Ms. Morrison, and a random thought on my impending birthday

I am currently watching Toni Morrison on the Colbert Report, and he just mentioned a fact I hadn’t realized: Toni Morrison was 39 when she wrote her first book.

I mention this because on January 2, I will turn 39. The reason that age is so significant to me is that Dr. King was killed at the age of 39. (I know. Look it up. I check the math regularly because I can’t believe it either.) He argued theological points more elegantly, risked his life more regularly, and stood for a commitment to nonviolence and to the dignity of Black life more powerfully than anything I will accomplish in twice that time. As I approach 39, I am no Dr. King.

So I find it comforting to know that one of the most transformative writers of my era really began her craft at that age and continues to bless us.

In her interview, Ms. Morrison talks about how race is a construct. (Racism is real, with power and privilege and the potential to destroy and misshape, but race itself is a construct, she explains.) (more…)

বিনম্র শ্রদ্ধা — Remembering Sushil Kumar Jha

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My uncle (jettu) with his wife, my aunt (jettima) in 1977

My uncle has always had somewhat legendary status in my nuclear family. He’s the reason my father came west. 

When our family in India needed some financial assistance, my uncle took a job with a mining company and used every spare penny to send my father to Scotland so my father could get a western degree. That’s how my father met and married my mother and we eventually ended up in the United States.

My uncle, in my memory, was always a fairly stoic man, and incredibly smart (my father half-jokes that he was the least smart of his three siblings and marvels that he was the one who ended up traveling abroad and getting so much education). You didn’t sit and banter or chew the fat with him. By the time I was an adult and visiting his home as an adult, it felt more like you got audiences with him: if he wandered by, he would share some reflection or observation from his vast treasure trove of knowledge, which spanned all of world history and geography and biology and politics. He was also relatively circumspect in my interactions with him — he would offer information about political corruption, but he wouldn’t rail against one particular party over another.

My uncle would have been in his late teens when India got its independence (an exhilarating but also terrifying time since my family lived not all that far from the border with what was then east Pakistan, now Bangladesh, and Hindu/Muslim/Sikh flight and violence across borders wrought chaos in countless lives). He grew up in a half Muslim half Hindu village where people of both faiths honored and respected each other. He lived through Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and her assassination. He lived through the Naxalite rebellions. He lived through communist control of West Bengal. And although he never left India (and I’m not sure he ever left West Bengal), his world always included everywhere from the Antarctic to Zambia. (more…)