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Nonviolence, privilege and grief. Thoughts on South Carolina and a child I love.

Art by Demar Douglas, found on pinterest

Art by Demar Douglas, found on pinterest

This morning I sat down to write a letter to a beloved recent teen in my life, a newly minted thirteen-year-old. We go to protests a lot, and museums where we learn about farm workers and the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement.

This beloved recent teen has been to hell and back, and the amount of resilience that is demanded of her is, to my mind, stupid. By which I really mean unjust. By which I mean I wish I could protect her and it makes me furious that I can’t. And by furious, I mean helpless.

I debated whether to mention the shooting in South Carolina. I debated it because she may not be watching the news these days and I don’t know that it is helpful for her to know about more suffering in the world. Mostly because I don’t want her to have more to be sad about or to be scared of or to hate the world for.

I’ve been reminded recently that it is hard to talk about any issue in a way that speaks to everyone’s lived experience, and when talking about anything related to race, it is that much harder, because we do have the same amount of skin in the game, but the way the game goes does not affect us the same way. (That is, even White people who HATE racism benefit from it, and Black people don’t, and the rest of us have a very complex terrain to navigate.) A great illustration of how privilege and oppression shape our responses to racial issues is that popular Facebook meme about police brutality and Black Lives Matter that reads “Black people are saying ‘STOP KILLING US!’ and White people’s response is ‘But…'”
More recently, though, (more…)

A call to action for the church(es) after #AMEshooting

Generated by  IJG JPEG Library

Generated by IJG JPEG Library

I sat with a lump in my throat as the people around me stood and waved their hands, singing “How Great Is Our God,” because while I believed it to be true, I was not ready to sing it and was both inspired and puzzled by the dozens around me who could not just sing it but feel it. It wasn’t the only internally conflicted moment I had during the local vigil honoring the nine victims killed in an act of terrorism against Black people. And a few of them got me thinking and discussing enough to step out on a limb and speak to White, Black, and immigrant churches about what might be next for us in the wake of this tragedy.

If you read my writing regularly, you’ll know that I try not to instruct communities more on the margins than I, and I try to be compassionate in my suggestions to the White community. You’ll also know my focus is on bringing communities together rather than separating them. But our roles in the coming days of this work to dismantle racism as a whole and specifically the culture and codification of anti-Blackness will mean different things for different communities. So I ask for both grace and accountability as you respond to these reflections and the closest I might ever get to a manifesto:

To White Churches:

When the Black church says, “It could have been any of us,” that doesn’t include you. And it’s important for you to talk about that. At the vigil last night, the AME pastor hosting the vigil said, “so many of us host those prayer groups and bible studies; it could have been any of us.” So often, White people are ashamed to acknowledge explicitly what White privilege looks like. Here’s an easy one: Talk about the fact that you do not have to live in fear of racially motivated hate crimes by random strangers participating in anti-White organizations or fear that you or your children could be assaulted by those who have sworn to serve and protect you, all for the crime of going swimming, whether you live in Texas or Ohio or anywhere between or beyond. White supremacy protects you. You need to break the silence that keeps white supremacy in place. (And don’t even get me started on the argument that this was an attack on Christianity. Manipulative and dangerous irrationale like that is exactly why the Southern Poverty Law Center recently designated Fox News a hate group.)

Remember that your brothers and sisters died in that church this past Wednesday, and ask your congregation how they will honor the deaths of the six sisters and three brothers going forward. These were your brothers and sisters who were part of a church doing work that your church needs to partner in. They were doing God’s work in your behalf: the work of liberating the captive and freeing the prisoner, not just metaphorically but literally. What is your church’s role in partnering in that work so that they do not have to be alone in good doing? In Christ they are as close to you as blood kin; that is what our faith teaches. How will you respond to the race-based killing of your blood kin, and how will you respond to the culture that shaped the murderer to hate and called his hate part of his culture and knew he plotted violence but did not seek to change his heart? Because as Martin Luther King, Jr said of Jimmie Lee Jackson’s murder 50 years ago, the culture of White supremacy killed our nine siblings just as much as the bullets did.

Do not fall prey to the manipulative rhetoric that the church should not be political at a moment like this. The White church is political when it ignores racially motivated hate crimes, when it ignores disparate sentencing for drug offenses, when it ignores mass incarceration, when it turns its head from police brutality in America. The church participates in the politics of White supremacy. It undergirds the politics of anti-Blackness. The political sin of omission is as destructive to lives and souls as the political sin of commission.

To Black Churches:

Editorial addition: A beloved Black clergy friend asked me to make explicit for non-Black people this caveat in case we are not clear that this was my intent: Black people in America walk around everywhere with a target on their back. This was true during slavery, during Jim Crow, and it is true today. Therefore, these are points for reflection with an awareness that the mere act of survival and coming together once or twice a week to love and support each other may be exactly and only what a Black church needs to do to contribute to the movement. With that caveat…

When you say, “It could have been any of us,” pay attention to how that is both true and untrue. Mother Emmanuel AME Church holds a special place of honor in the Black church because of its revolutionary heritage, its commitment to honoring the dignity of Black lives as part of how it lived the gospel. From among many Black churches, on the anniversary of Denmark Vessey’s revolt, a young White supremacist targeted that particular church for attack. None of us should have to live in fear of such an assualt, and there is unquestionably an assault on Black lives in America. But the people at the greatest risk are the people putting their lives on the line for the movement. Last night at the vigil, I did not see the same Black leaders (for the most part) that I have seen in the streets risking arrest and battery and abuse as they fight against police brutality and the stripping away of their civil rights (in Oakland, there is a curfew on gatherings after sundown, but while it was enforced fiercely against nonviolent Black protests, it was not enforced during the impromptu celebration of the Warriors NBA championship win). When the people in the streets and in the strategy meetings are not the same people in the pews, God may have found some new folks to work through, and that is worth paying attention to.

When people say “The Black Church is the only thing that can save America,” no matter how validating it feels, wrestle with how true it is. A Black clergy colleague shared with me as we talked about respectability politics in the church that in Bible study the other day, some of his members started getting high and mighty about gays and lesbians going to hell, and he just sat back, thinking of our mutual shero Alicia Garza and her faithful, powerful, unapologetically queer Black leadership, and he said, “As long as y’all are comfortable being the Pharisees in the scripture, because Jesus was hanging out with exactly the kind of folk you’re always complaining about.” (With profound apologies to any Jewish readers — the church has turned the pharisaical movement into something different than its actual historic role.) Respectability politics has a huge cost to the prophetic legacy of the Black church. And it has a huge cost to the role the Black church will play in saving America. The irony is that the people fighting for change look like the people Jesus hung out with, but they don’t always look like the people the church wants leading at or on behalf of the church.

Honor the legacy of Emmanuel AME in your actions, not just in your words and prayers. That historic church played a role in ending slavery. Rev. Pinckney played a role in standing up against modern day segregation and slavery by serving in political office. That church rose from the ashes when White supremacy burned it to the ground, but it did something that truly threatened White supremacy in order to go through that cycle in the first place. LGBTQ and allied Christians joke, “Live your life so that Westboro Baptist Church will picket your funeral.” In extreme language, at a time when Black lives are threatened daily, would you rather be remembered as martyrs for God’s justice or as victim’s of this nation’s injustice? At the very least, though, how can your church, honoring the legacy of Emmanuel AME, be a threat to White Supremacy?

To Immigrant Churches:

DO NOT OPT OUT. This conversation on its face is so not about us. No one is talking about our role in the shootings or in the conversation about gun control or race. And that is so often the case: we avoid the controversial issues in public, because church is a safe place for us in a world that can be threatening. But church was a safe place for the nine people who were killed on Wednesday, until it wasn’t. Even if we are not being invited into the conversation, even if we would rather not navigate our way through the complicated issues of race where our own role is not always clear, we have an obligation. We have an obligation to understand and share with the rest of our church how Black people in America are treated. It may actually help our churches understand why we get treated the way we do. We have an obligation to honor our Black brothers and sisters in worship on Sunday and to call them brothers and sisters, even though we have also been shaped by the anti-Black culture of America even as we are marginalized also. In fact, honoring them is an important step in shifting our churches’ silence on violence towards Black people, so that we can move towards Christ’s vision of how all of us are equally wonderfully made in the image of God. And it might help us remember that we are wonderfully made in the image of God, also, even though America undermines that teaching. We have an obligation to tell the story of Emmanuel AME, so that we might find strength from their history of courage and faithful resistance to evil and injustice; perhaps we can learn from them how to stand up ourselves against injustice in our adopted land. And we have an obligation to reach out to the Black churches we are connected to, to let them know that we are praying for them and grieving with them, and that as Christians, we are also angry at the sin of racism that took our siblings’ lives. You have no idea how infrequently Black churches hear that message from Asian and Latino churches.

To multicultural churches:

Do not buy into the myth that worshipping together is your contribution to the movement for racial justice. Many multicultural churches are still shaped by dominant culture systems and structures, and multicultural worship often comes at a cost to the people of color who worship there — the cost of getting to be in a space where they can just be themselves without translating themselves into another culture (code switching), or the cost of worshipping in their own language or colloquialisms or their own family foods after worship. They do so willingly. But a multicultural church that is not both brokenhearted and determined to stand up against the culture of racism in America after this shooting, it’s a multicultural church that is not really in touch with God’s vision of the Beloved Community; it is only interested in creating something that makes people feel good…well, makes some people feel good at the expense of others.

To all churches:

Find ways to become “co-conspirators” (as the Dean of American Baptist Seminary of the West said to us last night at the vigil) in ending White supremacy and birminghamthe assault on and commodification of Black lives and Black bodies.

If St. Teresa of Avila is right and Christ has no hands on earth but ours, Christ needs our hands right now, all of our hands, to tear down the White supremacy that really has made us many churches instead of functionally one church. And Christ needs our hands to build up a Beloved Community where all of our gifts are honored, all of our needs are met, none of our bodies are exploited, violated or commodified, and none of us need live in terror or fear because of how God made us.


Race traitors, Rachel Dolezal and Allyship

“So I never really fit in anywhere as a… as a…”

“ a race traitor?” I asked, immediately worrying I had stepped over the line.

“THAT’S IT!!!!” she exclaimed with a mixture of enthusiasm and relief. “That’s what I’ve always been; a race traitor!”

I had just heard my blonde White friend sharing the stories that had made her such a powerful White ally for racial justice, from being told by her elementary school teacher in Texas that she wasn’t allowed to be friends with the Latina girl she had picked out when assigned to make a new friend (and also finding herself friendless when the Latin@ students weren’t in class during harvest season, since she had already marked herself as odd) to discovering that she was allowed to go to her Black friend’s house to play but not the other way around.

And I didn’t make up the term race traitor. While researching for an anti-racism training with a room of almost all White young adults years ago, I had come across a White allies group whose publication was called “Race Traitor Quarterly.” They claimed it as a badge of honor. So, it turned out, did my friend.


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.

Black lives, windows, and good governance

There is a debate over the first amendment and preservation of property in Oakland right now, and the camps are fairly clear:

“I’m tired of seeing my city trashed.”

“Broken windows do not matter more than broken Black bodies.”

The mayor of Oakland recently enforced a sundown restriction on protests (possibly although not necessarily influenced by two SF Chronicle columnists who suggested similar measures after windows were broken, cars were damaged and buildings were tagged in the Auto Row neighborhood). This policy shift (which the mayor indicates is a policy already on the books which she simply chose to enforce) was executed during a peaceful protest to honor the lives of Black women, including Black trans women, who have died due to police brutality. Police also kettled and arrested numerous people (including a planning commissioner) at a protest of the curfew two days later and stood at the ready during the interfaith protest the next night.


Here’s what’s interesting about this issue to me:

Both sides agree with each other. (more…)

“I enjoy being a girl”

or “How Patriarchy unintentionally saved me”

(feel free to listen to this song in the background for inspiration.)

There are a few guys in my circles of radical clergy with a certain public following. I love their tweets and facebook posts because they’re sometimes funny and sometimes biting, and they’re almost always so certain.

Which, for those of you who have known me for a long time know, is exactly how I used to sound.

One of the big ironies of my life is that my biggest bump in with patriarchy is what started me down a path that I wish was available to my incredibly certain brothers: the path into humility in the midst of the righteous cause. (more…)

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