Latest Posts

You can’t go with this or that…you can only go with OTHER

I was on a conference call the other night for the committee that evaluates board nominations for all the different arms of our denomination. Someone was giving his report on the makeup of the NAPAD board (North American Pacific and Asian Disciples), of which I’m a member. He said, “Well, their racial-ethnic percentages are great–almost all Asian American, obviously, and a couple of ‘Others’ and an Anglo.” I didn’t pay much attention–the regional minister who sits on our board is half Latina, and the General Ministry partner is Anglo. Then he said, “Now, they’re almost all in the 50-59 category with practically none in the 30-39 category.”
“Wait a minute,” I thought to myself, “on a board of 12, Cindy and I are both 30-39.” I flipped to the excel spreadsheet he was reading from, and I quickly interrupted, “Um, I’m on this board, and I just want to clarify that I’m still quite a few years from the 40-49 box.”
“That’s when a friend of mine on the conference call said, “And you’re Asian American.”
I looked over. And sure enough: the box that my own community had checked for me was “Other.” (more…)

The clutched purse phenomenon and The Warmth of Other Suns

I pulled my suitcase and my laptop behind me as I walked from Lake Merritt BART station towards home last night. I got to my least favorite part of the walk–a stretch with no businesses, poor lighting, and the highway underpass. A guy crossed the street towards me and I deliberately worked to make my face appear neutral and nonjudgmental.
“Hey! How’s it going?” he said in a voice far too friendly to sound natural as he walked past me, giving me an intentionally wide berth.
“Cool, thanks,” I responded, face still neutral.
That moment played itself out in a sad echo of our nation’s history with race. That guy, with his dreds and his hoodie, knew that an apparently white woman crossing the street at night would assume he was a potential assailant, and he sent every cue he could not to be afraid. And I worked hard to pretend that I wasn’t at all anxious as he crossed the road towards me, but I was thinking to myself, “I have EVERYTHING valuable in that laptop case right now and it’s the easiest thing to steal.” Because in this fragile community, many people are forced to steal and many steal because they can, and many of us of all races walk the streets in fear or don’t walk the streets. (more…)

How do we render visible the invisible?

I can feel it already. You’re going to roll your eyes when I say it. You’re going to think I got it from that movie about tall blue people who live in the rainforest. But it’s true–I think one of the most powerful things we can do for people is to SEE them, to render them visible when the rest of the world ignores, or as the expression goes, “turns a blind eye” to their story, their experience, their troubles.

I spent this weekend talking about the power of telling our stories and listening to one another’s stories without judgment. I have a little experience with people assuming they know who I am before meeting me and then being shocked when we come face to face. And I have a little experience with my community being rendered invisible (or sometimes seeking to make ourselves invisible so we don’t draw undue attention.) It can be rough stuff. (more…)

Not THAT kind of church

Last night I had dinner with a high-ranking naval officer and her wife who works in an optometrist’s office–a mixed race couple–and heard about the challenges of working at Guantanamo Bay from a woman’s perspective. This morning I had breakfast with a teacher and her wife who’s a drummer–also a mixed race couple–who discussed Paulo Freire and liberation theology with me. Later in the morning I had a conversation with a 20-year veteran of the military about the challenges of not being allowed to be honest about his relationship with the man in his life. This afternoon, I sat on the porch with a man whose mixed-race daughter works for poor workers’ rights and got arrested during the protests of Disney hotel workers’ mistreatment. (As an aside, when he and his wife first met, he spoke no Spanish and she spoke no English–it was “Love, Actually,” but for real.) And this evening I talked with a half-marathon runner as another mixed race couple chatted with each other about vacation plans in England.

This weekend, I was at a church retreat. (more…)

What courage looks like

I can’t believe it was two years ago that I went, a little nervous about what my role was, to support a few kitchen crew members who had been locked out of the Castlewood Country Club for holding on to their right to health benefits. I didn’t yet know that in the previous year, management had boasted record earnings in their annual report. I didn’t yet know that the newly hired manager had expressed a commitment to eliminated the union from the country club (in writing, in a document that showed up in the recycling–really? If you’re going to antagonize the cleaning crew, you don’t think you should shred the evidence?). I knew that times were tough, jobs were hard to come by, and some of these workers might not have papers. It felt a little like they were pushing the envelope.

Fortunately they understood their own worth far better than I did.

Sarah from local 2850 invited me and a layperson from a nearby Unitarian church to sit down with one of the workers to hear her story. It was the story of a hard worker who had no problems in the eight years she had worked there, who was appreciated by the members and the rest of the staff. I would later learn it was also the story of a woman who had just three weeks before agreed to adopt several children in need, not realizing that she would be losing her income and her health care. During a record-breaking earnings year.

Her story and the stories of other workers have inspired me over the past two years. (Here’s one of those amazing stories: http://ireneflorez.wordpress.com/2011/02/25/castlewood/) What inspires me more is their willingness to meet verbal abuse with human decency, even when club members have spat at them for “tearing up families” (because some won’t cross the picket line while others will). They’re willing to point out that their families are being torn apart because they are asking for basic human decency, and things like health care which all the club members who pay over $20,000 just to join (plus monthly dues) take for granted. Over these past two years, they have been a Christlike presence for the movement in two different ways: like Christ, they have endured and stayed committed to the struggle for justice. And also like Jesus they have not backed down, but they have stood strong while retaining their inner dignity by not stooping to the level of the management (or some of the club members). It’s worth noting some of the members have stood in support of the workers, and they have been blackballed from the decision-making process.

Every worker deserves to know that when they work hard, they and their children will not have to worry about health care. These workers, despite mistreatment and sheer malice by people who could easily have afforded them this basic right, have stood strong. I hope to learn from their courage.

On Saturday morning, make time to stand with these courageous workers:
http://endthelockout.org/

Finding home (or, A million different Occupies)

I attended my very first Occupy the Hood meeting tonight.

It’s not like I was unaware of the movement–my co-pastor and I expressed enthusiasm and concern about Occupy Oakland almost simultaneously almost from the beginning, and when we read this article http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2011/10/occupy_the_hood.php in October, we were pretty sure this was where we belonged.

But then we (or at least I) got caught up in the ups and downs of the Occupy Oakland ocean–joy at the experience of thousands of people filling the streets for the November action, horror at the mistreatment of protesters, disappointment as the movement became more about a particular space than about people in this community who barely have a passing connection to City Hall, dismay at the disregard by organizers for the stated needs of laborers prior to the port shutdown in December, rage at the outright illegal actions of the Oakland Police Department on January 28 followed by almost equal rage at the remarkable number of arrestees who did not place their single experience of police brutality in the context of decades of a broken police system that misuses great cops and perpetuates a longtime gap between cops and community. (more…)

Where we locate ourselves

It’s probably no surprise that I’m starting out this series of blog posts with a reflection by Malcolm Gladwell, on whom I have a semi-secret crush. (As an aside, this crush really irritated my ex-boyfriend, who bore a striking resemblance to Gladwell when his hair grew out.)

Gladwell wrote a piece over 15 years ago about the success of Jamaican immigrants in his family and how they contrasted themselves from African Americans. [Here’s the link: http://www.gladwell.com/1996/1996_04_29_a_black.htm]

At the end of the article, he notes that just a few hundreds miles north of his New Jersey family, Jamaicans in Toronto are looked upon as crime-prone instead of as model business owners. The reason, he suggests, is that Jamaicans were the first significant contact Torontonians had with Black people, so there was no African American group with whom to contrast them.

For many of us who are neither White nor African American in this country, there is a complicated dance in which we engage, usually without even realizing it. We claim our territory–our social location–because it is a little fluid. And very often, because we’ve believed the stereotypes about both groups, we work at locating ourselves as “not there with them.” We do it because we want to fly under the radar. We do it because we don’t know the whole story about how race was formed in this country and think that we stand outside that narrative instead of being coopted by it. We do it because that ignorance means we really do think we’re different.

Malcolm Gladwell’s story challenges all of our social location “choices,” though, by reminding us that the exact same group of people can have one social location (upwardly mobile small business owners) in New Jersey and have a completely different one 500 miles north (“crime and dissipation”). It is not our exceptionalism that sets us apart; it is where we’ve been placed in the narrative before we even arrived on these shores.

I remember sitting in an anti-racism training a couple of years ago with a young Asian American man, and when we started talking about stereotypes, he said, “Yeah, but what’s wrong with being stereotyped as being good at math and being hard working and disciplined?”

I think Malcolm Gladwell might have said that what’s wrong with it is that it comes at the expense of other marginalized communities. After a few years of doing anti-racism work specifically in the church, I might add that it robs everyone of being who they really are. Many of my White friends don’t believe they have a culture. They’ve been robbed of that identity because the one thing they are is White. Many of my Asian American friends remain stuck in mid-level positions because no matter how gifted they are, their society has deemed that they do not have gifts for higher level leadership. All of our identities are misshaped by the narrative we’re placed in. And it sometimes feels like we have no control over that narrative.

Gladwell pushes us by reminding us that our comfort with the social location chosen for us can come at the expense of others. And it comes at a cost to us, because it limits us from being our whole, full selves. So instead, we can choose–we can choose intentional solidarity, and redefining that social location. It’s hard, and we have to do it over and over because every person we meet will unintentionally impose the old narrative on us.

But I think of an amazing activist friend of mine. He’s active in the Asian American community in the Bay Area, and the first time we met, we found out we were both “hapa,” or biracial. He’s half Japanese and half Black. I said to him I thought it was really unusual that he identified as Asian American. And he explained that his mother had survived the Japanese internment camps in the US during World War II and realized her solidarity lay with the Black community that understood her experience of always being “other.” His Asian American identity was a strong, militant identity borne of solidarity with oppressed peoples. And he has to redefine that social location and that distinct way of being Asian American every day for people who think they already know what Asian American is.

But every day he chooses that location. He chooses that identity. He chooses that solidarity. And every one of us, Jamaican, Asian, White and Black, can choose to do the same. May it be so.