The Place of Privilege in the Kingdom of God

school lunch

We don’t know what we don’t know—

unless our eyes are opened.

A first realization: the cafeteria lunch ticket.

It was on display for all to see when I handed it to the lunch lady. No way to be discrete. Its bright color marked me as eligible for a free lunch. Sometimes sheer embarrassment over being known as poor kept me from eating lunch. My free lunch ticket, a stigma. Of course if I were really hungry, and knew I’d return home to an empty refrigerator when I stepped off of the school bus, I swallowed my pride and presented the lunch ticket.

Another indication.

Upon returning from Puerto Rico in fifth grade, someone asked me if I was black.

Until then, I didn’t know I looked different from others even though now I am a bleached out Puerto Rican—blanquita . And I didn’t know I had an accent until my best friend’s mother told me I did. Now, I am told I have no accent.

But it was as an employee at a Christian college that I became acutely aware of the economic, cultural, and racial disparity in my environments.

After Brenda Salter-McNeil, a thought leader in the area of racial reconciliation, led a large room full of people in an activity dubbed the Race Race, everything made sense. The starting line was masking tape laid down across the middle of the room. Dr. Salter-McNeil asked a series of questions. Questions like: “Did you go to summer camps?”, “Did your parents attend college?”, “Did you qualify for free and reduced lunches?”, “Are you a woman?”, and “Are you an ethnic minority?” Our answers determined whether we took steps forward or backwards.

At the end of fifty questions, I was at the back of the room with one of my best friends, an African-American woman. Dead last. Way behind the starting line, not to mention the finish line.

The winners of the Race Race? White males. They were up front with their hands in the candy jar—an iconic symbol of the bountiful privilege they were born into and experienced but did not earn.

When everyone turned to see who was last, I stood there humiliated. This time my answers to the questions, not my lunch ticket, exposed me as a have not.

Until then, I had no idea how underprivileged I was. I thought I was doing well. However, my ethnicity, gender, and economic status of my family of origin were not under my control but affected everything. I was born into last place.

Until that moment, I didn’t know it.

But that day, I realized that even with my graduate education and ability to think, I was still on society’s, and the American church’s, low end of the totem pole (even though by then I had learned many of the hidden rules of the Middle-class).

No wonder I’ve often felt like a misfit.

Indeed, I used to despair over my lot in life, over the hand that I was dealt. I often begged God to explain why the cards were stacked against me as a Hispanic-Latina woman born into a poor family that was plagued by the effects of mental illness.

I used to despair, but no longer. I finally realized that the gospel is especially good news for the poor, people on the lowest rungs of society. Though I am haunted by the effects of generational poverty, in many ways, I am rich.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:3 (KJV).

People like me and my kind may be deemed poor and stupid, and not worthy of a second glance. Not worthy to be anybody’s teacher. But if our poverty and deprivation produce in us a poverty of spirit, if our humiliations produce in us humility and dependence upon God, then we shall be exalted now—in our lives with God—and in the life to come.

“These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word”, Isaiah 66:2 tells us.

See, I can now rejoice.

I am starting to deeply believe that Jesus can use me, my life, my humiliations, and engagement with Scripture, theology, and Church history to teach the Church. Maybe I’ll be one in a long line of the foolish and weak ones in the world that God uses to confound the supposedly wise (1 Corinthians 1:27). Because really, I have no thing, nothing at all in which to boast, except that by God’s grace and mercy, I am coming to know and understand him better (see Jeremiah 9:23-24).

It’s not just white Upper and Middle-class male theologians and pastors that God favors.

My lack of privilege doesn’t disqualify me from kingdom work. God sees and acknowledges me (Genesis 16:13). So, I am throwing my lot in with the Virgin Mary, with Jesus, and the others who by the world’s standards, are disinherited. With her and with them I marvel and sing:

My soul glorifies the Lord

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has been mindful

of the humble state of his servant.

From now on all generations will call me blessed,

for the Mighty One has done great things for me—

holy is his name.

(Luke 1:46-49)

Amen.

Asian. American. Christian. Woman.

photo-1433170854238-8828efbab416I walk each day as an Asian-American Christian woman drifting between four separate worlds (Asian. American. Christian. Woman.). These worlds often have opposing values affecting my mindset, responses and how I make decisions.

I grew up in Boulder, CO one of a handful of Asian-Americans. At the age of nine, I accompanied my dad, producer and director for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, to the rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet. He mentioned in passing I would never play the lead role of Juliet because I was Chinese. His words confirmed what I already knew as a young girl: how I looked meant people would treat me differently. I wanted more than anything to fit in. I’d scan the shelves at toy stores or look through magazines and textbooks, but no one looked like me.

Tension found in the Asian-American world comes through conflicting values. Eastern values include: concern for keeping face, group oriented, hierarchy, and a high view of authority. What we do reflects on to others. Kim Yu-na, gold medal Olympic ice skater wrote in an essay about the pressures she faced, “If my performance fails, the whole nation may turn their back on me.” Western values include: individuality, personal achievement, independence and self-actualization.

If you take a peach and cross it with a plum, you get a nectarine. A nectarine is a unique fruit; neither peach nor plum but pulls traits from both. I live the tension between worlds, drawing traits from both.

The other worlds with often conflicting values is that of being a Christian woman. While my dad had expressed certain things I couldn’t do, both my parents were considered “open-minded.” They encouraged me to set my aspirations high so as a young girl I set out to be the first woman on the moon or the first Asian American woman President of the United States. I found myself in various leadership positions in clubs and student government. At the age of 12, I labeled myself a feminist. As a panel discussion leader, I had my girlfriends run into the classroom waving their mother’s bras screaming, “Burn your bras, equal rights for women!!” Women, in my mind, were capable, strong leaders and men had better beware because we were on our way to taking over. I believed in my heart and tried to live out in my life the song “Anything you can do, I can do better” when relating with men. Competition and pride described my posture toward men.  A subconscious drive to prove my worth fueled the drive to produce more than a man as my Asian culture emphasized (and still emphasizes today) the value of boys over girls. Confucius teaching stressed the three obediences for a woman: when a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband; when a widow, obey your son.

However, after becoming a Christian and being influenced by certain Christian authors, I swung from my strong feminist beliefs clear to the opposite side. After graduating and entering my first years in full time ministry, I found myself sharing with the men on my staff team about my “conviction” on women not initiating. I would never call them on the phone and would only return calls–even ministry related business calls. I believed I needed to turn down and even turn off my gifts of leadership at times in order not to take any potential male’s rightful place of leading.

This idea of women as inferior made sense to me at that time. It fit my Asian cultural grid of the value of men over women, and just like I couldn’t find Asian Barbies or models, I couldn’t find Asian-American Christian women in leadership. No one who looked like me could be found on conference brochures or on Christian bookstore shelves.

Exposure to a wider pool of believers in my 30’s expanded my understanding of how walking with God did not fit a cookie cutter formula. I met incredible, godly women, whose lives included divorce, recovery from addiction, teenagers who turned away from the Lord, depression, and women who had the role of primary breadwinners for the family. I began evaluating my views on various issues, and decided to investigate why God created women and how culture fit into what I saw in the Word. I started reading books and articles written by people outside my paradigm, I joined a 12 step group, and each step of the way the Lord brought along people to encourage me in the journey.

In my forties, I found books written by Carolyn Custis James liberating. Her description of the ezer warrior resonated deeply. For the first time I felt free to live out who God created me to be–especially in the area of leadership. This call to contribute to kingdom building also included a high view of men and a posture of respect for them, and so instead of competing or disappearing, I moved toward linking arms with men in serving the God who created us equally valuable to His work.

I believe our picture of God is made fuller when we include the voice and viewpoint of both women and men. In the same way, our understanding of who God is deepens through racial and cultural diversity. Our differences offer a broader, richer view of the infinite and creative God we serve.

I am still on a journey discovering who God is and who and how He created me, but now with awareness of how my worlds influence who I am and how I lead. In God’s economy nothing is wasted. I continue to read, study, and dialogue with men and women over the issues of leadership, culture, and Scripture. I am grateful for my husband, and other good men like him, who have sought to hear my voice. I am grateful for God’s commitment to walk with me as I sift through life, culture, the Scriptures and the way I view who He is and how to live to honor Him.

Striving to Embrace Our Multi-Ethnic Community

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One morning as I scanned my church email, most of the names and subject lines were familiar. Our guest speaker for the coming Sunday had sent her sermon title. Our music coordinator wanted to discuss the worship flow and congregational singing. Our denominational office had sent the usual weekly email of announcements and prayer requests. But then I saw an email from a name I didn’t recognize, and given the subject line, I just had to open it first: “Racism in the Fraser Valley Church?”

With a population of over 140,000, the city of Abbotsford where I live is the largest city in the Fraser Valley. The city has over 100 churches, from new church plants and house churches to mega-churches with multiple services and multiple staff. My church is mid-size—at an average worship attendance of 220, we’re small enough and have grown gradually enough that I still know every member by name, but we’re also big enough to get lost in and be fairly anonymous on a Sunday morning if that’s what someone is looking for.

When the church started, over 35 years ago, the 40 founding members of primarily Russian-Mennonite background chose Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:19-20 as their key Scripture: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Over the years, those words have proven to be prophetic, as the church now has members from many nations besides Canada, including Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam, Kenya, Iran, and other countries.

When we worked on our church profile a number of years ago, one of our initial drafts described our church as a multi-cultural congregation. “But we’re not there yet,” one of our members pointed out. While we do include other-than-English languages in worship, that tends to be on special occasions like Peace Vespers, Christmas, and Easter, and not as often from Sunday to Sunday. We’re still learning what it means to respect and include different songs, different ways of offering, different ways of relating to one another. And so we say we’re a church striving to embrace our multi-cultural and multi-ethnic community.

The opening paragraph of the email seemed to recognize our intention as a congregation, for it started with a compliment: “Your church immediately stands out as interesting and different; I am curious if you know of any active programs to combat racism in the Fraser Valley Church, which I believe is rampant.”

The sender gave some of her own background, and then went on to list over a dozen painful observations from her experience with churches in the area, from condescending comments to race-based jokes and favoritism. Yet, she wrote, “no one wants to admit there is a problem. . . . I think people should delight and enjoy their ethnic backgrounds; however, these backgrounds should not be used to exclude others–there should be respect and equality.”

I wrote her back: “Thank you for your email and raising this concern which I also share. I am very sorry for the examples you list, as they only serve to shut people out rather than demonstrating the love of God and inviting people toward Christ.” I went on to tell her more about our congregation and the ways we’re seeking to build a healthy multi-ethnic community across racial and cultural lines. At the same time, I told her that I realize it is “a modest start—the attitudes you outline are persistent, and we still have much growing to do.” While her examples were drawn from specific churches in the Fraser Valley, similar things could have taken place in any number of churches anywhere, including my own.

More recently, I’ve been reading a number of articles and Twitter conversations that make a case against multi-ethnic churches as spaces of continuing colonization, as requiring disproportionate sacrifice on the part of people of colour, as unhealthy multi-ethnic plantations. The strong language makes me wince, and I almost feel embarrassed to be the pastor of a multi-ethnic congregation lest I be seen as colluding with colonizers and oppressors.

And yet, for me in Canada on the west coast, race seems more complex and more nuanced than the binary black-minority-and-white-majority paradigm that seems to dominate so much of the discourse in the United States. My city of Abbotsford is the third most ethnically diverse city in Canada after the much larger Toronto and Vancouver. 23% of the population is of South Asian origin. In nearby Vancouver, 43% of residents have an Asian heritage. Canadian multi-culturalism officially adopted as government policy in the 1970s and 1980s is reflected in my community today. In a recent conversation with a new immigrant from Korea who attends a Korean church in the city, when I tried to describe my congregation with people from many different backgrounds, she immediately said, “oh I see, you pastor a Canadian church.” For her, a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural setting is part of what it means to be Canadian.

Yes, there are challenges that come with being a multi-ethnic congregation. Yes, there is racism in our community and in the church as my email writer pointed out. And yes, I do think we need to be challenged so we don’t become an unhealthy, multi-ethnic church plantation. But being a multi-ethnic church also makes sense in my Canadian multi-ethnic suburban/urban context. I believe it’s also God’s vision for the church–for many people to become God’s people, for all nations to be drawn together as disciples of Jesus.

As for my email writer, well, we’re still in conversation about how we might continue to address our concern for racism and diversity in the church in the Fraser Valley. And in my congregation, we’re still striving to embrace our multi-ethnic community.

One Small Square

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The sigh was collective. Weighted with a tangible disappointment it was all we could do to make space for it as we gathered after class one day. Numerous stories of police violence against Black women were being highlighted within the national consciousness and our emotions were all over the place. Female members of the student body were planning some intentional time to lament over the mounting frustration we faced. It would be a time of healing and restoration – the kind of sister love we all needed.

But I didn’t go. And neither did a handful of my midlife cohorts. I can’t speak for them, but I was tired. I’d long given up shouting and self-care didn’t work for me if it was just another appointment on my calendar.  I didn’t want to sit in a circle to remember any of it. No slavery, no history of brutality and racism. No oppression. No rehashing of slave songs. Just no.

My rebellion had grown quiet. My fight and fire …. gone.

It’s difficult to describe the state of limbo I found myself in. In the predominantly white communities I inhabit online and as a homeschooler, no one talked about Trayvon or Jordan. They didn’t seem to feel the fear or risk attached to the conversations I couldn’t afford to dismiss. For them, privilege was the offering of a free pass. They simply didn’t have to.

Part disenchantment, part disembodied disbelief, my personal purgatory was filled with sorrow over a clock that wouldn’t move or worse yet, a clock turned back. I couldn’t make sense of this new life where the spaces I usually entered with ease suddenly dripped a polarization you could feel. Either I felt like a lit match in a room full of explosives or the elephant you danced around. Each of these spaces begged the conversation no one dared begin. Balancing the tension of this reality was exhausting.

When Michael Brown was shot in the summer of 2014, things shifted. I lost, found, and lost hope in a country I wanted to love. This was a country whose foundational principles and wealth were bred in an insidious mix of genocide, slavery, lynchings and rape. Current tensions are a direct result of an ugly story, a story that happened and demands revelation. America can no longer look away. Confronting my own denial about this was numbing.

Since then an unarmed boy of color was killed for playing with a toy gun and a brown girl in a bikini was flung and bent like a rag doll under the knee of authority. I had more questions than my faith could hold and my mother’s heart broke trying to shield my children from a truth they deserved.

The walk toward freedom seems to be at a standstill, the road too long. Keeping my feelings about race and the growing climate of unrest in America separate, my willingness to engage in public spaces a private affair reserved only for family –  had become a tool of survival. I couldn’t move because doing so would require retrieval and re-membering of all those pieces. It was too much.

Where once like Dubois, I rose above the clouds to claim the life I wanted by keeping a distance from it all – watch me my life screamed, watch me live the joy you attempt to deny – I now felt too weary for flight.

 

I’d grown quiet. How could I have tired of the movement?

 

I couldn’t hear nobody pray

Couldn’t hear nobody pray

Way down yonder by myself

And I couldn’t hear nobody pray

 

I’d bought a bootleg version of the dream – the one where the dust has settled and we’re all instantly living and learning in love. Race was a thing of the past – or so they said. We have a Black president and Black women are everywhere. We’re educated and vocal. We are the daughters of Coretta and Sister Betty, Rosa and Maya. We are Oprah, Shonda and Michelle. If nothing else I believed the woman with children card I carried would keep me reasonably safe. Had it been revoked – and what about my daughters? I knew about “the talk”. I’d already begun the painful dialogue with my teen-aged son – but my daughters too? The stories frightened me.  I worried over the ease in which a simple confrontation could flip. Who were the officers in my neighborhood? How much of the current climate of fear played a part in fueling these events?

This version of the dream forgot reconciliation as a healing precursor to the reality of a beloved community. Without we would fail. Without it we find ourselves here.

There’s a difference between contemplative silence and a quiet birthed from fear. I found myself knotted up in the latter and afraid to admit it. It’s the kind of quiet that kills and makes hope a commodity you think you can’t afford. It’s also easier, but would never lead to the kind of redemption I sought. It was time to still my silence, unleash the internal verbal parrying to the page as prayer – to move forward in courage.

A reawakening happened as I zeroed in on the heartbeat of my everyday world. Surely I could handle one small square. Using a teaching technique that’s worked well with my children, I leaned into the specifics of my piece of the quilt – my portion. I got clear on the questions I needed to answer. Who do I want to be to my family and community? How do I want to show up in the faith communities I’m called to and how I can I align myself with the gathering of courageous ordinary people doing the work of justice in their daily lives?

With my eyes and heart fixed on every detail of the landscape I couldn’t see the hopeful steps being taken right in front of me. The pastor at my church publicly acknowledges the complexity and sorrow behind the latest headlines. I’ve watched more of my online world wake up to the reality of racism in America. I’m remembering the timeless theology of Negro spirituals and a posh church nearby gathered 60 members of their predominantly white congregation to attend a rally in Harlem. Looking smaller and deeper helped me imagine alternatives and opened space to be inspired by the work happening around me. This, is the hope I hold on to.

 

I feel like going on,

I feel like going on

Though trials they may come on every hand

Oh I feel like feel like going on

 

Tending to my one small square helped me wake up to the hope of what is possible in community. Hope for me is remembering all the things we thought couldn’t happen – but did. It’s remembering that as challenging as it may be I am living “the dream and the hope of the slave.” It’s my job to make sure I stay hopeful enough to dream – to keep the radical dream of love alive.

Justice and love work together to heal collective as well as personal trauma – a trauma lived by everyday warriors like me. The setbacks and heart wrenching stories sit in and on our bones – slowly, painfully, certainly. My fear was born of a broken heart and I didn’t know how to be that publicly. By the time I heard the cry for communal care, I’d already shut down. Only through grace was I unraveled and remade, poured into and rewoven. Each wound bound, my soul – mended. But it took reflection, prayer – time.

If I embrace the truth, the whole truth – it becomes part of my healing. And just like the spirituals I wanted to move from – as fast and as far as I could, I know now to be part of my power. Sung down deep in the pit of my soul they soften the hard things. They are the gift of beauty for ashes, a theology of suffering that’s lovingly cradled our story for centuries. The terrible beautiful things inform who I am. The struggle, in its undoing, makes me whole.

 

There Are No Experts

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I listened carefully as the man in the center of the room, a well-respected black civil rights activist, shared about his years of experience in community organizing and advocacy.

Then he said a word that made my insides clench in shock: “Orientals.”

I hoped it was a slip of the tongue. Surely a longtime native of Los Angeles, where every one out of ten residents was Asian, wouldn’t mean to say that.

But then, with a calculating gaze, the man looked at my coworkers Liz and Karen, and me. Out of the two dozen people there, we were the only Asian Americans in the room.

“You, come here.” The man pointed at Liz. His voice wasn’t rude, but it wasn’t polite either. He expected Liz to comply.

After a moment’s hesitation, she stepped into the middle of the room. She looked perfectly composed, but I had known her long enough to see the wariness in her eyes.

“Where are you from?” the civil rights activist asked. He peered at her through his glasses; his salt and pepper hair glistened under the fluorescent lights.

It was the question that every Asian American has heard hundreds of times. The question that sets us apart as foreign and different, as individuals who can never be considered truly American.

But that question wasn’t supposed to be asked here. Not by this man, and not in front of this group of people.

“I grew up in the Bay Area,” Liz replied coolly.

“No, where are you from? Where were you born?” He tried again, impatience creeping into his voice.

“Berkeley.” She met stubbornness with stubbornness, a tactic I had often used before.

“What about your parents? Where are they from?”

“California and Hawaii.”

“What about their parents?”

I waited for someone to politely but firmly put a stop to this. No one moved.

With another group of people, such intervention might have been too much to expect. But these individuals—black, brown, and white—were our fellow laborers for social justice. We worked for the same nonprofit that had been founded on values of equality and empowerment. We trained other people on issues of race and privilege. We were supposed to be the experts, the ones who knew all the right things to say about communities of color and social change and the power of unity in diversity.

But at this moment, no one had anything to say. No one, it seemed, had any idea what to do. Unspoken questions wove themselves through the tension in the room: Who are we to challenge a man like this, a hero in his community? Isn’t he supposed to be even more of an expert on race relations than we are?

When Liz eventually admitted she had an ancestor from Japan, the man crowed, “That’s right,” as if she had finally answered correctly after many failed attempts. He turned to Karen. “You,” he said with that same commanding voice. “Come here.”

I wanted to say something before I was called up to be interrogated. I wanted to refuse when the man pointed a wrinkled finger at me and told me to step into the middle of the circle—apart, strange, unequal from my black and white brethren. But my voice had disappeared the moment this man began singling out the Asians for humiliation and no one defended us. Even among social justice advocates, there were those who had power and those who did not.

When the man had gotten the answer he wanted—“My parents are from Hong Kong,” I confessed, as if it was a crime—he turned to his captive audience and gave a rambling lesson on why we “Orientals” were so peculiar.

I couldn’t bear to listen. I focused instead on my own shallow breathing as I looked down at the carpet. Shame curled around my chest.

Still, none of our colleagues said anything. In the heat of the moment, our collective expertise had failed us.

And yet, as I stood there like a specimen on display, the last thing I needed was an expert to explain the complex dynamics of race, gender, age, and group think that were at play. What I really needed was a friend. I needed someone to acknowledge the deep hurt I was feeling. I needed someone to challenge me to extend grace and forgiveness to this man. I needed someone who would extend the same grace and forgiveness to me when I inevitably said or did something insensitive or hurtful—because, truly, we all fall short of understanding the lived experiences of those who aren’t like us.

There is no such thing as an expert on race, no such thing as a person who holds no stereotypes and always intervenes to stop an injustice. Even an illustrious, decades-long career in civil rights is not enough to form an individual who can embrace people of all colors equally.

The next day, when a colleague finally got around to asking me how I felt about what had happened, I fell back on the same tired, smart-sounding words. I blabbered something about recommitting to diversity within our organization and taking up the mantle to help my colleagues understand the Asian American experience.

Yet even as I said it, the words sounded hollow. I wasn’t an expert on race—mine or anybody else’s—and I never would be. The greater work, I was realizing, was learning to be a friend. To listen first. To speak words of affirmation. To practice receiving and extending an abundance of grace, for none of us will get it right all the time.

Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is an award-winning writer and editor who has found healing and hope through words. She writes the Personal Effects column for Inc.com and contributes regularly to Christianity Today, Her.meneutics, The Well, and Asian American Women on Leadership. Previously she worked as a nonprofit and social enterprise professional in the US and Asia. Dorcas lives in the San Francisco Bay Area but is currently enjoying an extended stay in Kenya with her husband and adorable hapa son.

Image credit: Pham Khoai

A Meeting Place

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I’ve had this image in my mind since I was a little girl; it’s of my grandmothers meeting for the first time. I imagine them meeting in a liminal space, an in-between place where neither of them have ever been. They find a small cluster of metal patio furniture that make up a café of sorts. It sits atop a bridge with a smooth river beneath.

Grandma wears an Eileen Fisher ensemble with gray and green tones to match her eyes. Her shoes are the wedges she wore all over Paris, when she took me at sixteen. She had waited her whole life to go, and when the doctor thought she might have liver cancer, he told her to. Her makeup was done before she came, sitting on her white couch while watching Murder, She Wrote and is finished off with the Chanel lipstick I bought her.

Abuela has regained her sight, which she lost toward the end of her life from undiagnosed diabetes. She walks toward the table with a sense of ease; her thirteen children are nowhere to be found, and she gets to be served for once. A lavender and blue floral dress is covered with her apron; she’s just come from cooking lunch. Her hands still have masa on them from the fresh tortillas and she smells of warm rice steeped in tomato sauce. A long gray braid falls down her back. She greets my grandma with a kiss on each cheek.

A waiter comes and they both order black coffee. They look across the table, and instead of this being the momentous event that I’ve imagined, they speak in a common tongue as if they have known each other for years. It’s not English or Spanish, but something in between, something full of warm sounds. Laughter is a word used in every sentence.

It’s clear they are telling each other their life stories. Abuela talks about what it was like to grow up in a small desert town in Mexico. Grandma talks about what it was like to work as a woman in the Chicago stock market in the 70s and 80s. Both of them share secrets with one another, valuable lessons of life, insights or realizations they never told anyone else.

This meeting is a way for me to see my identity. Instead of pitting my white privilege against my Latinaness, instead of fighting my colonizer as the colonized, instead of arguing about which side of a wall I should be on, I imagine coffee between two women who never met.

My identity is complex and my race/ethnicity/culture cannot be forced in a box. And neither can yours. My identity must start with two women who never met sitting down at a table in a liminal space where they both order black coffee. Their differences are interesting; their stories create a symphony between their voices. Laughter has never been louder and a smile never more contagious then with these two: Elisa and Joanne.

For too long I have seen my identity as painful. But when can it be beautiful?

My Abuela died ten years ago in the early hours of Good Friday. I was sixteen. My parents went to Mexico to see her before she died. I went to stay with my Grandma. I remember sadness in her voice when I came into her apartment. We sat down on her white couch and she told me that my Abuela had passed away.

My Grandma has been recently diagnosed with brain cancer, and all she wants is to be at my wedding in less than a month. We believe that she will be there and live past that happy day. My tears have been overflowing and my anger overwhelming, but it comforts me to have them meet in the borderland in my mind because it feels as though I am meeting myself.

In her book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Gloria Anzaldúa writes,

“A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition.”[1]

This is where they would meet. In a place that is confusing and overflowing with too much emotion. Their meeting place has a common language and lots of coffee. They meet in me, in the midst of my own borderland as I move from being single to married, and as I continue to learn what it means to be Mexican American, while also being an American of Norwegian descent.

I’m named after both of my grandmothers. It has been a symbol of my identity. I live in the turbulence of my own borderland. In the past it has been painful to live in a liminal space, but with my grandmothers there, I think I could learn to like it.

Elyssa Joanne Salinas

 

[1] (Anzaldua 1987), 25.

 

Coming of Age in This American Life

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As a girl, I learned about racism from my white father. He taught me it was evil which was the exact opposite of his upbringing where racism was as natural as a Carolinian drawl and black eyed peas with salty cured ham hocks and collard greens. 

His blonde haired blue-eyed roots were soaked in white supremacy, fertilized by poverty and lack of education, deep south segregation, and his mother telling him not to come home if he ever got caught playing with a n*$#@!% kid again. His kin found comfort in the promise that no matter how poor and wrong sides of the tracks his bloodlines were, at least they weren’t like those blacks. 

He was a dirt poor South Carolina boy who filled his jaw with a hunger for more than his childhood could provide. For some reason hating never came easy to him. He choked on it more than he swallowed it whole. 

So just as he taught me to eat fried okra and salted grits with a yellow pat of butter melting in the center and sprinkled liberally with black pepper, he also taught me about the evils of a hating heart. 

I grew up hearing stories of his childhood with a mix of horror and fascination. I believed racism was black and white and mostly over. I believed in the courage and cost of the Civil Rights Movement. 

They had fought the good fight and won. 

I believed white supremacy was good ol’ boys in white hoods, ignorant individuals filled with hate and draped in confederate flags. It was slavery and Jim Crow, it was unjust laws no longer on the books. 

It was like that back then, but I believed we’d learned our lessons and moved on as a country.

As a girl, I learned about racism from my half Japanese-half Korean mother. She taught me about the Japanese Americans interned in their own country. Roots pulled from their homes and gardens and tossed aside wilting and strangled in Manzanar and Tule Lake by their own government.  To white Americans they were seen as suspicious foreigners whose allegiances could never be assured because of their strange looks and shifty eyes, traces of a mother tongue, or chopsticks tapping against the side of their rice bowls like some sort of treacherous morse code. 

I learned by the slant of our eyes or the curves of our faces we are plagued by otherness.

My mother taught me to eat kim chee and spam, bulgogi and kalbi and saimin with slices of pink and white kamaboko fish cake layered and sprinkled with the tips of green onion. Panko fried chicken sliced over a bed of cabbage and drizzled with Tonkatsu sauce. We celebrated with blue and white asian bowls filled with steaming mandu soup and bibim guksu on New Years Eve. But we also barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs on the fourth of July and ate hot buttered corn on the cob alongside plastic tubs of store bought potato salad waiting for the adults to help us light Black Cats and Roman Candles.

We lived in the suburbs, we were as American as they come. Just as American as those who had been interned. Just as American as those that had been enslaved and oppressed. 

I believed we had learned our lesson and moved on as a country. 

I lit my sparkler and watched it light up the blackest night.

II.

We’d call cute boys while nervously winding the loops of the cord around our fingers as we giggled and whispered to each other what to say. Going out with a boy meant passing a note in class with, “Will you go out with me?” in loopy cursive and a check box with yes, no, maybe. And if he checked yes, it meant next to nothing until someone dramatically broke up by having a friend say it’s not working out, at which point you’d cry about love and broken hearts. 

We’d convene an emergency sleepover and listen to Roxette’s It Must Have Been Love But It’s Over Now from the mixed tape we made by sitting next to our stereo until the song came on the radio and then frantically pushing play/record hoping we didn’t miss the beginning. 

We’d scoop Noxzema from the blue jar and slather it over our faces like we were icing a cake. We’d inspect our zits in the mirror and open up our Caboodles to trade Bonne Bell Lipsmackers in strawberry and cherry cola. 

We’d ransack cupboards eating Lays potato chips and pepperoni hot pockets. We listened to Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, while dreaming of which New Kid on the Block we’d marry. We watched MTV when our parent’s weren’t home. We imagined what it would be like to get our first kiss. 

We flipped though Seventeen magazine and admired the model’s hairstyles and makeup. Nikki and Krissi Taylor stared back with their signature all-American good looks. All blonde hair, sun kissed skin and dazzling white teeth. 

I never felt more white than when I was at a sleepover at a friend’s house. I was just another American kid growing up in the early 90’s. 

Except I wasn’t. 

My mother told me I was beautiful. I was lucky I had double eyelids she said as she bemoaned her own smooth creaseless skin and remembered her classmates folding their monolids under eyelid tape to create a coveted double lid. I never thought to ask why she despised her own beautiful face. And when people would say I looked just like her, I wondered if she had lied to me about my beauty because there was no one in Seventeen or on television that looked even remotely like me. I never wondered why monolids made someone’s reflection seem so terrible, I just assumed it must be true.

III.

Life was technicolor and coming of age in a colorblind society was what we did in those days. Nothing said coming of age like John Hughes’ movies. 

I wasn’t allowed to watch Dirty Dancing so I rooted for Molly Ringwald instead. We all wanted to be like her because she always got the guy and the pink dress and the kiss. 

Her angst and awkwardness spoke to our place in the world, our sense of belonging in the hierarchy of tweenage-dom. She was the poster girl for girls like me, who struggled to fit into any one group, who were moody and sensitive and so misunderstood. Who wanted to be popular but didn’t want to sell out for it because of some deep moral code. 

And when life felt complicated you could always count on the classifications to find and define yourself. Segregation existed only between the jocks, the nerds, the preppies, the rich kids, and the stoners. 

But Molly Ringwald could transcend them all and unite us.

As Andie in Pretty in Pink, she’s a poor girl who risks exposing her heart for the chance to be with one of the “richies.” Class is easily divided by the haves and have nots with the poor kids having a depth and sophistication the rich kids lacked. She made poor cool. But in the end, prom and a signature thrifted pink dress bridge the chasm. She snags the rich kid after all. 

In The Breakfast Club, she’s Claire, the rich and spoiled preppy princess who steals the heart of the wrong side of the tracks stoner boy while vulnerably confessing the pressures of being popular. She is every girl who felt she had to perform to make people like her. She made us want to pull out our diamond stud earrings (if we had those) and chuck them at the world’s ideals. 

In Sixteen Candles, she is Sam, the awkward lovestruck birthday girl who hopelessly crushes on the cool jock who then dumps the head cheerleader for her. The culmination of this is yet another pink dress and a birthday cake in the iconic last scene that left all the girls wishing Jake Ryan would notice us too. 

We could be ourselves and maybe just maybe, that would be enough. Maybe someone would celebrate us too? 

Except regardless of Ringwald’s performances as the quirky underdog or the stiffled socialite, these plots were only available to girls with skin as perfect and white as my Keds. 

The only Asian presence in those movies was Long Duk Dong, the Chinese foreign exchange student in Sixteen Candles, whose problematic performance left Asians cringing, stereotyped, and feeling like they had to distance themselves from FOB Asians or suffer the consequences of social suicide. Because while Molly Ringwald’s characters could navigate the minefield of high school social circles, Long Duk Dong could not. 

He is introduced as other from the first bang of the gong and waggle of his eyebrows, his stilted English forever changing the high school experience for many Asian American males growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Asian boys were nicknamed, “The Donger,” and taunted with, “Hey, sexy gurr-friend,” and “the dongah needs food-ah,” in the halls. 

And as I sat with my girlfriends watching the laugh track swell with every awkward stereotype, I laughed right along. Because I didn’t want to be other like that. I didn’t want to be seen as foreign and ridiculous. 

Because “other-ness” is something that Asian-Americans understand. We are always othered, even if we are born in America. We’re asked where we’re really from and what we are. We are congratulated on our English even if that’s our first and only language. We are mistaken for the other Asians because, people joke, we all look alike. Asian women are fetishized, while Asian men are emasculated. 

We don’t win Oscars or get roles, even roles playing Asian characters. And if there are Asian roles and they resist casting Scarlett Johansson or Emma Stone, they’re often stereotypical and play directly into tired and overused tropes. 

We don’t write books or get published. We don’t have voices that matter. I was 12 before I ever read a book with an Asian American character in it. 

We don’t have stories worth hearing, because when you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all. 

After all, we are all the same, right?  

We’re expected to keep quiet, study hard in school and get good grades in math and science so we can make our Tiger moms proud. 

But the normative experience, the default, the factory settings are white, white, white—if for no other reason than the sheer abundance of options. 

With whiteness we do not have the danger of a single story because white is seen as varied and nuanced and individual. White people get to be whole people. 

I am a multi-racial Asian American woman who has always felt like two halves of something that didn’t quiet add up to a whole. 

Coming of age in a world where there was no language for white supremacy in the suburbs, far from white hooded men and burning crosses, left so many of us feeling like we didn’t fit but without the words to explain why. Without the framework for how insidious white supremacy truly is and how it systematically presents a false narrative about what is normal, what is valuable, and what is true, we are left with a vague feeling that something is off but not quite sure how to fix it. 

It is internalized racism. The low hanging fruit of white supremacy. 

I grew up thinking it was just me who was called ching chong china girl in a sing-songy voice while kids pulled their eyes into slits. I thought it was just me who had to do a paper on Connie Chung for Who I Admired Most instead of my coveted Molly Ringwald. I thought it was just me who could never make eyeshadow work from the wide-eyed tutorials in the glossy magazines. I thought it was just me who heard the gong bang and knew I shouldn’t be laughing. 

We called it bullying and kids will be kids, we called it ‘just a joke’ and ‘don’t take yourself so seriously.’ We called it colorblindness and yet without being able to see colors we were like a screen before technicolor, with black or white our only options.

As an Asian American woman, I didn’t know white supremacy affected and infected me. 

I came of age in the golden era of white supremacy, when so many of us didn’t even know it still existed. Maybe some of us still don’t know. So I’m naming it and telling my story if for no other reason than to offer another voice, a language for our scars and for our healing, a path towards spitting out spoiled and rotten fruit and planting new seeds.

As a multi-racial Asian American girl coming of age in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I didn’t fit. Not just in the white cotton training bras but in American life. We hadn’t learned our lessons and moved on as a country.

I didn’t know I was growing up with roots dug down deep in this American life, a life where white supremacy is as common as apple pie and fireworks on the 4th of July.

We Are Criminals, and God Loves Us

Note: This is an excerpt from Deidra’s forthcoming book, One: Unity in a Divided World.

***

I am a black woman, living in America. Just last month I walked down the street near a country club in our neighborhood and had a car of three young white men yell unmentionable things to me through their rolled down windows. They were wrong. Juvenile, at best. Worse, at worst. But they kept driving. They did not turn around and stop their car in front of me. They did not touch me or threaten me or wield some sort of perverted power over me. They did not discharge a weapon or violate my body. I got home safely. At least, my body did.

If we’re being honest, it’s hard to separate the body from what goes on in the soul, right? Imagine the damage done to those who experience compounded anxiety, depression, marginalization, and oppression in every moment of every day. Consider the United States’ mass incarceration situation. Think about the sex- and human-trafficking industry. Read about the inequities that run rampant in public school districts in poor communities. Take note of the rise in “despair deaths” among middle aged, white Americans who increasingly succumb to suicide, drug overdose, and liver disease associated with alcohol use. Remember that every single person in those situations is a person God loves exponentially.

Sometimes, I hear people try to rationalize their indifference to these situations by blaming those trapped in systems of oppression or addiction for the choices they have made. The truth is, you and I have made choices, too. We are all criminals. Every single one of us. We break the speed limit. We fail to pay our traffic fines. We drive while intoxicated. We smoke(d) weed and we snort(ed) cocaine (“back in college”). We drank beer before we were legally old enough to do so. Soliciting a prostitute. Shoplifting a candy bar. Breaking and entering. Vandalism. Sexual harassment. That pen in your pocket that belongs to your employer. All of these are crimes and, if we don’t find our particular variety in this list, that doesn’t make us exempt. Because all of us are also sinners. I am. And so are you.

We do not sin on a bell curve. When it comes to sinning we are each valedictorian. And, just as we take the image of God with us, into our workplaces and marketplaces and gathering places and worship places, we carry our sinful, criminal selves there as well. It behooves us to acknowledge this. Not because we should wallow in our shortcomings, but so that we can identify with the people whose shortcomings seem so much more horrendous than our own. They are not. We are just like them. All of us.

I’ve heard people say the thing we hate the most in someone else is the very same thing we hate in ourselves. What if that’s true? What if we are all the same, after all? What if we are, at the same time, us and them?

A lot of the time, the only thing that separates me and you from the people our society has labeled criminal, is the fact that we didn’t get caught smoking weed while we were in college. Or, if we did get caught, we found ourselves beneficiaries of a corrupt system that worked in our favor. You and I? We are criminals, too. In this we are all, truly the same. We are criminals, and God loves us. Straight up truth.

Mestizaje: A Prophetic Identity

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After months and months of crazy busy schedules, I finally got some time with my husband to sit down and watch the movie Concussion.  It is a movie all about the NFL and how a meticulous neuropathologist stumbles upon a diagnosis found in retired football players connected to the chronic concussions they sustain during their life playing the sport.  It is this one Nigerian-born doctor up against the massive organization called the NFL.

Honestly, I actually don’t care at all about football. What I was intrigued by in this movie wasn’t the subject, but rather the theme. It is a story line I’ve been drawn to in books and movies since I was a kid. It’s this story plot of a protagonist with little authority using his or her voice to speak out truth, usually to powerful institutions and people. It’s a theme I see myself in and find resonance with in my own life too.  

What I never tied together, though, was that maybe my truth-telling bent wasn’t just some random part of my personality, but rather, a God-ordained significant part of my identity with deep roots in my ethnicity and upbringing.

You see, I’m a third generation Mexican American.  My grandparents immigrated to the U.S. and then later became legal residents. I spent my childhood summers and holidays in Mexico, visiting family and staying in my grandparent’s home in a small, dusty town outside of Monterrey. It was what I knew. It was home.

But despite my affection for Mexico, I’ve still spent the bulk of my time and life growing up on this side of the border. I’m very much shaped by the culture of the U.S. and by the majority culture values that undergird it.  And, as a person who came to faith in a predominately White evangelical church as a teenager, I would say the American Protestant church and its cultural values have left a strong imprint on me as well. These places are home too.

The word used to describe this reality of living with feet in two culturally different worlds is called mestizaje.  It is a Spanish word that carries the meaning of living in-between or being called “mixed.” Latino theologian Virgilio Elizondo called it the identity of Mexican Americans living in the U.S. We are a mixed people. We have two cultural worlds pressing in on us at all times: majority culture, which is still predominately White here in the States, and our own culture as Latinos with our own immigrant roots and cultural narratives that shape us. This is what it means to be Mexican American.

As I’ve wrestled with this experience, especially after becoming a Christian, I’ve found biblical stories too that have spoken to me of this tension. The story of Esther is one of a Jewish woman living in Persia, finding herself in a place of importance, needing to speak truth to the king at the risk of her own life. This was Esther—a Jewish Queen of Persia. She was a mestizaje too.

What I love most about the story of Esther is that because she does eventually get up the courage to speak truth despite the risk, she ends up delivering her entire community from impending extinction. God used her to save his people, his chosen people who were meant to bless the nations. Her part in the mission of God was no small role.

So what does that mean for me as an ethnic minority woman who wants to honor the Lord and embrace all of my identity? It means I need to be willing to speak what truth the Lord reveals to me while living in this liminal space.

Elizondo, in his book Galilean Journey, spoke of the mestizaje identity as one that has a unique role to play in this in between space of our two “parent” cultures. As mestizajes, we are able to see things about either culture that sometimes neither is able to see within themselves. We are at once insiders and outsiders to a culture, which allows us eyes to see realities others cannot see from within their own cultural landscapes. Mestizajes then can be a gift to either community, able to speak prophetically of what God may be longing to see changed or redeemed. 

I sense the Lord saying to me and other women of color that now is the season for us to step into this mestizaje gift “for such a time as this.”  May God mature his church through us who see and speak his truth with courage and grace.  God is inviting us to his table.  

I Am Not White

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I am not white.

Don’t laugh because I know some of you might. I’ve heard the laughter. When I’m invited to speak on the topic of race and racism I often start out my presentation with that line, and it often is received with laughter.

There is a hint of righteous indignation in the laughter because even though I am fair-skinned to the point of already nursing a sunburned back, my facial features, as beautiful as they are, do not fit whiteness. I am obviously not white, but I know and live the reality of the model minority myth. The myth, imposed on me and 19.5 million Americans of Asian heritage, has shaped internalized biases that want to frame me, my words, and my actions into categories of “dangerous” foreigner who might be a spy, steal your white child’s rightful spot in university, give you a nasty look when you catcall or say “hello” to me in an Asian language, be the nail tech who might be talking about you in her native tongue. I could also be the “safe” foreigner who speaks English, opposes affirmative action, and repeatedly, patiently, answers the question from fellow Americans, white, black and brown, “No, where are you really from?”

I am not white.

I am a naturalized U.S. citizen. I immigrated to the U.S. when I was eight months old with my parents. They gave me an American name not so that I could become honorary white but because it would be easier on the white people. The education system here is not known for its foreign language requirements. My parents emphasized education because we had no legacy here, no history, no family roots beyond those who had come a few months before us, no connections, no bootstraps to pull.

The danger in continuing with that narrative is that somehow Asian Americans—the whole lot of us—might believe we have inherited white privilege through assimilation. The reality is that the model minority myth puts us in our place outside of America history and America’s present as perpetual foreigners. It creates a false sense of safety inviting us and demanding we embrace hyper-invisibility by self-silencing, advocating for others but never for ourselves while the myth simultaneously whispers to us that we have sold out.

So I am reminding myself as much as I am reminding my audience.

I am not white.

I will learn about the rich, varied histories of Asian Americans that are largely ignored in U.S. history classes. I will remind people that immigrants came through Ellis Island and Angel Island. I will correct people who mispronounce my last name because if my parents can learn English people can learn to pronounce my last name. I will acknowledge the inherent privilege I have as a college-educated, upper middle-class, heterosexual woman with fair skin, but I also will engage you in a lively discussion about disaggregate statistics, profiling of Asians and Asian Americans (because we aren’t all fair-skinned, by the way), and immigration policies and patterns if you say that my success (or the success of the Asian-American community) is an attempt at whiteness. I will write and speak using illustrations and idioms that will add to the richness of America by including the richness of Korean Americans. I encourage my children to embrace their Korean heritage and understand their American-born privilege. I give my children and their friends language to talk about differences, race, and racism. I remind my children they have “American” names and Korean names. I teach them how to pronounce their Korean names and the stories behind all their names because it adds to our roots here.

I know what and who I am outside of the construct of whiteness.

Do you?

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