A Reflection for Women of Color

I feel like Advent reflections are supposed to be sweet, something you could read aloud with The First Noel playing the background. But this week, I just want to yell! I want to sit down with every young woman of color that I’ve ever met and tell her, “Please don’t believe the BS that they have been feeding you at church!” Please don’t feel like they are doing you a favor when they patronizingly say, “Women can be good leaders too.”

Maybe even more toxic than the things they say explicitly, are all the things they say to your soul implicitly. Two weeks ago I preached on Luke 1 to a group of leaders, and the implicit audience was women of color: our lived experience, our theological tensions, our worldview was centered. However, the room was a mix of men and women, white people and people of color. Afterwards I ran into one of the WOC in the restroom and I asked how she was doing.

She said, “I don’t know what I’m feeling?…What is happening? …This is strange…I can’t figure out what I’m feeling.”

As we talked, we put together that this was the first time that she, as a woman of color, had been the implicit audience of a sermon. Decades of listening to sermons, and the implicit audience had always been someone other than her.

Every sermon has an implicit audience- it assumes a certain gender, race, and class experience, typically the same as the pastor. Since so many of us attend churches where the pastors are white men, or at least men, the implicit audience is almost always- not us. Sermons are framed around their lived experience, their point of view, their theological narrative.

That does something to our souls.

When the implicit audience of every sermon is male, it devalues us.

When white femininity is used to make us feel less acceptable, less beautiful, less a woman in God’s image, it silences us.

When every Bible commentary we’ve ever seen is written by a man, it dehumanizes us.

And when we turn to our ethnic communities, we often find cultural comfort, but deeply ingrained patriarchy. I want to gather every woman of color together and scream, “Don’t believe them when they say that you are less Asian, less Latina, less black if you question the patriarchy in your community!”

Don’t listen!

Don’t listen to that crap theology that says that our concern for our bodies, and souls, and children are political, but not spiritual. When the concerns for our survival are framed as an earthly concern, but the theological debates of white men are framed as lofty and important. Don’t listen to them.

Listen to Mary.

When the announcement of the new kingdom was made, the first person to explain it to us, and exegete the truth to us, was Mary. Mary interpreted her experience of God, and understood that it had significance beyond her personal story.

His mercy is for those who fear him
   from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.

In our churches, we are treated like theology by women is cute and secondary, or that it is dangerous because it is feminist. But the theology of the church in the United States has always been the theology of white male liberation. The theology of the church in the United States has always been a cancerous and twisted theology meant to justify the dehumanization of indigenous bodies and the genocide of Native people. When the government said, “Lets destroy the Indian to save the man,” cthurches stepped up and said, “Let us lead the way.” Denominations in the Unites States used the slave labor of Native children to their financial benefit. And they used their white male liberation theology to do justify it.

White male liberation theology is a theology that justified enslaving and torturing Africans, ripping mothers and fathers away from their children for generations and framing it as a kindness. It is a theology that didn’t want to talk about Jesus with slaves if it would make them think about freedom or threatened the economic system.

Founders of Black Lives Matter- Alicia Garza,  Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors

It is a theology that says that queer black women activists are a threat to this country and pedophile old white men should be its senators. This is a theology that has told us to revere the teachers of our own oppression. It has taught white people to be so blind to a systemic understanding of injustice that you can put them in front of a thousand trees, and they will be unable to see a forest. A million dead Native Americans, thousands of dead Black people- is nothing but a series of unconnected events. Their theology teaches them to see the world this way.

Don’t believe them little sister. Don’t believe them.

Listen to Mary.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.

White male liberation theology legislates the liberty of white male bodies under all circumstances- there is no crime that they can commit on Wall Street that will put them in jail, but if you are black and you sold an ounce of weed, you should be in jail for life. If your white male body rapes an unconscious girl, you will get a few months of jail time. If your Native body fights for your land and water, you will be brutally attacked by the police.

Don’t believe them little sister. Don’t believe them.

Madonna of the North Inuit mother and child by H.G. Kaiser

Listen to Mary.

“God has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

He has brought down the rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.

He has filled up the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.”

When the kingdom of God centers the margins, it isn’t token, it isn’t charity. Zechariah is silenced, and Mary moves to the center and articulates the nature of this new kingdom. She exegetes her lived experience, her personal encounter with God, and what is happening to her body. This new kingdom flips everything upside down.  Those in power, those who are rich, those who are powerful- their time is over.

And in celebrating that it is Mary, a poor, illiterate, uneducated young woman who moves to the center and gives us the framing theology for the book of Luke, we must see her for the thinker and leader than she is.

Jose y Maria by Everett Patterson

But we don’t’ need to make her more than human. She doesn’t need to become a virgin for life or someone who never sinned. She does not have to be domesticated and docile, and perpetually letting one boob hang out in every portrait. She does not need to be sinless perfection. And she does not need to be minimized into just a vessel that carried Jesus.

The world does not know what to do with an actual woman who gives us theology AND raises a child.

Who partnered with God AND had sex.

Who understood that God is about lifting up the humble, and marginalized, and hungry and powerless, AND is sending the rich AWAY!

Even today. We make caricatures of women.

It is good to acknowledge that black women were the game changers in the Alabama election. But if we thank them because they saved “us,”but didn’t show up when they called us to say the names of

Sandra Bland

Rekiya Boyd

Sandra Bland

Charleena Lyles

Then we return to tired tropes of making black women’s labor all about helping white people. When we only want to exploit the narrative of their strength, we dehumanize them.

When Asian American women have almost no representation in the media, but an unbelievable amount of representation in porn, it shows that we are not seen as three dimensional human beings that exist outside of the male imagination.

When people have seen more photos of white women in Native headdresses than actual Native American women who are alive today doing important work on the ground, we continue the narrative of colonialism that all the Native people are gone. They are not.

Black women exist in the public consciousness, but to rescue white people.

Native women lead the way at DAPL protest

Native women are erased from public consciousness, but serve as costumes for others.

Asian American women exist for sexual pleasure.

Latina women exist as maids.

Don’t listen to these tiny petty narratives of who we are.

Listen to Mary.

Mary elevates us by being a model of faith, being a theologian, being countercultural. But she doesn’t elevate womanhood to something mythical and unattainable. And she will not be diminished and made trivial and small. She is enough, within the limits of her own skin. And it is with her I stand and await the birth of the Jesus, as they ushers in a new kingdom.

“Our Lady Mother of Ferguson”by Mark Dukes

























Why I Stopped Talking about Racial Reconciliation and Started Talking about White Supremacy

Recently people have asked me, “Why isn’t talking about white privilege enough, why white supremacy?” There is an obvious discomfort with the term by white and Asian American people. The one exception to that is when things like Charlottesville happen. When people march around with Nazi flags,

White nationalists carry torches on the grounds of the University of Virginia, on the eve of a planned Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. August 11, 2017. Picture taken August 11, 2017. Alejandro Alvarez/News2Share via REUTERS. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

White nationalists carry torches on the grounds of the University of Virginia, on the eve of a planned Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. August 11, 2017. Picture taken August 11, 2017. Alejandro Alvarez/News2Share via REUTERS. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

most folks I know feel comfortable saying, “I’m not down with that.” Which is a pretty low bar, but ok. However, when the term white supremacy is used for anything less obvious than tiki torch wielding nazi flag waving people, lots of folks get uncomfortable. Most of my crowd was taught to use the terms white privilege and racial reconciliation. Here is why I no longer focus on them and instead teach on white supremacy.

When I first learned the term racial reconciliation in the early nineties, I found it very helpful and exciting. I was passionate about issues of race and justice, but had never heard those things discussed in Christian circles. Suddenly there was a Biblical basis and communal energy towards this value. When I came on staff with a Christian non-profit I was taught that racial reconciliation consisted of a three strand rope- ethnic identity, inter personal relationships, and systemic injustice. Though the focus was almost always on the first two.

Beginning with the not guilty verdict of George Zimmerman and gaining momentum with the murder of Michael Brown Jr. in the fall of 2014, Black Lives Matter revealed the limits of the racial reconciliation model espoused by many evangelical organizations in nineties. Watching white Christians and POC submitted to whiteness respond again and again with

– denial of systemic injustice

– disregard for the lived experience of black people

–  silence in the pulpit

– a deeply ingrained superiority regarding issues of race

– a fixation on intentions over outcomes

I had to ask why those discipled by the racial reconciliation framework were so ill equipped to engage, learn from, and respond to a movement focused on systemic and institutionalized racial injustice.

Bad Theology

            The term racial reconciliation serves the dominant culture, it serves white people and those who align with whiteness. The term reconciliation is relational in nature. And though relationships are important, it is anchored in white theology’s pathological individualism.

Jesus died for my sins.

Jesus went to the cross for me.

I know the plans He has for me.

Though there is a place for the individual in theology. White theology, in profound syncretism with American culture, has distorted the Bible to be solely about individual redemption. So it is blind to the reality that when Scripture says, “I know the plans I have for you.” The you is plural and addressed to an entire community of people that has been displaced and are in exile. All Scripture has been reduced to individual interactions between God and a person, even when they are actually between God and a community, or Jesus and a group of people. As a result, white theology defines racism as hateful thoughts and deeds by an individual, but cannot comprehend communal, systemic, or institutionalized sin, because it has erased all examples of that framework from Scripture.

Secondly, white Christianity suffers from a bad case of Disney Princess theology. As each individual images-11reads Scripture, they see themselves as the princess in every story. They are Esther, never Xerxes or Haman. They are Peter, but never Judas. They are the woman anointing Jesus, never the Pharisees. They are the Jews escaping slavery, never Egypt. For the citizens of the most powerful country in the world, who enslaved both Native and Black people, to see itself as Israel and not Egypt when it is studying Scripture, is a perfect example of Disney princess theology. And it means that as people in power, they have no lens for locating themselves rightly in Scripture or society- and it has made them blind and utterly ill equipped to engage issues of power and injustice. It is some very weak Bible work.


Pontiac Michigan Men pray at a Promise Keepers meeting at the Pontiac Silverdome

            All of this put together creates a profoundly broken theological framework. It explains why people love a photo of a cop hugging a black person, but dismiss claims of systemic racism in policing. It pretends that injustice is resolved when individuals hug. This was actually something that people were encouraged to do at Promise Keeper events in the nineties- go find a black person, hug them. It confuses white emotional catharsis with racial justice. The two are far far far from each other. BLM insists on addressing systemic issues, and white Christianity is pathologically individualistic. And since white Christianity is also characterized by a lack of humility, it is not prone to learn from POC, who would clearly be the experts on issues of racism in the church.

Bad History

            Racial Reconciliation assumes an innocent reading of history. This is a term I learned from theologian Justo Gonzalez. An innocent telling of history is foundational to maintaining unjust and racist systems. When have white people ever been in just relationship with black people? During slavery? During Jim Crow? During the War on Drugs? What are we RE-conciling? It pretends that there was a time when everything was fine, we just need to get back there. However, that idyllic time has never existed.


White high school students cursing black students during the integration of schools. Montgomery, Alabama, 1963

Even when the civil rights movement is taught, it is framed as a discussion of the courage of black people. Which is true, their courage was amazing. But why did they have to be so courageous, what were they facing? The rage, racism, and violence of white people. Rarely is the profound hatred and resistance of white people taught. The evil of white people is downplayed, or minimized, to a few racist exceptions in the South. But white people, all across the United States, resisted any move towards racial justice with fury, rage, and violence. Our history never tells the true story of whiteness.

In her brilliant book on the Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson describes a riot that broke out  in Chicago, in 1951, when a black family attempted to move into a white apartment building. After being driven from the apartment, white people destroyed everything they owned, and over the course of the next day the crowd grew to over 4,000, eventually burning down the entire building. White people would rather burn a building than see black people live there. Or looking to the West coast “When Oregon was granted statehood in 1859, it was the only state in the Union admitted with a constitution that forbade black people from living, working, or owning property there. It was illegal for black people even to move to the state until 1926…Waddles Coffee Shop in Portland, Oregon was a popular restaurant in the 1950s for both locals and travelers alike. The drive-in catered to America’s postwar obsession with car culture, allowing people to get coffee and a slice of pie without even leaving their vehicle, the worst part is that no ones even bothers to get an 80 Gallon air compressor for their cars. But if you happened to be black, the owners of Waddles implored you to keep on driving. The restaurant had a sign outside with a very clear message: “White Trade Only — Please.” (Matt Novak)

And hence, white people don’t believe it when white racism is pointed out in the present. They’ve been told a fairy tale about themselves. Even when the history of POC is told, white violence is erased, and the consequences of historical injustices is minimized. White people do not connect themselves to history, once again because of pathological individualism. They simply want a friend in the present, with no acknowledgement of the past or present injustice.


White Comfort

            Racial Reconciliation centers language with which white people and its allies are comfortable. Racial Reconciliation moves at the pace that whiteness dictates. It focuses on making sure white people don’t feel guilty, but not on the systemic disenfranchisement of black, Latino, and Native people. It will talk about redeemed white identity without teaching about white supremacy. It will lament but not repent with action. It is comfortable with POC being displaced and paying significant mental and emotional tolls for the work, but asks little to nothing of its white people. It is profoundly anxious about white discomfort, and is always trying to control the narrative.

            In the racial reconciliation model POC are commodities.  People of Color exist to teach and educate whiteness. When white people are ready to learn, POC must share their story, our pain is for consumption. Whiteness listens, feels superior to other white people who aren’t as “woke,” but does not change. Recently, I talked with a twenty four year old African American woman. She shared that she was  expected to learn her job with a ministry, educate her peers, educate her supervisors, and educate up the line to leadership with twenty years more experience than her. While those leaders congratulate themselves for their openness to listening, they never wonder why there are no people at their own level of management to teach them. And the 24 year old white guy, her peer, is left to simple learn his job and carries none of that responsibility and exerts none of that emotional labor. This is the Racial Reconciliation model. But if POC become angry, frustrated, tired of this dynamic, they are labeled as uncommitted to the cause, immature, or not a right fit. When that 24 year old realizes this dynamic is exploitative and wrong, her leaders can’t believe it, they had the best of intentions.

The Racial Reconciliation model perpetuates white privilege because the pacing is centered on the dominant culture, the language is white centered, and the implicit audience of teachings and content is always the dominant culture. In the racial reconciliation model, POC are expected to show up whenever the topic of race is addressed, even though the implicit audience is always the dominant culture. The time is not really FOR people of color, but they must be there to validate that “real” work is happening. Again POC are a commodity.

            The role of POC in Racial reconciliation is to feel grateful, be loyal, educate ( but nicely, and without anger) and conform to white culture. People of Color are to bring just a sprinkle of color- without ever pressing for deeper cultural, organizational, or systemic change. POC must always “trust their leaders” and be satisfied with intentions over outcomes. Whiteness controls the narrative at all times. And let me state for the record, one does not need to be white, to be working for whiteness.


White Privilege

The term white privilege can be helpful, but it is still located in pathological individualism. It assumes that issues are resolved by how an individual white person handles their privilege. Hence, it cannot be considered a term that is sufficient to address or resolve organizational or systemic white supremacy. It can not dismantle white supremacy culture in a denomination, organization, or church. It is useful, and it is real. It is often a first step for people of privilege. It is important that they realize that they participate in unequal systems, even unintentionally. However, it is not enough for anyone in a position of leadership or influence.

Shifting to the term white supremacy, and understanding that it means more that flag waving Nazis, is a move away from pathological individualism. It puts responsibility on white people to stop supporting white supremacy versus putting the responsibility on POC to educate and provide diversity. Racial Reconciliation often views POC as the problem that needs to be solved. White supremacy locates the problem in the right place. Racial Reconciliation, because it is so preoccupied with the good intentions of whiteness and its allies, considers POC leaving sad, but no reflection on them. In the canary in the mine analogy- the death (departure) of POC, particularly Black, Latino, Native, and SE Asian people is sad, sort of confusing, but is really an indicator that the bird was just

canary_art22 not a good fit for the mine.

White supremacy says- “HEY! That bird died cause your well intentioned mine is toxic. It is on you, it is on the mine, to stop being toxic. It is not on the canary to become immune to deadly fumes.”

The term white supremacy labels the problem more accurately. It locates the problem on whiteness and its  systems. It focuses on outcomes not intentions. It is collective not individual. It makes whiteness uncomfortable and responsible. And that is important.







When are Black and Asian American People Gonna Talk?

Today, on the drive back from being in the woods, I opened up facebook and apparently it was Jesse Williams day. Dozens and dozens of people were reposting his speech from the BET awards. The second I got home I watched it, multiple times. How did he deliver so much fire in such an understated way? (And was he chewing gum?) His speech was amazing! It deserves to be talked about and engaged with on many levels. It was awesome!

In the sea of Jesse Williams posts, the Very Smart Brothas write up, and Shaun King’s reflections on Justin Timberlake‘s tweet I saw another post. I follow this fabulously angry and militant Filipino brother on FB, his page is titled Love Life of an Asian Guy and he had a RANT about a performance at the BET awards that used Geishas and ninja swords and “Asiany” clothing. After trolling the internet for a video of the performance I watched a very out of focus video that someone filmed off their TV, they use with the best blue tooth transmitter you can find online. It was stuff like this.



I was glad to see that some black folks on twitter had commented on the misuse of Japanese cultural imagery and felt the dissonance of celebrating blackness while exploiting Asian tropes and stereotypes.  There is a lot of frustration with white artist who appropriate from black culture, so it saddens me that none of the organizers thought that this tired stereotype might be inappropriate at the BET awards. The whole incident brought me back to a questions I’ve had for a long time.



This is under a bigger question of when are people of color going to start talking to each other, but let me start with just these two communities.



We can’t start talking without doing a little housekeeping. I believe that as Asian Americans we should care about the institutionalized and systemic oppression of black people in our country. Particularly as Christians, it troubles me when Black folks show up for their community and Asian folks show up for their community, but we don’t show up for each other’s communities. When we see each other as the enemy we simply reinforce white supremacy. And what we have in Jesus is supposed to bring us together. And even though a lot of evangelical Christianity is being a racist, misogynistic, homophobic circus right now,  I still actually believe that what we have in Jesus should bring us together. When we, as Asian Americans, align ourselves with the model minority myth in any way, we are aligning with white supremacy and anti-blackness.

Here is the shortest history lesson possible. It used to be that Chinese people were seen as the yellow peril,  dangerous outsiders that needed to be expunged, and with whom we should be at war. It’s the type of imagery and language most often used toward Muslims and people from the Middle East in our contemporary culture. There were violent lynchings and massacres of Chinese people during the late 1800’s. Asian Americans were the perpetual foreigner, hence the justification for putting Japanese Americans in internment camps. Think about that people- internment camps. But at some point they flipped the script, “You’re not the yellow peril, you’re our next generation of house slaves. If you never complain about white supremacy, we will say that of all the ethnics you are the best ethnics and we will let you work in the big house.”

The problem with this is, if we are the good minority group, then who is the bad minority group? Surprise- it’s black people! And we have to think about who is creating this absurd hierarchy in the first place. Surprise- its white people! And once again we are submitted to and accepting a system where white people get to rank  everyone in reference to each other and put themselves at the top. And we have said yes to this. Many of our communities have shamefully and willingly adopted a white supremacist based anti-black worldview. It’s the price of admission to get ranked above black people.


People of color are not marginalized in the same way or to the same degree. But we need to take responsibility for the ways we are complicit in each others marginalization. The most helpful tool for understanding this came from Andrea Smith and her three pillars of white supremacy.

3 pillars 2

The first pillar affects black people. The system is slavery- slavery can take on many forms- from actual slavery to mass incarceration. Before the 13th amendment the majority of people in prison were white, but Mass Incarceration has re-enslaved black people.  Capitalism is the driving justification for this commoditization and exploitation of black bodies.

The second pillar is Genocide, its vehicle is colonialism, and it impacts Native Americans. It is the narrative that indigenous people are gone, have disappeared, and it allows non- Native people to inherit Native land, resources, culture and spirituality. It lives on the myth that Native Americans no longer exist and hence all that was theirs can now rightfully belong to white people.

The third pillar is Orientalism. It exoticizes and “others” certain peoples and nations as an ongoing threat to empire and the only solution is war. This expresses itself in immigration policies, internment camps, and anti- Muslim sentiment. We must always be at war with this “other” to survive. Currently people form the Middle East are most often put in this category, and we have been in some form of war with the Middle East for decades.

I give all credit for this framework to my  Andrea Smith, whose work on this topic is fire and your should read it! ( And I don’t yet have a good answer for how Latinos fit into this framework.)

This framework lets us step out of the oppression olympics  and lets us acknowledge that white supremacy has impacted us in different ways, and the insidious thing is that we have said yes to being complicit in each others oppression.



The thing that is hard to for me to say is that in the last ten years, many of the most ignorant and painful things that I have heard about Asian people has come from black people. And on the flip, some of the most ignorant things said about black people have come from Asian Americans.

We have bought into white supremacist narratives of each other. And I’m so tired of it. And I’m so tired of all the conversations around race still revolving around white people. I want to have a conversation where people of color get in the same room and learn each other’s stories. A space where white people and getting white people to pay attention to us is not pulling all the energy.

I do not say this to minimize the need to dismantle institutionalized racism and call white people and white systems to account. But as long as we only address white people we keep them at the center. We need to hear each other’s stories, understand the ways that we have been complicit in each others marginalization. Asian American folks need to repent of the ways we’ve said yes to anti-blackness and been willing to profit from it. Black folks need to own that they have seen Asian Americans as perpetual other.

I can’t imagine what would happen if we were really educated on each others issues. But more importantly, filled with deep love for each other, and as a result showed up for each other. I truly believe we might be able to do some real work.

My dream is to create space for people of color to gather and enter into deeper conversation with each other. It is why I am so grateful for a time to be with women of color this fall. (You should come to the WOC gathering in LA!) How can we amplify each others stories? How can we mobilize for justice together? How can we dismantle racism together?





Where are my Asian American women heroes?

imagesIn the last few years there has consistently been stories about the lack of diversity in Hollywood. Black people only win Oscars for playing slaves and maids, never modern day characters of complexity and agency. Asian American men are never love interests, hence #StarringJohnCho. Lupe Ontiveros, a Latina actress, has been cast as a maid over 150 times. On the other end of the spectrum you can get a movie made about a white man with a dizzying amount of variety- badass scientist on Mars, hilarious sarcastic action hero Deadpool, earnest and sexy lover of the truth Captain America who fights billionaire genius inventor white man Iron Man, emotionally broken white man vigilante that dresses like a bat versus sincere and earth saving alien that always manifests as a white man. I’m just listing the lead characters of some of the top grossing movies of 2016. You can also get a movie made about a white guy who is in love with a blow up doll, who is a serial killer, a mobster, a lonely widow, just about anything. The stories we tell, reflect something of who and what we value. It can be easy to dismiss the deeper reasons for this conversation about representation. It can seem superficial. And as a woman of color, sometimes I have a hard time putting into words the impact it has on me, because I’ve never known anything different.

About a year ago I had the chance to meet an artist at a conference in Memphis. It was Bay Area, Korean American artist Dave Kim. I was intrigued. I come from the generation of Korean Americans where everyone was supposed to play the piano and be a doctor, dentist, or lawyer. So meeting Korean American visual artist was a little bit like seeing a unicorn, I was intrigued. I asked to see some photos of his art and he showed me photos of his paintings and a mural he had painted in the Bay Area.

This is the mural.

IMG_9618 copy

.  IMG_6840 copy Detail_700kb

And then he explained. The mural tells the story of Yu Gwan Sun, a Korean freedom fighter. On the left side she is young, with her friends. On the far right she faces death for her cause. She was an organizer of the March 1st Movement, a protest against the occupation of Korea by Japan. She became of symbol of Korea’s fight for freedom through peaceful protest.

Here is a video of Dave putting up the mural.

I was so taken aback by this Korean American brother who, would not only paint the story of a woman, but of a freedom fighter. I had never in my life experienced that. A woman of my ethnicity, from my culture, who lived passionately for justice. I have never heard my own story told back to me. I have never heard it told by someone who thought it was worth their time, and energy, and creativity to tell. I didn’t realize how much this had impacted me until I was talking to someone else the following day. We were all chilling in the lobby after teaching our seminars and I introduced Dave to someone new and I began to talk about his mural.  As I described the mural, I teared up. I was crying in the lobby with strangers. And I had to pause and figure out why I was feeling so stirred. I had never seen someone else say, a woman like you, a Korean woman like you, with the passions you have- that is a story worth telling.

Either woman like me are totally absent from stories, or we are prostitutes, masseuses, or martial artists or the wives of white hipster. Ironically the reality of this was pressed home when I was back in Memphis a few months later.  A young man walked up to me and said “You look like that person in the Rush Hour movie.”

I was confused, I look like Jackie Chan? “Which one?”

“You know, the masseuse.”

The only Asian woman’s story he could draw from when he saw me, was that of a  masseuse/ prostitute.


A couple days ago my FB feed was filling up as Asian American friends posted Google’s image13220816_10153596005353372_8171781156352047127_n of the day, which depicted Japanese American activist Yuri Kochiyama. It would have been her 95th birthday. Born in Southern California, imprisoned in the Japanese internment camps, she and her husband eventually settled in New York where they raised their six children. She was one of the few non-black people deeply committed to the Black Nationalist movement. She met Malcolm X in 1963 and joined The pan- Africanist Organization of Afro American Unity. And she was present in the Audubon Ballroom when he was assassinated.

pic4I had heard of her a few years ago, but I will be honest, she didn’t really register. As much as I can articulate the way that our history has centered on white men and has dismissed, minimized, and erased the history of people of color, especially women of color, I am still colonized in my mind. And the fact that I had never heard of her, made it hard for me to believe she was really a person of import. Her story surfaced again a couple years ago when she died. And again, I felt like she couldn’t count. If she was really a role model, I would have heard of her before now, right? But then seeing her on google the other day, she finally registered in my conscious. It took hearing about her multiple times.  And there was something validating about seeing her on the google search. As dumb as it may sound, a mainstream voice was telling me she was important and worth knowing impacted me. So I looked up more about her life and I was so inspired.

Malcom-X-Yuri-Kochiyama-time-magazine It hurts me to see the way that misogyny and white supremacy have seeped into my own thinking. It hurts me that I would devalue someone that I should identity with deeply. Malcolm X has been one of my heroes since I read his autobiography in high school. To realize that an Asian American woman had been there, doing the work with him, it stengthened me. This last December, at a conference where I was leading worship,  I had a chance to stand with my African American brothers and sisters and add my voice and heart to the cry that Black Lives Matter.

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And it changes me to know that I follow in the footsteps of an activists like Yuri Kochiyama and Yu Gwan Sun.  So I thank you Dave, you introduced me to Yu Gwan Sun. And I thank you Google, cause you validated an important story. And thank you Yuri- for being a pioneer. Its not lost on me that it was two pieces of visual art that moved me forward in my process. Artists- keep using your art to be prophetic, to affirm, validate and expand the stories we are telling. We need you. Our country needs you. That kid in Memphis needs you.









How a Trump Rally Restored my Faith in Humanity

Caveat- This post is not trying to explain or justify my POV as a WOC Christian activist. I’m not doing an apologetic about why Trump is bad news  (others have written plenty on that). Usually I try to define terms and explain my POV more. This is not that post. This is for those who already understand why I would go to a Trump rally to protest, specifically as an expression of my love for Jesus and my commitment to justice. And for those who understand my passion for multi-ethnic community.

When I arrived in Chicago three days ago I didn’t even know Trump was coming to town. Mostly out of curiosity and a bit on a whim I registered myself and my friend Terrance for the rally. Tickets were free.

Word spread among the crew I was with and more tickets were reserved.

The night before the rally I turned to Terrance. I had spent a portion of the day watching videos of black men getting punched at Trump rallies, the other portion of my day I spent reading a ricoh theta s review which I found very interesting.

Terrance is a friend, pastor, worship leader, active in Christian community development, and a spazz that makes jokes in the most serious of conversations. He is also an African American man.

“So Terrance- are we going to this thing to observe or to protest?”

“Erna- my body is a protest.”

I went to sleep meditating on that answer.

By two in the afternoon, the day of the rally, I was in a room with my fellow protesters.

I hadn’t realized that my friend Bethany had decided to attend. Bethany is a passionate social justice leader. She runs a program for youth, she’s a grant writer, Latina, and oh yeah- she’s 7 months pregnant.

The thought of going to a Trump protest with a Latina woman that is 7 months pregnant scared the crap out of me. I have been watching video after video of the hateful treatment of protesters. And have watched the shocking video of a man sucker punching a protester leaving a rally.

“Bethany- are you sure you want to go? Is it wise?”

Instantly- with tears in her eyes, total confidence in her voice “I..AM..GOING. I am second generation Mexican American. My great grandmother was Indigenous Mexican. My kids are scared. ( She was referring to the Latino youth she works with.) I want to be able to look them in the eye and say that I made them see our humanity.”

So that was the end of that conversation.


Praying before we leave for the rally

We discussed different possible disruptions. We had no idea what to expect in terms of other protesters. We knew there would be some outside of the event, but not sure how many would be in the rally itself. We prepared for the worst.

We assigned three people to Bethany and two of us to Terrance. We practiced blocking Bethany from people that might push her or shove her. We chose a song that we would sing. We prayed.

We were dropped off several blocks from the event and within an hour we were seated in the auditorium. There were far more people of color than I expected. I assumed most were not Trump supporters, but you never know. There were several yelling matches that broke out, and the atmosphere felt like a bar at 1am on a Saturday. People were gunning for a fight- just for entertainment.


Terrance and me at the rally

Soon two people were yelling at each other and it became clear that an entire section was college students from the school- there to protest. We all sighed with much relief. There were other protesters in the room.

As we waited, several snapshots that locked into my brain.

A group of 5 young Latino college students were walking around our area. And one young woman was carrying a sign that said- UNDOCUMENTED UNAFRAID

I teared up immediately.

There is no way, as an 18 or 19 year old, I would have had the courage to walk into a room of Trump supporters and hold up that sign. Shoot- I was afraid. Afraid for me, for Terrance, for Bethany. I was afraid for her.

There was something beautiful about her courage- saying I am here. I am a person. I won’t hide.

A few rows in front of me were a group of Middle Eastern college students. All of the women were wearing hijabs. One young woman had an hijab that was a US flag. Ever so often she would turn around and look back at the rows behind her. She was quite beautiful. Not only in the superficial sense, but the beauty of being herself. Bringing her body into a space where people have been encouraged to reduce her to a caricature. Courage and beauty everywhere.

I can’t recount every detail.

There were a few yelling matches. One black man in a muscle shirt ardently supporting Trump. One old grandma with a cowboy hat and head to toe flag outfit walking around yelling at the crowd.

It was already 40 minutes after things were supposed to start when it was announced that the rally was cancelled.

It’s hard to explain what happened in the next 30 seconds, but my favorite thing was watching half the crowd go through some sort of transformation. I unzipped my jacket to reveal my protest shirt-the name of a dozen black men that have been shot by police. Like Clark Kent, white people who had been down on the floor, pulled opened their button up dress shirts to reveal “White supremacy is the enemy” written with puffy paint on t-shirts. Signs were pulled out of backpacks, coats, and pockets. A giant rainbow flag was unfurled and several young women waved it together. Everything people had been waiting to do once Trump was on stage exploded, as well as delight and triumph.

I’m clearly a sucker for college students. I’ve been in campus ministry since 1997. But I fell in love with college students all over again. Their passion. Their incredible courage to be themselves. Their willingness to bring their full identities into a space of hostility. To say “I will not be turned into the enemy or into a caricature.”

Ironically it may be the most diverse crowd I have ever been in. The spaces where I usually experience racial diversity, marginalize the queer community. The spaces where queer folks are centered, I don’t usually see Muslim people.

Everyone was chanting together together. First “Shut It Down!” But then “Education not Deportation” and “Si se Puede!”

It was a good night.

The size of the protest reflects the fact that organizers have been on the ground for a while in Chicago, especially in response to Laquan McDonald. I have to give the city credit for showing up. I was honored to add my voice to theirs for this one day.

We were bracing for hostility and to see the worst. Instead I saw something beautiful. Thank you Chicago. And special shout out to the students of University of Illinois- Chicago. You did it.



Addendum- Since I have seen a lot of news reports and FB comments describing the event as very violent. I will speak to what I saw. I was inside the Pavillion. So I can’t speak to the dynamics outside between 5pm and 7pm. Inside, I witnessed 4 to 5 scuffles as people waited for the event, a few very angry Trump supporters and a few angry protesters. Some people were just gunning for a fight. But overall I found the energy less tense than I expected. There were several scuffles after it was announced that the rally was cancelled. There was a very jubilant celebration by protesters in the pavilion after the cancellation. I thought the police were appropriate in their use of force, for the most part. I would not have described the night as violent. I would describe it as tense at multiple occasions.


The Power of Silence and the Power of a Yell

In August, I was in Ferguson Missouri to mark one year since the shooting of unarmed Michael Brown Jr. I was attending Rev. Traci Blackmon’s church and they were honoring some of the parishioners who had been serving faithfully behind the scenes for the last year. It was really beautiful. At the end of it one of the women came and stood at the front of the church.

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.

 It is our duty to win.

 We must love and support each other.

 We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

 She would call out one line and the congregation would echo it back. As each line progressed her voice grew louder. She finished the chant once and began again. Her voice was loud- yelling, which I rarely hear in church. And as she repeated the chant a second time- tears were pouring down her face.

By the time we got to the end of a second time we were yelling back at the top of our lungs. WE HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT OUR CHAINS.

This was the first time I had heard this chant and came to learn that it is commonly used among activists at protests.

What moved me, and has stuck with me, was all the history and emotion and courage that was held in that chant and in that women’s passionate outcry.

Black women, who have led on the ground in BLM,  have been pushed to the margins of our culture in so many ways. By race. By gender. Often by class. Their voices were marginalized in the feminist and suffrage movements. Their voices have often marginalized in their own communities. Their sexuality has been fetishized and distorted. Their beauty disregarded. Their point of view repeatedly pushed to the side. I can not do it justice in a few sentences. But knowing that history, I was moved to see this woman cry out. To yell out. To demand to be both seen and heard in the midst of all that mariginalization- that was a powerful act of dignity and courage.

In the face of violence, systemic oppression, harassment and fiscal exploitation at the hands of the police and the justice system in Ferguson- to cry out, to not lose hope, to fight tirelessly on the streets for a year. That was a powerful act of dignity and courage.

To put her heart out there, to reveal the pain, the tenderness, the fatigue, and to renew a vow to continue in the work. That was a powerful act of dignity and courage.

The moment encapsulates some of what I find profound, beautiful, powerful, and courageous about the women leading on the ground in Ferguson and in other parts of the BLM movement across the country.

In my culture, and in much of East Asian culture there is another tool. And it is silence.

This is captured by a look that I see on the face of older Asian women. A pause, a moment with eyes closed, clenched fist, a breath in, and then steady onward movement.

I see this in the face of Japanese American women who were sent to the internment camps. Stripped of dignity, humiliated, caged. When they walked out of those camps, to rebuild lives, holding the pain of that experience- they walked in silence. That was a powerful act of dignity and courage.

In the face of my own mother, who spent many years as a caretaker to my aging father. Staying with him, when many said she should divorce him because he was too old. She spent much of her youth caring for an old man, in silent suffering. Keeping our family together for my sake. That was a powerful act of dignity and courage.

In the face of immigrant women like my aunt, who had respect and place in her home country, but day in and day out is treated like she is stupid and less than because she can’t speak English very well. The way she carries on- bearing and carrying countless indignities to give her children a better life. That is a powerful act of dignity and courage.

I share this reflection because I think that there is so much misunderstanding between the Asian American and African American communities- the two communities in which I am most vested. One thing we share is women of great dignity and courage who sacrifice profoundly for the next generation. And yet when Asian Americans hear the yell- sometimes they miss the beauty and sacrifice and courage behind it. And sometimes when African American women see the silence, they miss the beauty and sacrifice and courage behind it.

Someday I hope we will realize we could be sources of each other’s healing.

We will realize that neither group of woman is comfortable talking about their pain.

That we have let the heavy fog of white supremacy lay like a blanket over us and our interpretations of each other. That we have believed lies about each other.

Maybe as we choose to see each other as we really are and hear each others stories, the fog will lift.












Asian Immigrants and Black Lives Matter

Last week I had the pleasure of leading worship for Urbana- InterVarsity’s triennial missions conference. It was a fantastic experience. One of the highlights was a session where we led gospel worship and heard from local leader and activist Michelle Higgins. You can read a bunch of other posts about the ripples of that night. But at one point in the night, I asked people to respond to Michelle’s talk by being more open to listening to what people are saying through Black Lives Matter.

A few days later I was texting with my friend Christine, who is Chinese American. Here is the exchange.

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This texting exchange felt significant, it put something to words that I had felt below the surface. In my last post I talked some about why Asian Americans are uncomfortable with disruption and protest. For those of us who had parents that came over after The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965,  there is a shared experience. Many of our parents generation experienced great suffering in their homelands. My mother grew up on the tail end of the Korean war and ever so often I get small glimpses into the poverty and the pain. She’ll say things like

  • Your uncle doesn’t eat bean sprouts, because that’s all we ate when we were poor.
  • I had a teacher who paid for me to go to school. But then he could not help me anymore and I had to drop out of middle school and work in a factory.
  • I went to my brother to ask for a blanket, during the winter. Because winter is very cold in Korea. But he said he could not help me. And it hurt him so much.
  • When I came to this country people yelled at me to go back to Vietnam.

These moments are dropped in passing in the midst of other conversations. Sometimes with tears. But it seems like the pain is never really processed. And because so many others have a similar pain, it is dismissed.

And then the next generation has its own dance with stories of pain. I remember about 12 years ago, InterVarsity Los Angeles was focusing on issues of racial reconciliation. And there were some painful moments. But my friend Yii-Shyun and I had a hilarious and bizarre conversation comparing our suffering to that of our parents and grandparents. Statements like- “Grandma I know it was hard when you had to hide in a cave during the winter during the Cultural Revolution but.. I’ve suffered too… sometimes my staff partner doesn’t understand my culture.”

“Oh mom- I know it was hard when you barely had food and had to eat grass pounded with old rice and had no blanket for winter- but sometimes my organization doesn’t understand my biracial identity.”

Through humor and tears we were acknowledging that we carry the last generations pain with us- and it is not resolved. And it dwarfs our suffering. But we feel dissonance in our own life experience as well.Working on those organizational dynamics are important, but I want to focus on the unresolved suffering in our history.

There is a cultural value for absorbing and swallowing pain.

There is shame in revealing suffering or poverty.

There are very few acceptable cultural ways to ask about these past experiences. And even fewer ways to show compassion. ( Aziz Anzari actually does a pretty sweet job of tackling some of this in his show Master of None- episode 2)

Many first generation immigrants have painful stories locked inside. But some of the limits of our own culture lock those stories away and the pain is never healed. I truly believe that there is healing in telling your story and being heard with compassion, empathy, and kindness.

It’s not just stories from the motherland that are locked away. Many have misunderstood how painful the Japanese internment camps were to our Japanese American brothers and sisters, because so little of that pain was put to words.

But it was painful. It was humiliating and awful.

So we have very strong cultural factors that lock stories of pain inside. And the broader culture has interpreted this as meaning that we don’t feel pain and suffering as deeply as other people. I would suggest that part of why Asian Americans have a hard time hearing and showing compassion towards the story of black people in the US- is because they have shown very little compassion to their own stories. We have unaddressed pain and it makes it difficult to engage with another community’s pain.

This is where we need cross cultural community. Because an all Asian community will reinforce this cultural approach to narrative and pain. But sometimes another context, an outside voice, a different way can be introduced by an outsider.

As Asian Americans we need to find a way to present our pain and our stories to Jesus and to each other. I think our parents need room to share, lament, cry ( that really awkward painful cry of older Asian folks) and then actually process and receive healing.

And the grace we have received could become be the grace we extend.

Perhaps as we watch the black community seek compassion, dignity, and justice for its community. We can begin to do that for ourselves as well. And we can stand together with them. And hopefully they will stand with us. Since this is what is means to be Christian community.