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This work injures me; this work heals me

In the last few months I have taken a step back from visibility and a lot of the work in which I was previously involved. It’s been cool salsa dancing in Grant Park with my friend Jazzy and tripping over myself. It’s been refreshing to binge watch The Good Wife without worrying about traveling and deadlines. I started noticing all the ways in which fighting for racial and gender justice was causing me to lose my sense of self. During the height of the hashtag that shall not be named, I was not only dehumanized by how I was being characterized by the media, but by myself as well. I believe we all do the best we can with what we have and when we know better or have more support, we begin to operate in ways that affirm our own humanity and that of others.

It was through my personal experiences of trauma and marginalization that I began to do the work of gender and racial justice work–feeling as though I was both too much and not enough at the same time. I was never smart enough, pretty enough, nice enough, mean enough, articulate enough, or organized enough to be heard. As I become a more visible activist, I started becoming numb to acts of injustice because it seemed violence was the only constant in my life. Everything became a campaign. I very much regret letting my heart dissociate from my head, but it was a self-protective development. As an Korean American woman, my leadership was constantly questioned. I was always too emotional, too soft, too delicate to lead in ways American individualism and exceptionalism have taught us to value and respect. I remember one time I made an advocacy video about AAPI LGBT suicide for an organization I led. The male members of an Asian American group on Facebook instead ranked my attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 10 instead of engaging the words I spoke. I was 21 when this happened. Experiences like this one made me want to be “one of the guys” and become a direct and aggressive workaholic in order to be have my work and the issues I cared about taken seriously.

My friend Ryan likens me to the Wizard of Oz. It’s actually laughably funny how common of a reaction this is from people who meet me face-to-face. Have I really done that great job of building up self-protective walls? Yes. I relate so much to Maleficent and how, out of her own abuse, she began to build up walls of darkness. “You hurt me” or “I am hurt” was never enough to stop the abuse in my life. Maybe people would believe me if I shielded myself in intellect and took enough courses to explain my trauma in a logical and historical way. Maybe if hardened myself from feeling my own pain, then maybe I could be a scary and forceful agent of change to challenge white heteropatriarchy and make it shake in its boots. However, like Maleficent, I didn’t realize how much power I had hoarded up for myself. I got so used to being in attack mode and on the defense, that I forgot that hardening myself and doubling down isn’t the only or best option. In fact, it’s a bad habit that can actually injure others. It’s so much easier for me to go on a rant about critical race theory than it is for me to share my personal pain and how it informs my work. I almost always redirect personal questions that come my way into some sort of political commentary to deflect from having to remember all the ways in which this work still injures me. I wanted to be big enough to no longer be a victim without doing the work to heal and realize all the ways in which I continue to operate as if I’m being threatened.

I’m not just an angry activist, I’m a survivor. The latter is harder to admit than the prior. One of those labels makes me feel in control and the other as if I have no personal agency. Right now my main priority is figuring out how to not harden myself in response to abuse, but to soften myself and rediscover the parts of me I tucked away in order to feel less vulnerable. Not all critique is meant to injure. Critique can be a pathway to finding collective solutions to healing.

An injured animal will almost always bite back, especially if it feels backed into a corner. There’s been many times in my life I’ve had to bite back. To be honest, I ran away limping a few months ago, unwilling to stand strong and risk gaining another battle scar. The other day I met a dog who flinched whenever I tried to pet him. I think I do a lot of flinching because I can no longer tell when I’m safe or in danger. It definitely helps keep myself from being harmed further, but also shuts out the possibility of affection and healing. I flinch. I bite.

But people do the best they can with what they have. And it’s hard to gain a full picture of who someone is or what experiences they have or continue to walk through from the outside looking in. It’s easy to pass judgement and shut down conversation. And it’s even easier to assume critique is meant to injure and that we are again under attack. I call this being trigger happy.

Although I am used to endless backlash from people with institutional power who I challenge, I am most injured by hostility from other Asian American women. The pressure of being marginalized by both race and gender can cause almost a pressure cooker situation. Asian American women are already racialized/gendered constantly, so it becomes normative to turn that white male gaze inward at each other. We begin to police the behavior of one other, pick at insecurities of one other, and oftentimes assert our superiority over one another. I can’t tell you how many women in workshops I’ve facilitated say they don’t have a lot of friends who are women because they feel they are always in competition. If we are in competition then what is the prize? The “prize” is acceptance within white heteropatriarchy. The main backlash I receive from Asian Americans has been “you make us look too sensitive” or “you make us look ungrateful” which points to the fact that we still have representation (barely even scraping the surface of our other problems) issues. There was a petition going around after the hashtag that shall not be named called “remove Suey Park as spokesperson for Asian Americans” signed by thousands of Asian Americans. It was painfully ironic seeing as the very need to have a PR manager for Asian Americans is in itself a sign that we have internalized a lot of negative stereotypes about ourselves and still worry about being (mis)represented. To be a model minority is to approximate whiteness, which includes not naming white supremacy in return for justifying the logics of racism on a micro and macro level. If we keep our heads down, we will be rewarded. This has been the role of Asian Americans on the racial hierarchy. We will never reach whiteness, but by centering its needs we gain closer proximity to power, resources, and prestige. This is the story of assimilation.

We do the work of white heteropatriarchy ourselves when we begin to label one another as threats, as deviant outliers that must be attacked and removed for the sake of maintaining the status quo–for a false sense of safety that comes from ignoring injustice that surrounds us. Trust me, I would rather be the Asian American leader with cool Youtube covers or the owner of a trendy food truck. I have a high need for approval and love being liked, so please believe me when I say I don’t do or say anything unless I am 100% convicted it is necessary. But that conviction doesn’t make it any easier for me to deal with the hate.

I’m really encouraged by a reconciliatory experience I had this week (and have received permission to write about). There was a Korean American woman who had vehemently disagreed with my political understandings and because we had mutual friends, it hurt me greatly, since I already struggle to find community amongst my peers. I bit back. And we kept metaphorically shooting at each other. Although it was easy to say “settler colonialism and orientalism are relative and not comparative in social location” and “to be the model minority is to be non-black” I really wanted to say “you hurt me” and I’m sure she wanted to say “you hurt me” as well. I used my knowledge and expertise as a weapon. It wasn’t loving. It wasn’t educational. And I forgot to realize that her own life experiences have informed what she knows and understands of this world. Even though I had been figuratively wanting to chase her down to offer my forgiveness and make my pain known through my own strength and selfish desire to be the bigger person, the situation seemed hopeless. Just when I lose faith in my own ability to reconcile and find peace, I’m always in awe of God’s ability and reconciliatory heart to be made all the more profound. I had tweeted something random about waving an olive branch and buying coffee for my enemies and she happened to see it. She took me up on the offer. We talked face-to-face and it wasn’t scary or combative at all. It was actually very healing. 

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I gave her this copy of The Enemy, which clearly illustrates this preemptive shooting and doubling down rather than listening. The first line is “The Enemy is there but I have never seen him. Every morning, I shoot at him. Then he shoots at me.” I think this is how conflict happens oftentimes, but instead someone needs to stop shooting from afar and really see their “enemy” to realize our enemy isn’t one another. This story and experience clearly show the gospel at work as God is always trying to chase me down simply to grant me forgiveness and reconcile me to Him. 

The enemy is white supremacy. The enemy is patriarchy. These structures of violence not only create economic violence, death, and inequity, but we would do well to realize the strains it puts between marginalized people. When I talk about decentering whiteness, I mean ceasing to do our advocacy in a way that envisions recognition and inclusion by white folks as our end goal. One way to decenter whiteness is to focus on the internal work, recognize and challenge horizontal violence, coalition building, learning to trust one another, and the healing that we need to do from centuries of both external and internalized racisms.

The enemy is the enemy.

Through Killjoy Prophets, I have seen transformative justice at work. We hold peace circles to work through conflict instead of running away from each other when things get hard. And when we are in community with one another (all different identities) and work through how we can support one another emotionally and spiritually. I would argue these skills are actually more useful and important in the larger work of justice and living missional lives than understanding white supremacy on an intellectual level. As Andy Smith says, abolition is a positive process. It’s not just about what we can dismantle, but what we can build together as alternatives to our current system. This is how we do the work of transformative justice. How do we decrease dependency on the police, prisons, and the criminal “justice” system? One way is to find community safety alternatives, which begins with trusting one another and showing up for each other in ways that aren’t just transformative in the anti-violence movement, but that also transform us. This is how we stop enhancing state power in the name of safety and begin to take matters into our own hands to become safe people.

Justice is also an internal process. If I die tomorrow I may have not made a dent in ending global oppression, but I have experienced much healing in my own life. If you asked me today “what does justice look like to you” I would no longer give you a dictionary answer and 5 political demands, but I would tell you about my personal struggle to find peace in my relationships and within myself.

What does justice look like to you?

Beyond Reform: Killjoy Prophets Call for Prison Abolition

Killjoy Prophets believes in using social locations strategically. We are happy to contribute to the wonderful week of #faithfeminisms posts. Read more here.

“It is the solidarity of the executed Jesus with the other imprisoned and other executed ones that makes up the first certain Christian community.” -Mark Lewis Taylor

We are thrilled to partake in the #FaithFeminisms conversations this week. However, it is important to articulate how surface level unity or lowest common denominator organizing can easily lead to ignore espousing clear political priorities. With #YesAllWomen, a conversation started by a Muslim woman of color, we saw how the creator’s original intent for the hashtag was co-opted and whitewashed in order to serve as a platform for white women to cling to their victimhood. Yes, white women are subordinated on the axis of gender, but still maintain relative privilege over women of color who are subordinated by both race and gender. We are not asking for white women or accomplices to forgo involvement in social movements, but to center the voices of the most marginalized. We ask the #FaithFeminisms community to focus on bottom-up organizing, rather than seeking to make trickle down hierarchal changes might eventually reach the most marginalized. This way we focus on the needs of those in crisis and can organize to offer immediate relief.  Bottom-up organizing means that organizing around the needs of the most organized will by default lead to liberation of all.

In the words of Andrea Smith, white feminism is dependent on settler colonialism. That is, white feminism is born our of a colonial-settler state. Therefore, all waves of feminism following the first wave of the white feminist movement do not work towards further inclusion, since the very foundation of white feminism is tied to the limitations and logics of the nation-state. Not only was it a mistake of the past to confuse first wave (white) feminism as the birthplace for “all” women’s liberation, but the logics of “liberate white women and then the rest” continue to play out in current and ongoing feminist projects when many of their politics directly harm women of color. Furthermore, envisioning the early pioneers of feminism as white women is to engage in a complete erasure of the ongoing resistance of Black and Native feminists. As a collective centering women of color feminists, we refuse to offer our labor and our free education for the self-improvement of “allies” who will walk away with more knowledge, but no commitment in laboring for our liberation. It is time to challenge this forced order of “unity” at the cost of flattening histories and present realities. White feminism is not a starting point or a first step, it is the marker of derailment.

Revelation 3:16 (NIV)
So, because you are lukewarm–neither hot nor cold–I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

Reform is not enough. We refuse to be tricked into believing that inherently violent systems can be made friendlier. Women of color feminism is not simply about being “nicer” to an individual and it is about more than making prisons or the police seem “nicer”. We believe that choosing to leave these systems entirely intact while bandaging wounds is not grasping the problem at its roots, but instead continuously pruning the branches of a structure growing more violent and more powerful. Our pruning helping to maintain and justify a violent structures by making them seem reformed. The problem with the left calling out the right is it allows them to name their sin loudly and declare “this is what racism or sexism looks like and we’re not like that.”  It allows them to participate in the same systems of oppression without any self-examination and to benefit from structures that are themselves harmful. It is a more insidious form of oppression and racism. Niceness has done more harm than good. Niceness is a tool of the colonizer. Niceness (civility) was born with the creation of liberal democracy, in which only those considered citizens were allowed to communicate their ideas nicely. Instead we need abolishment. Oscar Wilde once said the worst thing a charity can do is to alleviate the pangs of oppression, thus perpetuating the systems causing them.  A slave owner who was really “nice” to his slaves was still a slaveholder. There’s a way in which our demeanor or knowledge do not line up with our actions or excuse our complicity in violence.

John 8:1-11 (ESV)
but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery.Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

When Jesus stopped the woman from being stoned he didn’t say, “hey let’s not kill her, let’s just put in her in jail” – he was critiquing the entire society that caused her to do those things. We believe this passage is a critique of criminalization, in which it’s people who are victims of state violence are not “criminals” but marginalized people. As Mariame Kaba notes, it’s not the abusers and rapists ending up in prison. Mass incarceration is made possible by hyper-criminalization of specific populations, making a system of justice more of a criminal punishment system than anything else. Similar to the woman being stoned in the Bible passage above, we see people being punished for situations they did not create, punishment for surviving amidst economic violence.

Carceral feminism tells us that the state is capable of reform and pushed women to rely on state services for protection from gender violence, despite the state being the biggest perpetrator of gender violence both here and abroad. Focusing on the safety of white women has led to policies such as Stop-and-Frisk and Stand Your Ground laws that have led to criminalization of people of color. We truly can not expect a system of violence to be the solution for ending violence. Prison abolition is Christ-like. Jesus is a revolutionary who came to challenge state power and authority and fight in solidarity with the most marginalized. Both the right and the left are complicit in upholding the criminal justice system and the prison-industrial complex.

Mass incarceration is a symptom of a society too sedated to be self reflexive, a vacuum filled by the bodies of the oppressed. We look at the lynching tree as a public manifestation of such a vacuum (James Cone), but let us not forget the multitudes continue to legally suffer in prisons as a source of free labor and capital–Black bodies used as the conduit for funnelling wealth into the hands of the elite through the expenditure of tax dollars and the glutinous prison-industrial complex. Our greatest sin is complicity in a judicial system predicated on the slaveability of Black bodies, a necessity of imperial logics. Who is the real criminal?

 Luke 4:18-19 (ESV) 
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim God’s favor.”

By forfeiting our natural right to be autonomous and passing the responsibility of justice onto the state unearths a willingness to let the government play God. Advocating the perpetuation of the same justice model that killed Jesus shows the world how far we have come from the teachings of Jesus. “Go and sin no more” is not a passive line of grace we as Christians get to objectively offer to sinners. It is a line of active grace that we very much need for ourselves as we find ourselves complicit in state violence while preaching love and justice. The prophets have stated several times that God does not want sacrifice, but mercy.

The Killjoy Prophets collective proposes a week of action to shed light on the Marissa Alexander case as a continuation of #FaithFeminisms. Marissa Alexander is a Black woman of faith who is facing up to 60 years in prison as punishment for surviving. She was a victim of domestic violence and sent a warning shot into the ceiling in fear for her life. The cops arrested her and she has been in the criminal justice system for three years now, which is an extension of the violence she experienced at home.

Please email killjoysandprophets@gmail.com if you are interested in getting involved. We hope to see Christians mobilize for Marissa’s freedom and move our faith into action. Let’s keep the momentum going. 

In Christ,
Killjoy Prophets

“Someone can be madly in love with you and still not be ready. They can love you in a way you have never been loved and still not join you on the bridge. And whatever their reasons you must leave. Because you never ever have to inspire anyone to meet you on the bridge. You never ever have to convince someone to do the work to be ready. There is more extraordinary love, more love that you have never seen, out here in this wide and wild universe. And there is the love that will be ready.” –Nayyirah Waheed

#ChooseAnotherStoryGFU: Justice for Jayce

Statement of Support

As a faith-based collective centering the needs and voices of the most marginalized, Kiljoy Prophets stands in solidarity with Jayce as he appeals the Department of Education’s ruling to exempt George Fox University from meeting Title IX regulations. Title IX has been put in place to hold universities to basic standards of non-discrimination, including protection from sex and gender discrimination. Killjoy Prophets founding team consists of current students and alumni of both George Fox University and George Fox Seminary. We are disappointed that a school founded upon the activism of George Fox and a religion preaching love and acceptance would go through such great extents to opt out of a non-discrimination law. We believe that the right to safety and housing is among the basic human needs required to survive, yet alone thrive, in a higher education setting. Meeting Title IX regulations to provide trans-inclusive housing is the least any university can do to work towards guaranteeing all students can freely and safely self-determine their gender identity and expression.

We believe that in the United States, the church has been used to uphold and further global oppression, rather than follow Jesus’ example of fighting against oppressive systems and acting in solidarity with those most marginalized by society. We believe the gospel has been used for self-interest and the maintenance of white heteropatriarchy, which includes the creation of the gender binary, to justify existing inequality and maintain systems of power. We pray for a day when the Christian faith will not be used to withhold basic human rights. We implore George Fox University to reverse their decision swiftly and provide housing for Jayce.

Action Steps: 

  1. Sign this petition and then click ‘share’ to encourage your social media connections to sign it.
  2. Please call George Fox President Robin Baker at 503-554-2101 and let him know how you feel about his discriminatory actions.
  3. Email George Fox President Robin Baker at: president@georgefox.edu.
  4. Tweet @georgefox with the hashtag #ChooseAnotherStoryGFU to demand a change of heart.

Sample Email (feel free to copy and paste or write your own): 

President Robin Baker,

We urge you to reconsider using the religious exemption you received from the U.S. Department of Education to deny housing accommodations to transgender students on campus. Please choose another ending to this story in order to make George Fox a safer and more inclusive campus.

Sincerely,

Your Signature

More information relevant to the case:

 

 

23 Moments of Grace

The focus on my age this year has been puzzling. It seemed like every story and lead-in had to mention the infamous “23” before my name. Growing up as an avid Chicago Bulls fan during the Michael Jordan era means I have an affinity for the number 23 and therefore have not be troubled by my proximity to this number.After all, age in as impermanent as time and the funny thing about it is it’s always changing.

When I turned 23 I thought it would be an exciting year, but I had no idea what the year it would actually entail. I wish I could sit here and compile all my interviews and articles and proudly display my worldly success, but of course I wouldn’t be me if it weren’t for my somewhat sweet melancholic reflections.

I spoke at a national conference (vague out of courtesy to the parties involved who handled the situation professionally) a few months ago . In my keynote, I began by talking about a hate crime that happened while I was in college that changed by worldview and sprung me into activism. A Sikh law professor was stabbed in the throat on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the attacker screaming “this is my country” just before the lunge. The white male attacker was 23 at the time. That age engrained in my mind. I remember learning having degrees, wearing suits, and carrying a briefcase doesn’t mean you won’t be targeted for a hate crime. As an ambitious Asian American student, this incident changed my understanding of success significantly. I even rejected offers to work at corporations (though a more financially lucrative option) to study race/hate crime in graduate school and became an activist.

After the keynote, I went to get dessert with several students and their advisor. I love meeting with students in smaller groups to continue answering questions and to build relationships, but this outing took a turn for the worst. There was a white male student who reacted very badly to my critique of the white ally archetype. He said “you people always erase us from history books and make us all look like racists” when we know the history books actually do the very opposite. I pushed back in my educational voice, explaining how whiteness is a structure that implicates all white individuals and he went from 0 to 100. He pointed right at my nose while shaking and said “I can’t believe we have a big ol’ racist invited to be our keynote speaker” while insisting racism against white people was alive and well. I understand this logic, although it is faulty as reverse racism cannot exist. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he was aware that white people have been complicit is atrocious acts of violence against marginalized communities. The fear he ran wild with was the fear that people of color would turn around and commit the same acts of violence against white people. I tried explaining what racial justice entails, but he stormed out.

I tried to gather myself as many people were watching at this point. I sat there in disbelief…managing my triggers as best as I could, but he came back swinging. He accused me of having PTSD (I do have PTSD) and said I was generalizing all white men as being overly aggressive since #CancelColbert, since I had an onslaught of security threats during that time, all while screaming at me and shaking with anger. How was I generalizing when I was observing and reacting to a specific person and incident an inch from my face? But before I could talk myself down logically, I felt my dinner in my throat. I ran outside to the front of the restaurant just seconds before projectile vomiting all over myself. I continued inside the restaurant and couldn’t stop.

There I was, the keynote speaker of a national conference, covered in my own vomit. And no college degree, anthropologie dress, or Spring pumps kept me from my visceral physical reaction to an act of white male aggression. It was almost sadly poetic how full circle it came since my speech that morning about the professor at my alma mater.

The advisor of the student group tried talking me down. She explained how I had triggered the student and asked “do you have any compassion?” as I stood there with a blank look, holding my wet pumps. The advisor said “he’s a sweet boy and only 23, too young to have had a chance to learn about racism fully.” As my friends always say, there’s a difference between learning about racism through a textbook and learning about it through your experiences. When was I ever too young to learn about the cruel reality of racism? I looked at her and said “then your student is the same age as me” and I don’t think she had much to add after that apart from an apology.

Oh how 23 can be a perilous age for a woman of color. Do you see now how age is not a great equalizer? That some of us are allowed mistakes, while others of us found guilty from the moment we dare open our mouths and speak back.

I can recount too many of these stories, but on my 24th birthday I do not wish to be bitter. Below I will share 23 moments of grace (in random order) I have experienced in my last 365 days of life that are truly worth celebrating.

(Please excuse me for rambling, I blog to procrastinate from writing my first book and have never been good at keeping my thoughts brief, as you can see on my overactive twitter account.)

1. When I was driving back from Colorado to Chicago on Christmas Eve after wrapping up at work, my car broke down in the middle of nowhere Nebraska at 4am. It was freezing outside and the tow truck and insurance company were moving very slowly. I wanted to get home to spend Christmas with my mom and my sister, especially since my dad passed on Christmas and it’s a hard holiday for my family. I tweeted about the incident and Lilith saw my tweet because she was working as a late night nurse and had odd hours. I had barely any money at the time and she asked if she could call me via a direct message. She had an insurance company and tow truck on the other line and paid for everything. I got home in time for Christmas and it was truly and act of grace.

2. I was speaking in DC and Christine Yang came to stay with me in my hotel. We were walking to Chinatown to have a yummy breakfast when we both got spit on! That is right, two Korean feminists went to Chinatown to escape a sea of whiteness and got spit on. Although horrifying, we looked at each other and felt so affirmed. To have someone else see and experience daily acts of violence is oddly comforting.

3. During the #CancelColbert chaos, there was a whirlwind of hate against me. Many Asian American women were even throwing me under the bus, which hurt more than anything. I learned a major lesson about identifying with people based on their politics and not the likeness of our appearance when Kortney Ziegler pulled out of a HuffPo Live appearance as an act of solidarity because of how I was treated by Josh Zepps. Following Kortney’s lead, the other panelists (Jen Richards, Tiq Milan, and Reina Gossett) also pulled out. I can’t tell you how meaningful this experience was, especially when right after their empty time slot, a few Asian American women who I once considered friends, went on air to bash my work publicly so HuffPo could save face. One woman even said I was “asking for it” with regard to my rape and death threats. Much more than the betrayal and heartbreak I experienced, I remember this act of solidarity. Kortney gave away an opportunity to showcase amazing work in order to be in solidarity, which I know many do not have the courage to do.

4. I went to grab coffee in the Starbucks inside the hotel at the MLA conference. The woman next to me in line asked me what I did for a living prior to moving to Chicago and I said I was an organizer. This woman said “I’m an organizer too!” and we skipped the first session to drink our coffee together and talk about organizing. It turns out she is a home organizer, but I learned a lot about the world of professional storage organizing. While sitting with her and laughing over coffee, my future writing partner Angela Kim walked by and spotted me. She tweeted at me asking if I could meet for lunch, but we forever bond over how her first moment seeing me was when I was having coffee with a very different kind of organizer. Had I not skipped a session to have coffee, I would have never met one of my favorite friends!

5. If it wasn’t obvious I am a total Andrea Smith fangirl (she let’s me call her Andy). I thought maybe 30 years from now if I’m badass enough, or publish enough articles, or do my part to end global oppression that she might notice me. One day, I was sitting in seminar being bored when the one and only Andy Smith tweeted at me. She found my snarky “Tim Wise, informed by Tim Wise” piece to be hilarious, confirming the revolution will in fact be funny. Moral of the story is that someone I idolized so much noticed me because of a snarky blog post rather than a smart essay or noble act. Keep this in mind people! Meritocracy is dead!

6. You know the kind of friends that just know how to be with you? A lot of my friends are activists and we live such busy lives that we forget to check-in about our basic livelihood. So often “how are you?” is replaced with “let’s debrief about xyz campaign or event?” and we don’t remember how trauma informs everything and how healing in an ongoing collective process. My friend Kyla is the kind of friend who knows how to just be with people. When I was going through the worst of it, she watched episodes of the L-Word with me (although we regret it now) and kept me company when I couldn’t leave my home. I honestly think I would have lost it without her company. Through her friendship, I’ve been learning how to show up for people more and do the seemingly small things well. So often I see how I view others as simply supporting me without being fully present in a mutually beneficial friendship.

7. I often write about how being in love, even if temporary, reminds you that you are lovable and capable of loving another. Even if that love is trapped within a specific period of time, I think the memory is worth preserving. I remember being so in love that when I was dropped off at the airport, I hit my head on the car door. I did not want to stop looking at my partner’s face as I got out of the car and got a memorable bump on my head. Here I learned that even the most analytical and critical thinkers lose all their senses and become so easily undone by an unassuming force.

8. It’s been over 2 years in eating disorder recovery! This is something to celebrate and I consider it the biggest accomplishment of my life thus far. My eating disorder lasted 9 years of my life, which means it was the longest relationship I have ever had. May there be better ones to replace it.

9. On a similar note, my knee has finally recovered enough after multiple tears and surgeries. I was an athlete prior to getting injured and loved the rush I got from competitive sports. Lately I have been able to hit 5 miles again. Although it’s not at an impressive pace, I am grateful for the fact that I can run at all.

10. I had a life-changing conversation with Alok of DarkMatter while in Brooklyn. They questioned what the role of college educate Asian Americans should be in movement building, emphasizing how being able to be a full-time activist means you have the privilege of supporting yourself financially. They theorized how the role of college educate Asian Americans should not be to lead movements, but to fund movements led by people who are most directly impacted by systems of oppression. Since then, I have put much of my energy into thinking about redistribution and grassroots fundraising. Without this conversation I would not have learned the importance of using my social location strategically.

11. I had another life-changing conversation with Janani of DarkMatter when we were both speaking at UC Irvine. I had just gotten out of a long relationship and was lamenting over the loss. We went for a long walk around the campus and I talked about how the relationship offered me a lot of security. They gently pushed back and explained how the romance myth is tied to upholding the white heteropatriarchal state, in which there are added security benefits of forming a “permanent” relationship, which are oftentimes benefits that have never an option to gender non-conforming people. This conversation taught me about my dependence on patriarchy on both a micro and macro level.

12. While in the middle of a cry fest, my friend Sunjay posted about how only the strongest people cry the most. Until this point I had been rather private about how deeply sensitive I am and how often I cry. Now I believe in public feelings. The world may be cruel, but I will not harden my heart. Thanks Sunjay!

13. I was put on two of the same top 10 lists as Beyonce (obviously not for singing or dancing because I suck), which makes me feel like I should just quit while I’m ahead.

14. My assistantship while at graduate school in Colorado immersed me in a beautifully rich international student community. So many different cultures coming together in one town made me feel far less alone. I also loved getting to know the women of INCITE! in the Denver chapter.

15. The fall. All of it. I can’t ever get enough of the fall season. Apple picking, pumpkin patches, cornfields (I’m a Midwest girl at heart), and cinnamon in the air.

16. My new love of soufflés. I like them so much I might call them Suefflés.

17. Killjoy Prophets! I met Mihee Kim-Kort while speaking at Indiana University and knew it was ready to get mobilizing for faith in action. Emily Rice and I had been thinking about starting an online book club/collective and it came together beautifully. All of us misfits have built community and are preparing to launch our project and welcome new members in a few short weeks!

18. Chicago people! My travel schedule has been atrocious since moving back(ish), but I dearly love and deeply admire organizers in Chicago. Kelly Hayes and Sam Sandmel were the first to welcome me and I’m always so happy to see them when I’m home(ish). With people like Mariame Kaba, Shira Hassan, Karen Lewis, and countless others based here, there’s no doubt amazing work is happening. My only regret is not being able to get involved due to my travels!

19. My pixie! Combined with gaining weight after knee surgery, this has surely been a year to test my obsession with my body-image and appearance. My friend Alok convinced me to cut it and although I wouldn’t do it again, it has forced me to stop hiding behind my hair.

20. Grocery shopping with my friends (hey Tolu and Whitley). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had belly-aching laughter in grocery stores all across the states. Such a simple routine can bring such adventurous joy to a homebody like me. I think I will know I’ve met my soulmate when I find someone who likes to grocery shop as much as I do.

21. My mother for getting over the fact that I rejected corporate job offers and quit graduate school to pursue my dreams. Trust me, this is no small feat for a Korean parent!

22. All the lovely supportive friends I have on twitter.

23. My deep-seeded love of birds. I always look at them and remember Matthew 6:26, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” In my most tragic moments, I always manage to spot one or two chirping away.

There’s no way I could capture how transformative my past year had been and I certainly cannot list everyone who has impacted me this year. I dare say that 24 will be full of more surprises and more wonder. Thank you to everyone who has been a part of my journey and I promise I won’t let you down!

 

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Becoming My Own Main Character: Straddling Conservative and Radical Spaces

Growing Up with Identity Politics 

As of a couple weeks ago, I have let the cat out of the bag! No, I wasn’t that cool counterculture girl in college. I was preppy campus ministry girl. My politics may have been left of left, but I have somehow straddled occupying fairly conservative religious spaces in my private life while occupying fairly radical spaces in my political and public life. In radical spaces I’m usually the only one in an A-line dress, cardigan, and an updo. In conservative spaces I’m usually the only one pushing for leftist politics.

In my young adult life I’m seeing how I can no longer keep those two areas of myself separate as they continue becoming blurred. At my mom’s church, members are constantly asking about my activism. In radical spaces, I’m developing closer friendships and people are finding out more and more about the work I do within the church.

I get into situations in which during the span of one day, I’m discussing the racist institution of marriage, then returning home to pin the bouquets I like on Pinterest for my (failed) almost engagement. We are all full of many contradictions and tensions, but in the last year mine have really been reaching breaking points.

You know how Lizzy Mcguire has a cartoon version of herself? I have that cartoon Angry Asian Woman version of myself playing radical police in my head and invalidating my feelings. On top of my internal voice intellectualizing matters of the heart, I’ve also had a lot of public visibility at an early age, which can be stunting. I often wonder if there is room to continue changing my “public image” to match my internal transformation, but over and over again journalists and social media experts urge me to stick to a “brand” with specific areas of expertise. If you’ve watched me on social media, you can see that I basically took this advice and flushed it down a toilet. Yes, I am still a racial justice activist and feminist. However, I also believe in public feeling and collective healing. Most girls who write me emails admit to becoming politicized through my twitter account, but the draw not being my political tweets. It’s always “I related to your feelings of betrayal” or “your breakup tweets resonated with me” before the “and it brought me to realize xyz”. Trust me, there’s never been a point in my career in which I felt so successful that I magically wish away my insecurities and pain.

Growing up in the Korean Presbyterian church was how I began to develop my racial identity, since other than those Sundays I lived in a predominately (99% at that time) white neighbored. I can’t blame my parents for this, since I can’t imagine how badly the racism they experienced as new immigrants shaped their decision. They wanted my sister and I to cultivate a cultural/spiritual identity, while also believing that being around other Korean/Korean Americans too long would keep me and my sister from achieving in the traditional American sense. My parents were politically conservative, playing Rush Limbaugh in the car on the way to school and turning the TV on to watch Glenn Beck. The internalization of shame and the American Dream as a tool for survival ran deep. Start a conversation in Korean with me and you will quickly hear my American accent slipping through. There’s a difference between learning a language through community and learning it through textbooks.

The person I dated long term broke up with me over #NotYourAsianSidekick. And the last person I dated broke up with me over the chaos of #CancelColbert. The political and personal are interconnected. And yes, there is a personal cost for speaking out in unpopular ways. Through both breakups I resented my partners for not standing by me when I needed it the most, but the important realization I have made through it all is that I stood by myself and I am stronger for it. In both relationships I was seen as a sidekick. When my life became more public and drew attention, existing problems were brought to the surface. The first partner became jealous and therefore unsupportive, the second become partner became embarrassed. He couldn’t reconcile my radical politics with the expectations and politics of his friends and family.

Although it’s been painful, I have been able to reflect on both relationships and find meaning both in my personal growth and my activism.

The last person I dated was a Korean American pastor. Replace cartoon Angry Asian Woman in my head with my little church self and you’ll understand why I was so carried away with the possibility of being a pastor’s wife. He shared my politics (at the time at least) and envisioned the role of the pastor in a church to be to act as a community organizer. I thought dating him would be how I could combine the two most important areas of my life: faith and justice. Again, it’s really easy for me to grab onto the role of a helper and supporter rather than trusting my own vision. Socialization is a hell of a drug!

Things I learned from dating a pastor

Whenever I had something hard (even a crisis) happen in my life, my partner would say “this feels like pastoral care” and either chastise me for my emotions or ignore me completely for days until I was feeling better. Once he even called himself my “emotion police” when I was going through a particularly hard time, being the stalking and public abuse I experienced following #CancelColbert, which I think any reasonable person would express emotion around if they experienced what I did. As Chris Stedman told me via a twitter conversation, we bring our whole selves into our work. Our passions, dreams, personality, experiences, skills, and more. We also bring those things out of work and back home. Refusing to engage a partner emotionally is a barrier to a real intimate relationship. What if I refused to talk about politics, feminism, or Asian American identity in my relationships because I considered it work? What if since I do comedy, I refused to be funny in my relationships? “Pastoral care” should be replaced with “basic human decency” or simply “care” rather than being seen as a part of a job description–something that can be turned off after work hours are up.

Furthermore, “pastoral care” was used whenever it was convenient for him but inconvenient for me. One day, we had reservations at a local restaurant so he could meet my sister who was only in town that day. My mom made the reservation and was so excited she cleared her own schedule to work around his open window of time. He texted the morning before saying he had to do “pastoral care” for a woman in his congregation who had back surgery. While I agree this is important work, he ignored me all day and refused to even consider asking another volunteer to fill in since he had plans with my whole family. Meanwhile, I was expected to meet his family before I was ready to several weeks earlier despite protesting.

After several last minute cancellations (usually the day of an event) and long gaps between communicating with me, it became clear “pastoral care” was just a refusal to care for me as a partner. I’m sure not all pastors are like this in their personal lives and I’m sure some are, but all I know is it did not serve me well. As I have my own busy work day and public life, it was damaging to my career to arrange everything over the possibility of spending time with him.

Something positive I learned from all of this is that anyone can be a theologian. As I wrote a couple blog posts ago, I was discouraged from participating in theological discussions when I was in college ministry. Through dating a pastor, I became more comfortable engaging in theology rather than letting other people interpret and mediate the gospel for me. I helped him write several essays and sermons (and often found many mistakes) and became confident in my ability to participate in Christian conversations. I’m finding I don’t have to be a pastor’s wife to have a role in influencing the church, but can use my own voice rather than speaking through him.

Another takeaway from this relationship is learning how to love myself and my roots. We had an uncanny amount of identities and experiences in common, so loving him him was almost a practice in loving myself. My experiences of alienation within a conservative Korean church were also his and I think offering affirmation for his experiences was also a way to affirm my own experiences. When I had dinner with his parents, I also noticed a point of growth in myself. I was trying to explain my work and politics and found myself tongue-tied trying to avoid the critical race theory.  Sometimes I hate myself for talking about whiteness in a manner that is in itself white-washed. I realized how ironic it was that I couldn’t articulate my Asian American advocacy to Korean immigrants and knew in that moment it was an area I should dig into with my own family and at large.

Now that it has been a couple months since the initial heartbreak, I’m finding that I can be my own main character. I can forge a path for myself that integrates all of my identities. I am nobody’s sidekick and that is more than okay.

 

Killjoy Prophets, Asian Americans, and Racial Reconciliation (Part 1)

By: Suey Park, Emily Rice, and Mihee Kim-Kort

Beyond Reconciliation: A Call For Racial Justice

In both radical circles and evangelical spaces, we have seen focus on structural issues being diverted through a reductive analysis of interpersonal politics.

While interest in diversity among evangelical and mainline churches has increased in recent years, the primary method to address racial difference and achieve reconciliation has been through the confession of privilege. Dialogues on race often include people of color who tell their stories of discrimination and marginalization to white people that in turn express their guilt about their position of privilege in society. The dialogues culminate in a fleeting moment of vulnerability and end after the confessions, with rarely any follow up actions taken. It is as if words erase injustice; a few seconds to undo hundreds of years of slavery and settler colonialism. In The Problem with Privilege, Andrea Smith observes “the rituals of confessing privilege have evolved, they have shifted our focus from building social movements for global transformation to individual self-improvement.” Confessing something does not erase its existence, it operates to reduce complicity only as an optical illusion. A magic trick, rather than a true feat. This also creates a model in which liberation is dependent on oppressors humanizing those who they are oppressing, which keeps us on an imperial timeline. This blame-shifting game puts the burden of reconciliation on marginalized peoples’ ability to educate, recentering those with power. Recognition of privilege needs to move from personal transformation into outward action in order to contribute to ending oppression. Otherwise, diversity is limited to incorporating non-whites into existing institutions. This tactic means the framework of institutions built by and for white men go untouched, while these institutions absorb critique to appear more inclusive.

Glen Coulthard asserts that reconciliation for First Nations peoples in Canada is used to make them consistent with politics of genocide within the settler colonial state, while minimizing the legitimacy of righteous rage about injustice. Rather than reconciliation being a forced order, we should ask the questions “reconcile to whom?” and “reconcile to what?” Reconciliation has often been used to mean conforming to a hegemonic backdrop, meaning the white heteropatriarchal standards that shape the very foundation of the church. The same is true in the context of Western Christian theology. In Refusing to Reconcile: Against Racial Reconciliation, Amaryah Shaye critiques “reconciliation [as] a framework beholden to white theology and, thus, is not capable of confronting the violence of white supremacy.” Justice should not be contingent on conforming to respectable standards dictated by power. Refusing reconciliation is a way to resist the minimization of structural inequity by recognizing the interpersonal is a manifestation of the larger problem.

Reconciliation as played out by the church does not mean justice, it means forced unity.

A Shift in Asian American Discourse

In #TwitterPanic, Dorothy Kim recaps how “AAPI Twitter has become the most recent contested space where an Asian American representational war is happening amongst its stakeholders” in which respectable Asian American representatives are in fear we are “ungrateful for white liberal politics.” An attack of white liberalism is viewed as an attack of Asian Americans, since for too long Asian Americans have ridden on its coattails. Rather than focus on the violence of white supremacy, we instead see a demonization of racial anger. Adeline Koh theorizes that niceness is a tool of the colonizer, since the word “civility” originated with the birth of liberal democracy. It is in and of itself imagined with the specific intention of justifying colonization, not existing outside of this framework of domination. Koh concludes civility as a forced order operates “…in service of the extremely violent histories of slavery and imperialism, begging the question as to whether the imposition of civility is actually civil by its own definition.” This brings into question who can participate in civil discourse and who is left out of the conversation by not being deemed worthy or respectable enough to be heard.

When problematizing a person, the solution may seem simple since disposing of them from a space in which they are “causing” disruption erases critique. Although transformative justice teaches us that nobody is disposable, it is easier to espouse fluffy community values of love than to actually enact these values in a tangible way. Often time, power confuses seeing situations clearly and those with institutional power often either try to “fix” someone to make them conform and blend into existing institutions or to eject them from the group or community completely. The “feminist killjoy” is named In Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness. The feminist killjoy is one who points to racism or sexism and therefore interrupts the surface level happiness by causing disruption, but also points to possibility. We should center the voices of the most marginalized, rather than massaging the desire and ego of those who uphold dominant society.

People are not problematic. Specific actions, behaviors, words, actions, and beliefs can be problematic, but can all be shifted. However “problematic” has primarily been used to stigmatize people who are marginalized and/or hold a marginal view. “Problematic” has become the Scarlet Letter–the new catch all indicator of toxicity. It’s a call to avoid engaging with an entire person based on their stigmatizing label as an outsider, as one who does not belong. “Problematic” is veiled enough to indicate resentment without being overtly petty, while also vague enough to not require a critique of substance.

Transformative justice is needed within the church to counter the purity politics that rapidly want to cleanse spaces from “toxicity” rather than viewing difference as beautiful, but messy, potential. The question is always “who is a real activist?” or “who is a real Christian?” which not only casts judgement onto others, but it creates a binary label in which you can only be a “real Christian” or not a Christian at all. Instead we need to hold space for tension and multiplicity. We urgently need transformative justice in the church.

Broadening the Conversation

Part of moving beyond racial reconciliation models within the church means examining ways in which we may need to reimagine how we address racism. In doing so, it is important to sit with discomfort we may feel around perspectives that are contrary to our initial understanding. It is also important to remember how shame seeks to keep us from further truth and growth. We do the best we can with the knowledge and tools we have. Asian American identity development is key in understanding racialization and cultural identity, however we oftentimes get stuck within the subordinated subject-position in relation to whiteness. It is easier to say what we are #not than continuing to tease out what we actually stand for and embody. Part of moving forward is unlocking that subject-position to understand how racial hierarchy models are not horizontal. Our experiences as Asian Americans are not comparative to non-Asian people of color, but relative in social location.

As a concrete way to frame our larger analysis, we will broaden the conversation that began with the Asian American Christians United Open Letter to the Evangelical Church in good faith.

While we agree it is absolutely critical that the evangelical church be confronted with anti-Asian racism, stereotyping and the overall lack of concern around issues raised by Asians/Asian Americans, we feel it is unhelpful – even harmful – when the framing of the problem serves to minimize anti-black racism. For example, the line “efforts have been reduced to black-white relations” implies that because blackness is visible it has been more seriously addressed than anti-Asian racism. This couldn’t be less true. Black hypervisiblity causes increased violence against black bodies on both an interpersonal and state level.

Recognition by and representation within the white evangelical church seems to be promoted as the overall goal in framing this conversation on anti-Asian racism, in which blackness simply becomes a metaphor of “past racism” used as a benchmark for the distance left in the struggle of Asian American representation. Not only does this ignore the continuation of black suffering, blackness is reduced to a rhetorical device for Asian American gain. Historically, Asian anti-blackness is effective because it convinces Asian Americans that they are the wedge group on the racial hierarchy. By this logic it seems more advantageous for Asian Americans to gain proximity to whiteness in order to access resources, while simultaneously distancing themselves from blackness. Although there is usually no deliberate intention of harm or overt acts of extreme bias, prioritizing white approval or integration above addressing black suffering is in itself a self-serving strategy, lacking the ability to absolve racism from its roots.

In order to truly reject the model minority myth, Asian Americans need to decenter whiteness in racial justice activism. It is more helpful to understand how although all stereotypes are not helpful, “positive” stereotypes of Asian Americans have only been created to juxtapose the negative stereotypes attributed to Black people. Positive stereotypes were created to justify the logics of racism, by attributing success of a minority group to cultural factors. Through this mechanism, structural racism is seen as possible to overcome, since some ethnic minority groups succeed at higher levels than others. Asian American stereotypes are a result of white imagination, and black stereotypes are one manifestation of the afterlife of slavery; a way to blame Black people for their own struggles rather than understanding how the state has embedded anti-blackness into the very foundation of the U.S. Ellen Wu cites several historical examples of this in her piece Asian Americans and the Model Minority Myth, such as one from the 1960’s when U.S. News & World Report claimed “At a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent to uplift Negros and other minorities, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese Americans are moving ahead on their own — with no help from anyone else.” Therefore, it would be more beneficial to focus not only on Asian stereotypes, but how and why they were created, to broaden the focus and strategy of our advocacy to end all stereotypes against all ethnic groups.

Following #NotYourAsianSidekick, several articles written by Asian Americans questioned “why aren’t Asian Americans included as women of color?” Rather than framing woman of color as simply non-white, we remember women of color being created as a political identity. According to Loretta Ross, “when you choose to work with other people who are minoritized by oppression, you’ve lifted yourself out of that basic identity into another political being and another political space.” Additionally, in “People-of-Color-Blindness” Jared Sexton highlights how it is necessary to look at the singularity of slavery to understand its afterlife, which the term “people of color” flattens through the creation of one shared narrative for how racism operates. In an interview with Lisa Lowe, Angela Davis explains how rejecting weaponized identity politics means not finding unity based on the likeness of appearance or experience. Instead of letting our identity inform our politics, woman of color feminism means letting our politics inform our identity.

We often see a call to “go beyond the Black/White binary” in Asian American racial discourse with claims that anti-Asian racism and the issues of Asian Americans are not sufficiently represented. As Andrea Smith notes in Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy, this multiculturalist approach is ultimately unhelpful: “First, it replaces an analysis of white supremacy with a politics of multicultural representation; if we just include more people, then our practice will be less racist. Not true. This model does not addressed the nuanced structure of white supremacy, such as through these distinct logics of slavery, genocide, and Orientalism. Second, it obscures the centrality of the slavery logic in the system of white supremacy, which is based on a black/white binary. The black/white binary is not the only binary which characterizes white supremacy, but it is still a central one that we cannot ‘go beyond’ in our racial justice organizing efforts.”

The real issue that must be addressed is white supremacy and the specific logics of racism that impact all communities of color differently. Asian Americans need to shift our focus from ending anti-Asian racism to ending racism for all, or we will be complicit in upholding systemic white supremacy to the detriment of others. Smith continues by saying, “This way, our alliances would not be solely based on shared victimization, but where we are complicit in the victimization of others. These approaches might help us to develop resistance strategies that do not inadvertently keep the system in place for all of us, and keep us all accountable. In all of these cases, we would check our aspirations against the aspirations of other communities to ensure that our model of liberation does not become the model of oppression for others.”

So often, including in this open letter, we see racism addressed through single function apologies and the notion that “both sides” need to move on, obscuring the systemic racial injustices that remain in our society and the church, even when personal relationships are restored. This is not to say apologies are unnecessary. They often are. However, we must focus on the need for intentional action beyond simple acts of interpersonal reconciliation.

Moving Forward

We advocate for broadening the conversation to understand and uproot these dynamics which ultimately keep structural racism in place. We must place intentional focus on examining the ways that we as Asian Americans can avoid getting stuck in a struggle for recognition by the white church. How do we build strong alliances with other communities of color to address white supremacy in the church? How do we increase our awareness of and mobilize action against anti-blackness while we speak out against the racism we experience as Asian Americans?

We can more effectively find a solution for racism when we frame it as systemic; interpersonal apologies are wholly insufficient.

Asian Americans must hold the reality of being a racial “other” while also thinking critically about how we may be complicit in anti-blackness, settler colonialism, and gender violence. How can we “reconcile” these contradictions? We need to stop framing anti-blackness as only a problem of the past and not the present. We need to stop talking about settler colonialism as if it is a completed project, which is itself settler colonialism. The work starts internally. We must stop being bystanders in the oppression of others.

In Killjoy Prophets, we believe in centering voices of most marginalized rather than seeking acceptance from whiteness. By focusing on women of color feminist politics, we believe in the possibility for hope in radical transformation. We believe in fighting for justice from within the margins rather than aiming to get a seat at the table.

Part 2 will discuss the church’s role in Asian American assimilation, orientalism and war, the exportation of Western values via mission projects, Christian adoption agencies, and Western economic dependence. We hope our follow-up piece will draw attention to how many second generation Asian American mainline churches have adopted a white evangelical model.

Aside

The Line between a Heretic and a Prophet is Thin

Confession: Many outside my inner circle don’t know I gained most of the skills that have made me a successful activist through my experience in ministry first. Ministry work was how I learned to build community, increase membership, shift people’s understanding, and mobilize for action.

But it was also in the church that I learned to get very comfortable with being unpopular for my beliefs.

Since I was a little girl, I’ve been adept at speech giving. From delivering my elementary school D.A.R.E. speech to my middle school graduation, I developed a stunting desire to be well-liked and to therefore perform in a way that would make an audience love me. What I didn’t realize was how much white evangelical Christians would cherish this skill; the church often values charisma over character. During my baptism hundreds of students from the campus ministries I was a part of came to hear my story. I gave a convincing tale of my life before and after receiving Christ; a church that loves making people into projects also loves quick fixes, after all. I became that ministry leader knocking on your dorm room door inviting you to large group and Bible study. I became the girl who said “hate the sin and not the sinner” when asked about LGBT issues. I became a cookie cutter “here’s the Knowing God Personally 3-steps to being saved!” pamphlet girl.

In Campus Crusade for Christ, now called CRU, we did a campaign literally called “before and after” to entice new members to join. Examples includes “selfish and selfless” and “broken and whole” to show the transformation that current members experience through Jesus, or CRU, if I’m being honest. The message sent was that the gospel is an end and not a beginning. How badly I wanted to write “angry and still angry” or “hurt and still hurting” because I didn’t want anyone to be disappointed by the reality of faith in action, which leads to a harder and not easier life. I saw numerous new members join and leave when they realized Jesus, or Cru, wasn’t a quick-fix for the pain they experienced.

Perhaps that is what happens when you try to rebrand the gospel as a cheap gift instead of relationally experienced. What is worse, I saw many attribute the pain they experienced to being the result of their own shortcoming. An example of this is a girl I mentored who became convinced that her eating disorder was a “sin” that she could not turn away from.

Maybe a ministry interested in numerically tallying up the number of converts every week isn’t interested in how many people actually experience healing and community in the long run.

In our leadership Bible study, I often questioned this quantification of our performance. I remember asking if we were simply adhering to a capitalist standard for determining worth and disposability of our members, a question full-time staff was not ready to answer.

If I could have just kept my mouth shut, there’s no doubt in my mind that I would be working in ministry right now. It was always my plan. I would have married a man in the ministry and had an easier life than the one I’ve chosen to live.

A defining moment in my faith was during my dad’s funeral. He had passed away on Christmas Day and the funeral was on New Year’s Eve. I prepared to give the eulogy at his funeral, my mom and my sister being too much in shock. However, my ministry friends who were at the IndyCC conference drove all the way to Chicago to witness the funeral. I felt ungrateful. I should have been touched by the 20+ leaders who came to support me. In a moment I will regret forever, I got up to speak and did that performative public speaker thing I hate that I do. I gave the audience, which was now comprised of my ministry friends, what they wanted to hear. I remember saying “Jesus was born on Christmas Day so that my father could go to heaven on the same day.” What I really wanted to say was “you motherfuckers are taking group pictures at a FUNERAL.”

Again, I wondered if this was just another stunt to make the ministry look caring. Pictures as evidence, but no reassuring words apart from the weak attempt “he’s in a better place now” that we all know does not comfort a grieving family.

I started asking God for a faith that wasn’t performative. Tell me about a faith that stirs its members to reject safety rather than building up hegemonic echo chambers of self-interest. I hated that I made my own father’s funeral into a performative evangelical spectacle. Maybe true healing looks messier and takes more work and time than most would like to admit.

There’s a quote that has been written on the inside of my Bible for 6 years now:

“For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strengthto start all over again.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald.

When I returned to campus after winter break, everything changed. I started to search for answers as to how a ministry that spoke so frequently of justice could not bring healing on a personal or collective level. Band-aids were put on as feeble attempts to hide immense brokenness. I wanted to understand how personal suffering was connected to larger systemic inequities. Fueled by my own selfish motive of needing to believe God does not want us to suffer, I pushed myself to become very uncomfortable as I rejected the penal substitutionary atonement that was at the center of what I had been taught my whole life. In the words of Angela Davis, “radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root’” and that is exactly what I wanted to do.

I took interfaith courses and learned about how Christianity is a dominant identity category in the US. I began to go to the Muslim Student Association without having a motive of wanting to evangelize. I joined Building Bridges to learn about how Christian LGBT members were ostracized by ministries like mine. Above all, I learned to sit with discomfort and hold multiple truths at the same time. Through the courses, books, and friendships I developed, I began to have a much larger worldview and an understanding of global oppression and the church’s role in white heteropatriarchy. The church has been an active agent in cosigning everything from slavery to genocide in the name of God, which I believe to be the greatest sin of our time.

The line between a heretic and a prophet is thin.

Although I thought of my faith as a motivator for my activism, my ministry peers were quick to denounce me as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, spreading rumors that I must have never been a true believer to begin with rather than questioning whether or not my points were worth considering and engaging. I can’t tell you how hurt I was during the public character assassination against me when I was so young, but as I said earlier, it prepared me for the public character assassinations that would inevitably happen again and again, on a national scale, later in my activist career.

Going to the University of Illinois meant that sports were a big deal (which I always considered to be a university’s version of nationalism). Although the Chief Mascot had been banned and I had done several workshops with my peers on how the mascot is harmful (especially given the church’s continuous role in settler colonialism through adoption agencies, boarding schools, and more), I came down the stairs and realized my house was having a party and the Chief mascot was everywhere. I was involved with Native student activism on campus and could not believe that the same group of people so committed to “justice” in the third world (without questioning the creation of the first world, of course) could have no understanding of injustice in our own home.

Another time, “Jesus is our homeboy” merchandise was big in the white evangelical scene on campus. All of a sudden the Chief hoodies, polo shirts, and J.Crew salmon colored shorts were replaced with chains and baseball caps. I was quick to point out the cultural appropriation occurring in a space with only one or two black bodies amidst a sea of whiteness. The leaders of the ministry made an announcement on how we should indeed stop wearing “Jesus is my homeboy” merchandise, not because of cultural appropriation, but because it “disrespected, cheapened, and made Jesus into thug”. Cue Gungor’s “God is Not a White Man.”

I became involved with the Women’s Center on campus and began doing workshops on rape culture. I can’t tell you how awkward it was when I walked a friend to the Planned Parenthood clinic and I saw my own roommates protesting outside the building. I can’t tell you how harmful it was when my friend, a survivor of sexual assault, sat through a sermon about how women should not “tempt Christian men into falling into sin.” I can’t tell you how damaging it was when I was kicked out of a theology reading group because my gender was distracting for the men, and asked to join the hospitality team instead. 

Then there was a day during Bible study in which I got “held accountable” by the other women for my “sinful” beliefs. One woman asked “are you a homosexual?” since I had been getting more involved with queer people of color on campus. It was during this final Bible study meeting that I learned a life lesson worth remembering: the most hateful words will often be hidden behind good intentions and a sweet cadence.

When Osama Bin Laden was murdered, a group of men in the ministry went on a bar crawl to celebrate. They chanted “USA! USA! USA!” in our residence hall as they walked decked out in their American flag t-shirts. I remember questioning whether or not we should celebrate death and ended up being mansplained about how the death penalty was being delivered in whatever way God, they meant America, found fit. Following this argument came a series of Islamophobic comments. When I dared to push back in a decidedly intellectual manner about how these men were using God’s will as a scapegoat for their violent US nationalism, a leader I had known for 4 years said “you’re ungrateful, but I guess you’re not a real American anyway.” I think this was the straw that broke the camel’s back after digging deep into my reserves for patience that eventually ran dry.

After being told time after time again that there was no place for true justice in Christian spaces, I quietly let my faith fuel my activism outside of the church. I’m at a crossroads these days, finding that I’m finally able to reintegrate the two most important pieces of myself again: faith and justice. Through the formation of Killjoy Prophets, a consciousness-raising collective centering the voices of women of color feminists, I have found more hope for ending what we jokingly call “Dudebro Christianity”. We first read through James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree, which imagines the cross as a symbol of resistance to suffering rather than as permission to ignore racial injustice by glorifying suffering. We are currently reading Karen Baker-Fletcher’s Dancing with God: The Trinity from a Womanist Perspective, which offers insight into unnecessary violence and the Holy Spirit’s role in healing for survivors. In this group, we not only discuss various texts and social issues, but also push each other to understand our unique social locations.

As Emily Rice, a leader of Killjoy Prophets, always says “you can’t talk about justice without unpacking privilege.” We talk about how racial reconciliation as practiced by the church is simply a weak attempt for internal reform and integration and is not equal to dismantling of inherently violent structures.

As I said earlier, faith in action is more of a beginning than an end. I’m still in the very beginning stages of figuring out what transformative justice looks like within the church, or if it’s even possible to organize in the margins within an institution that is married to the state, but what an amazing force we would have if the church began to do what it was meant to do and centered the voices and needs of the most marginalized. Imagine how much change could happen if the church stopped interpreting God’s will to mean unchecked institutional power and instead as a rejection of it?

I spent a lot of my last couple years thinking of how Asian Americans could participate in upholding what Andrea Smith names “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy”. As a wedge group comprising of 19 million members, Asian Americans have largely been complicit in continued settler colonialism, anti-blackness, and gender violence. Shifting this group left in solidarity with non-asian people of color to strengthen the margins, rather than seek representation and power within existing institutions, could mean big wins.

In the last few months, I’ve been interested in figuring out what this kind of base building and shifting of consciousness would look like within Christianity. For me, this transformation ultimately begins with my own learning and unlearning of years of socialization and indoctrination. I’m beginning to understand how it’s too easy to distance myself from a religion that has been used for violence and say “not all Christians!” rather than looking at how I’m often complicit through my silence.

The fundamental questions I’m curious about are:

1.) Will Christians embrace justice if it means letting go of the privileges they often find comfort and safety in?

2.) Is the church willing to look within at its creation and perpetuation of systemic inequity rather than simply pointing fingers to the “secular” world?

Give me a faith that isn’t performative and you will see the emergence of justice.

A love letter to strong women

Dear Strong Woman,

Has anyone ever told you it’s okay to experience pain, trauma, abuse, and loss without resolution?

Our culture only wants to hear of suffering if it has been overcome. No, not eliminated. No, the source of your suffering hasn’t been uprooted in its entirety. When people ask you to overcome, they are asking you to absorb the hurt. It’s a blame-shifting game most don’t intend to play, but they do. And if you dare speak up about your suffering without being “the bigger person” you get chastised for complaining. You get chastised for not making your pain pleasant. You get chastised for not performing strength.

Don’t you know people want inspiration? Don’t you know they want a martyr? Don’t you know abuse is just a hazing ritual that allows for the strongest and most noble to rise from the ashes?  Don’t you want to be a part of something bigger than yourself? Don’t you want to be the heroine?

Has anyone ever told you that not everything has a happy ending? Has anyone ever told you that you don’t have to dig inward to whip up your own fictional happy ending? Has anyone ever told you that the only thing worse than enduring pain is waiting and waiting for the happy ending that was promised to you?

Refuse to justify the logics of abuse by saying it helps you to grow strong. No, abuse is stunting. Abuse holds you back. Abuse causes trauma.

Your pain exists whether or not it is consumable. Remember, most people flinch at the slightest sight of blood and flinchers are not the ones who will help you clean up the mess of it.

When people say “stand with ____” do they even bother asking if you are already lying down? Did anyone ask you for your consent before assuming you even wanted to swing back?

And they will tell you this is the price you pay when you dare speak of your pain. And they say “you were asking for it” to comfort their own conscience as they make you into a spectacle. They will say you want the attention as they strip you of your humanity and autonomy.

Don’t you know a poster girl only exists in print?

If they stab you, they deserve to watch you bleed. Make them watch you. Make them see the pain they have inflicted.

Has anyone ever told you it’s okay to cry? Has anyone told you that you deserve to have every single day be your mental health day?

When people say “be strong” they mean “please harden yourself” when it should be “let’s soften the world” instead.

When people say “you’re strong” they mean to say “you’ve endured a lot of pain, trauma, abuse, or loss and I don’t know what to do except to acknowledge it exists.”

There’s no need to say “thank you” when someone calls you strong. Only you know who you are, what you are feeling, and the gravity of what you have unwillingly endured.

Love,

A “Strong” Woman

You can’t make homes out of human beings

There’s a poem by Warsan Shire called “For Women Who Are Difficult To Love” that says…

you can’t make homes out of human beings
someone should have already told you that
and if he wants to leave
then let him leave
you are terrifying
and strange and beautiful
something not everyone knows how to love

When I was an undergrad, my seven giggly roommates (yes, seven) and I went biking across campus. I like to ask questions that make no sense but tell me a lot about other people. I remember asking “which building would you date?” to my unassuming roommates. One roommate answered Foellinger Auditorium explaining it’s classic, artsy, and highly esteemed. Another answered BIF (business instructional facility) because it’s professional and clean. She later married one of those men who likes suits and repeats jokes from HIMYM, so I guess that makes sense in hindsight. I answered Altgeld Hall, obviously. Although I associate it with the 8:00 MWF math course I nearly failed my freshman year, it has a lot of old charm. It has a rustic little library I used to sit in for hours before I realized I’m probably allergic to dust. It also have a bell tower in it. It’s steady, reliable, less flashy than the other buildings, but the kind of normal that I liked. A getaway where I knew I wouldn’t run into my peers. My second favorite building was the Wesley Foundation’s sanctuary. It’s quiet and impressive at the same time.

But people aren’t buildings.

I was in a long term relationship with someone I started dating in college. It was one of those relationships that went past its expiration date. After graduating, I had the chance to go to grad school near him, but I didn’t. I moved to Ohio for a year and then moved even further to Colorado for another year. In a lot of ways he was like the kind of home you grow up in. He saw me through multiple changes and stayed relatively stagnant. The kind of person/place you visit during holiday breaks, but otherwise don’t really make a priority to visit. I was so preoccupied traveling and organizing that I almost didn’t make time to break-up with him properly (I know this sounds horrible to admit). When I finally moved back to Chicago after two years of moving and changing, it became obvious we were no longer compatible. I used to think people outgrow homes and that’s why they move…but people aren’t homes. They aren’t some empty shell of existence waiting for you to finally come home. They shouldn’t be a holding place for our exhausted selves to come to on occasion. When it ended I didn’t grieve much at all. It was over long before I was asked to move out (metaphorically). The thing about seeing people as homes is it’s dependent on one person staying sedentary…secondary. I don’t have any strong feelings leftover from the relationship. Thinking of it is the same as how I feel when the train passes by my old physical home. I remember it, but I have no real desire to visit it again.

My life is chaotic. I live out of a suitcase (or a Vera Bradley duffle to be literal). I think that’s why I look for Altgeld Halls or Wesley Foundation sanctuaries. Maybe that’s why my diasporic soul searches for normalcy and permanence. Maybe I should stop looking for refuge in my partners. Maybe they should be more (or less actually) than an escape. Maybe I should see people as exciting and desirable on their own and not only in contrast to scary, unbearable, and painful. Maybe I need to stop looking for people to be band-aids for my insecurities and needs.

But people aren’t meant to be homes.

The last person I dated was all sorts of intoxicating. All of a sudden I was willing to do what I had done for nobody else before to make it work. Giving up traveling, putting his needs first, being secondary. Maybe I was willing to be someone else’s home, except people aren’t meant to be homes. Especially not me, I’d be more of a mobile home if anything. It felt like more of a vacation getaway, this last relationship. It was a nice and necessary escape from a reality that was hard to face, but it was never sustainable. And sometimes I think I was more of a dream than a vacation to him. Either way, when it came time to face reality it didn’t work. It’s like our relationship was trapped in a wonderful but unfixable time and place. I think what is worse than a relationship that has gone past its expiration date is one that never took off. So many what ifs and unanswered questions…like those short stories I begin and never finish. It’s like taking two leading characters out of their own plots and story lines and having them guest star for an episode before going back to regularly scheduled programming. It’s a missed connection.

And so maybe you really can’t make homes out of human beings because we are all moving and impermanent. Maybe sometimes we move in the same direction for a period of time. Maybe sometimes we stop for a vacation getaway together. Maybe some lives intersect only on occasion and we should be grateful for those encounters.

Maybe I can’t write in the declarative voice anymore because almost everything is uncertain.

Relationships aren’t permanent and they should never be all-consuming. All-consuming relationships are a recipe for losing oneself. Relationships are fragile after all. How quickly you can go from being someone’s everything to their nothing. It’s far better to remember no one person can ever be our everything, which means losing someone doesn’t mean we return to nothing.

The romance myth tells us we should hold onto love because there is nobody else in the world who will love us again. This isn’t true. Remember what it was like to love and be loved, even if it was only for a few minutes. Remember that just because something is over doesn’t mean it was any less real. And remember that even a ring doesn’t make anything less broken.

People aren’t homes. You can’t buy them or own them. You can’t renovate them to be whatever you want or need according to your changing desire or expectations. You can’t dump your shit all over their interior. You can’t expect them to wait around to comfort your each and every insecurity. People aren’t backup plans or getaways…they exist in the present. They exist and serve many roles and purposes besides being a supporting character in our stories. And we exist outside of playing a supportive character in theirs.

And again I’m really not here for you if you think having radical politics can’t also include struggling to unlearn the romance myth. Maybe I need to start a series called “Leftists have feelings too.”