Everyday Dismantling

This may have to be a regular “feature” once I figure out a blogging/writing rhythm/schedule. In the meantime, I thought I would compile my responses to my FB friend Preston’s question:

What are some practical, everyday ways we can work to dismantle privilege that both are simple, clear things to do and don’t burden PoC (people of color) with the expectation they be our (unpaid) teachers?

Note: When I read privilege in this context I assumed “white privilege” which in it of itself causes some people to walk away or disengage because this is the land of opportunity, bootstraps, and immigrants.

  1. Pay us. I cannot tell you how many times my friends and I have sat on panels to talk about our experiences and expertise and not get paid. We sometimes have to ask if our conference fee will be covered or if meals are covered. (I was a panelist at The Justice Conference last weekend and was not paid. Why did I do it? Because sometimes we (as in ALL PEOPLE OF COLOR) realize there are so few of us being represented at said conferences that we do it, at cost to ourselves and families, to make a point.
  2. Spend a year, or a month, reading only authors of color. Double down and read only women of color authors.
  3. Take a closer look at those conference line-ups and consider how many platform speakers are PoC. The same goes for the list of bloggers, writers contributors to communal blogging sites, major Christian on-line and print magazines.
  4. Let your $$ dismantle privilege by not going to those conferences that only feature PoC as panelists. Instead, go somewhere PoC are leading and speaking…if you can find them.
  5. If you make decisions at church, invite and pay POC, particularly WOMEN. And if you don’t make those decisions, considering joining the board that does.
  6. Use your influence to spread the word about non-white speakers, bloggers, writers, preachers, speakers, trainers. I love my white Christian writer friends but you and I have to go way back before I’ll promote you because there are so many more white Christians being published for many systemic reasons that also are difficult to break down.
  7. Support businesses owned and run by PoC. My parents’ dry cleaning business helped me and my sister through college and helped pay for my big, fat, Korean wedding and made dry cleaning super cheap for me and a select group of friends.
  8. Engage your crazy, prejudiced, racist friends (especially the ones who also love Jesus) and call them out on their crap. I will say that I tend to extend a ton of grace to my elders of all colors and stripes. My older relatives still refer to “us” as “Orientals” but if one of you, dear readers, said that I would remind you that I am not a rug. When people say things at the family gathering or post something on social media, remember it’s an invitation to engage and dismantle. Why? Because white people in conversation with white people aren’t pulling out the race card. The what? You know. The race card – the thing people of color pull out whenever we try to dismantle privilege. We make it about race. Anyone have extras? I’m out.
  9. Read about this country’s messed up history. Not the pretty version we all learned in school that mentions slavery and war but the deep stuff that reminds all Americans – birthright Americans like my kids or naturalized ones like me and my parents – that America has a pattern of genocide, colonization, taxation without representation, internment camps. Read about the wars America fought on foreign lands and how privilege carried over in places like Vietnam and the Korean peninsula. Do you know the story of the Hmong? No? Google it. LEARN! You don’t even need to love Vietnamese food or a Korean friend to go to the library and read.
  10. Consider your own language and defense mechanisms critically. I do not like being called out on my stuff because I like to be right. I get it. What I am realizing is that my white friends are seriously afraid of being called a racist. Being afraid of being a racist and being called a racist are serious. Being afraid you will be (and you will be) profiled because of your skin color or your family name, being afraid that “obeying” the police and running will still put you physically in danger? That’s serious serious. When someone calls you out on something, listen before you start defending and excusing yourself.
  11. Don’t assume what you do and how you do it is normal for everyone. That is how everyday privilege shows up. What does that mean? When you go to someone’s house for the first time do you bring a gift? Do you take off your shoes? When  you host guests do you prepare just enough food or enough food for others to take home a plate? When your church hosts a potluck what are the key dishes you think everyone will know and love? (My kids had never seen deviled eggs until 7 years ago. They thought I said, “devil eggs.”) Do you assume July 4 and Memorial Day are big picnic weekends? What does a “normal” New Year’s Day look like for you?
  12. Listen and be observant. Sometimes the POC around you, especially your friends, are dropping freebies left and right. A sigh. Suddenly scribbling notes in church or during a movie. Going silent during a conversation when she is normally or was just fully engaged. Or speaking up. You don’t have to ask her right then and there what is going on. Do your friend thing and if that is appropriate do it. Otherwise, wait and bring it up later. The point is, there are many everyday moments you can be aware of how white privilege can impact POC.

What, dear readers, would you add to the list because certainly there are more than a dozen ways to break down and dismantle a system that goes back 200 years.

 

 

 

In Times Like These We Are All Americans. Not Really. Let’s All Be Human.

By the time I finish editing this post, the name of the third victim killed in the Boston Marathon bombing will be making its way around the interwebs. Look at how the news media writes about her, her country. Please take a look at the comments on those stories. Maybe you will be surprised. I’m hoping to be surprised by our humanity, but so far not so much.

Because in times like these, we are actually not all Americans. Tragedy, despite what newscasters might have us believe, can often be quite divisive. I’m well aware of the many random acts of kindness, and how Bostonians literally opened up their homes and shared their resources. But when you heard about the bombing, did you think, even for a moment, “I hope the perp isn’t (fill in the blank with your choice of race, ethnicity, citizenship, etc.).”? I did. Remember Virginia Tech. That was only six years ago. The South Korean government apologized on the shooter’s behalf.

In times like these, the “other” is always to blame.  Don’t forget the erroneous reports about a Saudi national being held for questioning. Unless you are an American, and dare I say look “American”, your involvement, your presence may be called into question. There were plenty of people on the scene that looked like Timothy McVeigh or Terry Nichols. One comment on a news article read: “…we have enough problems without involving the Chinese.”

But the Chinese are involved. In fact, the world is involved. As far as I know, the Boston Marathon draws an international running community together. And she was there to watch, just like thousands of other fellow human beings.

She was a Chinese graduate student at Boston University, not much older than my own daughter, and very much like many of the college and university students I interact with through my work with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In fact, before turning on the news I knew through Facebook this young woman had attended an InterVarsity graduate student fall conference. She had friends. She had a roommate. She was known. And she was loved.

This morning I heard a talking head on the television say that her name had not yet been released because her parents had not yet told her grandparents. Her parents were concerned the grandparents would not be able to handle the news.

In a culture like ours, where free speech and an individual’s right to bear arms like a battalion headed into war are sacred, where news and misinformation are often confused for one another, where the news cycle never stops on any front, it may seem odd to want to keep such important, personal, yet devastating news from loved ones when people are wondering “who is the third victim”. But for Eastern culture, familial ties run deep and are visceral. Perhaps it is because we in America expect to see a grieving loved one bravely face the cameras or give the media a quote or statement. We respect the grief, but we want to be allowed to be a part of it. But for this young woman’s family, the grief might just physically overcome the grandparents. Or perhaps, her activities here could call her entire family into question under a government in a culture that seems so unlike “ours”.

We may never know all of the details of her life, but that shouldn’t make her less human, less a victim, less important. I do not know if she and I shared a faith in Jesus, but in times like these I don’t care whether or not she was an American. She was my sister, bearing the image of God just as the unnamed Saudi national, Martin Richard and Krystle Campbell.

May the Lord have mercy on us all.

 

Thoughts on Leadership While the Nail Polish Dries

I love nail polish. It’s a low-commitment, low-cost vanity/beauty splurge that when used properly forces me to slow down and not do a whole lot. Which is why I am typing slowly and not moving my feet right now – pink on the toes and a french mani.

And when life slows I can breathe, pray, think and reflect.

Tonight I’m thinking a lot about leadership – the privilege, the joys and the costs. In a matter of a week’s time I saw how God was using me to develop a new generation of leaders (Pacific Northwest Asian American InterVarsity students, YOU ARE AMAZING!) and how God was still buffing and shining the rough edges of my leadership. There were moments of fear and confidence, of joy and anger, of front-door leadership like “fill in the blank with a Biblical patriarch) and back-door influence (Ruth, Esther, Mary, the Samaritan woman, the bleeding woman, the servant girl, etc.).

All while rocking lavender nail polish (last week’s color), telling funny family stories about rice cookers and kimchee refrigerator, and wearing a bra, which apparently is still enough of a novelty that as I head into the final week before I speak on leadership fails at the Asian Pacific Islander Women’s Leadership Conference next week, I reminding myself of how important it is to remember God created me and knew me before I was even born as 1.75-gen Korean American Christian woman, let alone a wife, mother of three, writer, speaker, yoga junkie and nail polish addict.

Gender or ethnicity doesn’t trump my identity as a Christian, but they are integrated, enmeshed in blessed and God-ordained ways and in broken and needing Jesus’ redemption ways, because Christians are not meant to be eunuchs. Embodied. Gendered. Which for me means wearing a bra and the great option of many nail polish colors. My seasons or micro-seasons of leadership are acutely tied to my physical state – pregnant, post-partum, nursing, PMS, exhausted from the gift and plain old work of raising children, peri-menopausal, and all of that is tied to my gender. And my embodied, gendered life is also wrapped and engrained with the values and mores of my Korean ancestors with a clashing or enhancing palette from my American host. How can that not affect, change, impact, enhance, and challenge my ability to lead?

It does. It’s not all negative, and I’m not surprised…unless I meet and talk with someone who has never considered her/his leadership through their cultural/racial/gendered lens.

What lessons have you learned about leadership, your own and that of others as well as how you are perceived and how you perceive others? Need some time to think? Do your nails.

 

 

Why I Would Never Claim to Be Superior, Especially As a Mother

For the record, I am not Chinese.

If you haven’t read the Wall Street Journal article about Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior please expand your circle of friends and acquaintances. The article’s author Amy Chua is a Yale Law School professor (seriously?!) and my cynical side thinks she might be gunning for a spot during Oprah’s final season.

I’ve read and re-read the opinion piece several times and it’s a messy, mixed bag of emotions and thought for me. I am a not quite 1.5/2nd gen Korean American. I immigrated to the U.S. when I was 8 months old and just last year became a U.S. citizen. I grew up wishing I was White=American and unsure of how to love and honor my parents and survive adolescence as a bi-cultural kid when so few understood where I was coming from and going home to.

Which is probably why Chua’s commentary is hitting a nerve with me and so many of my Asian American friends. Deep down inside some of what she writes about is true. And we know it. It is why so many of my Asian American friends understood with absolutely no explanation why I had given part of my advance check from More Than Serving Tea to my mother. It is why so many of my Asian American friends and I share a knowing laugh when we reminisce about our childhood memories. It is why my husband, daughter and I laughed at some of the recent “Asian” commentary on Glee. And it is also why so many of my Asian American struggle to fight against the stereotypes of the Model Minority because we are not one big monolithic math team. We are more than the sum of our musical and mathematical abilities but sometimes it’s a no-win game. We want to succeed because so much of the stereotyped American Dream experience is about success.

Which is why Chua’s piece hits a different nerve because there is something about the response from non-Asian Americans that bothers me. Chua’s piece is as much a statement about her specific, culturally-bound and sometimes broken parenting style as it is about a generalized American style of parenting. Defenders of the American/Western way seem to think that “their” style where everyone gets a ribbon for participation, perfect attendance, self-esteem or happiness is the better route to success and more happiness.

If I parent like a Tiger Mother (I prefer Dragon, wink, wink) I am abusive. If I parent like a stereotypical American parent my child loves her/himself but really too few will look at me and think “American”. As one who forever lives in the tension, we are all very broken people and parents. Whether it’s through the pursuit of academic excellence or self-esteem, extremes lead to idolatry. My children and their success or happiness is not the end goal, but I see that value played out regardless of race, ethnicity and class.

I was given/made to take piano lessons, but I started dreadfully late – fourth grade, I think. Which, by the way, is when the public school system here starts band and orchestra. I remember my mother saying at least once that she wanted to give me and my sister a chance to learn the piano because she never had the opportunity to do the same as a child. So I often reluctantly learned to read music, play the piano and then the flute. As an adult I revisited music and realized my mother was right. I did regret quitting. My piano and flute skills aren’t where they could have been and where I would like them to be, but I am grateful for the chance to decide that now even though it was forced on me then. So there. It’s too late to call DCFS on my parents.

Academics were stressed because when you are the child of immigrants you don’t have the luxury of understanding the system, networking, interview skills, legacies and missed opportunities. Getting top grades, arming your college application with the very best of the very best, proving that being a hyphenated American/immigrant with parents who don’t speak flawless English doesn’t mean you are stupid or abused. When your family has given up everything to come to America mediocrity is not the preferred end result.

I was on poms, edited my school newspaper, served on the state board of education student advisory board, sang and danced in the high school musical, managed to get better than good grades and, despite the concerns of “Western parenting” advocates I’ve read in the comments sections of various blogs, have friends. I tell my daughter that had we been in school together I would have been her nightmare.

My parents didn’t forbid extracurricular activities, but they didn’t always understand them. Heck, my daughter is on the poms squad now and I don’t always understand it. But my parents emphasized grades, and with each fluctuation in my GPA came a wave of self-doubt. Do my parents still love me? Am I smart enough? Will my parents ever be proud of me?

Which is where the pendulum swings back. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, depression is the second leading cause of death for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women between 15 and 24, who consistently have the highest suicide rates among women in that age group. AAPI women over 65 have the highest rates of suicide among all races in that age group. Those are the type of top rankings we Americans don’t often talk about when evaluating the success of self-esteem programs at school. After Chua’s book it’s too easy to blame the Tiger Mothers who emphasized achievement but fell short on communicating love, support and respect but when are we also going to take a look at how public health services are failing a generation of Americans of Asian descent or how school programs that are meant to build up a student’s sense of achievement isn’t translating cross-culturally? My depression is as much nature as it is nurture. Chemical imbalances are real. And so cultural forces – American cultural forces that pushed me as much as Korean cultural forces. Solely blaming Asians parents for those statistics is irresponsible and short-sighted.

And to those of you who have thought, “Just wait until Chua’s daughters are older. Let’s see how it all pans out” in a judgmental sort of way do what I did and ask for forgiveness and extend some grace. God knows parenting is hard enough without having someone wait for us to fail.

In the end the article and flurry of comments and commentary makes me angsty because our definitions of success, superiority, achievement and happiness are so completely messed up and complex. I would be lying if I said that I don’t want my children to succeed, to live full and rich lives, to enjoy the very best of what God has to offer in life in all of the physical, emotional and spiritual ways but I know that it won’t always come in the ways I want to. I am angsty because I can’t help but think of the story of the prodigal son. I’ve heard so many sermons about the son who squanders everything to pursue a version of happiness but goes back to his father’s home because in the end home is where he thinks of. I wonder how the other son missed or misunderstood his father’s love and lavish provision as only belonging to the “less successful” son. The party and celebration and love and sense of belonging was always there for both of them but they both misunderstood success and love.

Instead of criticizing the style of parenting maybe we should take a closer look and critique the end goals we are hoping our children will achieve because the beginning and end for me as a parent doesn’t start, shouldn’t start with academics or achievements and end with worldly success and gain.

So how do we learn? I hope I learn from others. What have you learned from your parents and what are learning as a parent?

 

Is Blonde+Black > Everything Else? BTW Hindu Isn’t a Language

Wondering out loud, as an extrovert often does…is it my imagination or is the media (and perhaps the public) more concerned with:

  • the fact that Jackson, who is married to Chicago Alderman/Alderwoman/Alderperson Sandi Jackson, (and both Jacksons are African American) had a personal acquaintance flown in twice for a visit, and that said acquaintance has been described as female, blue-eyed, blonde and a hostess at a D.C. restaurant;
  • or renewed interest in allegations U.S. Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. was hoping some fundraising prowess was going to move him up on the U.S. Senate seat replacement list;
  • or that Jackson, during an on-air radio interview in Chicago Friday, said that while he was in the room when, “two Indian fund-raisers began speaking practically in Hindu and that he didn’t participate in the talk or even hear it.”

Um, if Jackson didn’t participate in the talk or even hear the talk how did he know the two Indian fund-raisers spoke in Hindu? Oh, wait. Maybe because Hindu isn’t a language, therefore Jackson couldn’t hear it? Ugh.

Actually, I wouldn’t have known about Jackson’s comment except for the fact that I read about it in this morning’s newspaper (the paper version). Until then, what I read and heard about primarily was that allegations about Jackson’s involvement in the Illinois U.S. Senate seat pay to play politics were back on and that Jackson wanted at least two private visits with his blonde, female friend who is a hostess. I heard that Jackson and his wife have dealt with this private matter and want it to stay private. Blah, blah, blah.

Yes, I have bone to pick. Several, in fact. Why does it matter that the female acquaintance is blonde and a hostess? Surely it isn’t meant at all, not even a teensy weensy bit to discredit her or make her seem “less”? It’s rather perplexing, actually. We live in a culture that worships young and beautiful (and often paler shades of beautiful) at all costs and then when you actually are young-ish and beautiful you’re the “acquaintance”. And it really matters if you are the white acquaintance of a black man (a la Tiger Woods).

But this recent scandal is almost perfect because it hits on race, ethnicity, culture, gender and religion. Jackson’s radio comment hit a nerve with me because so many conversations, as difficult as they are, are whittled down to Black and White. Hindu is not a language but a religion and a religion not limited to but connected deeply with India as well as other East, South East and South Asian cultures. Conversations about race get even more complicated when we add different voices, stereotypes, assumptions and blind spots and Jackson’s off-the-cuff comment about not hearing the conversation because the fund-raising power brokers in this case were of Indian descent and allegedly broke out in “Hindu” is a great example of that complexity.

The media would have us more ticked off that Jackson had a white female acquaintance than the fact that he, a U.S. Congressman representing a diverse population, made a rather ignorant statement about his understanding of diversity and culture.

At some point the media will talk with the female acquaintance and we will see more unnecessary photos of said woman in various stages of dress and less-dressed. In some circles of politically involved Evangelicals, there will be conversations about leadership and integrity and marriage all sorts of important “values”. And I will put money on at least a handful of us women talking about the gender issues in this story…but will we – politically involved or invested Evangelicals, men and women, of all races and ethnicities, dare embrace the complexity and messiness of integrating issues of race, ethnicity and religion into our conversations. After all, Jackson knew how to talk woman and blonde (and dare I say presumably white) but he couldn’t hear Hindu. Maybe he didn’t want to see it either and I terribly afraid so many of us out here don’t either.

Did She Cross a Line?

If you haven’t read The Help, by Kathryn Stockett (pepy3, where are you on the waitlist?) I humbly suggest you put your name on the library waiting list, borrow a copy from one of your friends or buy one if you’re the type who likes to own books. I finished the book last month, but it’s following my soul.

It’s a story about Southern African American women who work as housekeepers, nannies and personal chefs  and the Southern White women they worked for. It’s about each group of women and their communities, friendships, mothers and children, and the unspoken and explicit rules that governed their complex relationships across racial, socio-economic and even religious lines.

One thing that I’m still wondering about and thinking through is the author’s own admission that she has and had feared her narrative, particularly writing in the voice of African American women, had crossed “the line”. Clearly, the story she wanted to tell required multiple voices, but by her own admission she acknowledges that while our recent history used laws to draw the line some lines are beyond the scope of law and policy.

A few of us from book club took a field trip to see and hear Kathryn Stockett at a reading/Q and A/book signing earlier this week in Lake Forest. (A little shout-out to “M” who snagged a seat in the front, which meant she was one of the first in line to have her book signed and agreed to take additional copies belonging to Bedtime Stories members to be signed. “M” also asked a great question about the author’s own journey in understanding race and racism – much better than the question asked by the lady behind me who apparently thought there were no significant Southern voices after Eudora Welty from whom Stockett could draw inspiration from. I suppose no one has ever heard of Harper Lee or Zora Neale Hurston…) Anyway, Stockett briefly addressed the real-life complexity of the relationship between White families and their “help” as well as her personal concerns about telling a fictional story by assuming the voices of African American women.

It was slightly amusing and ironically appropriate to be sitting there in a room that was predominantly White and looked like a dress-rehearsal for a Chicos/Talbots/White|Black fashion show to hear Stockett talk about her teenage years when she, by her own admission, was naive and unaware of the rules of race and class even though she had been adhering to them in one way or another her entire life. It was just the way it was and there we were just the way it is.

But does it matter that Stockett is a Southern White woman who was raised by Demetrie, her family’s “help”, and is now telling a fictional Demetrie’s story? Were you worried as you cracked open the book or did it not even cross your mind to worry? Is there really a line and did she cross it by assuming the voices of Aibilene, Minny and Constantine? Was it too much? Or is it a line we should all be crossing?

Reasonable Suspicion

My college girlfriends and I had considered Arizona as a spot for a 40th bday bash, but I’m not sure we’d pass muster. We’ve all been questioned before. We’ve all been told one way or another that for some reason that surely has absolutely nothing to do with race, color or national origin that we just don’t look like we belong.

It usually goes something like this…

Someone trying to make conversation with me: “Where are you from?”

Me: Oh, I’m from (fill in the blank  – Chicago, Seattle, Columbus, Portland, Phoenix, Flagstaff).

Same Someone: No, I mean where are you REALLY from.

Me: Huh?

Still that Same Someone: You know. Where are you FROM?

The only place I knew as “home”, as the place I was from, was Chicago. Why wasn’t that answer enough? Because I don’t look or sound like a Chicagoan? Just ask me to say “hot dog” and “beer”. I’ve got Chicaaahgo.

Being told in so many words in so many ways that you don’t belong, that you couldn’t possibly be from where you say you are actually from can make you reasonably suspicious of people who ask the “where are you from” question.

But now the “where are you from” question takes on an entirely different level of fear, intimidation and distinction. Will all American citizens living in Arizona or traveling through/in Arizona, as a precautionary measure and to be in full compliance will the law, carry proof of their immigration status? You’re not an immigrant so you don’t need to carry identification? Prove it.

One of the provisions in the Arizona law “requires police officers to ‘make a reasonable attempt’ to determine the immigration status of a person if there is a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that he or she is an illegal immigrant. Race, color or national origin may not be the only things considered in implementation. Exceptions can be made if the attempt would hinder an investigation.”

Help me understand what are the other things to consider in implementation? If the person speaks with an accent or can’t speak proper English, is that enough to raise reasonable suspicion? Jeez, I know plenty of folks who had better laminate their birth certificates or carry their passports if they are going to be in Arizona. How can you tell national origin by looking at someone, listening to someone?

I’ve been following the reactions to the new law, and the responses that confuse me the most are the ones that argue the only ones who are worried or angry or concerned about this law are probably illegal and already undocumented. Obviously, citizens who are here legally should have nothing to be worried about. But doesn’t the law apply to everyone? Anyone’s immigration status could come into question, but it’s not really “anyone” we’re talking about here. Not just “anyone” is going to have their immigration status questioned because not just “anyone” gets asked “where are you from?” more than once. Not just “anyone” gets pulled over in certain neighborhoods and communities. Not just “anyone” gets followed in certain stores. Not just “anyone”. Just those who raise reasonable suspicion. Right?

I am trying to make a reasonable attempt at understanding how this law will be implemented but I’m reasonably suspicious.

Why Can’t I Just Shut Up?

I have a problem. My internal filter doesn’t always work. Sometimes thoughts that aren’t fully formed but in the process of being “felt” come out of my thought bubble and rush through my mouth.

My parents did the best they could, teaching me to be appropriately silent first in the way children are supposed to be silent and then in the way young ladies are to be silent. Opinions are best left in the head, and simply naming my alma mater should be enough to gauge intelligence. Words, particularly spoken ones from my mouth, aren’t necessary. Besides, who would want their son to marry an outspoken, opinionated woman? Those traits aren’t high on the “myuh-new-ree” (daughter-in-law) list.

There are times when the properly trained Asian American woman-ness kicks into high gear, almost as if someone dialed me up to “11”. I can smile, nod, look like I am in agreement with whatever is being said and then walk away without a word. It happens, I swear.

My parents also knew enough to know that some things were irreversible. We were here in America, and one day (or almost 40 years) their firstborn would be an American. They struggled to keep the “Korean” first through language, dance, songs, food, worksheets and flashcards and hyphenated “America” by reminding me that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Or is the oil?

I suppose that is part of growing up part of a generation raised to be bicultural – Korean and American – and finds itself developing a third culture – with or without the hyphen – that takes not the best of both worlds and rejects the rest but takes both worlds and creates something both familiar and new with its own best and rejects.

So there are times when I get squeaky. The dial gets turned the other way, and I can’t shut up. The raging extrovert in me, the angry Asian American woman who is tired but clearly not tired enough to shut up comes out and I hate when that happens because I hate that I feel like I should apologize for bringing to the conversation a different voice, a different perspective.

I can talk about things other than race, gender or class. It’s not always about race or gender or class. But many times race or gender or class (or all of the above) are in play. And the other night it was soooo easy. We were discussing The Help
, and there are still hours of thoughts and questions inside my head. Last night was just a taste. Why couldn’t we have started out with something lighter like a Nicholas Sparks book? Bahhhh!

No spoiler alert here for those of you who are still on the library’s list for the book or in the process of reading it. You know that the book touches on issues of race, gender, class, friendship and love. And if you read this blog you know that those issues are what keep us here in this cyberspace.

But those issues are uncomfortable, and it’s not always easy to go from discussing our feelings about a book to how those feelings translate into real life when it’s all so new and we don’t yet know our similarities let alone our differences. But how could I not talk about how I see life in our town as being different but not so entirely different than what we had just read? How could I not bring up how the rules of engagement between the junior league women and their help are as subtle and dangerous as describing “suspicious” cars and their drivers in broad generalities? Don’t we still have subtle lines drawn and communicated about who belongs where? How could any of us read the book and not choose to be uncomfortable if not for one night?

Love Or Hate “Eat, Pray, Love”?

Have you read “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert? If so, did you love it or hate it or was it just “eh”?

Well, I have not read the book, but enough folks around me have shared their opinions about the book. I know of one woman who, after a few chapters into the book, absolutely loved the book. Others who have read the book, and mind you they were all women, were turned off by the author’s story – divorce leads to travel, food and love with a dose of whine.

Minus the divorce and travel it sounded a bit like “Julie & Julia” to me, which I enjoyed in the theater but never bothered to read the book…I did end up buying Julia Child’s French cooking tome but I digress.

The general consensus was that Gilbert’s book was a whiny memoir, but I came across this op-ed piece (via Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed) and had to ask all of you who have read the book or decided not to read it like I did based on the reviews.

Jessica Wakeman contends that:

“…Eat, Pray, Love the book (and soon, “Eat, Pray, Love” the movie, starring Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem) has turned out to be a lightening rod of controversy in the most disappointing of ways. The negative reactions to “Eat, Pray, Love” show just how resentful, bitter, contradictory, and quite frankly, hate-filled we are towards a woman who does something for herself.”

So far there are 401 customer reviews that rate the book 1 – star on Amazon out of more than 2,000 total reviews. I’m an author, but I’m not that kind of author – New York Times best seller kind of author, and I’d be lying if I said/wrote that I wouldn’t want to be that kind of author. NYT best seller? But with the fame comes the crap, and I’m not that good of a writer nor do I really want to deal with more crap. But it’s worth thinking about whether or not the criticism is, as Wakeman writes in her opinion piece, gendered and taking shots at Gilbert because she is a woman doing what Wakeman contends would have been an adventure story had a man lived the same life and written about.

There was similar criticism of the movie “Julie & Julia” – mostly but not exclusively from male movie reviewers. My thought at the time was that the movie critics were taking themselves too seriously and perhaps not understanding that this was the coming-of-age story for one almost-30 woman. Yes, Julie Powell was whiny, which is why she needed something else to ground her. Lucky for her, pounds and pounds of butter and bacon fat helped ground her, and she happened to gain some self-awareness and some success.

Is/was the criticism of “Eat, Pray, Love” or “Julie & Julia” gendered? Are readers (and are they predominantly women?) doing the same thing they accuse Gilbert of doing – whining and complaining – but about someone else’s success instead of about their own average lives? Or would the book even mattered had it been written about and by a man or would the publishers have looked at it and thought “this is nothing new”? Perhaps the issue of gender isn’t so cut and dry; isn’t it possible that a big reason this book made it is because Gilbert is a woman and leaving everything behind to find herself is a novel concept?

Now, I chose not to read the book. Instead I read several other books by non-white female authors because, quite frankly, I needed a different perspective, point of view and voice than what is so prevalent and prevailing. Gilbert is a woman, but the older I get the more frustrated I become with the false dichotomy of race and gender that I often experience. As Gilbert’s book became a rising star her star wasn’t in the same constellation as what I was seeking out – authors like Amy Tan, Bich Minh Nguyen, Yen Mah and Toni Morrison. So my reluctance to pick up her book was less gendered criticism and more cultural/racial and spiritual. I’m certain there are common bonds between all women, but I’m tired of people telling me the differences don’t matter. Differences make life complicated, interesting, compelling, frustrating and hard. I don’t want the same all the time, especially if someone else is the one always defining the “same”.

But I could be wrong about it all, so I may request the book at the library and revisit my reluctance. I’ll have to think about that some more. For those of you who read Gilbert’s book, what do you think?

Moving Forward Sometimes Means Looking Back

I am not trying to rehash the past for the sake of rehashing the past. I am, however, trying to figure out what, if anything, was learned from the DV incident. Personally, I’m still sorting through the experience which gave me a unique opportunity to speak up about issues of identity – both ethnic and gender.

I found myself speaking out with the likes of Soong-Chan Rah and Eugene Cho while having to ask them to consider the cost of not speaking out against misogyny and sexism. And in the end my only regret is not pushing the issue further with them. We talked about whether or not “adding on” the issue of gender would hinder the effectiveness of our protest, and there was talk about whether or not we could go back and criticize content when initially we all had agreed that we were not as concerned with the content of the book.

Looking back, I would have pressed us to stop and say what we were hoping the authors would say. We made a mistake. We drew attention to the obvious – the random “Asian” images and objectification of culture for one’s own gain. But I wish I had quickly run out and taken a look at the book (which I did about two weeks into the mess), slowed down the online rant to a more thoughtful chapter-by-chapter analysis. Once I had the book in my hands I realized I had a problem with both the content and the images. I wish I had slowed down and then pressed the issue further because at the end of a day of explaining white privilege, stereotypes and brokenness I looked at a photograph in the book of an Asian woman baring her midriff, wearing an Chinese-styled dress carrying a Japanese samurai sword I had to come to terms with “male privilege” where the normative experience is that of men.

So I’m still thinking things through, praying that God will help me find a gentle, powerful voice to move forward without losing lessons of the past.

But I wasn’t alone in DV. This e-mail was sent out on March 11 in hopes of some clarification from a few folks involved.

Dear Jud, Mike, Chris and Stan,

I trust you are all doing both well and good, and you are connecting with Christ in a fresh way this Lenten season.

It has been almost four months since our paths crossed, but I suppose in some ways our telephone conversation and subsequent online “interactions” may still be fresh. I am writing not to open up old wounds but to see if you have any reflections or a response to all that happened in the fall now that there has been a little bit of time and space. I continue to have blog readers, friends and colleagues who watched the situation unfold ask me if I have had any contact with any of you (particularly Jud and Mike) and what if any thoughts I might share publicly.

Revisiting DV publicly didn’t seem appropriate until a follow-up of some sort had happened. You see, as I’ve replayed our phone conversation (with Mike, Jud, Chris, Nikki, Soong-Chan, Eugene and me) and re-read our joint statements post-conversation, I cannot help but shake the impression that our conversation would continue at some point offline. Perhaps I mistakenly assumed that Soong-Chan, Eugene, Nikki or I would be part of those conversations and that you have sought counsel of other Asian Americans. Was I wrong in assuming we would at some point come back to the table to talk?

Jud and Mike, I have been watching POTSC from it’s unexpected early start develop into what looks like a lively community ready to engage in learning from and extending second chances. I’m getting ready to write a follow-up reflection piece, and I’d prefer to include a public comment or two from either of you (or from Stan or Chris) in response/reflection four months later rather than a “no comment” or non-response. At the very least, I will be letting readers know by the end of the month that I’ve contacted you, perhaps including this e-mail, in hopes of getting us back to the table to talk again.

Please let me know what kind of response I can share publicly with my readers.

Peace,

Kathy