- The Reverend Laura Mariko Cheifetz serves as the Executive Director of Church & Public Relations at the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. She received her M.Div. from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, and her MBA from North Park University in Chicago. She is an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She enjoys spending time with friends over food, exploring whichever region in which she happens to live, and still believes The Wire is the greatest television show in history.
Crossroads is deeply grateful that Laura M. Cheifetz our colleague , supporter, occasional guest blogger of Crossroads agreed to let us repost her insightful speech on the Black-White Binary. A few words of context. Rev. Cheifetz delivered this speech at Whitworth University in Spokane, WA at the Presbyterian Church (USA) Moderator’s Third Conversation on Unity with Difference on Race, Gender, and Religious Differences. It is also posted in her blog Church Relations. This is a long but very powerful piece on the relationship between power, the black/white racial binary paradigm, racialization, gender, and institutions. While Rev.Cheifetz is obviously speaking from her experience as a Presbyterian Christian to other Presbyterian Christians, there is much in her speech that applies to the dynamics of working for racial justice in any institution. Finally, with the writer’s permission this post was edited for length.
My name is Laura Mariko Cheifetz. Cheifetz is my family name, from my Polish-Ukrainian-Lithuanian Jewish family members who fled persecution in Eastern Europe over 100 years ago. If you know my parents, you know that I pronounce our name differently. I have no tattoos or body piercings and never snuck out at night to joyride or get high. Instead I pronounce our name differently.
My middle name is Mariko, from my Japanese American ancestry. My great-grandmother was the first Japanese American baby born in the town of San Juan Bautista, CA over 100 years ago. My Jewish Polish great-grandmother wanted my parents to call me by my Japanese name, and please know how grateful I am that my parents stuck with Laura. It’s an easier cross-over name for my Spanish-speaking relatives, and explaining my family name is already a lengthy process enough. I’m Hapa Yonsei, multiracial fourth and fifth generation Asian American of Japanese and Jewish descent. I’m also a Presbyterian teaching elder.
That is how I see myself. The question that most illuminates how others see me is: “What are you?” For those of you accustomed to navigating multiraciality or multiethnic identity or navigating looking not-quite-what-you-are-enough for others, this is the defining question. This is the question that is asked of me by both people and by institutions. Depending on my energy level, I either find this question annoying, angering, or just another day in the life. I know, I know, I could take the generous route, and think “these people are just curious. At least they ask instead of guess.”
I am generous with my second bedroom if you get stranded at the Atlanta airport. I am generous with food and drink. I am not generous when it comes to indulging the racial imagination of U.S. culture and American churches.
I believe there is more than one explanation and more than one right answer for pretty much everything, even if that is not how I talk. I have been well-trained by the dominant culture, and I love the fluidity of knowledge and experience – these two things are not always in sync. My own understandings of race and racism, gender and sexism, are always in development, and I look forward to learning more.
Race and gender themselves are not the problems obstructing unity. The problems here are racism and sexism. Who we are isn’t the problem, but how we live into oppressive constructs that separate us from one another is. What I will say this morning is part of a longer conversation we in the church need to have with one another, because even though we have been in this conversation for decades, we have yet to diminish our capacity to sin when it comes to relationship with one another.
Racism and sexism aren’t prejudice or dislike or ignorance. Any one of us can participate in prejudice or dislike or ignorance. “isms” are prejudice, or a belief in the inferiority of a group of people, whether this prejudice is intentional and conscious, or unintentional and unconscious, coupled with the institutional structures and the power to shape the lives of that group of people based on that belief in their inferiority.
A common coping mechanism I share with many of my friends who belong to particular minoritized groups is to make fun of people who operate out of “isms.” But “-isms” are not primarily about individuals. As the UCLA School of Public Affairs states, “The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture.” U.S. law tends to focus on intentional discrimination, because it is based on a dated understanding of what constitutes racism and sexism, such as blatant employment discrimination, and housing covenants that exclude certain named populations. But institutionalized discrimination is simply the consequence of maintaining power and privilege for the groups considered superior.
Another assumption I make is white supremacy and patriarchy are real. I’m not interested in sharing statistics that prove them to be real. I’m not here to convince you. If you do not already acknowledge these huge shaping forces in our culture, then this conversation will not make much sense to you.
You have read the Bible, and I’m not the best person to explain how as Christians we should care about how we interact in the church regarding race and racism, gender and sexism. I have moved beyond needing a theological justification for ending racism, or biblical interpretations for gender equality. Let’s assume that’s a given. I leave that to others who give more time and energy to it than I do.
I depart from the assumption that all of the history of what became the U.S. is important. While forced removal of Native Americans and chattel slavery shaped the south, where I now live, I grew up where Spanish colonialism and its precursors, Native American reservations, anti-Indian policies, alien land laws and Asian disenfranchisement, violence against Mexicans already on the land, and the use of migrant farm labor shaped the racial landscape.
Race and gender are social constructs. We conflate the social construction of gender with biological sex. Sex is about chromosomes. There are many chromosomal variations on the XY and XX combinations into which we assume the world falls. Gender is not a binary. I will probably be dead before the Presbyterian Church is able to come to grips with that fact and starts giving members the ability to classify themselves outside of the male/female binary. Gender expression is how we live out our own gender, and is tightly policed in U.S. society and particularly within the church. Definitions of what is gender and what is acceptable gender expression vary by culture – in some cultures, there are more than two genders. It is men that raise the children. Pink used to be a boy’s color in the U.S. It is only real because we say it is real.
I do not believe race is real. I believe it has no biological foundation. I believe race is real the way money is real – because we have given it value. Race as defined by the U.S. is a social construct. It changes constantly. Just take a look at every single U.S. census – the racial categories are different every ten years.
We as a society have constructed race and gender as real, constricting individual expression, disrupting solidarity, and giving us a series of tiny little boxes into which we might organize our limited understanding of humanity. However, I believe race and ethnicity lend meaning to our own identities both as a result of our rich heritages and as a result of racialization.
The last assumption I will name is that I am not particularly interested in talking everything to death. I want to see change. I’m not what you could call old, but I’m not exactly young, either. I’ve been in these conversations around race and gender in the church for 15 years. I know others have been in it for far longer, but I confess I’m impatient. I can do the long game, but I very much want to be in this conversation with others who can think collectively to organize for structural and cultural change. Other people before us died for this. I think the least we can do to honor them is change this church.
My context in regards to race, ethnicity, and religion is this: in my family there are Asian Americans of Japanese and Chinese descent, Latin@s of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent, white people, African-Americans, white Jewish people, Arab Americans, and so many multiracial people that we could make our own cross-over feel-good commercials. In my family, there are Pentecostals, Presbyterians from More Light to Confessing Church, Episcopalians, atheists, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Disciples of Christ, Buddhists, and a significant population of “nones.” I grew up behind a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. And I am so so Presbyterian, and my remarks today will largely address the context of the Presbyterian Church (USA), because that is what I know best.
I never went through a confirmation class, so I’m the person who has to look up the creeds in the hymnal. I’m the person who feels no need to prioritize visiting the great American Presbyterian pilgrimage site of Iona. I didn’t know we had an ethnic heritage as a Scottish church until I went to seminary and heard that some churches have Sundays where all the men wear kilts. I was horrified. I had grown up feeling so different from Lutherans, who in my hometown sponsored the annual lutefisk-eating contest at Viking Fest, and it turns out my religious people were just as specific.
My context in regards to gender is this: my parents, early on in their relationship, were part of the Christian expression particular to Intervarsity and the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley in the mid-1970s. My mother once told me, “We went to a workshop on wifely submission. It didn’t stick.” But before our imaginations devolve into some sexist version of the nagging bossy wife and the husband who has to keep her happy, my parents are deliberately partners. They respect each other. My father, the one straight white guy in my home growing up, has never once questioned my version of reality. He trusted me to tell him my reality, and he believed it to be true. I take feminism seriously because my parents raised me to take it seriously, and so did the churches that raised me.
I introduce myself in this way because I think there is more than one way to experience racism and sexism. There are over 300 million ways in this country, and over 1.8 million ways in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Our conversation cannot depend upon a generic experience of racism (usually defined by blackness) or sexism (usually defined by middle-aged white women) imposed upon other experiences. Racism is not just about color. It is also about language, culture, colonialism, national origin, and citizenship status. Sexism is not just about how many women get to be heads of staff of tall steeple churches or directors of church agencies. It is about how we continue to think about gender identity and gender roles, and how those thoughts are embedded in our culture and our policies. It is about earning potential; church policies around work hours, compensation, and family leave; about how well churches minister to the lived realities of women in their employ and women who choose to be part of churches. It is about the culture of church leading change in the culture of this country instead of propping up legal and cultural patriarchy.
I will focus primarily on racism in this time we have together, but know that I approach this, understanding we are not just one thing at a time, not just a person of color at one point and a woman at another point, but our identities are multiple, mutually constitutive, complex.
THE BLACK-WHITE BINARY
We in the U.S. operate out of a black-white binary. We assume the starting point for most of our racial conversations is slavery, and the ending point is either Jim Crow or Trayvon Martin. I prefer the “yes, and” approach. I believe the reason for Native American suppression and cultural genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, Trayvon Martin and the current crisis in incarceration rates is racism, and other reasons are economic. What is racist is that the lives and well-being of people of color are just incidental collateral damage to the power of white supremacy.
What is racist, too, is the ongoing divisions made among people of color. You know of divide and conquer? That’s what happens when we focus only on one thing, on one group. That’s what happens when the church tells us it can only work on one issue at a time. That’s what happens when the church gives us a tiny pot of money to be divided among multiple diverse groups, and we decide to passive-aggressively fight over it instead of work together to make lasting change. That’s what happens when we decide to say that our experience of racism is more real than someone else’s experience of racism, and we base our organizing and our solidarity on that decision.
For the church and our society to focus primarily on the relationship between white and black, there was another group here before both of these groups, and there is a giant growing diverse middle. You do know that by the middle of the century, there will be more of us people of color than there will be of white people. Now, I don’t delude myself into thinking this will mean there will suddenly be racial justice everywhere. “Isms” are about power. Patterns of wealth are racialized, and it will take generations to change any of that. But I do know that if we as people of color would like to organize for change, it would work a heck of a lot better if we tried working together, instead of each of our groups interacting with white people and avoiding each other.
What the “ism” of racism and the black-white binary both serve is white supremacy. I’m not talking about the white supremacy of neo-Nazis moving into Sandpoint, Idaho. I’m not talking about the white supremacy of the KKK in southern Indiana. I’m talking about garden-variety white supremacy, the kind that assumes whiteness is preferable, the kind that allows people to dabble in other cultures without accountability. White people running yoga studios for their own profit, and the daughter of the governor of Oklahoma wearing a Native American headdress, using the excuse that in Oklahoma, one is exposed to Native American culture and feels connected to it (as though there were one Native American generic monoculture).
In this atmosphere of white supremacy and the black-white binary, where is the identity of Asian Pacific American? I have said before that I am Japanese and Jewish. I am multiracial. But for the purposes of demographics, I’m Asian American. I’m the model minority. Right? I got good grades and have two masters degrees and I work in a church agency. I’m a home owner. When I talk, sometimes people listen. So what right do I have to complain when it comes to racism and patriarchy?
The model minority stereotype reared its ugly head in the 1960s, suspiciously timed with widespread social unrest. Some people talk about the “riots” in black neighborhoods, and the Black Power movement. I find this interesting, because not long after, yellow power and brown power and red power movements were in full swing. Asian Americans were set up as the good people of color, the good model minority, even though they were engaged in social change movements.
You might be aware that there is more than one kind of Asian Pacific American. Many, many kinds, with different cultures, languages, ethnicities, foods, and ways of coming to the U.S. We are talking 34 countries in Asia, and within those countries, many more language and cultural groups. I was taunted as a kid for being Chinese or Hawaiian or whatever people decided what kind of not-white I was (I could be Latina or Native American, too), because in the U.S. all Asians are Chinese. I found that in the realm of the national Presbyterian church, all Asians are Korean.
The first problem with the model minority is that it jams together people whose countries of origin the U.S. invaded, people who worked for the U.S. government during the Vietnam war and who had to leave their countries as a result, and their descendants, and people who came last year on a highly specialized work visa. It includes people whose families have to wait 20 years for a visa to the U.S., and people whose ethnicities and languages show up in approximately zero U.S. government documents as a check box option. Asian Pacific American is not an accurate way to classify people, and if Asian Pacific Americans had our way, all the data would be disaggregated, so you can see how the group I belong to (Japanese Americans) are vastly different from other groups, like Hmong Americans or Iranian Americans.
The second problem with the model minority is that it presumes there are good people of color and people of color who are problems. It tells people in my group to not be like those black people, or, increasingly, those Latin@s. It helps perpetuate the labeling of all black people as the wrong kind of minority, despite all evidence to the contrary. It helps divide people of color from one another, and disrupts our organizing potential.
The third problem with the model minority… I hate to break it to America, but the politics of respectability is a lie. No matter how good you act or how high your household income or how nicely you dress, at some point someone is going to hurl a racial slur at you, or shoot at you, or stop you for questioning because you look like an immigrant or other kind of criminal, or not stop the cab to pick you up, or ask how your English can be so good. You will always belong to a group less likely to experience economic mobility, and more likely to experience higher rates of stress and discrimination than the white population. We as people of color can end up twisting ourselves into caricatures trying to make ourselves into the right people of color, instead of interrogating the very culture and system that demand such dehumanization.
DISLOCATED BY THE BINARY
I felt included in racial conversations much of my growing-up, maybe because there were so few of us people of color. Then I moved to New York. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t special. This is important. It was fantastic. I didn’t stick out. I could just blend in. There were those annoying moments, like when a white guy interning at the UN asked me and another church intern, who was from Tajikistan via Amsterdam, if we were sisters. I said, “You mean in that general Asian way?” But I was also working with the UN World Conference Against Racism, and I ran into the black-white binary so hard that I started walking out of meetings. I had a vague sense that the struggles of Latin@s, indigenous Peoples, Asian Americans, and others didn’t count as much as the struggles of African descendants, but I had no idea that this kind of meeting would bring up everyone’s internalized pain, which would manifest in blatant competition for resources and access to power. The U.S. non-governmental agency community was in constant conflict.
Attending school at McCormick in Chicago was another challenge for me. Even though the student body, just half white, and the city were plenty diverse, the two largest groups were still white people and black people. The primary participants in racial conversations were still black people and white people, and I will always appreciate the audacity of the Latin@ and Asian Pacific American students, and the space given to be part of a larger conversation. Giving into marginalization in that setting would have been giving up, and inserting ourselves into the racial conversation fought against our being relegated to the margins as “cultural others” or what I might call “window dressing.”
Conversations in the PC(USA) are often tied to the racial-ethnic caucuses and ethnic specific congregations. These conversations for people of color mean you’re either black or you belong to an immigrant group. And while I work hard to be in solidarity with immigrants, because we are all stuck in this crazy racialized category together, the most recent immigrant in my family is white and English-speaking. The majority of my family has been here for over 100 years. The issue for me is not language access (although that is important). My issues are not about my culture and the church’s inability to deal with my cultural differences (I know how to navigate whiteness and white culture. My people have been doing it for generations.). My issues are about the racism that has helped make this church what it is. Racism is embedded in our identity. And I think we as a church have the capacity to forge an identity that recognizes our participation in colonialism, racism, and other “isms,” without giving these systemic evils the power they currently hold.
So how do we do this? Let’s start simply. Let’s allow for complexity of identities. Let’s allow for a multiplicity of expressions. There is no one way or best way to be Presbyterian, or Christian for that matter. Jesus wasn’t white, nor did he speak English only. Let’s also allow for a complexity of understanding how racism and sexism are experienced in the church and in society. How a first-generation immigrant Filipina experiences racism is quite distinct than how a Native American man experiences racism. How a half Japanese half Jewish woman experiences racism is quite distinct than how an African-American man experiences racism.
Let’s quit using one another as props for our own theological or political campaigns. There is nothing more exasperating than white churches holding up “Hispanics” or “Koreans” or “international partners” or “young people” as a rationale for changing our church policies or not changing our church policies. While I believe advocacy is important, I think we tread too far in the direction of other more dangerous and exploitative territory. What was once held as a truism is rapidly shifting. No group is likely to be both theologically and politically liberal or conservative based on the definitions the church has relied on for decades. 63% of Hispanic/Latino Americans support same-sex marriage rights. Asian Pacific Americans as a group overwhelmingly (71%) voted Democrat in the last presidential election. Mexico City and South Africa and Brazil have legalized same-sex marriage. Many of the churches that are our more “conservative” partners around the world are also vehemently anti-free trade and oppose the kind of capitalism practiced by this country and our institutions, the kind of economic system that benefits us. This just goes to show how complex are our belief systems, affiliations, and convictions. If we have a belief, how about we claim it as ours, and find a good way to substantiate our claims, instead of using these monolithic imaginary others who are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves, and often do speak for themselves, given the chance.
Let’s address real inequalities. I have heard many churches, many of them majority-white, wish the Presbyterian Church would stop focusing on so many social issues and focus just on theological ones. Social issues are theological. It is a theological problem if Christians believe employment opportunity for those with varying levels of education, immigration, the criminal justice system, gun control, political gerrymandering, disenfranchisement, voter ID laws, the financial services sector, hunger, poverty, and economic inequality are not the business of the church. These are things that have a disproportionate impact on the lives of people of color. These are the problems that keep us from attaining a shot at racial justice. These are the problems that shape our lives because we’re always negotiating with banks to allow our in-laws to keep their homes, or finding lawyers so our mothers can stay in the country, or finding people to write letters attesting to the character of our wrongfully accused sons, or looking for ways to feed our families. We have to worry about elected officials who don’t look like us or care about our communities. This takes up a lot of time and energy, and it is our faith that keeps us going. These are the circumstances we bring with us to church every single Sunday.
It must be really nice to never have to worry about those things. Never have to worry about discrimination. Never have to worry about getting a loan from a bank. Never have to worry about laws regulating gun sales because you think your son won’t be gunned down in the street. Never have to worry how a police officer will react. What will drive us apart instead of together as the church is if you dismiss my real life as just the “fluff” the church shouldn’t be doing.
This might be weird, coming from the “other Asian” who is employed and has citizenship and all kinds of access, but part of being Asian Pacific American is needing to care about all these things. We are small, even if we are the fastest-growing group in the U.S. We encompass great economic and vocational diversity. And for anyone to care about our issues, we have to care about the issues of other groups. We are not so different from each other. And by building coalitions, by showing up for each other, we are more likely to get things done.
I know that some of the partners in this work are white. In the end, we are all on the same side, yes? Patriarchy and white supremacy serve no one, not even the white men among us, even if white men do (statistically speaking) stand a far better chance than others to benefit. Patriarchy and white supremacy in the United States continue to divide us from one another, disrupt our collective organizing power, compromise our Christian identity, minimize our capacity to act like Christians, and dehumanize each one of us. While I do not feel sorry for white men, I also know that the fullness of what it means to be a man is severely limited by patriarchy, and the fullness of what it means to be human is cut off at the knees in exchange for white privilege.
But people in power are going to have to start believing that oppression and marginalization are real, without putting the burden of proof on those who experience marginalization. And people with power will need to grapple with the realities of the privilege the current structures have afforded them. There’s no need to feel guilty, but there is a need to be honest about it, and to find ways to be good and accountable partners in this work.
Our church has a lot of statements, many policies opposing inequality and injustice. You also know that our church and many churches struggle with allowing both diversity and unity to creatively coexist. How can we be authentically church in the midst of real disagreement about money, theology, sexual orientation, pastoral discretion, Biblical interpretation? How can we be authentically church when we do not like each other?
I’m straying into Biblical territory here, but I have heard we all have spiritual gifts. Some of us do the complex and cutting-edge thinking. Some of us do a great job of raising money. Some of us are activists, creating change by pushing from the edges. Some of us are subversive, making change inside large institutions, incrementally making these institutions more life-affirming for all people. Some of us are great encouragers. Some of us make sure there is food on the table. Some of us pray.
I believe I said something somewhere about showing up for each other. I meant that across racial groups, and I mean it for different genders and religious groups, too. We can’t hope to make change all by ourselves, all the time. Maybe some of us were trapped in schools that taught the whitewashed version of civil rights history, but the civil rights movements have been incredibly diverse. There were many philosophies, change theories, streams of thought. They were white and African-American and Asian Pacific American and Native American and Hispanic/Latin@. Civil rights work was transnational. So if we of varying races, genders, and religious groups show up for each other, and if we of varying spiritual gifts show up for each other, maybe that is a way of finding how to be authentically church and authentically community. Maybe that is how we can create change.