Top 5 contributions Antiracism offers the Immigrant Rights and Immigrant Integration movements

For the last year, Crossroads colleagues at ERAC/Ce (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality) in Kalamazoo, MI have been intentionally working with folks in the immigrants rights and immigrant integration movements. From this collaboration come these five insights regarding the contribution antiracism offers these movements.

1. The antiracism analysis goes beyond the Black/White binary and aims to build multi-racial coalitions.

Conversations about race and racism in the U.S. are often dichotomous, inclusive only of White dominant and African-American cultural values. An antiracism lens invites those of us who work to welcome immigrants to understand the ways in which all immigrants become racialized when they arrive here according to the U.S. race construct. There are typically six racial groups in the U.S. – Arab, Asian and Pacific Islander, Latino, Native American, African American, and White. Immigrants may or may not understand how they are viewed in the U.S. compared to in their home country, but there are very real ways in which their race affects how they are treated and how much access they get to institutions and the resources necessary for life. An antiracism analysis also reminds many of us that we are not all immigrants, which you often hear within the immigrant rights and integration movement. The founding of the U.S. began with the genocide of Native Indian peoples who originally lived on this land. What’s more, there have been economic and political strategies throughout history that have been designed to steal land and resources from and invisiblize Indian people and Indian country.

2Antiracism teaches White people, including White immigrant allies and advocates, that racism is not about blame.

None of us were around when racism was established in this country over 500 years ago. Many conversations about race and racism go badly because we aren’t taught how to have productive dialogue about these often-painful topics. We need a common language, more complete awareness of history, and an understanding that racism isn’t any one person’s fault (at least not anyone living today). And yet we are all responsible for the dismantling of it. Racism dehumanizes us all and antiracism helps White people as well as People of Color find their self-interest in the work. This analysis can help White U.S.-born immigrant advocates and allies approach their work from a place of solidarity with immigrants and other People of Color instead of paternalism (wanting to “help, fix, and save” immigrants). It also reminds us that racism is more than just individual race prejudice. We must also examine how U.S. systems and institutions were built for White people, by White people, and in large part continue to serve White society better. Instead of focusing narrowly on a particular person’s attitudes and actions about different racial groups, antiracism asks the question: how is a particular White dominant culture value, practice, policy, or law working to maintain the supremacy of Whiteness?

3. Antiracism work is collaborative and always informed by/centered around anti-oppressive values.

Antiracism move us from the White dominant culture values like scarcity, either/or thinking, individualism/competition, and secrecy toward the antiracist/anti-oppressive values like an abundant worldview, both/and thinking, collective action, and transparency. Further, antiracism seeks to dismantle the silo-ing of and competition among social justice movements (aka the “Oppression Olympics”), which has been established through the divide and conquer strategies of our colonial and neo-colonial history.  What if oppressed groups starting working together – sharing knowledge, wisdom, resources, and tools? What if we all knew there is enough to go around and that we truly are stronger together? What if as resisters of oppression we began working cooperatively to co-create a country that welcomes and celebrates all?

4. Antiracism builds upon intersectionality – the understanding that we all have multiple identities.

Antiracism understands that racism is a system of oppression linked to other systems of oppression that robs each of us of our full humanity and impairs our ability to create just and sustainable community with one another both locally and globally. Racism is not the only “ism” and antiracism doesn’t ask us to drop our other identities in order to talk about race and racism. We can use our other experience around privilege and/or oppression as a window, not a wall. While it isn’t helpful to talk exclusively about racism, it is important to talk explicitly about racism. We must ask: how is race compounding upon all other identities (such as national origin and immigration status)?

5. Antiracism sees immigrant rights and immigrant integration (or welcome work) as resistance to oppression and offers a way of changing systems that have historically kept immigrants from being able to successfully integrate into their adopted hometowns.

The focus on creating welcoming receiving communities is approachable by many and can lead into deeper conversations of what it truly means to be welcoming — both in terms of individual and collective attitudes and actions AND how institutions are or aren’t effectively serving immigrants and why. Addressing national origin, culture, language, race, and documentation status-based prejudice is important and antiracism invites us to go deeper and address how immigrants experience systems and institutions (i.e.: hospitals and schools).  Doing the work of building welcoming communities is in itself an act of resistance to the historic realities of racism’s systemic and structural oppression.

Attitude or bias changing work is important and can be life-altering for both immigrants and U.S-born residents. And yet antiracism would posit that prejudice-reducing work can sometimes be masked as immigrant integration work. A school or local municipality can pass a “welcoming resolution” or proclamation, claiming to be a welcoming place to immigrants, but not actually become accountable to what that means on real and tangible levels. For example, how does a documented or undocumented farmworker from Guatemala or a Sudanese refugee experience a hospital or school or city hall when they walk through the door? In addition to changing receiving community members’ hearts and minds about immigrants (i.e.: help people see immigrants as contributors rather than “drainers”), we need an antiracism analysis grounded in the historical context of race and racism in the U.S. These two forms of resistance together can create a more inclusive, equitable, and welcoming country. 


About the writers:

Lillie Wolff is one of two Co-Executive Directors of ERAC/Ce (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality) and a Core Organizer/Trainer for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training. Prior to working with ERAC/Ce and Crossroads, Lillie spent seven years organizing around farmworker and immigrant rights and inclusion. Lillie is passionate about the intersections of social justice, ecological justice, and art, and has served on the Board of Directors of the Institute for Sustainable Living, Art, and Natural Design (ISLAND) since 2009. She earned a BA in Human Development and Social Relations from Kalamazoo College in 2004. Lillie enjoys dancing, biking, gardening, spending time in nature, and preparing and eating communal meals with her wonderful anti-oppressive community.

Jo Ann Mundy is one of two co- Executive Directors of ERAC/Ce (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality), and a Core Organizer-Trainer for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, a national partner working collaboratively with ERAC/Ce toward the institutionalization of racial justice in public and private institutions throughout southwest Michigan. Currently Jo Ann serves on the boards of Crossroads and the People’s Food Coop. As a founder mentor of the NIA Project, Jo Ann encourages the celebration of identity, purpose and sisterhood in adolescent women of color. Additionally, Jo Ann is a founding member of the Three Rivers Area Faith Community (TRAFC), an ecumenical faith-based social justice network of churches striving to build a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-lingual and multi-generational anti-racist faith community in Three Rivers, MI where she completed her doctoral thesis Sacred Actions to Bring Racial Reconciliation. Enjoying over 25 years of pastoral ministry, Jo Ann currently serves as pastor of On Common Ground of Three Rivers Michigan. Jo Ann enjoys reading, music, her guitars and computers and, most of all, the young people in her life.

Which one will you pick? Calling out the fallacy of the Black/White Racial Binary Paradigm, Part III.

A native of Puerto Rico, Jessica identifies as a “1.5 generation Queer ESL Latina of Puerto Rican descent.”  She works as a consultant and core/organizer trainer for Crossroads.  Jessica holds a BA in Criminal Justice and  Master degrees in Theological Studies and Divinity.
A native of Puerto Rico, Jessica identifies as a “1.5 generation Queer ESL Latina of Puerto Rican descent.” She works as a consultant and core/organizer trainer for Crossroads. Jessica holds a BA in Criminal Justice and Master degrees in Theological Studies and Divinity.

In this final post, I am reflecting on the two remaining dynamics the Black/White racial binary paradigm creates for people of color which ensure the continuous re-centering of Whiteness as the dominant and only valid experience of this nation.

Dynamic 4: The Black/White racial binary paradigm allows white people to simply ignore their own investment in both racist constructs and their participation in them.

There is no example more powerful in recent day than the Donald Sterling debacle. The wealthy lawyer and purported slumlord who owns the L.A. Clippers, an NBA team, was caught on tape asking his biracial girlfriend to not bring African- Americans to his team’s games nor post photos of herself accompanied by them. Immediately, collective outrage took over this nation. White people were coming out of the woodwork to condemn his “racist behavior.”  When NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling from the NBA for the rest of his life progressive white people everywhere breathed a collective sigh of self-satisfaction.  The good white people have won. But as Ta-Henisi Coates opines it is easy to condemn the oafish, classless, inelegant racism of the likes of Sterling and rancher Cliven Bundy. What is never easy, what is costly for White people is to address what Coates refers to as “elegant racism,” which he describes in this way: “Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter ID laws.” It is one thing for white people to express outrage at the overt unapologetic racism of Sterling and rise to the defense of African-Americans. It is another thing entirely for White people to own the ways in which they support, benefit, and leave unchallenged “elegant forms” of racism like stand your ground laws, mass incarceration policies, the privatization of prisons, the continued colonization of native lands, and anti-immigrant laws, just to name a few.

Dynamic 5: The Black/White racial binary paradigm stunts our creativity for visionary organizing and revolutionary collaborations.

I still remember the day one of my supervisors was fired. Over a decade has passed and I can still feel the weight of guilt for the ways in which my silence aided in the process of his dismissal. The situation was complex particularly because we felt no solidarity with each other. As an older African-American man in his sixties working in a profoundly racist liberal White institution he had learned to distrust anyone claimed by the White power structure. That included me. I was a 26-year old Latina claimed by the structure he distrusted as exceptional and set up as an example of what “good” people of color were supposed to be. His upbringing and the crazy-making construct of race had led him to believe that I was not a person of color but an honorary member of the White community. My upbringing in a colony of the United States and the crazy-making construct of race had led me to believe that I needed to stay away from him in order to succeed. I sometimes wonder how our work, our lives would have been different if we had seen each other as colleagues in the same struggle. I wonder how our organizing would have been more effective if we had been able to acknowledge that while the strategies were different, our dehumanization by racism was the same. I wonder how our communities would have been affected if we collaborated in ways that witnessed respect; maybe a revolution?

Among the most damaging effects of the Black/White racial binary paradigm is the way in which it eliminates the possibility of transformative collaboration among people of color groups and between White and people of color communities. When creativity is compromised the ability to formulate strategies to debunk the binary and the White supremacist worldview that produces it is inhibited.

The five dynamics I have reflected upon in this blog series threaten our struggle for human dignity. While alone I cannot stop these, I can join others in the struggle for human liberation. For the last 15-years I have given my time, energy, and creativity to Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training because it gifts me with a community of people working out of a shared analysis to strategize and organize cultural and institutional interventions that disrupt the divide-and-conquer strategies which threaten to seduce me away from my liberation and from the struggle for transformed community.

Power and the Black-White Binary: Forging Authentic Church Identities in the Midst of White Supremacy, Patriarchy, and Being “Other Asian”

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.
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.


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.


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.


The Black-White Binary Obfuscates and Distorts: Why the Antiracism Movement Must Reject It.

Robette has been Executive Co-Director of Crossroads and a Core Organizer/Trainer since 2002. As a Karuk Indian, Robette brings a specifically indigenous perspective to antiracism organizing. She is a founding member and past president of Diverse & Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM), the continental support and advocacy organization for UUA People of Color. She is currently Board President of Oyate, a Native American resource and advocacy organization. Robette has over a decade of experience in antiracism training, technical support and advocacy.

If I could change ONE THING that would have unprecedented impact on racial justice, racial equity and antiracism, I would change the way the United States “thinks” and “talks” about race. Because the way we typically think and talk about race, has no basis in the reality of how this country actually DOES race.

The prevailing discourse and analysis of race and racism focuses on a Black/White Racial Binary Paradigm.  This paradigm is so ubiquitous, so persistent and so contrary to rational thought, historic evidence and lived experience one can’t help but grasp there is something powerful about it that keeps us heavily invested in maintaining it. The Black/White Paradigm is one of the most rigid constructs maintaining white supremacy and systemic racism. And the really diabolical thing about it is one can be whole-heartedly committed and working to dismantle racism, while maintaining it at the same time. And when it’s People of Color who live race in the Black/White Paradigm, it is an effective divide and conquer strategy and a toxic internalized oppression dynamic.

Some definitions are in order. First, what is a paradigm? And then, more specifically, what is the Black/White Racial Binary Paradigm?  A paradigm is a shared set of understandings or premises which permits the definition, elaboration and solution of a set of problems that are defined within the paradigm. Paradigms control fact gathering and investigation focusing only on the facts and circumstances the paradigm teaches are relevant and important.[1]

For a description of the Black/White Racial Binary Paradigm, I again turn to Perea:

“I define this paradigm as the conception that race in America consists, either exclusively or primarily, of only two constituent racial groups, the Black and the White. Many scholars of race reproduce this paradigm when they write and act as though only the Black and the White races matter for purposes of discussing race and social policy with regard to race. The mere recognition that “other people of color” exist, without careful attention to their voices, their histories, and their real presence, is merely a reassertion of the Black/White paradigm. If one conceives of race and racism as primarily of concern only to Blacks and Whites, and understands “other people of color” only through some unclear analogy to the “real” races, this just restates the binary paradigm with a slight concession to demographics. [2]

What this means is, if we only understand race as being Black or White, and we only have a framework for understanding racism as dynamics between Black people and White people, defining the “race problem” as the legacy caused by African enslavement, then the only solutions we can imagine are constrained to rectifying that dynamic. In the real world, this means we could solve the problem of civil rights, full inclusion and control of resources for African-Americans, we could even make reparations but still not have touched American Indian’s racial justice struggle to reclaim land and sovereignty. Nor would we have solved any issues around immigration and civil rights for people from (or whose ancestors were from) parts of the world that the US restricts legal immigration like Latin and South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.  The homelands of Puerto Rico, Hawai’i, Alaska and Guam would still not be returned to their people.  And our economy would continue to depend on neo-colonial practices around the world.

The Black/White Binary prevents us from seeing the totality of white supremacy and thus from diagnosing and solving the totality of the problem.  All People of Color are exploited and harmed by racism, but the vehicle of exploitation differs and the differences are important. All People of Color have history and experience with the United States, its often oppressive political, social, economic and cultural systems, but that history and experience are not all the same and the differences are important. They are important for recognizing our individual humanity and important for effective organizing to dismantle white supremacy.

Here is an example of what I am talking about using a report from the US Center on Disease Control  (CDC), National Surveillance of Asthma: United States, 2001–2010.  The way the CDC collects and reports its data is highly problematic, for example: using the Black/White Racial Binary to refer to race while ignoring Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, American Indians and Alaska Natives; and classifying Latin@s as Hispanic ethnics and not a racialized group. In some regards they are following the pattern established by the US Census, which completely mystifies the way race is actually lived out in the United States (a topic for another day).  Refer to the following chart which summarizes some of the CDC asthma data, Figure 2. Current asthma prevalence, by age group, sex, race and ethnicity, poverty status, geographic region, and urbanicity: United States, average annual 2008–2010, which clearly indicates Puerto Ricans have the highest prevalence of asthma.

chart radias 1

The narrative of the report also confirms Puerto Ricans have the highest prevalence of asthma as follows:

“Race differences in 2008–2010 current asthma prevalence—Current asthma prevalence was higher in black persons (11.2%) than in white persons (7.7%). “

“Ethnicity differences in 2008–2010 current asthma prevalence—Among Hispanic persons, Puerto Rican persons had higher prevalence (16.1%) compared with Mexican persons (5.4%).”

What this tells us is Puerto Ricans have the highest rate of asthma prevalence, but they are not racialized, so the racial group with the highest prevalence are Blacks.

The CDC generates a multitude of reports based on the data it collects presumably intended to communicate the results to a variety of audiences. One such document pertaining to asthma, intended for broad (media for example) distribution is CDC Vital Signs: Asthma in the US which reports, “About 1 in 9 (11%) non-Hispanic blacks of all ages and about 1 in 6 (17%) of non-Hispanic black children had asthma in 2009, the highest rate among racial/ethnic groups.”  That’s not what the data says. Throughout the report Black and White statistic are paired together, usually in contrast to one another, and only occasionally placed in relationship to the “Hispanic” statistics which are typically reported paired as two contrasting ethnicities Mexican and Puerto Rican. As if those two ethnic groups somehow comprise the totality of “Hispanic” ethnic identity.

All this to say, reporting data this way makes sense only within the context of the Black/White Binary. The more appropriate racial term Latin@s would generate more meaningful data than the “ethnic binary” Non-Hispanic or Hispanic (which simply means “Spanish speaking”), and I would also argue it is important to disaggregate the data by ethnicity within all racial groups too. This would better reflect the lived reality of racial differences in the United States. Using statistics gathered according to the rules of the Black/White Binary to monitor progress toward racial equity (or not) is impossible, and yet, we spend inordinate quantities of money and human resources trying to do it. We need to track racial disparities in order to determine progress in eliminating them, but we need to track racial disparities (not the convoluted confusion we current track).

The Black/White Paradigm prevents us from fully understanding the problem of racism and therefore prevents us from finding systemic solutions that are effective. But it also prevents People of Color seeing one another and supporting one another in very human ways.

I recently watched the video “How Does it Feel to be a Black Student at UCLA Law School” on the ColorLines website. The video is intended to “raise the awareness of the disturbing emotional toll placed on students of color due to their alarmingly low representation in the student body. Notice how the video conflates “Black” with “People of Color?”  The video tells us there are 33 Black students out of an approximate total student body of 1100. According to UCLA the law school student body is 35% students of color. Institutions of higher education have a variety of strategies to inflate their diversity grades, counting some foreign students as People of Color for example. The more conservative numbers from the Law School Numbers website, indicate UCLA law school is about 29% students of color. It’s not great (UCLA is in Southern California after all) though statistically it’s a lot better than a lot of law schools. But this is where the Black/White Binary is truly insidious.

My observation watching the video is the Black students feel “isolated” and “unsafe” in their classes and do not feel solidarity with the other 29% of the students of color. And presumably, the other students of color are not feeling solidarity with the Black students. The reality is they share a lot of common ground in relationship to white supremacy and if they would act like it, they would be a force to be reckoned with. I’m not blaming the Black students or the other students of color for this, it’s the set up of the Black/White Binary that keeps them from understanding their racial kinship. I “get” the isolation the Black students feel and my heart goes out to them. As an American Indian in institutional settings, I’m often the ONLY one in the room, I’ve learned building solidarity with other People of Color is survival, literally. (BTW there are 18 American Indian students and 1 Pacific Islander student at UCLA law school—talk about lonely).

Sometimes I feel like Harriet Tubman, I know why Harriet carried a gun. Sometimes the people you are trying to lead to freedom are their own worst enemy. That’s how Internalized Racist Oppression works. People of Color have the power to change the Black/White Paradigm, and yet People of Color are some of the most rigid defenders of it. The discussion often devolves to some version of the “oppression olympics” with each group, trying to assert how they are the “most oppressed.” And then when White folks get involved and say the reason for the Black/White Paradigm is because the race construct was created to justify African enslavement, that’s how it all started. And Black people’s oppression is the worst oppression (and sometimes its not just the White people who say this). History, current social indicators and lived reality do not support ANY of these arguments.

Crossroads is evidence of the power of an alternative paradigm. The paradigm we use is radically inclusive of all People of Color. We understand The Paradigm we are up against is white supremacy that justified colonialism, and a multiplicity of economic and cultural exploitation. If you shift the paradigm there is room for all People of Color, their lives and experiences. It also creates space for people with mixed race ancestry who have been part of the race construct all along too (another topic for another day). If you shift the paradigm it shifts the organizing terrain and opens up a whole lot of possible transformative solutions to systemic racism.

[1] Juan F. Perea, The Black/White Binary Paradigm of Race: The Normal Science of American Racial Thought, 85 CAL. L. Rev. 1213 (1997).

[2] Ibid