Crying in Public

A week after Thanksgiving, I found myself seated in a cushy, high-tech theater in the center of LA’s Little Tokyo sobbing. Around me, an audience of about 50 listened as a scholar of Japanese mass incarceration and a filmmaker and activist discussed their work. At first, I attributed my inability to stifle the tears running down my cheeks and ruining my mascara placement to hormones and fatigue. But through these two months, I have found myself, well, beside myself, several times.

In that moment, I cried because someone in the audience asked a seemingly simple question to the speakers. Something like, “My grandpa talked about working with some Japanese Americans who were arrested and he took care of their stuff while they were away…did other people do that?” The speakers explained that many people who knew Japanese Americans personally did take care of their homes and belongings while they were away. Another audience member raised their hand and revealed that a series of photographs the filmmaker used in a short film featured a former neighbor. Then, stories started flowing. Children of formerly incarcerated started sharing about their parents’ time in “the camps.” A few veterans talked about feeling inspired by the 442nd Infantry Regiment, the regiment composed almost entirely of Americans with Japanese ancestry. One survivor finally- slowly- revealed his own experience in the camps.

These stories weren’t necessarily sad. In fact, I felt an intense spirit of kinship in the room, as if these folks waited decades to share and finally got the chance. I stopped taking notes like a good scholar and started listening, really listening, through body language and facial expressions and laughter. I think the reason I cried is because that space- one where scholars and activists and folx who might have simply been there to learn or share- were all essential to the conversation. That is the space I want to inhabit and create in whatever kind of work I do.

IMG_0115.jpg
The pop-up Planetarium

This past weekend, I found myself beside myself again! This time, over 5,000 people flocked to the Los Angeles Public Library for a Mobile Museum Festival. My partner and I brought along our exhibit materials and kept our eye out for innovative display ideas or stories to include in our exhibit about the religious and inter-religious history of California. We saw a pop-up planetarium (think an upside-down bounce house), a museum of miniatures depicting African American history and culture in America, a set of matchboxes from gay bars, candy wrappers, marionette dolls, indigenous food sources, and a feminist book wagon. We also saw a massive iguana and a tarantula that made me itch. I felt my impulse to cry when we crowded into a packed room full of sports memorabilia- the California Sneaker Museum. The display cases were cracked. Some of the posters looked slightly tacky. The table cloths revealed a few stains and fray. But the imperfections of the accessories fell in silence compared to the objects and the stories they held. Magic Johnson’s sneakers. The founder of the museum is a sports enthusiast and has been collecting objects and stories for over 20 years. He is a scholar of popular culture- and his mission is to share his work and passion with anyone who will stop and look.

I think we have moved beyond the false notion that scholarship should be objective and emotionless, as if our sources demand we put our humanity aside for more authentic understanding. While it is true that biases and our own experiences can shape what we think and how we study, I can’t imagine not “feeling” as I interact with them. How could I not be heartbroken upon reading a letter from an incarcerated Buddhist priest, who begged the government to grant him freedom so he could return to the religious community he served for over 35 years only to find the building sold and condemned after his seven-year internment? Or courage, looking at the old photographs of the first Sikh woman Mayor in the US and her journey as a sexual assault survivor? I don’t mean to say we should make value judgments on our sources- this often shadows the authenticity of them by projecting false context- but that we are missing a key aspect of research if our own emotions go unchecked, or worse, are stifled. So, I’ll keep crying, and laughing, and finding spaces where my work is a compliment to the stories waiting to be shared.

 

Don’t Overreact to Little Things

I’m definitely not saying anything in this post that has not been said before. It’s been said many times, it’s been said recently, it’s definitely been said today. Like five minutes ago. Because most likely, someone didn’t listen. And not listening meant upholding patriarchy and continuing to allow dehumanization and violence toward women. Toward womxn. Toward survivors and victims. I’ve heard excuse after excuse and experienced literal yelling over social media. I’ve gotten dismissive, unthoughtful responses like, “there is no evidence, so how can we know who is telling the truth?” or “think about his situation and how hard this is for him.” Consider: why would someone lie about trauma- especially knowing full well the absolute storm of disgusting responses you will receive?

evan-brockett-534976-unsplash
Photo by Evan Brockett on Unsplash

On the other hand, the sarcasm and sass on the internet gives me just a little bit more life. “Maybe he should smile more. Maybe he shouldn’t have worn that and he wouldn’t be accused.” ABSOLUTE GOLD. It makes me laugh so hard because it hits so directly on what women have been saying over and over in so many intelligent, patient, “civil” ways (I hate that word). It’s funny because it sounds SO stupid! And yet- advocating for the rights and innocence of someone who commits assault is SO stupid. And it is happening every minute.

So why won’t they listen?

I’m going to share a story that is not meant to equate experiences with race and gender or experience of violence. This is only to illuminate a point. I remember, before engaging in racial justice and what we usually call “diversity” work how defensive I could feel when someone called me out. Especially if they used the term “racist.” Because even though no one told me that I, as an entire human, was a racist, I associated racist behavior with being a racist, which I knew to be very bad. I did not want to be a very bad person, so I shut down a few times. I got defensive and didn’t listen or learn anything. And that was a shame, because the folx telling me truth were offering a huge gift- a gift they had no responsibility to give, that probably contributed further to baggage and eliminated a potential future ally. That is- I eliminated myself from that, and caused harm. I knew I was complicit. I didn’t want to admit it.

This is aimed not so much at abusers and perpetrators- y’all can honestly rot for all I care- this is for the people who are defending the abusers and perpetrators. The people who “can’t believe her without evidence.” The folx who want to cite some completely false statistics that more women and womxn are lying about assault now so they’re ruining other “real” survivors experiences by creating a girl-who-cried-wolf-scenario. This behavior is why interrupting and catcalling and booty calls and excusing terrible behavior and assault and rape happen ALL THE TIME. This is perpetuating rape culture. It’s not only excusing the event but denying any agency when someone bravely comes forward. I want to emphasize this because I honestly had a stronger reaction to 45 mocking someone who did the best she could to tell her story than a rapist acting like an angry child. Perpetuating allows behavior to continue. Perpetuating= complicity. It’s like telling someone’s fortune, except it’s invoking future trauma.

So. I’m coming out strong to say that if you tell me your story of trauma and survival, I believe you. Thank you to those who listened to and believed me. I am working on checking my own actions that perpetuate.

We’re Good, Now.

I’ve been thinking about this question: Can I still wear/eat/drink/listen to/shop at/buy X if the designer/founder/store/musician/artist did/said something racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic? What about redemption?

PC: Jose Revuelta

The short answer is no. Don’t do it. If you have to ask…the answer is pretty clear.

The complicated answer is, everything is tied up in systems and structures of power that marginalize and oppress (ahem, capitalism). So we may very well be left with nothing to support, and everything to abandon.

That’s not an excuse. I’m not listening to Morrissey again, let alone pay to see a concert. Not that I ever did, or would. That’s just an example of a simple answer to the question.

Here is where I’m doing more deep thinking. Nike just put out an ad with Colin Kaepernick, featuring this tagline (parodies abound already): “Believe in something. Even if it means losing everything.” Fox News was offended, suggesting this is a great thing. Nike’s stock fell. But in the long term, is this good for business? Is this continuing the exploitation of athletes of color for the benefit of white corporate greed? That’s where my caution comes. I don’t mean to suggest this ad is only about making money…but I do, because it’s an advertisement! Supporting Kaepernick not only as an athlete but an activist and a person of color willing to sacrifice his work is a great thing. Supporting a corporation with a very abusive history is not. So just because Nike is “woke” now…

What about Nike’s history of horrific labor conditions- including using hazardous chemicals and child sweat shops? Do we ignore these atrocities in favor of supporting a movement?

In this questioning, two points guide my thinking. The first is, forgiveness is irrelevant and not something I feel empowered to offer, but sustained change can make a difference (not saying Nike specifically has changed for the better). According to more recent reports, Nike has attempted to change some of their unethical practices. Does this mean they’re off the hook? Absolutely not. Sharing the ad is important because it means taking up space where a racist or misogynist ad could be. It means I need to constantly question where I spend my resources and realize nothing is entirely pure.

Which leads to the other point. There is no room for complacency here. Questioning every purchase, every donation, even where I spend my time on a daily basis is crucial. It may seem extreme, but supporting a coffee shop that participates in and advances gentrification in a low-income, historic neighborhood is a choice that has an impact.

Supporting companies and people who do have a positive impact is important too, I believe. Recognizing that everything is inter-related, standing for something is important. Activism isn’t always about “losing everything,” it’s about putting our skills and talents to work to create change in every sector. If everything is about sacrifice, it can be difficult to find anything worth fighting for. Activism and movement-building are messy and often provoke questions without answers. I think the best strategy is to engage with the questions, listen, and work to change our own behavior in ways that benefit our communities. Dare I say, Just Do It.

Can I Use Expletives?

Though I try to avoid using them in my writing, I love a good swear word. We could probably have an entire debate about which one works best in a particular situation. The crispness of two consonants hissing off the teeth feels so satisfying. Why are expletives so…off limits?

bill-jelen-721824-unsplash
Photo by Bill Jelen on Unsplash

Expletives of course are words that make a statement- sometimes inappropriate (who decides that?) and often cut from public media because they are dirty, obscene, profanity, or cussing. Again- who dictates what language we should use in particular situations? Sometimes they are used to degrade and dehumanize, so I have to be upfront and say expletives are not always helpful, they can be harmful. But maybe the root of naughty words can help us frame the sh**storm that happened this week and what comes next.

I remember watching a proto-YouTube video once that detailed the history of the “F” word. I was around eleven. The video demonstrated that the F word is one of the most versatile in the English language- it can be a verb, a noun, a gerund, an adjective, and an exclamation, among others. I showed the video to my sister, nine at the time, who giggled as though she had secretly glimpsed  a raunchy scene in an R-rated movie. My grandmother came over to see what we were fussing over, so we had no choice but to show her the video. She watched, expressionless. Finally, the video ended, and she looked distraught. “That word does NOT come from German, it comes from Latin!”

Taking a lesson from Grandma Mary, the root of “expletive” comes from the Latin explere, meaning “to fill.” An expletive is a word used to fill a sentence or verse without changing the actual meaning. Think poetry rules. Seemingly, an expletive is an excessive addition to someone’s thought- we don’t need it to understand their point. We do need it to follow the rules of language, maintaining the correct number of syllables and perhaps a stylistic upgrade. So, in a strange sense, expletives might seem like rule-breakers when used to profane or curse, but traditionally, they actually maintain the formula.

The importance of how we understand expletives is actually in how we think about rules in this moment. Last week I met with some religious life professionals for an inaugural training session and got a sense of how higher education professionals interact with chaplains and religious life on their campuses. The gathering was tense for a few reasons, not the least of which was the untouchable elephant in the room that involves human rights violations, religious intolerance, and dehumanization to the highest degree. The subject itself was an expletive. I wondered- what would it be like to break this rule that says we can’t talk about it, because feelings will be hurt?

The real takeaway for me, frankly, is that rules are oppressive when they allow a group of people in power to feel hurt when an oppressed group moves toward some kind of equity. Remember that quote “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression?” I’ve been thinking about that quote every day. I would add that when you’re accustomed to rules, challenging them feels like a violation- but in this moment, violations of what we think we need and know are the only thing that can bring forward the equality of the oppressed. So F*** the rules.

Questions

Hypothetical Question.

You’re a professor, a teacher, an instructor, a TA…anyone with some power to craft a syllabus or introduce material you haven’t written for the purposes of learning. That’s a big net, but this is a big problem. Let’s say (like me) you’re developing a World Religions syllabus. You’re really into it- So many great readings! An interesting assignment! Field Trips! Guest speakers! Literally, you cannot wait to teach this class because you’ve curated the entire semester down to a note and the students will be AMAZED. Ok. Here’s the problem: you find out one of your most crucial readings, one written by a foremost scholar in the field, has been arrested for something icky. I’m not picking one thing because this isn’t just a “one instance” issue. I’m asking what we do. Because so far, everyone I have spoken with rightfully thinks long and hard before answering. No one has really offered an answer.

mike-ko-51284-unsplash
Photo by Mike Ko on Unsplash

I do not have an answer either. My first reaction? Take it off the syllabus, take it off websites, get rid of it. Poof, gone. That’s an option. My friends and colleagues have responded with thoughtful questions to this idea:

-What if the reading really is that crucial? I ask- can we differentiate who influences our students based on the quality of their work, or more likely the level of their fame? And isn’t any press good press- won’t students go looking for this source when they learn the scandal?

-What if the crime really has nothing to do with the scholarship? Someone stealing cars could definitely still write an excellent history of Early Christians. I ask- does any part of our lives have no bearing whatsoever on our work? Can we really separate ourselves from our research?

-What if the person admitted the crime, served their time, and apologized? What if they really feel sorry? I ask- is it good to find redemption in people? Do we have to forgive if someone has been harmed? Does an apology change trauma that someone faces every day? (No. That’s a no.)

-We need to know the identity of this person. Maybe they aren’t guilty. If you start finding dirt on one person, how far will it go? No one is perfect. I ask- how should we view law and the justice system in this conversation? Can we trust that people who “do bad things” will get in trouble for it? (That’s also a big fat NO.)

I have been grappling with these questions in the midst of deep reflection on the #MeToo Movement. About a year and a half ago, I wrote my #MeToo story. To date, it is the most read story on this site. We cannot ever downplay the widespread violence on women that happens every single day because we live in a culture where rape is normative and sometimes even celebrated. This is where my initial reaction- tear it all down!- gets tricky.

I sit in the “remove” camp still. If anything, I believe my role is to be upfront with my students about why they will not read the best article on “X” subject. I think in order to stop violence against women and others, the change in resources should be as widespread as the culture that allows the President of the United States to laugh about sexual assault. In order to change normativity, that’s what it will take. In closing, I do think we need to consider that we humans, no matter how famous and learned and experienced we are, do our work from the wholeness of ourselves. Our research, our teaching, our careers are all influenced by who we are and who we have been. The question becomes- how do we let ourselves come in?

 

Stranger Endings

I am scribbling furiously in a cold conference room. Something about “we” and “endings” and “tribes” and “bunkers.” In front of me, two of my fellow Interfaith Youth Core alums on a panel share stories from the social action projects they built during the 2016 Germanacos Fellowship (a program for IFYC alums who envision and execute interfaith action projects). This year, I am humbled to call myself a Germanacos Fellow. I am also ecstatic, and terrified, and itching to launch my project: a pop-up traveling exhibit depicting California’s religious and interfaith history.

 

matt-botsford-610989-unsplash.jpg
Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash

Folding a new page onto the top of my notebook, a vision flashes in my head. This past Thursday, I asked the students in my New Testament section to imagine what it would be like if religion scholars 1000 years from today tried to understand Harry Potter as a sacred text. How would they reconstruct our world, with very limited materials and a pretty substantial translation problem? What about “facts” and “reality?” I asked them to do this in order to understand our task as students of the New Testament. I ask this about my own faith tradition’s most central figure, Siddhartha Gautama. You might know him as “the Buddha,” the one who was awakened. The task of constructing other worlds means something when the process of asserting and legitimizing my own worldview is at stake.

Because I am not Christian, I experience tiny moments of enlightenment in my class when the students grapple with material that for many of them is actually quite familiar. When we began our course, the students wrote learning contracts explaining why they enrolled in the course and how they best learn. The majority of essays began “I grew up in a Christian household…” with some adjectives or qualifying statements added every so often. Quickly, I realized that in my role as a teacher and because of my own spiritual practice, every day I ask my students to endure some very difficult tasks. I wonder, what does it mean for me as a Buddhist to teach Christians their own book in a context that demands they question, make judgments, and ultimately consider ideas and statements that their communities might vehemently deny as being part of their worldview?

Back to scribbling. I’m thinking about a conversation my fellow “Fellows” and I just engaged in with the Director and Founder of an organization I have admired and supported for more than ten years now (and more frankly, has believed in me as an interfaith leader, graciously supporting projects and investing in my skillset). I listen intently. The theme of the conversation: strangers. Not just people we don’t know. These are the people we don’t see or hear or think about. People we don’t ever, even in our wildest dreams, imagine knowing. These strangers might look like me, but they don’t have a degree from a top 20 school in the world, a masters from a top 5, or are in process of a PhD at a top 3 (please don’t take this as a brag, rather, a statement of immense privilege that allows me to even huddle over this laptop as I write). There is a sense that these strangers, if given the opportunity, would switch places with me. There is an even heavier sense that these strangers put the current president in the White House because they saw him not as a stranger, but as a beacon. In my circles, the same man often bears titles like “white supremacist” and “racist” and “fascist,” and I agree with those statements. The question on the table sinks into the room as silence falls for a moment. Is this- this huddling, this turning inward, this tightening of our own “clan” if you will- is this the reality of bridge building in America right now? Of pluralism? Of interfaith work?

I get stuck. Who is “we?” At first glance it sounds like “liberals,” or “democrats,” or “the people of the interfaith movement.” That makes sense. “We” tend to be the elite, the educated, the folks with access. We get to dream and throw around the word passion and dispute each other’s Facebook ponderings. But, it’s complicated. My parents have this access- they have bachelors and masters degrees. They own their own businesses and a two-story home in a great school district. They choose freely to incur debt when purchasing land. My parents are just as “elite” as me, according to Capitalist America. But they didn’t vote like me.

I think about someone else I love. Someone I met an an elite university, in our Arabic class. Someone who speaks three languages fluently. But he is not “we.” He is not a documented citizen of this nation. He is the stranger, the alien, the criminal who deserves not a single, solitary physical atom on this land because no papers, no proof of humanity. Stay out of spaces that don’t belong to you. Don’t talk to me about stolen land.

From my perspective, my students are “we.” I don’t know their political leanings, where they find community on campus, or if they can afford a plane ticket home at Thanksgiving. I do know they have access to one of the world’s largest libraries and can spend their Friday nights pouring over real Medieval manuscripts (some do). I know that when they graduate, the name on their diploma will welcome them automatically to a class of careers and social circles that others will see as mythical. The lore starts even before graduation: you don’t know someone who got in to Stanford. You know someone who knows someone who knows someone. And yet, the reality is, not all of them are “we,” because they are still outsiders in an institution built specifically for upper-class white males. Access doesn’t always mean belonging.

Let me return to the New Testament for a moment. In all the gospels, more or less, Jesus intentionally curates his schedule to spend more time with “sinners” and “undesirables”- lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors- than with the Jeff Bezos’ of the ancient Mediterranean. Jesus suffers with the suffering, and then he tells people to do the same thing, to their fury. We know the ending to this story- Christ rises. Christ bestows the potential for liberation. But before this, Jesus loses. In any case, the outcome is printed neatly at the end, allowing us to work backwards from the ending to see that everything Jesus did led him to the cross. And yet, we know so little about this man’s world- we can’t dive into the archives of CNN to scour the 24-hour news cycle to understand what else is going on.

When I visit my childhood home, my mom and I walk four miles early in the morning. My mom waves to just about everyone we pass. She points out her favorite landmarks. The family that owns the pig. The house that grows giant pumpkins in the fall. The alley where she can almost always spot a deer looking for water. One morning about a month ago, she said something I didn’t expect. “We’ve got to do something about the guns. Really, we’ve got to.” This, coming from someone for whom pretty much any other issue would fall neatly into a “conservative” standpoint. But this is different- I, her daughter, teach on a college campus. Statistically speaking, if I stay long enough in my current position, it’s not highly likely I will encounter a school shooting. It’s certain. This complicates “we,” because strangers and kin are not just organized by red and blue. We don’t know the end of this story. Does it come down to a checkbox on a ballot? Or can we consider other affiliations that illuminate some Venn Diagrams?

Remember my dilemma with my students learning the central Christian text from a Buddhist? Here it is: what does it mean for me as a Buddhist to teach Christians their own book in a context that demands they question, make judgments, and ultimately consider ideas and statements that their communities might vehemently deny as being part of their worldview? I think “we,” the folks with access and voices in the interfaith movement, could all stand to demand of ourselves that we question the statements our “we” uphold AND deny- things like democracy as ultimately good, like what religious freedom really means, and who, frankly, can’t be part of our movement. Where are the lines now drawn? Do we have a duty to consider the plight of the stranger? Before I feel like I can do that genuinely, I want to put my energy into widening a circle of folks ready to ask with me. I want to look at the limited materials and construct a world that legitimizes and asserts our movement as one comfortable with not knowing the ending, but rather wants to initiate some beginnings.

Disobedient

We’re four days away y’all. 2017 is toast and the gyms will be packed, resolution boards populated, and whatever other changes we wish to instill in our lifestyles will roll out. I can believe.

ng-55633
Photo by 贝莉儿 NG on Unsplash

I’m planning on starting a Whole 30 on January 1st because I’d really like to give myself the gift of health. And I figure eating Whole 30 when I actually turn 30 sounds like a good idea. But something else has been gnawing at me and I don’t exactly know how to explain it, except that my New Year’s Resolution is to disrupt and shake stuff up. I have a few examples.

Here is a simple one. For Christmas Eve dinner, my mom and I cooked all day before we piled into the kitchen. On the menu: my famous lasagne, Southwestern cornbread, creamed spinach, and a chopped salad. My grandpa commented on the “eclectic” mix of foods- meaning, they don’t really go together.

I’m committed to challenging “what doesn’t go together” this year. It’s time to rethink norms and values and why we do things a certain way. Once I got over buying “men’s” clothing, a whole new set of possibilities opened up. Sure, there’s something to be said for practicing and honing skills, for certain traditions to be upheld. But honestly, I think nothing should come without criticism.

I think about challenging the field of academia and how we write and research. That seems very daunting, but if I look back at my work so far, I’ve already committed myself to this path of innovation and improvisation. I’m studying a field that is building itself at this moment. The builders are young people who see real potential for disrupting, especially when the process of tearing things apart births new ways of building foundations.

I remember feeling most inspired at the Women’s March by the artists and creators because it seemed like they would be the ones to lead us into uncharted territory. So far I believe this to be true. To say this year has been trying is an understatement, especially for non-white, non-male, non-cis, non-straight, non-wealthy, non-citizen, non-able-bodied folx. There’s a radicalism in the air that might lead to some “wtf” ideas, but seriously- it might be what saves us.

Disobedience is coming. Religious leaders are ready to march, to sit-in, to block, to chant, to pray and sing and center, and to undefine what it means to do things the way they should be done. I’m going to try that in my own life. Creation can only come out of questioning our methods and even our beliefs. Let’s tear it all down, swirl it around, and put something new together.