When I was in kindergarten, my best friend was an Asian girl named Susan. Our dads worked together and we were the only two who had ever heard of Sailor Moon in our class (because my 6-year-old classmates were uncultured swine, obviously), and not only that, but we both adored it. And because this was a time when my mind was blissfully liberated from social stigmas of gender and race, we would play Sailor Moon together, nonstop, all throughout recess and sometimes even try and bring it back into the classroom. She was usually Sailor Moon because she called it first, but that meant I got to change characters a lot, which was its own reward. If I was Jupiter, I could use lightning and my wits, Mars could use fire and a hatred for the world, and Mercury could use water and her unwavering optimism. I was hardly ever Venus cuz Venus’s powers didn’t make sense to me, and I typically took a hard pass on Tuxedo Mask cuz all that guy did was throw sharpened roses which was LAME SAUCE.
The thing was, there was this little blonde girl who wanted to play with us, too. But we would not let her. Sailor Moon was our thing, and besides, she didn’t even watch Sailor Moon. But then the blonde girl started watching the show, and proved it by answering a series of questions that we hurled at her like a couple of elitist toddler sphinxes. She got all of them correct, but we still denied her entry into our kindergarten shenanigans.
This was meant for Susan and me. Was it because I liked Susan? Yes. Did I know that one day she would tell me that she had a crush on that kid who played Anakin in Episode I, sending my heart into a spiraling decline that caused me to dye the top of my short, spiky hair blond in an attempt to appear edgy and that she’d hate it and eventually refuse to even talk on the phone about Powerpuff Girls with me? No. How could anyone have seen that coming? Life is a tumultuous maelstrom of circumstance, and it will knock you on your caboose, even at the tender age of six.
Most of my emotional damage is rooted in kindergarten, that much is clear.
But I tell this story because this is the first encounter I really had with elitism and it sorta sucks that I was on the wrong side of it. Now, this is a mostly harmless example. It was kindergarten, three 6 year-olds, Sailor Moon, and recess. That doesn’t resonate too deeply with society. But regardless, the principle was pretty much the same:
Someone wanted into our club, we refused on no real basis, and from then on, that person had no shot at access.
It wasn’t just about being rejected for the little blonde girl, it was about total inaccessibility.
So, switching gears, we were talking about different approaches to Paul’s letters in my Intro to Biblical Interpretation Class a couple of weeks ago. We were presenting different approaches to Paul’s letters based on different demographics, and Asian American Perspectives popped up.
Admittedly, this is not a perspective I consider very often, if at all. And I realized that was sort of ridiculous, especially when hearing what the topic was on:
Specifically, ambivalence of Asians being the perpetual foreigner and model minority. And I don’t know about you, but that just sounds awful to me. The author gave an example of how he was teaching a Greek class and made a comment about English, only to be met by a white student’s outrage. She demanded that he not “dump” on “her language” all the time, and how would he like it if she said that about Chinese? This was after he stated that the Greek participle was much more complex than the English one, so they shouldn’t translate it word for word.
This was an example that led to a much larger explanation of white privilege and the principle of whiteness that is the foundation of it.
So what was happening here translates pretty accurately to the effect of whiteness on the whole. The student saw an opportunity to obtain information, saw value in her professor, but as soon as he claimed or “threatened” to become a part of the status she had, she rejected him outright. Perpetual foreigner, model minority.
It doesn’t matter if you watch the show now, you can’t play with us.
And as I was hearing this, I began jotting down ideas I had about two lines from one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite rappers, Childish Gambino:
That well-spoken token who ain’t been heard
The only white rapper who’s allowed to say the N-word
Ok, so I liked this song before, but in this context, I realized just how complex and genius these two lines are. And the implications of it are astounding.
Ok, so that first bit: Well-spoken token who ain’t been heard. So Gambino’s meaning is twofold here, I think.
Firstly, and most simply, he’s making reference back to his own career. He’s not well-known in the rap community. Backpackers are sorta like the marginalized rappers- guys who aren’t in the mainstream and are rejected by the game for the brand of rap they put out. Typically, they don’t have a lot of street cred, and it sometimes seems impossible to prove in one way or another that they have a place in the game.
But secondly and more importantly, he’s reminding us of the principle of “the token black person” and acknowledging that that’s where he’s at right now. The token black character (or token any minority character, since our media’s idea of representation is such a joke) is there to be seen, and not heard. Gambino’s got some real stuff to say, but he’s only there in the background, maybe occasionally in the foreground, but never the focus. If he does speak, it will be to build up the main character. He’s never given his own character. He’s supporting class, second-rate under the thin guise of being presented as first.
This affects his relationship with the white community, but what about the black community? Well, that’s in the next line, which goes to further explain the first. A running theme in Gambino’s lyrics is that he’s considered too white to have anything to say to black people, that he’s not a real black person. So he has no street cred, he’ll always be a backpacker, he’ll never have a place in the game. He doesn’t belong to either party. Sure, he gets to use a word that white people don’t, but that, the free use of a single word (powerful as it is) is the only perk of being in the position he’s in.
He is a perpetual foreigner, a model minority.
What about that is fair? What about that is right?
It reminds me of a feminist ideal, too, that patriarchy is mutually detrimental to men and women. Patriarchy constantly reminds women that they aren’t in power, and threatens men who attempt to advocate for women or express themselves in ways other than what is deemed “masculine.” Terms like “man up,” “be a man,” and “don’t be a girl” are populated by a man’s fear of being ostracized from “manliness,” of being robbed of power that is given to him by adhering to a particular idea of what is masculine. It’s a fear of being cast out from his own village.
That’s only one way that patriarchy hurts men in addition to women. There are countless more.
I do not want to be someone who offers false hope of status to others without there being a true opportunity for them to achieve it.
I don’t want to be someone who offers any kind of hope on the basis of status at all.
As Christians, that is fundamentally contradictory to who we believe Christ was and is.
So what do we do about that?
For starters, we look for where that’s happening. And frankly we don’t have to look too hard to see it all around us. Racism, sexism, and other power struggles that result in the marginalization and loss of hope for other human beings are dominating our society and it’s because we are unable to look at ourselves and others. So consider this: white racism. If a(n) *insert minority* person looks at me and says “I hate all white people,” a few things will happen. One, I’d be taken aback because that sort of speaking out against the majority is so rare, probably because we’ve created a culture of well-spoken tokens who ain’t been heard. But ultimately, I would walk away from the experience, having encountered a single instance of racism and hate in my life. But there would be no lasting fear, insecurity, or detrimental effects, because I, as a white male, am returning to a society in which I am in a position of power, intrinsically. I will not lie awake at night because of it, I will not be anxious about how I’ll be treated when I walk out my door the next morning, because I have whiteness, and I am within the population that controls who can achieve the same status as us.
And that is sickening. That is white privilege that I take for granted every single day.
That’s what makes things like what went down in Ferguson a couple months ago possible. Disregard everything about the actual “crime” and whatever convoluted version of the truth you believe about that, the weeks that followed were what needed to wake people up to what race relations look like in the US, but it didn’t, because we were comfortable walking away, returning to our familiar village in which the majority doesn’t have to deal with what really happened.
So look we, myself included, need to look for that. Wonder about it and sit on it. Look for it in the church.
How accessible are we making the church to all people? If we have an American flag in the church, what does that say to non-Americans who visit or attend, and what does it say to people who have a different perception of America than we do? That may step on some toes, but I’m ok with that if it will make us look at our toe for a bit while we bandage it and wonder why it was hurt in the first place.
But lastly, and this was the point that the book was ultimately making, I want to go back to this idea of ambivalence with a message of hope. Because that duality was something Paul experienced, and is a great lens to read Galatians through. Paul was in a strange, ambivalent spot socially, as a new Christian, as a “high achiever living in the diaspora.”
Paul has been there, a perpetual foreigner and model minority to both the Empire and to the Jewish and new Christian communities. In that way, Paul offers a unique invitation to those who have experienced and are experiencing the same thing, saying “I have felt what you feel, and I bear good news.”
I don’t know how to end this except with that, a message of hope from Paul in a lens that I had never considered before a few weeks ago. It’s one of sympathy, understanding, and assurance. It’s a message to those in power to, at the very least, acknowledge that you are in the clubhouse, refusing to let others in, but sometimes fooling them into thinking they have a chance. It’s a convicting problem that feels too big for us to tackle on an individual scale, largely because it is.
But this is just another facet of what we’ve already been told: look around. And remember where you place your status, and enact that hope in the way you interact with the rest of the world.
We’ve looked at the clubhouse and asked to come in. We’ve asked to play, even though we’ve broken the rules, even though we don’t really know what game it is. And the beauty is that we haven’t just been allowed to play anyway.
We have been invited to do so.