Monday, March 3, 2008

We who are strong

Yesterday at church, Superpastor let fly with a smack-you-upside-the-head sermon, the challenging, prophetic kind of rhetoric that is the very reason I go to church, and especially this church. Yet again departing from the lectionary (for us UCCers, would have been John 9:1-41, the story about the blind man who gets kicked out of the synagogue) Superpastor instead picked a passage -- actually, just one verse -- to address an ethical issue that his congregation faced. Not only did he jump the lectionary, he jumped the NRSV entirely and read instead from the King James! He said he felt the older translation got at the heart of what the verse really meant over the NRSV's blander translation. Our scripture lesson yesterday was the King James Romans 15:1

We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves.

Which, quite honestly, is the very essence of Paul's theology. This is Paul fighting the corrupting forces of empire with the power of community, held together by love. I've been looking for an NT verse for a tattoo in Greek, and this might be my next skin art.

Superpastor was speaking truth about a civic issue in our community, but this verse and this sermon also spoke to something person for me. You might have noticed that I've redecorated the blog a bit -- added some blogs and sites to the links on the right -- but also altered the name and my profile a tad.

This is a blog is one from my context, which is that of a biracial woman of Asian heritage. I grew up being called "half" my entire life, and when I reached adulthood I began to wonder exactly which "half" was my Asian half and which was my European one. Top or bottom? Left or right? Or is it scattered throughout my being so that when my parts become a sum, I add up to 50% Asian and 50% European? I'd love to take a DNA test, just to see if the numbers really do add up this way. But "half" sounds reductive -- I am half a person, half an identity based on who's doing the looking, because you know, I'm only half-Asian around other Europeans. And, of course, the only words available to describe my racial-ethnic identity were not polite. Ainoko and konketsu are two from my Asian side, but they both essentially mean bastard. And on my European side -- halfbreed, mutt, mongrel, and of course, being half-white doesn't keep you from being called a japchinkgookslantslope, go home, go back were you came from. Oh how we Other anyone who is Other.

So a few years ago I discovered the word hapa, a Hawaiian word that sort of means "half" but also means "mixed" but, I learned, essentially is used for anyone who is multiracial and of Asian heritage. It became really out there in the last year or so thanks to artist Kip Fulbeck's Hapa Project. All I get out of this identification is personal satisfaction of being able to name myself -- an important factor in good mental health -- because I have to explain what hapa means as much as I (still) have to go through the torturous conversations of Where Are You From No Really Where Are You Really From Oh I Thought That You Were Asian I Could Tell From Your Eyes You Look Like You're Indian Which Tribe Are You How Long Have You Been In This Country You Speak English Very Well De Donde Eres No Verdad?

Since I've been attending seminary, I've been opening up to new ways of looking at the world, and one of them is postcolonial criticism. Postcolonial criticism is, to put it not so simply, the voices of those who have been oppressed under colonialism, who have had their identities decided by people who don't know them, Others. Postcolonialism is the speaking to former colonial powers and current imperial powers by people who have traditionally been ignored, silenced, rubbed out. It calls to the carpet those who have privilege of any kind, and turns on its head the notions of who matters. It's the recognition that there are more ways of looking at the world that the one that we've been given. It's a fairly new field, academically speaking, but then it'd have to be, since colonialism's not yet in its death throes and empire is still a factor.

As you can guess, I'm quite enamored with this field.

There are moments when I read these works and collapse in relief because my context as a woman of color finally has a place to be heard. And there are moments when I burn in shame because my context as a woman of privilege hears and understands the human price of that privilege.

So the other night I was reading entries from Mixed Race America, a blog on race issues in America that I've added to my blogroll, and I came across a link to an essay by Wei Ming Dariotis, a scholar who had embraced and championed the world of the hapa, or mixed, individual, and had even proposed a field of study she called Hapa Studies. In fact, it was her Web site with its examination of the need for Hapa Studies that put me over to embracing the word for my own self identity. However, in this essay, she was giving up her identification with the word. Native Hawaiians who were hapas had been miffed for years that us mainlander mixed-race, non-Hawaiians had taken up the word as our own. I didn't know, or rather, I knew but thought it was a small, disgruntled group, much like the people who say that Barack Obama can't be black just because he says so, who want to jealously guard the racial barriers of self-identification.

Dariotis, however, came at the argument from a postcolonial angle.

Increasingly, many Native Hawaiian people object not only to the way the word has been changed in its grammatical usage, but also to how it is applied to anyone of mixed Asian and or Pacific Islander heritage, when it implies Native Hawaiian mixed heritage. This is not merely a question of trying to hold on to word that like many words encountered in the English language has been adopted, assimilated, or appropriated. This is a question of power. Who has the power or right to use language? Native Hawaiians, in addition to all of the other ways that their sovereignty has been abrogated, lost for many years the right to their own language through oppressive English-language education.

Given this history and given the contemporary social and political reality (and realty) of Hawaiian, the appropriation of this one word has significance deeper than many Asian Americans are willing to recognize. To have this symbolic word used by Asians, particularly by Japanese Americans, as though it is their own, seems to symbolically mirror the way Native Hawaiian land was first taken by European Americans, and is now owned by Japanese and Japanese Americans and other Asian American ethnic groups that numerically and economically dominate Native Hawaiians in their own land.

In Foregrounding Native Nationalisms: A Critique of Antinationalist Sentiment in Asian American Studies, Candice Fujikane argues that Asian Americans are "settlers" in Hawaii, and therefore "support American colonialism" even while trying to fight racism and discrimination in a "colonial context". She defines the term "settler" in opposition to "native," and argues that Asian Americans "refuse to see themselves as the beneficiaries of [the US] colonial system." Although Fujikane does not specifically mention the use of the word hapa by Asian Americans, her argument is certainly in line with the critique that Asian Americans have wrongfully appropriated the term in a way that disenfranchises Native Hawaiians from their culture.

I have to admit, this upset me quite a bit, and Dariotis mentions in her article the reactions of people who, like her, like me, love the word and have come to use it as a way to self-identify. I am something, it is this word that sums up all my parts without giving emphasis to one or another. Can't we all just share it? I asked. For heaven's sake, I'm not a colonizer, I'm not a power, why do I have to be the one to suffer, to compromise, when it wasn't me who did those oppressive deeds? I'm with you now! I want to keep this word that is my identity!

We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves.

I am a woman of color. I am a woman of privilege. I choose to exist in tension between these two poles, and never fully claim one or the other, so that I never forget either. Even when I do, and oh how I do.

The heart of the gospel is this, that we live in community, bounded by love for one another and the love of God. To live in community is to be aware of the needs of others and to fulfill theirs before we fulfill our own. This means we give up privilege, we give up power, we give up comfort. We wear new markers of identity over our old ones, not excising them but adding to them and enriching them, so that we become new people under God's heavenly rule, in which there is no hunger or poverty, where there is no oppression that we live under or we live out. We do not live there yet, but we can see it, and we live like it's already happened in order to taste some of its blessings.

So I give up hapa. Admittedly, now I'm stuck for a word, because mixed is OK, multiracial/biracial is OK, but for me it lacks the power of hapa. So I've cheated a bit, gone with (h)apa, which for me will stand for (half) Asian Pacific Islander American, which is still my context and what I study (postcolonial and APA hermeneutics and theologies). But I can't say I'm wild about that either. But like the man said, we can't always get what we want. I'll keep it for now, and I'll keep my theological ears open for a more accurate title.


Jennifer said...

This is such a powerful post and so thoughtful and reflective. Thank you for sharing the process of your thoughts and linking it to your superpastor's sermon--it has also given me much to chew on as I think about the various privileges and "oppresions" I struggle with in my daily life.

Kirsten said...

Labels are tricky, whether assigned by others or given to ourselves. There are just so many potential layers of meaning to any bit of language--so confusing, and offering so many opportunities to get hung up or tripped up or hung out to dry.

And those are the easy ones.

Bravo for giving this topic such careful thought, and for respecting the point of view of those who originated that particular piece of language.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

Kirsten stole some of my thunder, but I would add that it isn't just about labels, but identity, which is a far trickier thing. How we identify ourselves can be a challenge, a threat, an entreaty, or an invitation. It can say that we choose to be ourselves, or we choose to be as others see us, or whatever.

I think this is a powerful piece, as much because it shows that you are seeking an integrity that you suddenly found wanting in the whole "hapa" choice - living with a chosen identity that divided yourself - and emphasizing the tension, rather than division, in your life. Division leads to destruction of whatever is divided. Far better to live with tension - the never ending struggle to be whole even as parts of you pull in very different directions.

By the way - you are a wonderful writer, a powerful thinker, and I am glad to have discovered your writing. Keep it up.

Erudite Redneck said...

You rock.

Rock on.

(BTW, the barely stifled twittering when SP held up the KJV was worth the price of admission yesterday.) :-)

(h)apaThealogy said...

Hey y'all, thanks for commenting on this piece (special Hi to Jennifer whose blog led me to the article that sparked it all).

To be honest I've been thinking on this for awhile since some articles popped up on Salon about Obama's multiraciality, but the sermon and the article on hapas finally put me over. Kirsten and Geoffrey, you're right, labels and identity are a minefield. I think we try to make them easy, but they're not. Hard is what makes life affirming.

ER: I guess the early crowd is more sedate, or else the density just wasn't there to hear the murmuring. I'm really going to have to take a crack at translating that line to see if I can come up with a version that's modern-English clear.