Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Ode to Low-Paying Jobs

Warning: This essay speaks candidly about finances, even citing personal salary history, which few people talk about in polite conversation, for some reason. I believe the social convention originally stemmed from not wanting to appear haughty about having a higher salary than one’s interlocutor, but now it seems the only people who have actually divulged their salaries to me are those with low salaries. People who earn high salaries are almost ashamed of how much they make, apparently—at least as my experience has been.

When I was growing up, there was any number of “messages” that were thrown my way: Finish your dinner. Don’t spoil your dinner. Don’t talk to strangers. Look both ways before crossing. If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all. It seems I heard these messages so many times that I wasn’t even sure who was giving me these messages or if the messages were true at all. One message I got over and over again was the message that you should do what you love, not what will pay you money. When you’re a kid, though, do you really know what profession you’ll love? And do you really know the value of money?

Granted, I was a spoiled child. No, my parents didn’t buy me whatever I wanted, but we also never wanted for anything. Even though we lived in the “poor” side of town, it was a town that currently has a median house price of $1,000,000—that’s median, not mean. I had an allowance. I had to save up for things, but my parents never gave me or my brother the impression that money was a problem. The only time money was a “problem” was when my brother and I wanted to buy things we wanted. My brother wanted clothes. He wanted CDs. He wanted weights for lifting. I wanted comic books. I wanted CDs and videos. Now, my parents didn’t consider books (which they differentiated from comic books), music lessons, or art supplies “wants.” They gladly funded these desirables as if they were necessities. There were a lot of behind-the-scenes finances in our family. Even though I occasionally heard the words mortgage or taxes, I really had no idea what those were. Mortgage to me, as a child, meant in Monopoly when you were losing money and I had to temporarily trade in your avenue or street for some cash from the bank (usually about $100).

My parents were fully supportive of me going into the teaching profession. My friends were, too. Everybody would say things like, “Oh, schools need good teachers.” They might also say, “Teachers should get paid more.” For a young twentysomething straight out of education school (as I was when I first started looking for a teaching job), the money from teaching seemed good, actually. I didn’t end up getting this job, but one of the jobs I interviewed for was a middle school public school teaching position in Wallingford, Connecticut. The job’s starting salary was going to be about $33,000. In Middletown and that general middle-Connecticut area, a decent one-bedroom’s rent is only $500. Granted, Connecticut has the highest salary scale for public school teachers in the United States, but that’s still a decent wage for such a low rent… or at least that’s what I realized when I moved to the much-more-expensive Bay Area. Now, finances were tight in Connecticut for me, though, because I didn’t get that Wallingford job. I did a lot of substitute teaching, which was $120 a day for long-term subbing (possibly the worst job to have in education) and $65 a day for on-call subbing. I had to ask my parents for money just to make that low monthly rent of $500, and they kindly obliged.

After a while, I got disillusioned with the whole public school scene, and I moved to private school. Almost anyone I talked to about this move followed the that’s too bad remarks with, “I guess so, but private schools don’t pay as much.” Well, the private school I worked at funded me just fine. Sure, all the older teachers at this school would complain that public school teachers in the same area were getting paid thousands more, none of them actually wanted to leave her cushy job to go to those higher-paying public schools. They know deep down that the perks of private school-teaching far outweigh the perks of a higher salary. For someone (like me) with no children and no mortgage, it was actually the best of both worlds. I had a good work environment and a great salary. The apartment my wife and I live in is $1300 a month (considerably more than Connecticut), and it’s in the cheapest neighborhood in San Francisco that isn’t sketchy (suburban boy that I am, I consider the Tenderloin and the Mission too sketchy to live in—sorry!). My starting salary that first year was $32,500, roughly the same amount Wallingford was going to pay me. Sure, the rent prices were higher, but this seemed reasonable to me. Shockingly, the school gave me an almost 25% raise the next year, as I moved into full-time teaching (before I was a full-time employee who was part-time teaching), putting me at $42,000. Then, I got $46,000 the next year, not including a new rent subsidy program the school had instituted. Really, I was earning closer to $50,000.

The stresses of teaching made me evaluate what I “loved” doing. I don’t regret going into teaching. I learned a lot, and I think I may have even had a positive impact on a few of my students. The martyr mentality wears thin easily, though, at least for me. I need some time and energy for myself. I can’t keep grading papers. A funny thing happened once I quit teaching: I actually wanted to design curriculum. I actually wanted to think about literature. I actually thought about what grammar matters and what doesn’t. Suddenly, I realized I wanted a boring job, one that didn’t demand so much time and energy from me. Then, I could spend my time on other pursuits. Since I’ve quit teaching, I’ve written far more of these essays. I’ve been going with my wife to a drawing co-op every Saturday to draw nude models. I even picked up my guitar again and strummed a few chords.

It isn’t all rosy in career-land, though. Sure, I love my new job, but the most they could spare me was $34,000, just a little more than my starting salary at my old school. There are no rental subsidies, no 10-25% annual raises, no free lunches (yes, my old job gave us free lunch every day). My wife took a lot of convincing—since we’d both gotten used to a cushy lifestyle where we could eat out a lot, buy luxury items, and save money—but she eventually realized how much happier I am now.

I realized an important thing. Making a lot of money (now, some people wouldn’t consider $50,000 a lot of money, but it was for me, especially as a teacher) has its down sides. It limits your options. Once you get used to a certain lifestyle, you raise your rent, you make your bills larger, you have little flexibility as far as new jobs go. They should pay either roughly the same amount or more. I just took about a $12,000 pay cut, and it’s been rough, but we’ve managed, and we’re happier for it. It was tough, though. It will not be as tough now, though, if I later on get a higher-paying job.

In the bigger picture of things, too, I realize how lucky I am. Sure, there are the odd exceptions, but of my friends who are around my age, it seems that most people either have dead-boring jobs that pay next to nothing or extremely stressful jobs that pay a lot but that are so stressful the person doesn’t even have time to spend the money (no kidding).

I’m lucky enough now that I have a job that pays decently (not impressively, not terribly), gives me a few challenges, but also allows me time and energy leftover for me. I don’t know how we’ll ever afford to buy a house or apartment, but I’ve found a good balance between stress and boredom, fulfillment and money.

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Double Standards

This essay is in response to the following letter, which was originally published in the August 2004 issue of San Francisco magazine:

Lesbians with Attitude
After reading Diana Kapp’s “The L Weird” in your July issue, I couldn’t help but think how hypercritical the lesbian women in the story are. They struggle to tolerate “clueless straight people” in their everyday lives and have “perfected the eye roll” for dumb questions. They admit they socialize mainly with other lesbians, because straight people just don’t get it.

The women you interviewed come off as elitist and exclusionary. They want tolerance and acceptance, yet they offer none in return. What if straight people said how exasperated they were by clueless lesbians? You’d better believe those same lesbians would be crying foul faster than you can say “dyke march.”

If we want to be accepted, we have to practice what we preach. And yes, I am a lesbian, too.

Marie Taylor
San Francisco

First of all, I have to say that treating people equally does not mean treating them the same. Straight people are definitely in a different situation than gay people are in. If that weren’t the case, Ms. Taylor wouldn’t have to end her letter with the proclamation that she is a lesbian—messages would stand alone themselves. Ms. Taylor knows, though, that messages do not stand alone themselves. Messengers are often equally as important as the messages themselves. By extension, a lesbian woman rolling her eyes at clueless straight people is not the same as a straight person rolling her eyes at a clueless lesbian.

I’d be interested to hear just what would make a lesbian “clueless” to a straight person? I don’t think Ms. Taylor’s hypothetical scenario exists. It’s argument for the sake argument—it’s not rooted in reality at all. Ask any lesbian “What ignorant questions have straight people ever asked you?” and she’ll likely come up with a whole slew of them right away. As a straight person, I can’t think of a single ignorant question any lesbian or gay man has ever asked me relating to sexuality. Even though I myself am not gay, it’s easy for even me to think of some stupid questions straight people might ask lesbians: “So when are you going to get a boyfriend?” “Are you sure you’re a lesbian? Maybe you just haven’t had a real man yet.” “You’re going to have a kid? How? Lesbians can’t reproduce.”

The truth of the matter is—and if Ms. Taylor really is a lesbian, she would know this—heterosexuality isn’t just heterosexuality; it’s heteronormativity. It is the dominant sexual culture in America. And the dominant culture generally tends to be the one that asks ignorant and “clueless” questions of the marginalized cultures. As a man, I’m rarely asked questions that annoy me because of their ignorance. As an Asian-American, I’m asked these questions quite frequently. As a college-educated person (which means I’m numerically in the minority but also still in the dominant educational culture), I’m almost never asked questions out of ignorance. As a devout (i.e., not nominal) Christian, I frequently encounter ignorance and prejudice.

It’s only natural for marginalized cultures to want to make “safe” spaces for themselves from annoyingly ignorant questions, from misunderstanding and prejudice. Separatism has its benefits, just as integration does as well. I challenge Ms. Taylor to take a poll of straight people: “When was the last time you had to roll your eyes because a lesbian asked you a stupid question about your sexuality?” The fact of the matter is most lesbians, at one point or another, in an effort to fit in, tried “being” straight, but far fewer straight women have tried “being” lesbian.

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

The Slut/Stud Double Standard

Everyone—even backlash-prone, conservative anti-feminists—agrees that there is a slut-stud double standard. Do I even need to tell you what that double standard is? I don’t think I need to explain it. You’ve heard it a thousand times, probably. People do tend to disagree about whether that double standard is justified in any way. Some people say it somehow stems from evolution, as if all the heterosexual men who are sleeping around really want to get all their “conquests” pregnant (and what about gay men, then?). Those who oppose the double standard make it all sound so simple, though: let’s just not call promiscuous women “sluts” and not call promiscuous men “studs.”

Obviously that approach hasn’t worked. I’ve known many who have tried it. Yet, many of my most ardent feminist friends, in a moment of low self-monitoring have uttered—maybe even unconsciously—the word slut in reference to a woman who “sleeps around” or who even dresses in a less-than-dignified fashion. We need to go beyond the name, beyond the word, to the root of the problem. As all critics of “political correctness” know, changing people’s language is only a start—you must also change how people think.

Now, you have to understand, first of all, one essential way in which the slut-stud double standard gets perpetuated, and it is not through mere name-calling alone. Right now, if you take any randomly selected heterosexual man and ask him, “How easy would it be for you to sleep with ten different women in the next week?” he will most likely, in all truthfulness, say, “It’s impossible,” or “It’s possible, but it would be very difficult.” (This is all, of course, hypothetically assuming that he would want to sleep with ten different women in a week.) If you posed a similar question to a randomly selected heterosexual woman about sleeping with ten different men in a week, though, the odds go up that she would respond, “Easy, very easy.”

Right or wrong, we admire “studs” not only because we live in a patriarchal culture, but because there is a certain admiration for someone who, however disgustingly to us, can accomplish what is not easy to accomplish. We also look down on people who give away what is much sought-after.

Naturally, you would say this is a “vicious cycle,” right? You would say, “Well, it’s because of the double standard itself that women are told not to ‘give away’ their sexuality, and men are told to ‘conquer’ women’s sexuality.” Of course it is—I’m not denying that. I am saying, though, that even if we disagree with the system of sexual judgment or its origins, we still have to recognize that it is easier for a woman to have sex with many men than it is for a man to have sex with many women.

So, the solution is not just to resist uttering the s-word whenever you see a woman you deem as less-than-virtuous. A revolution has to happen. Men have to stop giving it up so easily—men have to be desired, to be “conquered,” too. Women, in turn, need to take a risk and be more “slutty.” We need to achieve a balance through behavior and desire. We have to stop subscribing to the myth that a man must take every opportunity he can to have sex with a woman. We have to stop believing that woman have to “save” themselves any more than men do for some “special person.”

I’m not saying all women should sleep around. In fact, I’m personally (though, not politically) against pre-marital or promiscuous sex for both sexes, but seeing as how most Americans do not subscribe to the “abstinence-only” approach, we must recognize that as long as any promiscuous or pre-marital sex exists, it should be viewed as equally respectable or disrespectable for both sexes, and that can happen only if people start shifting their own personal attitudes and desires. We can’t just withhold the uttering of the name slut or stud.

Further reading:

“Blame One of the Sexes”
“Shades of Desire”
“Worse Than Sticks or Stones, the ‘Slut’ Label Cuts Deep”
“The Double Standard Thrives”
“Slut vs. Stud, the sexual double standard”
“Hot for Teacher – Debra LaFave”
“Sex Sobers in Controversial Sundance Documentary”
“Sleeping around? Do it with class!”

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Are we all oppressed?

I just quit my job as an English teacher, and this has given me a lot of mental room for reflection on my experiences implementing curriculum. You’d think it’d have been easy for me as an Asian-American male to teach my students about both male privilege and white privilege, considering the fact that I belong to one privileged group and not to the other. The truth is it’s hard to talk about male and white privilege no matter who you are.

In discussing issues of both gender and race, students (and adults, too) are usually resistant to the idea that we’re not all “in the same boat.” If I began talking about white privilege, it was very easy for students to see me as some radical, angry minority with a chip on his shoulder. Once, after a class about Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, one of my students stayed to ask a brief question after class: “Is Mr. Williams’ [my white colleague and co-planner for the course] class doing this, too?” The meta-message of her question was clearly, “Are you bringing your own agenda to this class, or is this part of the ‘real’ curriculum?” I’ve found both white and non-white students to be resistant to teachings about racial inequities. For some reason, Asian students in particular seem to raise the strongest objections to any implications that whites might have some kind of special status that other races do not. In a similar fashion, when I tried to bring up the idea of male privilege as a sociological (rather than individual) phenomenon, the girls in my class were the first to talk about how they themselves had certain “benefits” that boys did not.

These words, in discussion of race, gender, sexual preference, class, etc. seem to be the most problematic and conducive to misunderstanding and outrage: oppression, privilege, institutional. Certainly oppression is rightly troublesome. The word lends itself to a type of victim status, a complaining mentality. Many people who actually are oppressed refuse to identify themselves as oppressed people because they do not want to be viewed as ungrateful, disruptive, rebellious, or radical. Unfortunately, while many feminists are able to embrace the term survivor instead of victim as an identifier for a woman who has been raped, there is no empowering way yet to label one who is institutionally oppressed. Privilege, though theoretically less troublesome in its accuracy of description, is actually more inflammatory when used. As McIntosh says (I’m paraphrasing), it’s easier to acknowledge the sufferings of others but harder to acknowledge the ways in which one benefits from the sufferings of others. Finally, I’ve yet to understand why whites and non-whites alike usually refuse to embrace the idea of institutional racism—that there is a system that discriminates. If it isn’t a system, it’s individuals. Individual racism places blame. It says, “You, you, you, and you are responsible for racism.” Insititutional racism has a “we’re all in it together” feel to it. It says, “It’s not your fault, my fault, her fault, or his fault. It’s just the system, and we need to dismantle the system.” Yet, students (and American people in general) do not want to acknowledge a system of racism, sexism, or heteronormativity.

One example I used in class to introduce institutional racism had most of the class convinced, but (ironically) one of my smartest students simply refused to admit it was evidence of institutional racism. I asked my students when there would be a non-white president of the United States. They said there wouldn’t be for a while, and people had various year projections (2040, 2100, etc.). I asked them why it wouldn’t happen. Clearly, most people in America do not say, “Let’s discriminate against Black people.” There had to be a system. It was after the class had finally decided an institution had made the president white year after year that one of my brightest students said something along the lines of, “No, it makes sense that the president is white because white people are the majority, and the president needs to represent the majority of people.” By this point, the class was in such a flurry of a discussion that when the bell finally rang soon afterwards, nobody (including myself) realized how illogical this (usually intelligent) student’s statement was. First of all, this student was acknowledging that the president is white—not accidentally, not through the workings of an unseen institution—because individuals wanted him to be white. This student was actively and consciously discriminating against non-white presidential candidates. Secondly, this student was oblivious to the fact that the president in other sociological ways was not representative of the majority in America—the majority of Americans are not male, rich, or college-educated.

A final example of the ridiculous lengths people will go to defend the status quo from questioning comes from my short stint as a long-term substitute English teacher (translation: low pay, no benefits, high responsibility, little respect), I tried to introduce a radical race curriculum to my 11th graders, and they were very resistant, almost all of them. Perhaps two of my 120 students were sympathetic or open-minded—at least they wanted to understand what I was teaching before disagreeing with it. Finally, when I had the students fill out a course evaluation, I got many negative responses, including one that said (I’m paraphrasing), “You need to start teaching the real English curriculum. You shouldn’t have us read all this radical stuff like Thoreau.” I kid you not. Here was a student who was so outraged by my introduction of “radical” curriculum that she objected to even Thoreau, one of the staples of traditional high school English curriculum, thinking that I had somehow snuck his theories of civil disobedience in as part of my personal agenda.

The real problem, though, is the polarization of thinking about oppression, privilege, benefits—whatever you want to call it. Sure, most people in America think about race, gender, etc. the way my students did (and probably still do), but I’d say almost everyone I’ve talked to about these issues holds one of two positions: 1. We’re all the same. Sure, there are problems in the world, but everybody has problems. No one race, gender, etc. is oppressed more than others. 2. We’re not all the same. White people, males, straights, the rich, Americans, the educated, the physically abled, the non-mentally challenged, etc. all benefit from systems of oppression, and everyone who does not fall into those categories is oppressed. We are not equal.

Now, I tend to lean more toward #2 than #1, as you can probably tell from my student anecdotes, but I’d say the problem is that there rarely exists a #1.5 or #1.75. What would most accurately describe racism, sexism, and all the other -isms of America would be the acknowledgement that systems of oppression and privilege exist, but that, as Beverly Daniel Tatum points out, the system is so messed up (these are not her words—I fail to capture her eloquence, so I’m paraphrasing once again) that even those in positions of privilege suffer from privilege itself. Benefits are not just benefits. Benefits come with a cost. All of these “double standards” that whites and males are so quick to point out (affirmative action, for example) are part of the cost of an unequal system. I think I’m borrowing this illustration from Tatum (it may be Susan Brownmiller, or I may have even made it up myself—I’m not sure), but this benefits system is like a marriage. If a marriage is an equal one, both partners benefit, and both are happy. If it is unequal—if one partner “benefits” at
the other partner’s expense, he may enjoy some of his “privileges,” but he will lose out on the ultimate fulfillment an equal marriage would offer. Perhaps his wife spoils him with massages. Perhaps she does all the housework and cannot say anything her husband might take as a disparaging remark. Perhaps her husband can say anything he wants, and she won’t object. These would seem to be privileges he has—he can do whatever he wants, and she’s supportive and servile. They’re both, though, missing out on the intimacy, trust, and fellowship that comes from a marriage of equals. Another way to look at it is as a prisoner’s dilemma. If both criminals work together to not ‘fess up, both criminals will benefit the most. If one ‘fesses up, and the other doesn’t, both will receive sentences, but one will get a lighter one than the other.

Yes, there are ways, as a male, that I recognize there are things that seem “unfair” to me—these “double standards.” For example, while my wife has the “freedom” to lack career ambition, I do not. Nobody wants a husband without ambition, one who says, “Yeah, I don’t know what I want to do with my life. Maybe I’ll just quit my job.” A wife can safely quit her job and lack ambition. However, if you examine this “double standard” closely, you’ll see it stems from the historically male oppression of females in America. What I could call a “freedom” of my wife to lack ambition is actually, in some ways, the oppression of my wife by society, as the male-dominated society is only too happy to see another woman exercise her “right to choose” by staying at home and not threatening males’ lead in the workplace. It’s the rigidity of the system of privilege itself that makes many “privileged” parties (males, whites, straights, etc.) feel “oppressed” themselves. In some ways, it’s like the mythic prince or princess who has no privacy, is not able to leave the castle or palace, and has no choice in whom to marry, but who also lives a life of luxury, pampering, and fame. It would not be right for this princess or prince to go up to a beggar on the street and say, “Yeah, so you’re hungry and poor—we’re all oppressed.” It is the princess’ or prince’s very “oppression” that is making this street beggar also oppressed. At the same time, though, the princess’ or prince’s “privilege” is not without cost.

Where will progress come from? Well, first of all, the princes and princesses of America need to recognize that they are, in fact, princes and princesses—that they do benefit from a system of privilege designed specifically for them. Secondly, the street beggars need to recognize that even though we’re not all “in the same boat,” privileged people suffer from the very system that benefits them. Thirdly, we all need to recognize that the dismantling of said system benefits everybody, not just the street beggars.

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Fighting Gender Role Boundaries

While there is a difference between sexism and the reaffirmation of gender roles, the two are certainly linked. I realize, as most feminists have to concede, that there are inherent differences in trends between males and females. The question, though, is whether we should exacerbate and exaggerate such differences or just allow the “natural” ones and allow people to be who they are. In other words, if the majority of men (let’s say 80% or so) fit into a male stereotype (overly preoccupied with sex, weight-lifting, making money, using their “masculine” voices, etc.) and the minority of men do not fit into that stereotype (say 20%), why should we force that 20% minority to adopt the majority behavior? Can’t we just live with a general trend existing? Does it have to be a unilateral trend—polarizing femininity and masculinity? As a male in the minority, unafraid of both feminism and femininity, I’ve always resented ways in which both men and women, consciously or unconsciously, reinforce gender roles and stereotypes. Here are practical ways not to do so:

1. Don’t ask men to lift and carry things. Yes, yes, yes, I’ve heard it before—men on the whole have more upper-body strength than women on the whole. Two things to consider, here, though. First of all, some men aren’t “on the whole.” Some men are quite weak (uh, me, for instance), and some women are quite strong. So, rather than saying, “Can I get a few strong men to help me move x, y, and z?” you can say, “Can I get a few strong people to help me move x, y, and z?” That way, a strong woman won’t feel left out, and a weak man won’t feel obligated to help out. If you happen to get a bunch of guys seeking to be macho, then it’s not your fault. The other consideration is that most of the time things that need to be lifted, carried, or moved are not that heavy. We’re talking chairs, small bags, books, etc. most of the time. Anyone of any gender, no matter how “weak,” can carry a book or two. I’ve seen this scenario happen in a number of different “enlightened” environments, not just conservative Christian churches.

2. Never assume someone shares the same values as you just because she or he shares your gender. I can’t tell you how many men have made inappropriate remarks to me in the assumption that I, too, revelled in their inappropriateness. How many husbands or men have said, “Ah, women!” to me about their wives, as if I would commiserate. How many nudge, nudge, winks, winks have I gotten from sexist men who just want to “tap some ass”? I’m talking Christian and non-Christian men, here. In fact, many Christian men are more sex-obsessed and sexist than their non-Christian counterparts. Just because I’m a man doesn’t mean I share the values, desires, and experiences of other men. This is something for both men and women to remember. I’m sure analagous situations apply for women assuming other women share the same values.

3. Don’t assume gender is the reason for action or opinion. Let’s say I like computers. Let’s say I enjoy a good action flick. Let’s say I don’t wear dark clothing. Let’s say I listen to hard rock. If any of these statements are true, it’s not “Oh, that’s ’cause you’re a guy.” Now, I don’t operate under the illusion that every choice one makes is an individual choice, regardless of societal values and messages. Just read my other article about individual choice. Still, it’s not up to someone who doesn’t know you well to attribute actions or thoughts to sociological forces. That requires a great deal of self-examination.

I’m sure there are other ways you can avoid unnecessarily reinforcing gender roles and stereotypes, but the above three are a good start. Go, and sin no more.

Christianity Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Why I’m a Pro-Choice Christian

My first exposure to talks about abortion came from the conservative Chinese church I attended growing up. The youth minister, the head pastor, almost all of the adults, and almost all of the children espoused the same approach: no tolerance—abortion is wrong; it's murder; it should be illegal; and the only possible excuse for it is rape. The propaganda they fed me was the following:
  1. Pictures of how disgusting and brutal abortions were
  2. Stories of mothers who had regretted their abortions
  3. Psalm 139:13
  4. Statistics of how many babies were left unadopted each year versus how many abortions occurred

There may have been more, but that was the gist of it. There were several things that troubled me about the pro-life propaganda at our church (and, I do not believe it was at just our church—but, for now, I will concern myself with the model, not the scope).

In light of the popular evangelical campaign of the 1990s, WWJD, harping on how abortion is murder and should be illegal did not seem like something Jesus would have done. In fact, I'm sure abortions or infanticide occurred during Jesus' time. He may not have approved of it, but he spent most of his time preaching, performing miracles, and loving people. The emphasis seems out of place, in other words. We, as loving Christians, should be spending most of our energy somewhere else.

The strong association my church made between being Christian and being pro-life was also disturbing. There were, of course, pro-choice members of the congregation, but they were constantly subjected to pro-life rhetoric from the pulpit, in the Sunday School classrooms, and even in everyday conversation. What seemed odd to me about it was the idea implicit in equating Christianity with the pro-life movement that Christians somehow valued life more than non-Christians, that telling a Christian that abortion was taking a life would somehow mean more to that person than telling a "heathen" the same thing. Do not even "heathens" hold life sacred?

The quoting of Psalm 139 I found simply amusing. To our detriment as Christians, historically the church has misquoted scripture to support anything from torture and animal cruelty to slavery and misogyny. Psalm 139 speaks of God making David: "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb" (NIV). God's "knitting" supposedly means that David was "alive" or "human" even as a fetus and that killing him then must have been just the same as killing him at the time he wrote the psalm. But how could seminary-trained religious scholars even imagine David was singing anti-abortion rhetoric or even establishing a theological basis for a scientific view on when babies are "alive" or "human"? Didn't the church learn that what Biblical figures viewed as science is not meant to be theological truth? Isn't that why Galileo got in trouble with the church? Now, of course, all Christians believe the earth revolves around the sun. The context of the psalm (which, interestingly enough, most of the preachers I've heard quoting the psalm leave out) is speaking about how well God knows David: "Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely" (139:4, NIV), "When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be" (139:15-16, NIV).

I'm not a Biblical scholar, but it seems to me that David is saying God knew him even before he existed, knew him so well that David did not even have to be in order for God to know him. You could even use the passage as a pro-choice argument—that David's emphasis on being in his mother's womb shows just how non-existent he was at the time. He does speak about God's knowledge of him before he experienced life; he does speak about God knowing the words he speaks before he speaks them. The point of the psalm is really that God knows people even before their lives begin.

The tragedy for me about the misinterpretation of scripture is not so much that Christians do so to suit their own politics and agendas so much as that it makes Christianity meaningless to non-Christians. Many jaded non-Christians think you can use the Bible to support anything. Even the devil uses it for his own purposes (Matthew 4). But there is truth in the Bible. The Bible does say something (or a number of things), and twisting is twisting, distorting is distorting, and taking passages out of context is ignoring context. What amazes me is that jaded non-Christian English teachers can actually believe the Bible is more meaningless and subject to interpretation than any other text. Shouldn't English teachers know that context is important to understanding content? I could very well say that anyone could use a Hemingway book to support anything. But there are standard interpretations of Hemingway and there is plenty of context to consider when writing about Hemingway—his life, his worldview, the actual surrounding text, the word choices, etc.

My mom was a social worker. She would indoctrinate me against the church she brought me to. She would, in fact, de-program me from youth group activity and propaganda. As a devoted Christian and Chinese immigrant, she recognized the value of going to church and worshiping with other Chinese people. However, as a social worker, she also believed that many of the things I was learning at church were wrong. I was already aware that the pictures of disgusting abortions were merely a shock tactic. My mom made me recognize, though, herself having worked around adoption, that adoption is not so easy. It's a complicated and expensive process, and the babies who are being aborted are not always the babies couples want (there is a racial angle to adoption). Also, some babies don't get adopted right away, and most couples wanting to adopt do not want a toddler or young child—they want a newborn baby.

I remember there being a debate at my high school once. It was part of the 10th grade English curriculum—a speech class. Part of the speech class was the presentation to the class of a debate on a controversial subject, and someone brought up a pro-choice stance on abortion. Some of the arguments I heard from my classmates were not too intelligent (I'll write it off as 15-year-old parental brainwashing—I was lucky enough to be brainwashed by both my mom and my youth group, so I had a unique perspective). Many of them actually thought "life" did not begin until the fifth month. What does that mean—that someone injects life into a bunch of cells all of a sudden? Could you then take the fetus out of the mother at the fourth month and then put it back in before the fifth month and have it still turn out fine because life has not yet begun? Any argument that says life does not begin until such-and-such a time does not make logical sense. The baby is alive from the moment it is conceived. It is living tissue. It is not necessarily human, though. I remember one particularly volatile Sunday School teacher I had who proclaimed that he did not have two children—he had four. He counted the miscarriages. I almost laughed when I heard him say that. First of all, I knew that's not what he really thought. If someone at a dinner party asked him, "Oh, how many kids do you have?" He wouldn't have answered he had four and that two were dead. He didn't name those unborn babies. Life does not equal humanity. I stand by it. My biology is a little shaky (I was an English major, okay?) but as I understand it, a baby's life begins when a sperm and egg come together and form a one-cell organism that then splits into a two-celled organism and a four-celled organism, etc. That four-celled organism is alive, as much as bacteria or mold is alive. It isn't human, though. It will become a human, though.

It's tricky. At what point does it become a human? I don't know that we can rightly say that, anymore than we can say at what point a girl becomes a teenager or a teenager becomes a woman. I'm a vegetarian. I eat eggs, though. I love eggs. What would those eggs have become, had I not eaten them? My guess is that they would have become chickens. I don't eat chicken, though. There is a difference between a chicken and an egg, whichever one "came first."

I value the sanctity of human life not because I am a Christian but because I am a human. I do not think that contraceptives (even emergency contraceptives) and male masturbation ("spilling the seed") are the same as abortion, and I think even though you are stifling a potential human life when you have an abortion, I do not know that you're committing murder. I think it's wrong, I don't approve of abortion, I take abortion very seriously, and I'm repulsed by the idea of people using abortion as birth control. I do not equate abortion with murder, though. And, I do not necessarily think that just because I think abortion is wrong that it should be illegal.

I honestly do not know where I stand when it comes to abortion. All I know is where I do not stand. I cannot rightly say, "Have an abortion if you want! It's your choice," nor can I say, "It's wrong, and it should be illegal at all times."

Then, there is always the issue of the act of making it illegal encouraging women determined to have abortions to do so dangerously. It is not the same logic as saying that if the government makes pot illegal (which it is now) that people will smoke it anyway. If people smoke pot illegally, it is just as dangerous to their health as if they smoke it legally. If women have coat-hanger or dirty-scalpel abortions, the women could die in addition to the fetus.

Finally, there is the issue of choice: women's choice. You cannot separate the personal from politics. There is not necessarily just a right or a wrong when it comes to abortion. I have my own views, but I think whatever is decided should be decided by women. Women, of course, will disagree with each other, but a woman's body is a woman's body. I do not think men should have the right to legislate women's bodies. Every time I hear men (Christian or non-Christian) make a big hoopla about how abortion is murder and blah blah blah, I wonder if they can hear themselves. I wonder if they can hear how stupid they sound. I wouldn't mind hearing an Asian-American say, "Let's get it together. Let's be more political. Let's not be invisible. Let's not be the model minority anymore," but I'd hate to hear a white person tell me, "You. You Asians. Get it together. Be more political. What's wrong with you?" It's not the same message because it's not from the same messenger. The first says, "We have to do something. Let's change together." The second says, "What's the matter with you? I've done it. Why can't you?" I would imagine it's a similar experience to any woman (pro-life or pro-choice) hearing a man spew off about abortion. He doesn't have a right to talk.

That said, if any woman reading this thinks, "What right does he have to talk, then?" I will be the first to concede that I don't have a right to talk. If you're a woman reading this and you want to write me off and say, "he has no clue what he's talking about," it is your prerogative.

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Individual Choice

People should be responsible for their own actions—no one should be able to use the excuse, “Well, I was brought up in this environment,” or “It’s just not easy enough for me to do that.” The flip side of being responsible for individual actions (or inaction) is recognizing how much individual “choices” are not so individual. They’re still choices based on who you, as an individual, are, but you may not be in a vacuum.

Whenever I think of people using the excuse “It’s my choice,” White male/Asian female couples and women wanting to be skinny also come to mind. Most White male/Asian female couples, when approached, will not use an explanation for their coupledom, “Oh, we just buy into stereotypes of the submissive Asian female and the masculine White male.” They’re more likely to say, “We’re really in love.” Maybe they are really in love. They cannot discount, though, that they are part of a huge sociological trend. Statistically, WM/AF couples outnumber WF/AM couples about 2.5 to 1. The real question is not whether the WM/AF couples are genuinely in love or not. Only the couple themselves would know the authenticity and mutuality of their attraction to one another. Why aren’t there more WF/AM couples, though? What makes an Asian female attractive to a White male? What makes a White male attractive to an Asian female? There have to be cultural forces at play.

A similar phenomenon occurs when I hear my female friends complain about their weight. A typical exchange might go as follows.

Female Friend: I think I’m going to go on a diet.
Me: Why?
FF: I don’t know. I just want to lose weight.
M: You don’t need to lose weight. You’re fine the way you are.
FF: Well, I don’t need to lose weight, but it’d be nice. I just want to be a little skinnier.
M: Is it because other people have told you you need to lose weight?
FF: No. It’s something I just want to do for myself, just to be more confident.

I’ve had many of these conversations with friends. I don’t doubt that people have not told the woman she has to lose weight (not to her face, anyway). I don’t doubt that she feels the diet is for herself. It may even, temporarily, make her feel more confident. There is a subtle delusion in this belief, though. Why lose weight, though, to feel better about yourself? Why not jump out a window? Why not write a book? Why not eat some dessert? Why not listen to music? Why not sleep? Even though, according to this woman, no one said to her face that she needs to lose weight, she has that cultural value ingrained in her that skinniness breeds confidence. If you are skinnier, you will feel better about yourself. The message to paint, think, or help someone in order to feel better is not as strong as the message to lose weight in order to feel better. “It’s something I just want to do for myself” assumes a cultural vacuum. No one has influenced me. I decided to do this with no input from others.

Likewise, the WM/AF couple feels a genuine attraction toward one another, but they tend to believe it is not because of Asian fetish or notions of Whites being more masculine or romantic. The couple is above being influenced by such notions, cultural ideas, and stereotypes. They love each other as individuals. It just so happens that many of these individuals are White men coupled with Asian women.

My own crime of rationalizing individual choices in a supposed cultural vacuum comes in the form of my adoption of Christianity. I can rationalize that Christianity is unique and makes the most sense to me as a religion. I can say I’ve seen the power of prayer. I can say Jesus has touched my life. All of these things are true. I cannot discount, however, that children most likely adopt the religion of their parents. My parents were Christian, so am I. I can’t discount that there is a higher percentage of devout Asian-American Christians than there are devout White Christians (I don’t know if the same is true for African-American or Latino Christians). I can’t discount that, in an experiential way, I’ve been immersed in only Christianity and no other religion (though, I’ve studied other religions in the abstract). There are cultural factors that influence my decisions… all of my decisions: whether to like a certain food or not, what movies appeal to my intellect and feelings, where I like to live, the qualities I’m attracted to in my wife.

Many times when we study individuals and their motivations for beliefs, practices, or sayings, we look to their biographies: where they grew up, what their education was like, what kind of family they were raised in. I didn’t understand Malcolm X until I read his biography. All of his choices are still his own as an individual, but it isn’t difficult to imagine how different he would be had he been a Christian, first-generation Chinese-American raised in New England by two college professors during the 1980s and 1990s.

The fact of the matter is, even with our own individual decisions and choices, who we are as individuals is partly (if not mostly) made up of cultural forces and norms. Right now an American woman may feel better about herself, more confident, if she loses weight. Maybe in a century or two, she may feel better about herself by gaining weight.

Further reading

Christianity Education Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Distracting Dress Codes

One of my friends from youth group is now a youth pastor and has posted a dress code on his church’s website. I find one sentence particularly amusing: “Undergarments should be worn and they should not be visible.” If they’re not supposed to be visible, what does it matter if they’re not worn? The rationale behind most of the guidelines is expressed in a statement implying that certain ways of dressing (“rags or ripped clothing”?) tempt others into sin: “Each of us have our own responsibility to take measures to protect and hold ourselves accountable from temptation and resulting sin.” The explanation for the rules doesn’t explicitly say what the “resulting sin” is, but the rules themselves seem to indicate lust.

There are several things problematic about this line of reasoning. First of all, it places too much of the responsibility for lust on the lustee rather than the luster. This runs dangerously close to the “She was asking for it” mentality of the rapist. By extension, it gives lusters an excuse for their lusting: it’s the provocative dress that makes me sin. Such reasoning is false, of course. Both men and women lust with little or no visual provocation. In fact, if one is lustful, one tends to seek out stimulation. If people don’t provide it in the way they dress, one may look to pornography, television, erotic literature, or even brain-generated fantasies. Certainly people can dress inappropriately, but it seems to make more sense to make rules about lusting than to make rules about what might possibly provoke lust, especially when many items on the list do not seem to be undeniably provocative (lack of “clean[liness] and neat[ness]” or “fish nets”).

My current school has a similar (but less stringent) dress code, and there’s much debate among the faculty as to how much energy we should put into enforcing it. The dress code is, on one level, a nod to the professionalism that not only teachers but students, too, should observe—the motto we use is “it’s school, not the beach.” There is a hint, too, of the “don’t provoke lust” ideology inherent as well, though, since we do allow students to dress shabbily or in an ugly way, but we don’t allow bare midriffs or short skirts. It’s not the sinfulness of lust that schools fear so much as the supposed “distraction” cleavage, bare midriffs, and short skirts provoke in a co-ed environment (with the assumption that all boys are heterosexual, of course). Honestly, though, I have never had a male student so distracted by his fellow classmate’s dress that he is not able to function in class. It would seem to me to be more distracting (or to take away from learning time) to stop class, single out the offending student and have her go get a change of clothes.

In some ways, it’s kind of like Christians protesting The Last Temptation of Christ or Jews protesting The Passion of Christ. The publicist’s proverb “All publicity is good publicity” has some truth to it. Sometimes if you don’t raise a big fuss over something, it loses its power. Sometimes the best way to defuse an offense is to ignore it; not always but sometimes. Why do girls dress scantily? For attention. What do you do by policing them about it? You give them attention. In some ways, it’s a lose-lose situation, but policing isn’t the solution. Both girls and boys need to understand what motivates people to dress provocatively. The natural defense is “It makes me feel better/more confident about myself.” The more important follow-up question is “Why does it make you feel better about yourself?”

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Letters from reputable publications

I don’t know where these are from, but I clipped them a long time ago, and I think they’re just as insightful now as they were then, even if Netanyahu isn’t the leader of Israel any more.

Criticism of Netanyahu is not anti-Semitic
As an American Jew, I take profound offense at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt (“Netanyahu asks to be understood,” Page 1, Oct.9) to link criticism of his government’s brutal and self-aggrandizing policy toward the Palestinians to historic “incitement of falsehoods depicting Jews as the enemy of mankind . . . poisoners of the well.” To be sure, anti-Semitism continues to exist in the world; in Europe, if not in America, it is clearly growing stronger. That in no way justifies Israel’s reneging on signed peace accords, blowing up Palestinian houses or killing demonstrating children.

That a government guilty of such offenses is condemned by public opinion throughout the world need not reflect anti-Semitism. More plausibly, it reflects a simple sense of justice. At best, Netanyahu speaks for only half of Israeli Jews. The future of Israel, and the struggle against anti-Semitism, would be served by forthright condemnation of policies which cannot be decently defended.

Leon Kamin

Are Gay Men Born that Way?
Even if homosexuality is determined to have a physiological origin [Science, Sept.9], why should homosexual practices be any more accepted than alcoholism, drug dependency, eating disorders or any of a host of other aberrant manifestations that may also be rooted in physiology? All of these practices, including homosexuality, should be handled the same way: with respect for the humanity of the individual and with treatment for and discouragement of the behavior.

Genevieve Cochran
Medford, Oregon

So what if gay men are born that way? A straight society will still discriminate against them, just as a white society discriminates against nonwhites. Gay men may have small hypothalamic nuclei. That’s not the problem. Too many straight people have small hearts. That’s the problem.

Steve Swayne
Oakland, California

I see no benefit in knowing the reason for sexual orientation. Is the implication that if there is no physiological cause, gay people do not deserve legal protection? Whether people choose to be gay or are physiologically gay is a moot point politically. People who practice religion choose to do so, and yet no one would deny them political and legal protection.

Thomas Foster
Oda, Japan

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Race Relations: Is Progress Impossible?

Sometimes it seems impossible. Sometimes the riffs and tensions go untalked about. That’s why I like movies like White Men Can’t Jump that have characters who aren’t afraid to reveal the stereotypes they hold about one another, that have white characters who can talk explicitly about their whiteness. I know someone doing a research project about Samuel L. Jackson. In all of his interviews either he or the interviewer somehow brings up Blackness—is it hard being a Black actor? What about this Black/white scene? But how often do you read interviews with white actors where their race becomes the central focus of their identity? And some white people have the gall to say there’s no such thing as white privilege.

Hold on. I’m going to take a step back, because I wanted to talk about progress in race relations, and even though I am speaking the truth, some white person reading this is already thinking, “An angry, white-hating reverse-racist Asian bastard mouthing off. I’ve heard it before.” The point I was trying to make is that sometimes we need to just say what’s on our minds. I know white people, behind closed doors, with no people of color around, talk about how “The Chinese really are…” or “Not that I’m a racist, but have you noticed most Black people…” And people of color do the same thing. Most people of color in America, not just African-Americans, have a fear of white people, and most, for most of their lives, are (rank-wise) underneath some white person, if not many… bosses, patrons, teachers, supervisors, the media, whoever it is, watching them… they can’t be too radical, too political, too angry… I’ve tried it, believe me! When you’re a person of color in this country, you can’t say what’s really on your mind.

And I’ll take the other side of the coin, too… I know white people can’t say what’s really on their minds either. Everybody harps on political correctness, not because it’s a bad idea, being sensitive, being progressive… it’s just that you can’t force it on people without explaining the reasoning behind it. Some of the most bitter people in America are 20-30-something white, straight male protestants. All of a sudden they can’t be ignorant or insensitive—they have to watch everything they say.

So we have white people bitter and repressed and people of color bitter and repressed. And then Newsweek and Time act all surprised when there are race riots. Why? I’m amazed the riots are not all over the place.

One interesting instance of the explosion of racial tension is the impetus for my writing this article: an incident at a prestigious liberal arts college in America known for its activism. Every April there’s an Asian Awareness Month, and to kick off the month there is a convocation.

The school newspaper covered the convocation using a Jewish-American reporter, who probably had three term papers hanging over her head plus a deadline. A convocation doesn’t seem a serious event: she can take a few notes, talk to a couple of people and write her article in a half-hour (all of this is my assumption of her situation). Then the angry letters came in from Asian-Americans on campus, primarily those heavily involved with the campus group sponsoring the convocation but also some others. The outrage seemed to be directed specifically at the writer of the article. They called her journalism shoddy, called her ignorant, told her she was perpetuating racism and misunderstanding.

Then, floods of letters from (I assume, white) friends of hers vouched for her efforts, saying that she is the nicest person and that she means well and really tries to research her articles as best as she can and doesn’t appreciate the personal attacks.

But the attacks kept coming. The school newspaper, a mostly Jewish-American-run paper, definitely kept out a lot of anti-reporter sentiment, because, as is the natural human instinct, they were protecting their own (in more than one sense). Then the Asian-American organization on campus published their own supplementary pamphlet to the school newspaper, with previously edited or non-published material, expressing due outrage at the offending article.

In the midst of all this, I was wondering, “What does this all solve? Will the writer of the article really be enlightened? Will the campus? Does this make the Asian-American community appear any better in the eyes of the campus at large?” I read the critiques of the article. They made a number of valid points, about the continued exoticization of Asians or those of Asian descent, the perpetuated image of angry minorities with strange concerns, among others. Then I thought, “Why was it when I read the article, it didn’t shock me… it didn’t stand out to me as being weird?” It’s not that I don’t have the critical skills to tear apart a piece of writing, analyzing all the sociological implications, etc.

Then, a new light on the whole situation dawned on me. There’s so much repressed, usually unexpressed, anger and misunderstanding between white people and people of color that the minute a certain key incident sparks one or both parties, they’re out for blood. Nobody wants to enlighten anyone. Nobody wants to understand. I can sympathize with the Asian-American group’s objectives, being an Asian-American myself. But I did not see as productive the singling out of this one writer. This is counterproductive. For one thing, all the attacks on this one person further perpetuate this image of people of color as angry minorities who just want to bitch and gripe. Secondly, direct attacks on one person end up demonizing that one person and making her responsible for a racist system. That’s why the article, with all its faults, didn’t strike me as odd. It’s the journalistic and racist quality one can expect from almost any white-run publication but specifically from that particular school newspaper. If anything, the school newspaper and the general white American mentality should have been the object of attack. After all, what produced this white reporter’s ignorance? I do believe her friends that she was well-intentioned and worked hard. I also believe she is a racist and ill-informed about minority issues. I don’t believe it is just her, and I don’t believe it is her choice.

We need to stop jumping down each other’s individual throats, and we need to start expressing our offensive beliefs more explicitly. When we look at the big picture, and we talk when we are not fighting… maybe then, there can be racial progress in America.