A parishioner invited me along with some other members of the church to attend a meeting for Christian women in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. We were looking forward to a couple of hours together, including lunch, a guest speaker, a bag-pipe performance and fellowship with other Christian women in our region. One of the leaders of the hosting organization came to our table to introduce herself and to welcome us as guests. Her attention rested with me, as I was, among a gathering of 75 or so Christian women, the youngest and the most… Asian. She asked me for my name, and asked me what I did for a living. One of my church folk, as a way to be friendly, invited the lady to guess. She peered at me, and replied rather confidently, “Are you a masseuse?”
I was taken aback. It took a prolonged moment for me to recover from the weight and implications of her seemingly innocent response.
Now, I have nothing against the vocation of the massage therapists. Thanks to them a great number of the population are calmer and relaxed, with great chi flow, and enhanced quality of life. However, I was bothered because words are not as neutral as we hope them to be. Within our cultural psyche, “gardener,” “housekeeper,” “CEO,” “pastor,” and yes, “masseuse,” point to certain groups of people, which in turn reveal painful histories of imbalances of power, however they may be assessed—through wealth, status, sway in community, etc. “Masseuse” in Asian and Asian-American history carries negative connotations for Asian and Asian-American women, involving exoticism and sexual exploitation.
Many thoughts and emotions were provoked by this lady’s assumption. I was angry because this oppressive stereotype dismissed the dignity and uniqueness of individuals; it was a lumping of a variegated collection of people into one category. I was also overwhelmed, thinking “Great. Now where can I possibly start pointing out just how wrong and offensive that statement is?” I have often daydreamed that in such scenarios I would have the power to stop time. Then I could sit down with the instigator of my distress and explain to them all the complexities and the nuances of why they should reconsider saying what they said—essentially a week’s worth of intensive study on history, theology, and political science.
Instead, I experienced once again the frustration of battling powers and principalities that are so tangible and yet simultaneously so well camouflaged. Christian theologian Joerg Rieger uses the term “empire” to convey the manifestation of powers and principalities that lace our existence in all spheres of life—material, spiritual, mental. The “empire” not only influences us, but it shapes us–its reach encroaches upon even our dreams and ideologies. What we hope for, our desires, and our fears are drawn from the murky waters of the “empire,” and we are quite oblivious to the reality of our captivity, as goldfish are unable to register the fact that they are in a fish tank in the living room. We are blind to the fact that our normative is not so normal (nor healthy) until something true and brighter breaks through.
My church members laughed, and said, “Oh no. She is our pastor! Isn’t she so young? We love her very much.” Our group bid farewell to our table visitor, and I took comfort knowing that at times like this, a simple reframing of visuals can speak louder than wordy corrections. I have faith that her paradigm was shifted that day—about authority, spiritual leadership, race and gender—and that is a lot of progress for a swift glance and brief exchange of greetings. I like to believe a seed of justice was planted.
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