October 2021 WATERtalk with Gale Yee
“Thinking Intersectionally About our Social Locations”
with Gale A. Yee
Wednesday, October 20, 2021, 1:00 pm EDT
Audio recording available here; Video recording available here.
Introduction, Mary E. Hunt
We are happy to welcome Gale Yee back to WATER. She did a program in Jan. 2020 on an earlier publication The Hebrew Bible: Feminist and Intersectional Perspectives (Fortress Press, 2018). I recommend both the book and the talk, which is located on our website, https://www.waterwomensalliance.org/watertalk-notes-the-hebrew-bible/. We got a taste then and we will see today what an excellent thinker and teacher Gale is.
A special welcome to those from the Pacific Asian and North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry group known as PANAAWTM. I am sure you are proud of Gale who is one of your members, a role model and supportive sister to so many. Congratulations on your recent incorporation as a non-profit group. We look forward to learning from and collaborating with you.
Like all of WATER’s efforts, this WATERtalk is not simply an academic seminar. It is a way to learn in order to bring what we learn to the creation of a more just and equitable world. Gale’s new book, TOWARDS AN ASIAN AMERICAN BIBLICAL HERMENEUTICS: AN INTERSECTIONAL ANTHOLOGY (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2021) is an example of how that is done. As Kwok Pui-lan wrote about it: “This groundbreaking volume charts the development of a leading Asian American feminist biblical scholar’s hermeneutical journey.” To which I can only add, lucky are we to get a good look at it today.
WATER has been located in Silver Spring, Maryland since 1983, but we know there is a rich history of this place from long before we were here. We acknowledge that we are on indigenous land. Silver Spring, Maryland, where WATER is located, is on the traditional and contemporary land of the Piscataway and Nacotchtank (sometimes known as Anacostan) peoples, the original stewards of this territory. We are committed to making clear the names of these lands and the community members from these nations who reside alongside us. We acknowledge the trauma that is deeply imbedded in the foundation of this country. We recognize the deep historical, spiritual, and personal trauma that has impacted indigenous communities, communities of color, as well as immigrants and other peoples. We affirm the right of all people to bring their whole selves and their stories into this space. We confirm our intention to promote healing, respect, and love for all people and our commitment to caring for creation.
Let me introduce Gale A. Yee with a warm WATER welcome.
Gale A. Yee is Nancy W. King Professor of Biblical Studies emerita, Episcopal Divinity School. She taught for decades both there and in other institutions where she brought her insight about the Bible, feminism, and intersectional thinking to the classroom. She is the author of Poor Banished Children of Eve: Women as Evil in the Hebrew Bible; Jewish Feasts and the Gospel of John; Composition and Tradition in the Book of Hosea; “The Book of Hosea” commentary in The New Interpreters Bible. Vol. VII, as well as many articles and essays. She is the editor of Judges and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies (2007), a co-editor for the Texts@Context series, the Fortress Commentary on the Old Testament and Apocrypha (2014), The Hebrew Bible: Feminist and Intersectional Perspectives (2018) for Fortress Press.
In 2019, Gale was president of the Society of Biblical Literature, the first Asian American woman so honored. She was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity from Virginia Theological Seminary in 2020 which many of us watched on Zoom cheering her from our homes. She lives at Pilgrim Place, a retirement community in Claremont, CA, known for its social activism and amazing people.
Welcome Gale and thank you for joining us as we learn about “Thinking Intersectionally About Our Social Locations”
WATERtalk Notes, Gale A. Yee
- Intersectionality: arose in a branch of legal studies known as Critical Race Theory
- Term developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989).
- Interconnections of gender, race, and class were already being investigated by others, before it became “trendy.”
- Scholars have extended intersectionality beyond race and gender to include class, sexual orientation, nation, citizenship, disability, and other categories of analysis.
- They have also utilized intersectionality to investigate the various oppressions associated with these categories, such as classicism, homophobia, xenophobia, ableism, and ethnocentrism.
- Critical Race Theory: legal discipline that analyzes and critiques the social construction of race and how institutionalized racism consigns people of color to the lower levels of a stratified society.
- Work by Crenshaw was underscored by other BIPOC theorists, such as Combahee River Collective, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks.
- Critical Race Theory is used in politics as a weapon, ignorant of its original purpose.
- Example of Crenshaw’s work in intersectionality: In 1976, five black women unsuccessfully sued General Motors for race discrimination. General Motors claimed that they did not discriminate against these women because they hired both black men and (white) women.
- Crenshaw argued that these single-axis hiring policies were not able to respond to the very visible invisibility of women who were not white and blacks who were not men.
- Crenshaw used the concept of intersectionality to signify the different ways in which race and gender interacted to shape the various dimensions of black women’s experiences.
- Let’s turn to our social locations, and the various aspects of how our identities intersect.
- I discuss in my book a “self-inventory” that I give out to my students during our first class. The inventory asks students to identify factors at play when they interpret the biblical texts, for example: gender, race/ethnicity, social class, education, religious denomination, etc.
- This helps students become aware of the forces operative in their study of the Bible, whether they were conscious of them or not.
- What was particularly interesting were the factors that they passed over or dismissed.
- For example, one Episcopalian priest in Hong Kong insisted that his gender made no difference in his study of the bible. (He later changed his viewpoint).
- I reflected autobiographically on my social location by considering how I myself would complete a similar survey.
- Unlike most Asian Americans that I know, I am a third-generation female Chinese American, raised in the slums of Chicago with playmates who were Black and Puerto Rican.
- In this way, you get a sense of my intersected gender, race, and class identities.
- Unlike first-generation Asian American immigrants, I was not “assimilated” into the white dominant society of the US. I did not have to adapt a previous Asian context to this hostile one in America. I was born into this society and had to come to terms with it straight away. I had to become an American long before I actually became an “Asian American.”
- I am also the oldest of twelve children, the first of my family to go to college.
- The Catholicism of my parents is an important aspect of my identity as a biblical scholar, because the Christian Asian Americans I usually encounter are Protestant, many of whom were or are evangelical.
- Unlike Protestants, I never felt bound by doctrines of biblical authority or inerrancy, particularly on the use of the Bible on social and cultural issues.
The Hermeneutics of Suspicion: questioning and critiquing the bible.
- Questioning the Bible came more easily to me than to my Protestant colleagues, because I was able to name sexism, racism, homophobia, and other ‘isms’ in the Bible as NOT the Word of God– whereas this was more difficult for my colleagues who were raised with the complete inerrancy of Biblical scripture.
- My eventual approach to the bible is in asking the ethical questions: Whom does my interpretation help, whom does it hurt, and whose interests does it serve?”
- Turning to my studies, I can further understand social location.
- I became an English major in college when it became clear that I would never pass the math courses I needed for my pre-med major, demolishing the ethnic stereotype of Asians being good in math.
- Although I rather rejected my Roman Catholicism during my college years, during my senior year I attended a Taizé gathering with a college friend and had a religious conversion. I hitchhiked around several European Christian communities, returning to the US in the “fire of the Spirit.”
- I completed a master’s degree in New Testament at Loyola University in Chicago and a doctoral degree in Hebrew Bible at the Toronto School of Theology.
- I was not a feminist during my doctoral studies.
- I only became a feminist during my first job when I team-taught with a member of the English department in a Women in Religion and Literature course.
- I became cochair and then chair of the Women in the Biblical World Section of the Society of Biblical Literature 1987.
- So how did I become an Asian American biblical scholar?
- As I reflected on my Asian American-ness, I recognized that “becoming” an Asian American scholar was a process that has been percolating since my youth.
- Even though I was always a woman, I had to name myself as a feminist when I finally realized that I was.
- Even though I was always an Asian American, I had to claim it eventually as an advocacy stance.
- The growing consciousness of my different positionalities were the result of both personal and institutional factors.
- I noticed that my academic and personal formation followed theoretical shifts in my guild, the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL).
- It took a long time for the SBL to acknowledge and support the female and racial ethnic scholars in its midst, since its establishment in 1880.
- Only in 1992 were both the Status of Women in the Profession Committee and the Committee on Underrepresented Racial and Ethnic Minorities in the Profession finally launched.
The first female president of the SBL was Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in 1987; The first African American president was Vincent Wimbush in 2010; The first Latinx American was Fernando Segovia in 2014; I was the first Asian American and woman of color of the SBL in 2019.
- For my current social location, I no long consider myself a feminist Asian American biblical scholar, even though I certainly have not given up feminism.
- I consider myself an Asian American intersectional biblical scholar analyzing the sacred text not only through the lens of gender, but also through the lenses of race, of class, colonial status, colonization, and so forth.
- When I want to analyze a biblical text intersectionally, there is a simple way to begin: remember that the -isms of gender, race, and class are relational. They are not isolated from each other.
- In trying to understand how all forms of subordination are interconnected, Asian American lawyer Mari Matsuda uses a method she calls, “ask the other question.” She says:
“When I see something that looks racist, I ask, ‘where is the patriarchy in this?’ When I see something that looks sexist, I ask, ‘Where is the heterosexism in this?’ When I see something that looks homophobic, I ask, ‘Where are the class interests in this?’ Working in coalition forces us to look for both the obvious and non-obvious relationships of domination, helping us to realize that no form of subordination ever stands alone.”
- I am not able to tell you which part of me is female part or Asian American part or lower-classed-to-middle-classed part. They all combine to reveal who I am.
- I leave you with a question: If you were to complete a self-inventory like my students did, what will you say?
Q and A
Comment: One of the most profound experiences I had in seminary was when we were asked when we first became aware of our gender and race. It turned out only two of us were aware of our race, before our gender. Your discussion brought that memory to me.
Q: In thinking on all the intersections of our lives, I think of my own life as a woman, immigrant, and priest. In Guatemala, where I have spent part of my life, my primary identity was as a woman. But here in America, it is as an immigrant– my race. So it is interesting how our contexts change our primary identities.
A: You bring up a very important point: we become aware of our identities because of our contexts. In Guatemala, you probably weren’t aware of your race because you are a racial and ethnic majority there. But here, it’s a much different situation. Even though you’ve always been Latinx and female, certain parts of your identity come out in the context as where you are.
Comment: You talk about this in your book, the experience in Asia as being seen as “American,” first and foremost. This is certainly the experience of many people, and it’s difficult to experience and understand. What’s interesting too, is for those of us who are LGBTQ, we can always tell you when we knew we were gay. For those of us who are white, this is an important question to reflect on: when did you know you were white?
Q: Could you talk a little about parallel, or related experiences of intersection– where you are both a woman or a person of color– and relating to others who might be similar to you? Are there ways in which we can find solidarity across these similarities of identity?
A: We usually assume that those of us who look on paper like they might be “our people,” are going to be friends with us, because of our apparent similarities. I personally hesitate to assume we have this bond because we have the same identity. As with any relationship, I have to first listen and get to know someone without a presumption of connection. I would advise you to be on the cautious side, and not assume that you will easily bond with someone. It doesn’t work that way. To work in coalition, we listen, we see our common ground, and we discuss real-life experiences in the world (immigrants at the border, Asian-American hate during the pandemic). Talk sincerely, but be very careful.
Comment: In response to that, I’d also say that white people get very nervous when we (people of color) spend too much time together… they think “what are they plotting?” But all we are doing is getting together. So just be aware.
Comment: Indeed, how many times has the myth of homogeneity in the Academy been discussed? There are so many layers to your identities and so much affects where we stand.
Q: When I studied at divinity school from 2008-2013, intersectionality was still a new term. But most students were male. They don’t see themselves in the same way. Growing up and studying in Hong Kong, as a British colony, I experienced racism, gender discrimination, and discrimination based on my sexual orientation. But in Hong Kong, these acts today are by the government. What I am wondering is whether or not the same in true in America? Is the government the oppressor in the same way?
A: Certainly, we do not experience government oppression in the same way that you do in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, it’s also very complex because of cultural-state imposition. In America, we do not have this level of colonial concern right now. We have parties, which divide us, and we are concerned for our democracy. But there is an interesting fight of groups here in the US that are trying to keep power.
Q: In regards to the hermeneutics of suspicion, have you noticed any shifts in your own thinking or in the thinking of your Protestant/Evangelical colleagues when undertaking biblical critiques, especially given the rise of white Evangelical radicalization within the last five years?
A: When I first studied, I encountered in Feminist Biblical interpretation the lamentation over the hold that the Biblical authority held on Protestant women. It was very enlightening to me, as a Roman Catholic at the time– that I personally do not live “underneath” the Bible, and that I do not view it as inerrant. I do still see this view of Biblical inerrancy today. Many scholars dance around the problems in the Biblical text, rather than going towards it. I tend to look elsewhere for scripture, because I do not believe necessarily that the Bible is the Word of God alone. So, I don’t have that same crutch as my Protestant/Evangelical colleagues, which is certainly still the case today.
Q: I am an Episcopal priest, and I notice in my congregation– a historically Black church– a strong avoidance of discussion of class. There are different ways of “being,” but the acknowledgement of class differences is almost altogether avoided, especially in the Episcopalian church. Do you have insights for how we can discuss intersectionality, including class, as a congregation when interpreting texts?
Q: Related to that, how can younger Episcopalians access your work to utilize intersectionality in our own congregations?
A: When I first started at Episcopal Divinity School, there was much frustration about the “high class opinions” of Episcopalians. For other denominations, this class issue is not as central. In terms of suggestions, trust yourself. You know your own congregation. You know best how to undertake your ministry. My context is not your context, so continue to do your reading and synthesize it to match with what your congregation needs. You have your context and your own wisdom to give to them.
WATER thanks Gale Yee for this helpful, informative session. We heartily recommend her book TOWARDS AN ASIAN AMERICAN BIBLICAL HERMENEUTICS: AN INTERSECTIONAL ANTHOLOGY (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2021).