BY ANN GILLIAN CHU
Christa McKirland, Logia’s Centre Director, launched this series with a blog post in September 2019 in which she mentioned, ‘to be a woman and to be a woman of colour meant that you already had “two strikes” against you. Growing up in the American South, those strikes were readily apparent.’ I did not grow up in the American South. In fact, quite the opposite: I am ethnically Chinese and grew up in Hong Kong, where the population has always been almost entirely Chinese. Not only that, my research is also about how Hong Kong Chinese Christians understand civic action in their context. When Christa invited me to contribute to Logia’s Women of Colour blog series, I had some difficulties visualising what that meant, because, for most of my life, I lived in places where I did not have the daily struggles of being a woman of colour…or did I? Since I am speaking as a woman of colour from a non-Western country, one of the experiences I can contribute is how the conversation among theologians in Hong Kong is directed by Western thinkers. Even though Western theologians might not speak directly to Hong Kong, their works are often cited as authoritative and superimposed onto the local contexts by Hong Kong theologians. Hong Kong theologians have internalised Western narratives, which they use to frame the way they conceptualise faith and theology in their local contexts. I find that, in any context, it is important to have a diversity of voices to make the scholarly conversation more robust, but this robustness is more apparent when including those who had to go through the process of establishing their identity and authority within a society where they are not considered to be the arbiters of their own knowledge.
I research how Christians conceptualise civic engagement in light of Hong Kong’s resistance movements, Occupy Central and the Umbrella Movement. I aim to provide a framework for thinking about the intersection of religious identity and political practice in non-democratic political orders, such as Hong Kong. I investigate the topic as an insider–I was born and raised in Hong Kong, and started to spend my time in their Christian community as an adolescent. As Natalie Wigg-Stevenson in Ethnographic Theology describes her research methods, ‘By studying my own people, I sought out the forms of theological knowledge that are inherent within and produced by practices of belonging. […] Rather than reflect on Christian community or on Christian practice, I sought to do theological reflection in Christian community as Christian practice.’ Currently, Western theologians, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth, are privileged in our Hong Kong community, setting the tone for our scholarly debate. But my voice and voices of other women of colour engaged in this scholarly conversation need to be heard, because we provide a unique and necessary perspective that theologians from the West are not able to imagine.
My research is important to me because I was born and raised in Hong Kong during the British/Chinese handoff negotiations for Hong Kong. I was living and working in Hong Kong during the Occupy Central and Umbrella Movement, so as a Hong Kong Christian, I have a vested interest in reconciling what it means to be an ethnically Chinese person from Hong Kong with Christian convictions. Nonetheless, this topic is also broadly relevant to non-Hong Kongers. Our current historical moment marks the rise of China and India as global powers and the decentralisation of European power, leading to a new, more authoritarian, world order. These changes raise questions about the supposed ‘universal’ ideals taken for granted in Western theology and philosophy regarding citizenship, engagement, politics, and religion. In a world where the majority of the population belongs to some form of religion, there is a need to explore how the interlinkages between faith and national consciousness frame current debates over citizenship and rights. Religious engagement with the world must be considered alongside authoritarian versions of power, not just democratic ones, otherwise we will be left ill-equipped to understand current political events. It is my experience—and my identity as a woman of colour—that brings a unique set of competencies and contributions to this discussion. My perspective is not as a foreigner, investigating the ‘exotic orient’, but as part of the community, sharing in the struggle of attempting to reconcile the current political climate with the writings of dead white men whose theology is thought to define us. While there is a place for research conducted by outsiders, I, along with a group of women of colour, can deliver a different voice with which to challenge the existing conventions and enhance our deliberations.
One challenge, then, is being labelled as a ‘woman of colour’ by the academic world despite being the same ethnicity as my research participants, and all of the people in my home context. Living as part of an ethnic majority, my race is not something I think about frequently, even though it is my sense of belonging in the Hong Kong Christian community, which I believe undergirds my research and allows me to add my voice to Hong Kong’s theological debates. Since I am seen as a woman of colour, am I expected to conform to certain expectations or stereotypes? Am I expected to be obedient, meek, or submissive? Am I being disadvantaged or considered ‘difficult’ or ‘argumentative’ if I do not conform to others’ unspoken expectations? These unspoken expectations are what I constantly battle with, without explicitly being named as an issue that derives from being perceived as a woman of colour.
On the other hand, back at the University of St. Andrews, I often bring a different perspective to discussions here in the Divinity School. Being a different voice is a challenge: I always second-guess myself, and while imposter syndrome is common among PhD students, my sense of insecurity derives from being different. I question whether I am ‘right’ to think my thoughts, since nobody else seem to be asking similar questions. But it is precisely my difference that contributes diversity to the existing conversations.
It is important to encourage women of colour to study in this field, not only to contribute to the diversity of voices, but for us women of colour to stop being seen as marginalised or deviant. We can achieve this in three ways: first, it is important to consciously relate to subversive or marginalised theologies such as indecent theology, queer theology, feminist theology, liberation theology, Sino-Christian theology, etc. so that the marginalised are brought to the centre of our existing conversations. Second, we can feature scholars who are also women of colour as visible role models. I have both mentored and been mentored by women of colour, and benefitted from the conversations in both accounts. Everyone, not just women of colour, should be able to give and receive guidance with those who are different from them, an experience that would broaden perspectives and amplify the voices of those who are currently considered to be marginalised. Finally, it is also important to have visible communities for women of colour, be it local or virtual. The blog on Asian American Women on Leadership and the Facebook group for Pacific, Asian, and North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry are good starting points. It is important to embrace the different voices that women of colour bring. Like others with different visible identifiers that lead to marginalisation, women of colour struggle to grasp our identity in society, and it is the fruits of these struggles that create diversity in scholarly conversations.
Ann Gillian Chu is a PhD (Divinity) Candidate with the Centre for the Study of Religion and Politics in the University of St. Andrews. Her research investigates Christian perspectives of civic action under non-democratic governments based on church discussions in post-Umbrella Movement Hong Kong. You can find out more about Gillian’s research on her research website, and her Facebook/Twitter handle is @agillianchu.
Photo by marek kizer on Unsplash