Gerrit Gong and Susan Gong, my marriage, and why #RepresentationMatters

Image result for gerrit gong wife

Susan and Gerrit Gong (Church News photograph)

There are any number of reasons I couldn’t be happier about the newly-called Elder Gong and Elder Soares. Elder Soares, a Brazillian, brings long-overdue representation from the southern hemisphere. I know several members of Elder Gong’s extended family, and they couldn’t be a more dynamic, talented, kind family. But if you would indulge me for a moment, I want to focus on one area of very specific, personal appreciation: the marriage of Elder Gerrit Gong, as an Asian-American man, to his wife Susan Gong, a white woman.

A photo of my husband and me should immediately clarify why this is a point of particular personal significance to me:

IMG_6548

Jusok and Cynthia Lee engagement photo (La Jolla, CA, 2000).

Yes, my heart feels especially full today in seeing what I believe is the first interracial couple in the Quorum of the Twelve [1], and in knowing that my son and daughter can see children in the family photo of an apostle that look like them, too! Although it is 2018 and one would hope the simple fact of an apostle in a interracial marriage wouldn’t be a big deal anymore, it is. The Gongs were married in 1980, not long after the lifting of the race-based priesthood and temple ban in 1978. Until very recently, church instruction manuals for institute and youth suggested caution against interracial marriages. Although reasonable latter-day saints have long, long since realized there is no place for any disapproval of marriage based on race, this is still a big deal.

To appreciate why this feels especially significant to me that we have not only an interracial couple, but specifically a Chinese-American man and a white woman, we have to have a frank talk about how racism in the United States manifests against Asians and Asian-Americans, specifically in regards to gender and sex.

There is a misconception that Asians and Asian-Americans do not experience racism in the US, because their “model minority” status casts them as the ideal scholars and citizens. In fact, the “model minority” label is itself an example of racism, both because it exists really only for the purpose of supporting white supremacy by attacking other people of color for purportedly being less deserving of respect and success, and because it treats Asian people as a monolith. Although the character of the racism people of Asian descent experience in the US is very different from what Latinx and black people face, and the significance of that should not be minimized, it is still racism.

Both men and women of Asian descent in the US face a media and social stereotype of being more submissive, passive, and infantilized. For women of Asian descent, this results in a hypersexualized stereotype, an extreme but superficial sexual desirability captured in the ugly term “yellow fever.” For men of Asian descent, this same underlying stereotype results in media representations and prejudice against them as emasculated and lacking in sexual desirability or prowess. (For more reading on this, see herehere, and here.)

Even if you weren’t aware of all these nuances, you’ve probably absorbed from US culture the idea that it’s more “normal” or expected for a woman of Asian descent to be married to a white man, than for a white woman to be married to a man of Asian descent. This is because, in the white supremacist schema that subconsciously permeates our thinking, the latter is seen as “marrying down” in a way that the former is not, even though both are examples of interracial marriages. I have personally experienced stinging examples of this bias: confusion about our children, surprise about us being together, and even comments along the lines that I “did it backwards” by being a white woman married to my Korean-American husband.

I hope my expression of joy in today’s news does not in any way detract from any mixed feelings others may be having. It will be another important step when we have the first woman of color wife of an apostle, the first black man, more examples of lives lived on more continents and in bodies with different abilities, and–dare we hope–the first woman. Today we both celebrate and look forward. Representation matters. Representation matters!

[1] [Updated x2] There were early, polygamous members of church leadership who had Native or indigenous wives. One is Jacob Hamblin, often nicknamed “Buckskin Apostle,” though he was not actually part of the Twelve. However, much discussion among leading historians of Mormonism has so far failed to turn up any examples of an interracial marriage in the Twelve. I will update the post as I get further information…

Comments

  1. Love you. Love your family. Love the Gongs. And love that something so small — an interracial marriage — can yet be so huge for your family and for others.

    Also on the whole “model minority” thing — we don’t exactly need to go very far back in history, especially California history, to find plenty of horrific discrimination against Asians. Just start with the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese Internment.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Very happy about these calls for all sorts of reasons; thanks for adding another very cogent one to the pile!

  3. Hedgehog says:

    This white British woman with Japanese husband and two children is with you all the way on this one. Big smiles in the Hedgehog home. It was my biggest hope for the conference.

  4. Bro. Jones says:

    Big smiles from this multiethnic family too. :)

    At the risk of being a downer: there are still at least two places on lds.org with instructional materials containing a quote that members are encouraged to marry within their race. Maybe we’ll get rid of those now.

  5. Oh goodness. Thanks for the correction, Jones.

  6. This is a grandly unique perspective on this appointment that I had not known, nor considered until reading your article.

    Thank you.

  7. I’m also the white half of an interracial marriage. This is a big deal. I commented on another thread here how much I admire Sister Susan Gong. She’s everything one would hope for someone in that role.

    Also, doesn’t Sister Rosana Fernandes Soares identify as a woman of color? Forgive me, I’m not sure.

  8. Thank you, Cynthia. This is beautiful.

    And hopefully those last few references to the evils of miscegenation can soon be purged. >:(

  9. God Bless You in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

  10. Thanks, New Iconoclast. I’ll investigate Rosana. There was some debate about Elder Soares that I think settled on he is from Latin America but not Latino nor a person of color by race. I’ll check on her.

  11. Thanks, Cynthia, and beautifully written. This expressed so much of the happiness I feel today. :)

  12. Thank you, Cynthia.

  13. Cynthia,
    When I refer to my Merriam Webster Dictionary and the Encyclopedia Britannica online, Elder Soares happily fits those definitions of “Latino”. In what way have you narrowed that definition that causes you to think you can exclude him from that?

  14. Hi MB, I’m really not the expert to speak on that. Race dynamics and categories in the US and Brazil are each independently complicated and fraught, and also very different from each other in subtle ways. It may also be that I have read today’s conversations about it incorrectly and that Latino is ok? Cheers.

  15. The LDS Brazilians I know are adamant that they are of European descent and that they are not Latino.

  16. With all the comments here I echo the joy in seeing a diverse Quorum. Yet in this case and always the Lord calls his Apostles. It will always be Top down, not bottom up. Anyone who thinks otherwise is giving themselves a little too much credit.
    Score:
    Revelation: 2
    Pressure from Mormon Blogosphere/Political Correctness: 0

  17. I’m sorry to hear this, but grateful that I was raised in the 50’s to 70’s by open minded, faithful Mormon parents, for which I am grateful for every day. Four of my children have married half ‘mixed’ spouses, two half Japanese and two half Hispanic in Utah. Yes, I have the most beautiful grandchildren. I have five other children that have married Caucasians as well. I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with this racism, you are a beautiful couple!!

  18. My last post must have sounded like trolling as it has disappeared. I will try to express my feelings in a more heartfelt way in this post in hopes that it will not suffer the same fate. The thoughts expressed below are my authentic feelings. I genuinely feel this way and am not in any way trying to be disruptive or to be a “troll.” If my voice is silenced (deleted) I will take the hint that I’m not welcome here and will quietly go away.

    Here goes: When the names of the two new apostles were read I felt sick in the pit of my stomach. I felt like the church that I have always thought was lead by God had caved in to the relentless pressure from those in the Mormon blogoshphere who are obsessed with promoting political correctness and diversity. My heart ached also for Elder Gong and Elder Soares as I realized that they too probably wonder if their call came from God or if they are “token” minorities in a corporation that has to factor in the opinions and philosophies of the world in its decision making.
    When the prophet starts allowing his decisions to be influenced by every wind of political and worldly doctrine everyone loses.

  19. Huh. Reading the D&C, it seems that revelation is often (indeed, almost always) responsive to external realities. Why treat it like a zero-sum game?

  20. Thank you Jason K. You make an excellent point. You’ve given me something to ponder this afternoon.

  21. LatamGirl says:

    I love this post!

    Thanks.

    (BTW it’s Brazilian with one l, not Brazillian with two. Feel free to delete this comment after the edit.)

  22. Brazilians, in the USA, don’t like getting lumped in with “latinos”. Also, only in the USA, would someone with Soares’s phenotype be considered “not white.” He’s white everywhere else on the planet.

    My wife is Japanese and I’m Puerto Rican, whoop dee doo. Why does ethnicity have to be politicized in Zion the way it is in Babylon? You’d think we’d try to start making trends on this issue as opposed to following them.

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    I seriously doubt President Nelson was pandering to progressive Mormons. These appointments in terms of age and church experience were right In the sweet spot consistent with recent apostle picks. And I suspect their international cred was perceived as a big plus, not a minus. Did you hear Elder Oaks announce that 40% of.the GAs now have been born outside the US and then rattling off the countries? We’re an international church, and the PTB clearly have worked hard to get our leadership profile to more closely mirror that reality. Also, I suspect President Nelson’s very special interest in China may have played a role in the case of Elder Gong. I’m thrilled by the picks, but I seriously doubt they had anything g to do with me or others like me.

  24. Thank you for sharing! I love the more visible presence of minorities. Next I would really love for Adam and Eve in the temple videos to be an interracial couple. Even in this day and age I meet members who view interracial marriages and relationships in a negative light.

  25. Kristine says:

    Fred–I strongly suspect that you would not have similar qualms about announcements that aligned with your own political priors. The hard thing for ALL of us is to cope with (possibly) inspired decisions that conflict with our own political and philosophical intuitions. I’m sorry for that feeling in the pit of your stomach–I know it all too well. I also know that it’s possible to find joy and peace in the church even when we find ourselves with a minority opinion.

  26. Kristine says:

    (And also–what Kevin said. Sane liberals in the church don’t have any illusions about their influence.)

  27. LatamGirl says:

    Great post!

    Whether or not Brazilians are Latinos is complicated. It depends. And definitely in Brazil Soares would be considered “white.” I’m excited for Elder Soares’ calling as are my Brazilian friends in our ward here in Brazil. However I’m not excited about the call because of his increasing the “racial” diversity in the Quorum of the Twelve (which he doesn’t) but rather because he brings a -cultural- diversity that is very welcomed. Brazilian members of the Church make up over 8% of the total church membership (as of just over a year ago).

    Since there is a sub thread discussion about race here, I’ll just highlight this very good and enlightening piece by PBS from a few years ago about race in Brazil. Again, it’s complicated and fluid.

    http://www.pbs.org/wnet/black-in-latin-america/featured/black-in-latin-america-full-episode-brazil-a-racial-paradise/224/

  28. Aren’t we missing that “All are alike unto God”?

  29. “…for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”

  30. Chadwick says:

    I echo LatamGirl’s comment below.

    I personally am not concerned about quota filling in the Quorum. What I hope for is a group that comes from different cultural backgrounds that can consider and represent a worldwide church. If that makes me bad/wrong, then so be it.

    Cynthia you make a great couple. I hope this new leader does indeed provide an example that normalizes your family to our fellow Saints!

    Also I agree with Jason K. If the word of Wisdom initiated with Emma, then it appears the Lord expects His prophets to look in every direction when seeking inspiration. Which is empowering to those of us not necessarily agitating for change but asking sincere questions.

  31. Thank you, Cynthia, for your poignant thoughts. Today blessed us a beautiful moment. #progress.

  32. The apostle choices here should be celebrated and I would say without much qualification for “progressive mormons”. There was almost no better realistic possibility than these two picks. The church desperately needed someone who represented Latin and South American saints symbolically and with experience in the 12. Elder Gong was on my list of best case scenarios. Beyond the symbolic impact (which is important) no one should expect there will be much short or medium term impacts, but in 20 years when they become senior apostles there might be some hope of more open minds outside of the US conservative/Utah experience. Thanks for calling attention to the interracial marriage barrier being broken and what this can mean to many families.

  33. Youraveragemormon says:

    Cynthia, thanks for sharing. The fact that they are an interracial couple didn’t even occur to em; I was just thrilled that there is finally some more international representation in the upper-most echelon. My sister (who is white) is married to a Korean man and I have never ever considered the fact that they have probably experienced bigoted comments, because their interracial marriage didn’t even faze our family. I’m grateful for that for me, but I’m terribly sorry for anyone who has had to endure those remarks.

    And Fred, it is interesting to me your physiological response to their call. When I realized that they were the new Apostles, I had chills all through my body, the hair on my arms stood up, and I felt so joyous. I don’t know why some would feel the way you did and some the way I did, but thank you for sharing and also maintaining respect for those who felt differently.

  34. Hopefully I’m not missing anyone, but I do not see that any of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve married Native American women. A few early apostles married Scandinavian immigrants, but that’s really stretching the definition of interracial marriage.

  35. John–if all are alike unto God, then you should expect that there are people worthy to be apostles from all racial backgrounds, not just one.

  36. AmyT thanks for weighing in! Mica Nicole is sure she had encountered one but was out and about and couldn’t recall the specifics for me. But perhaps she was thinking of a 70 or something.

  37. From one who knows nothing, I couldn’t help but see Elder Gong being placed in position to help open up China. I believe the Lord uses those who have specific skills to move His church forward….and Sister Gong is fluent in Mandarin. A powerful couple to help open up China.

  38. I also rejoice in the callings of Elder Gong and Elder Soares.

    Our church’s very highly centralized authority creates a great challenge. For, say, a company whose mission is to suck oil out of the earth wherever possible, super-centralized leadership is not much of a problem; an organization like that just has to know how to focus its financial and political power like a laser, and acting at times like a steamroller is part of the game. But the church’s mission is to reach throughout the world and serve people in their own languages, in their own cultures, and on their own terms without being destructive. It’s very, very hard to do that with a small, centralized leadership group. It’s impossible to have any credibility as a global church if we have almost no cultural and ethnic diversity among the most senior leaders.

    Calling these two men to the Quorum of the Twelve is a landmark moment, but in terms of what the church really needs, it’s just a halting first step. I don’t expect that these men will be cultural or political reformers. (If they are, it will be a pleasant surprise.) I do expect that their calling will reflect a process of opening the church’s leadership to the church’s global realities. The Q15 are smart men, and they have an intellectual understanding of the church’s diversity, but culturally they are almost all the same: old white men from the Mormon Belt. They understand that diversity is out there, but they haven’t lived it, and there is no substitute for living it. We need more voices that reflect the church’s greatness in diversity.

  39. Emily, absolutely!

  40. Thanks all for the kind answers to my post. I was worried that it would be deleted…instead I have been encouraged to look at it in new ways that I hadn’t considered.

  41. Ryan Mullen says:

    Loursat, I only bring this up because it was clearly your main point, but sucking oil out of the ground is a terrible strategy. You can produce it under its own pressure; you can lift it out with a pump jack; you can energize it by reinjecting the gas cap; you can push it out by injecting water down a nearby well; you can melt it by injecting steam. But sucking it out by reducing the surface pressure below 14.7 psi won’t accomplish much.

  42. Well, my point was that the church’s mission requires deep, sensitive and reciprocal engagement with all of the world’s cultures in a way that most commercial organizations do not. But it’s a relief to know that the oil companies don’t have to suck so hard.

  43. RockiesGma says:

    This has been a great day in my long life! Too many glories to express…. I believe inspiration comes to those who seek, as does revelation—-like who to call to be apostles. I think generational biases are difficult to overcome when seeking the Lord’s will on things great and small. Our cultural biases are a factor, as well. Our hopes, ideologies, bigotries, boxes, traditions, and so many other human frailties stand in our way of knowing what God really wants for and from us that it’s sometimes seems a miracle to ever get it right. Then whatever is revealed is always so outside a lot of people’s realm of “what, who, or how things should be” that murmuring is inevitable. But so is rejoicing for many other people’s realms of thought.

    Perhaps our Father in Heaven waits for enough of his children to be ready for changes to the norm before He inspires our leaders of His will in order that there will be enough people to support and sustain the changes. It’s pretty easy to support and sustain what we’re used to; harder when there is a significant shift.

    It takes strength to keep sustaining when one is ready for shifts and even sees wisdom in them, but they don’t come. And it takes strength to keep sustaining when a shift comes before one is ready. Ask Peter. Ask those who believed in the 1978 Official Declaration long before it came. Either way it helps us abide and grow.

    We need to learn to love so unconditionally that we do not see race anymore, nor genders, nor other marginalization great and small. We need to love till we do not marginalize any of our Father’s children. How can we have “a people prepared for the millennium” when we have countless exceptions to “all are alike unto God”? Oh Lord, hasten the healing of our unbelief.

    But today, let us rejoice! Blessed be the name of the Lord….

  44. Fred: and that is the value of diversity, across every possible category. People don’t know their own blind spots until they’re pointed out to them.

  45. …and one of those categories is occupation. Having people who know about petroleum extraction is always useful! BTW, given that oil often is found in strange places, experience and comfort with a wide range of cultures is a pretty big advantage.

    (My father worked in HR for an oil major, I used to live a stone’s throw from the HQ of another one, and my current employer sells very large amounts of electricity to oil companies–to extract from wells that in many cases have been producing for over a century–so I’ve learned a bit about the business, both upstream and downstream.)

  46. Senior Sister says:

    Here in China, members of our small LDS ex-pat branch are thrilled at Elder Gong’s call to the Quorum of the Twelve. Similarly, we were happy and hopeful to learn of President Nelson’s ties to this wonderful land. There are over a billion Chinese citizens, and we non-Chinese are forbididen by law from discussing religion with them. It is heartbreaking when we are asked questions about religion, but cannot respond. The current government is becoming more repressive about such matters. It is our fervent hope and prayer that someday soon the Lord will open the way for the spread of the gospel here in China. Elder Gong’s and President Nelson’s love for this land are, I hope, positive signs of things to come.

  47. I confess I’m a bit surprised that the OP is so vehemently opposed to suggestions of caution when approaching an interracial marriage. While for *me* it’s not a big deal to see two races come together in marriage, to pretend it’s *objectively* not a factor at all is a trifle naive. The OP’s own experience of external challenges is evidence enough that race is a factor to consider! “Factor” does not mean negative or positive – it just is.

    Having a few interracial marriages in my extended family, I’ve seen positive and negative consequences. My white cousin married a Korean woman and lived in Korea for several years. Their children had a hard time in Korean schools because of the “round eyes.” Does that mean they never should have gotten married? Of course not. But it’s something a couple should acknowledge and prepare for. Work to make it different, but live in reality, too.

    Much of this post is good, though the backdrop of “white supremacy” is a bit much. The author’s presentation assumes an intellectual supremacy that we all should come to the same interpretations….though I guess that’s what ‘opinions’ are.

  48. Is Elder Gong of mixed race? He looks part white to me.

  49. Hi Benson, we should definitely “all come to the same interpretation” of calling the view that a white woman marrying an Asian man is “marrying down” a white supremacist view. I’m very comfortable standing by that statement.

  50. Truckers Atlas says:

    Loursat wrote: “I don’t expect that these men will be cultural or political reformers.”

    I agree. I suspect that beneath much of the positive chatter I’m hearing about these two appointments is the belief that these men will somehow bring more than just racial diversity to church government. I also suspect that some of these people are forgetting that the world is not lacking in socially conservative Hispanics or Asian Americans.

  51. Benson, although it’s not incorrect to say the manuals (Kimball) advise caution, they go a little further than that in recommending/expressing preference for racially homogenous marriages.* I can attest that there are challenges inherent in my interracial + intercultural marriage, but there are challenges in every marriage.

    I agree that people should go into an interracial marriage being mindful of the challenges. There is, in fact, a slightly higher divorce rate for interracial marriages. But there’s also a higher divorce rate for couples with an age difference (proportionate to each year of difference, not just big gaps). There’s also a correlation between small wedding ceremonies and divorce — suggesting that couples thrive on social support. Perhaps social support could be encouraged rather than interracial marriage being discouraged.

    Cautioning against interracial marriage on the grounds of it being challenging seems to contradict every Relief Society lesson I’ve sat through about overcoming differences in a marriage. If the supposed universal differences between men and women are assets in a marriage, why not differences in race? I can also attest that there are benefits inherent in my interracial + intercultural marriage. The strongest marriages are based on mutual core values, and church leaders seem to believe that marrying in the faith takes care of that.

    *”…We recommend that people marry those who are of the same racial background generally, and of somewhat the same economic and social and educational background (some of those are not an absolute necessity, but preferred).”

  52. Sorry — *BensEn*

  53. It’s most likely that any individual called into the Q12 is pretty socially conservative. Otherwise it would be hard for that person to win the confidence of the senior leadership. However, I think that making leadership more diverse is almost certain to be a liberalizing influence over the long term.

  54. Kristine says:

    Bensen, recounting your personal experience with “a few interracial marriages in [your] own family” and supposing you can generalize from those experiences with those few particular people to arrive at broad statements about how race functions in marriage is, at the very least, “a trifle naive.” It’s also more than a trifle condescending, considering that you’re trying to correct someone who has actual first-hand experience of the potential issues you’re describing.

  55. Carolyn says:

    @Felix, my understanding at least according to Wikipedia is that Elder Gong is the son of a Chinese-Immigrant-family-in-California father and a Chinese-immigrant-family-in-Hawaii mother. I don’t know of anything further back in the family tree than that.

  56. Kevin Barney says:

    It’s disingenuous to portray the Church’s historic concern with inter-racial marriages as a simple matter of possible incompatibility. The church’s rhetoric against such marriages was very strong in the wake of the 1978 revelation, as if SWK wanted to communicate “Hey, let’s not go crazy with this thing.” That attitude has slowly dissipated, but even now it’s not quite gone.

  57. a friend says:

    Felix and Carolyn, First hand knowledge here. Elder Gong isn’t part-anything. His known family tree is extensive (bless the tradition of Chinese family genealogy record-keeping) and is 100% Chinese.

  58. More than anything he is American. He was born in Redwood City, California. No accent here! I don’t know where his wife was born but with Susan as a first name I would assume she is American as well.

  59. a friend says:

    John. Oh, the challenge of English adjectives. Felix was referring to genetics. You were referring to citizenship and location of childhood ambient culture. So, I will clarify to satisfy you both. Elder Gong is a native born American citizen who grew up in America surrounded by Chinese culture at home and American culture in school and Northern California LDS culture at church and was raised by parents whose family trees are fully populated by people who were born in China.

    I am pleased for him. That means not only that he has experience with multiple cultures, it also means that his grandchildren will likely be raised in the same country where he lives, which means that it will be a little easier for him and his wife to spend time with them as present and well known grandparents. And that, I believe, is a blessing for all concerned.

  60. Shout out to Jusok. We used to hang out during our days at UCSD. Lost touch so you can imagine my surprise to see his pic on BCC. He hasn’t aged at all. :) Hope all is well.

  61. Reading through all the comments has been interesting. A lot of good viewpoints and thoughts. It’s nice to have this forum where you can say what you are really thinking rather than in a classroom at church where you pretty much have to say the party line.

    That being said, my thoughts are that we may be making more of Elder Gong’s lineage than is really there. By that, I mean, sure he’s of Asian decent, but he is still the same mold as all the other GA’s/Apostles. He has deep credentials (both in church service and big worldly accomplishments), and he is born and bred American. Not sure that the fact his Asian roots would mean that much to the Chinese government in order to open it for missionary work, but I believe that he fits the mold for Apostleship with age, church experience/loyalty, and worldly accolades. He will be a good fit with the brethren.

    As far as Soares goes, He looks like a fairly “typical” Euro-Brazilian. If I were to see him on the street, I would definitely think, (sorry for the non-PC stereotype) “white-guy”. It’s nice to see that a worldwide church now boasts 17% non-US born apostles. Good going church!

  62. Bro. Jones says:

    It’s just good to have people from outside of the Western US. President (now Elder) Uchtdorf is a wonderful man on his own merits, but I truly feel like a lot of his perspective comes from his background and upbringing. As I said at the last time new apostles were chosen–I would have preferred to have seen three Caucasian apostles from outside North America than three apostles of color who were born and raised in Utah. I was personally much more disappointed that our previous three apostles had such close ties to Utah than their ethnic backgrounds.