an epitaph for justice

take off your shoes

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a wedding of dear friends. There are many things that I could say about the seeming lack of concern around safe Covid practices by many of the guests, but what stuck out to me most was this singular moment. The rehearsal dinner took place at a former rectory turned AirBnB. At the entrance, a large sign posted by the hosts declared a simple request: PLEASE TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES. To assist in this effort, the hosts also offered plentiful shoe covers that are easy to slip on. I saw that there were some people in the house already but I was confused that I did not see any shoes in the doorway. My wife wondered aloud if anyone had taken off their shoes and a bridesmaid walked by with a smile saying, “no, we all just kept them on.” Hearing the voices of our ancestors, we still dutifully took off our shoes and entered into the party as the only people of color.

This, perhaps, is one of the simplest examples of embodied White supremacy.

You may think that this is a silly and superfluous conclusion so I will help break it down:

  1. The hosts made a simple, non-confrontational, non-politicized request to take off shoes before entering into their house (which was exceptionally clean)
  2. The hosts provided easy-to-use shoe slip covers to make it even easier
  3. The White guests figured it was not a sign of disrespect to do what they wanted in someone else’s space

You may also know this fable from the plethora of stories of White American tourists trouncing over cultural norms in other countries. Or through the examination of American history towards indigenous people. However, the stories around shoes embody deeper meanings from my own personal experience as the son of Taiwanese immigrants.

Like most kids growing up, I invited my friends over. In my Southwest Ohioan case, my friends were of White Midwestern Evangelical stock. I loved hosting and throwing parties, running tangled LAN cables up and down stairs connecting computers and gaming consoles. As most Taiwanese households are trained, shoes must come off at the doorway. Visiting my friends’ houses, I would always take off my shoes and would be appalled at seeing them walking around with their shoes on. Understanding this cultural difference, I was always proactive in reminding my friends to take off their shoes before entering into my parents’ house — even sometimes putting up signs with big, bold letters as a reminder.

In retrospect, it never occurred to me that after years (some up to a decade) of coming over, I still had to remind some of my friends to take off their shoes. Given that those who forgot also often intersected with those bantering to me about my parents’ English or making various Asian jokes, I mourn that I never addressed the disrespect that they had for me or for my culture. That after a decade of friendship, they still couldn’t take the time to remember or respect this cultural norm clearly states something.

In Exodus 3:5, Moses saw the burning bush and God responded, “put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” Why was this command given? The fire dwelling in the bush was the direct Image of God, as referenced by v2 as “the angel of the LORD.” The bush was a Bearer of the Image. As Gregory the Theologian noted, the shoes are a sign of death, that which was a result of the Fall from Eden. Thus, to be present even before a Bearer of the Image of God is to be on holy ground which demands respect, putting off one’s own way to enter into something set apart.

The inability to respond to a simple request as a sign of respect, after numerous reminders, is a clear sign of disrespect. To think that you can just walk into someone else’s space and do whatever you want is denying their dignity as a fellow person. That the slightest inconvenience to you as a guest is seen as an affront to you or treated with indifference shows that you believe you and your cultural norms are superior to those of your host. This superiority denies that this other person also reflects the image of God and claims that somehow your own image is a clearer reflection.

Many people are wondering what to do in response to the communal awakening and acknowledgement of AAPI hate and violence. I propose an easy first step — show some respect and take off your shoes before entering an Asian household. From there, you can move on to ever deeper layers of solidarity and mutuality. Disrespect in the small things, regardless of being through indifference or antagonism, is the ground cover in the forest of White supremacy.