“Mommy, is Jesus white?”
This question was recently posed to a white mother in our congregation by her brown son. This family diligently provides books, activities, and holds ongoing discussions with the three brown kids in their home, yet this charming little five-year-old boy wrestled with the color of Jesus during the Christmas season.
Your initial thoughts about this question and discussion say much about your comfortability with racial conversation. If your response is, “What difference does it make whether Jesus is white or not?” then I invite you to take a moment and consider why the race of such an important religious figure matters.
How does each culture see Jesus?
Years ago, on a visit to the Holy Land, I was struck by images of Jesus interpreted by varied cultures. The Chinese gave him black hair and distinct eyes; African nations gave him chocolate and tan skin. On and on, different ethnic groups displayed Jesus as one of them, as someone who was for them. Because the Christian faith teaches that Jesus is a “personal Savior,” this should warm the hearts of Christians. That is if we think it matters what color Jesus was. Being of Jewish descent, Jesus most likely did not resemble the white blond baby characterized in many of our storybooks and Christmas images. My wise white friend engaged the teachable moment with her brown son by reinforcing Jesus’ Jewish culture, and together they have asked me to consider writing a Christmas story about a brown baby Jesus. Kids really are the best inspiration!
I was shopping for makeup recently when I remembered that as a young girl Fashion Fair was the one cosmetic company with a plethora of shades for chocolate skin. There were no other options. Thankfully, times have changed.
Yet, for white sisters, conversations like this are rarely if ever considered. The thought of having only one line of makeup to choose from seems foreign. Even in the purchase of Band-Aids, white women may think nothing of the reality that they are their skin color and few stores carry a brand of skin tone diverse Band-Aids. Whiteness is the standard, and so anything else is “different,” which is another reason discussion about racial differences is considered a non-issue by many whites.
Author Sarah Shin has become a beautiful influencer in my life through her reconciling work. In her book Beyond Colorblind, Sarah provides a helpful definition of ethnicity and race.
“Ethnicity refers to common ancestry, tribe, nationality, and background, often with shared customs, language, culture, values, traditions, and history. Race, on the other hand, is the classification of people according to their supposed physical traits and ancestry. Race, though a manmade historical construct, has real-life, present-day realities.”
White people have not always considered themselves as part of an ethnic or racial group. But every person is made in the image of God, full of beauty and promise. Unfortunately, pride created a history full of racial strife and evil perpetrated around the world.
What do we see during Black History Month?
It is in February that we celebrate Black History Month, an opportunity to highlight and learn the often ignored or unknown contributions of black people. Discussions of black history inevitably bring up the painful history in America. Just over 400 years ago, the first enslaved Africans were brought to America and the brutal history of slavery and devastation has reaped generations of trauma with present-day realities.
Because of these and many other painful realities of history, many choose to believe they are in the past—that we now live in a post-racial society where skin difference is a non-issue. At the heart of this perspective is the current concept of colorblindness. The colorblind thinking intends to replace our past racism with a corrective that mutes and discourages us from seeing our racial differences. And if we don’t see our racial difference, then we also deny race is the basis for present issues we encounter today in our country, across the border, and around the world.
Is colorblindness the answer?
Many parents teach their children “not to see color.” But I don’t know a single parent who fails to teach correct color identification to their toddler as part of their early vocabulary. Knowing the grass as green, the squirrel as gray, and the banana as yellow is a normal part of development. Good parents aren’t colorblind about kids eating diets rich in pigments of carotenoid vegetables and fruit like carrots, bell peppers, watermelon, and tomatoes. Those vibrant colors have inspired children’s books, television shows and products designed to reinforce the colorful variety nature has given to us.
This earth is bursting with color as a divine gift for us to enjoy in our food, to feast our eyes upon all around the earth’s landscape, to add variety to our wardrobes, and to celebrate in our varied skin hues. Anti-racist consultant Lucretia Berry describes us as “Many hues, One humanity.” So why be blind to our diverse skin tones? What a shame to diminish the glory that God gave us in this most obvious physical descriptor!
Recent incidents of public figures engaging in questionable behavior as well as unacceptable product lines have led companies to institute “diversity training.” Some see that as a step in the right direction. But does this training produce reconciliation? Do people of color feel safe and acknowledged in organizations with only white senior leadership? What else can we do?
Many parents teach their children “not to see color.” But colorblindness is not the answer.
What is true reconciliation?
Reconciliation is a term used to speak of racial harmony and togetherness. The Biblical vision of people from every nation, tribe, and tongue make some content to wait for the sweet by and by. Others love the energy of “reconciliation events” where they get to hug and commune with diverse people, then go back to their homogenous world. Laws may have made segregation illegal, but many of us still live in narrow worlds where our incomes, our marital status, our ethnicity, and race make us more comfortable around people like us. A bouquet of red roses may be a gift of love, but a rose bouquet of varying shades takes our breath away with its colorful beauty.
Why aren’t we reconciled? In part because the first step toward reconciliation is often the hardest: humility. I’ve heard defensive people say, “I have a ____ friend (fill in the blank of any ethnicity unlike you), so I’m okay,” or, “I have adopted kids of color in my family now, and love makes it all okay,” and, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” Racism is overt in wearing a white hood or burning a cross. It is also covert when the majority race in power is seen as superior to people of color. It takes humility to continually seek and pull up the smallest weeds of racism in our hearts. People of every race must honestly and regularly use humility to face bias, prejudice, and ignorance.
As I have led and loved congregants in a multiracial church for 23 years, I’ve seen the struggles of racial reconciliation and how some want reconciliation that is easy or beneficial to them. This worthy pursuit is definitely not for the faint of heart! But I have also had many sweet experiences and blessed conversations. In a faith community where we celebrate and learn about our differences, coming to the table of grace and learning from one another has been powerful. At the table we listen, we lament, we understand, and we become allies in a shared pursuit of liberty and justice for all. There is power and beauty at the table of reconciliation. We don’t have to travel the globe to make reconciling steps in our own world.
Is it on us to find and understand diversity?
I intentionally began to follow more diverse people on twitter. I learned about Asian female theologians, began to deconstruct my ignorance about Asian cultures, and recently celebrated the success of the movie Crazy Rich Asians. As I saw Korean influencers narrate with great emotion what this movie meant to them, it became a must-see film for me. The cast and plot centers Asian characters and experiences, unlike anything Hollywood has produced. In the theatre, I felt like a guest at the table, and I was welcomed. It was a beautiful experience to think about what it must have felt like for my friends to see so many beautiful people who looked like them. Many of them had done the same for their black friends by supporting Marvel’s The Black Panther. The stunning African representation moved my family and many other African Americans to tears, to shouts of joy, and to a frenzy of buying everything black panther we could find! If these recent cultural moments were downplayed and missed by you, pause and consider how many books, movies, and shows you have recently watched that centered people of color.
As an author, I love how books can introduce us to culture and move our hearts toward reconciliation. From library loans to Amazon orders, books open the window to people’s story, to the wisdom of those who have persevered, and to important lessons that move us beyond ignorance. Through literature, we are challenged, we deconstruct bias, and grow empathy and understanding. Books are a warm and gentle first friend for adults and children, and they inspire us toward friendships with diverse people.
Can what we do make a real difference?
I have seen hospitality used as a means to enjoy a table of grace. People of different ethnicities and races come together and learn one another’s food, customs, and stories. A sense of belonging creates a community that honors difference and celebrates shared humanity. Lessons about being a good neighbor mean something to the children who see love lived out and they grow up with an expansive view of neighborliness. This is a beautiful reconciliation.
I have been deeply moved by those who feel called to go behind bars, seeing women and men in the penal system as fellow image bearers, often themselves victims of tragic circumstances. Offering the gift of caring, learning stories and pain, transforms judgment into compassion and opens our eyes to the reality that some are even innocent victims of injustice, as author Bryan Stevenson reveals in his NYT bestseller Just Mercy. Powerful reconciliation happens when mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters learn that they have worth, that their choices do not define their destiny, that they can be free inside their soul even if their body is locked up, and that they can be productive and restorative members of society on the other side of a prison sentence.
Why aren’t we reconciled? In part because the first step toward reconciliation is often the hardest: humility. It takes humility to continually seek and pull up the smallest weeds of racism in our hearts.
Parents have made the radical choice to live in low-income neighborhoods and send their children to the zoned school. Advocating for their child’s school becomes real and passionate because “those people” are now “my people.” Empowered to seek change from within, supporting neighbors who have been crying out like a voice in the wilderness, adding energy to the fight for better resources for all schools, joining the gritty fight for students of all backgrounds to have the same potential creates a promising and beautiful table of grace that impacts generations to come.
Are you ready for this fight?
These are experiences that I have lived and witnessed in the pursuit of reconciliation. Nothing worthwhile is attained without a fight. And our struggle is first inward; reconciling our ignorance, damaging perspectives handed down—even our own ethnic stories and pain. Every one of us must acknowledge our propensity to bias, for realization is coated in humility. We must admit what we do not know; then we can be open to learn, to grow, and be transformed from the inside out.
The beauty starts to grow, one seed at a time. We become supportive friends to the marginalized in our communities because we are now proximate to know their story. We are good neighbors to image bearers next door and across the border. Gracious hosts to those hungry for food, for fellowship, for a reminder that they matter. To the hurting who need their story to be heard, their pain to be acknowledged, and their promise to be realized. Each of us can be an agent of reconciliation. Let’s join hands, walk in grace, and grow together.
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Nothing worthwhile is attained without a fight. And our struggle is first inward; reconciling our ignorance, damaging perspectives handed down—even our own ethnic stories and pain.