As a child, I didn’t think much about race. I knew I looked different from most of the kids in my elementary school, but I made friends across the spectrum of faces and colors. I lived with an innocence that allowed me to be unburdened by the hue of my skin.
I entered junior high with the same naive perspective. But three short years later, my innocence was replaced by a startling awareness that who I was and how I was received by my peers was influenced by my skin color and the texture of my hair. Race had become an entry requirement for social groups and defined my allegiances.
My high school was predominately African American with a sprinkling of hispanic, Asian, and white. Just enough of a mixture to make us multicultural yet not enough to balance the population. I was a Black girl with white skin, curly hair, and wire-rimmed glasses. I felt like a foreigner walking the halls.
The Hurtful Question: “What Are You?”
I was frequently asked, “What are you?” A question that always seemed to cause an uncomfortable feeling to wash over me. I responded, “Black”—the answer I had been conditioned to give. Yet every time I looked in the mirror, my reflection caused confusion.
Mom was an English-born white woman. My father, an African American with Chinese ancestors. So, what do you tell a racially focused group of peers? It usually went something like this: “My mom is white, and my dad is Black and Chinese.” And often the follow-up question was, “Right—what are you?”
Somehow, that lingering question left me thinking just a little less of myself. From where I stood, I didn’t fit anywhere.
Then I met Diana.
Diana’s mom was white, and her father was African American. She shared my white skin and watched the world through beautiful green eyes. Her blond kinky hair enveloped her face, highlighting the freckles that graced her nose and cheeks.
There was a sense of connection when I saw her walking the halls. A comaraderie when I heard kids ask her, “What are you?” I was no longer the isolated oddity.
We were sisters, finding comfort and strength in our common bond.
Yet, it was funny—even having a comrade didn’t lessen the impact our peers’ comments made on my heart.
Diana’s friendship provided solace but it didn’t negate that little voice that echoed in my brain, “You’re different.” And somehow me being “different” equated to me being weird. Not the creative kind of weirdness that leads to artistic masterpieces but the awkward, uncomfortable kind that causes you to trip over your own feet.
We were not Black enough to be embraced by the Blacks in our school and too Black to be accepted by many whites. So, we clung to each other and forged our way through our teenage years.
Surrounded by Richness in Our Differences
Fast forward, my college experience opened doors I never knew existed. I was surrounded by people that looked like me. The racial blindness I experienced as a young child returned as racial acceptance. I began to celebrate the rich diversity that makes me the woman I am today.
I want to believe that as a society we have become more open and sensitive to racial differences. But what I’m learning is that we haven’t moved too far away from my teenage experience. We continue to deal with the wreckage resulting from cultural insensitivity, feelings of racial superiority, and a hatred of all that is different. Yet as believers, we are called to a higher theology. A belief that can only be fulfilled by God’s unconditional love.
Billy Graham, one of the most influential Christian leaders of the 20th century, said, “The closer the people of all races get to Christ and His cross, the closer they will get to one another.”¹
Recently my husband and I moved to a new community. We are surrounded by such amazing diversity, something we haven’t experienced during our decades-old marriage.
My neighbor and I share no similarities. We are culturally different, ethnically different, our interests are worlds apart (although we both enjoy cooking and gardening), and we do not share a faith. But we are quickly becoming good friends.
Her friendship has taught me three things.
3 Ways to Work Toward a Unified World
We each carry personal bias. Some use it as a shield to deflect potential interactions and others as an excuse to avoid any situation that may make us uncomfortable. Both strategies result in barriers to allowing us to experience the beauty of each unique individual.
I would encourage you the next time you come across someone that is different, reach out to try to understand their perspective, and their experiences and then make up your mind about how you will move forward. You may be very surprised at the beauty that can arise out of your differences.
I would also suggest you take the same approach for those you feel are similar to you. Get to know them before you invest your emotional energy. You might be surprised that you are far more different than you ever imagined.
2. Don’t ignore your differences; find the beauty in them
I mentioned that my neighbor and I both enjoy cooking. Only one slight challenge: She cooks VERY spicy food and I can barely handle black pepper. But a few weeks ago, she held a cooking class and taught me how to prepare three of her favorite dishes. She was very thoughtful and replaced all the spices that would cause me to ignite with the most amazing flavors. Needless to say, my husband and I are hooked! I now make my own flatbread and can conjure up some pretty good curried cauliflower.
We openly talked about our different tastes and styles of cooking, and by doing so, it opened a whole new world of flavors and tastes.
As you work to establish friendships with people different than yourself, remember to embrace the difference and try to find ways to work together to align them on a common path.
3. Be willing, to be honest, and authentic in your conversation
Once you’ve determined that this is someone, you want to build a relationship with, be as transparent and honest as you can be during your conversations. This level of intimacy tears down any remaining barriers between you and lays the foundation for a strong friendship to form.
My neighbor and I have had opportunities to talk about our families, our frustrations, disappointments, and hopes for the future. We’ve gained a window into one another’s lives that have helped to build a trustworthy bond.
I hope you take time to consider the diversity that encircles you and step out of your comfort zone to take a step towards the type of unity Paul describes in his letter to the churches in Galatia:
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28).
In Jesus’ eyes, we are all one. So, regardless of what the world tries to tell us, we can confidently stand together and love others as we’ve been loved: unconditionally, unencumbered by fear, and in deep reverence for God’s sacrifice for all of us.
Want to learn more about the intersection of race and faith? Listen to this Grit and Grace Life podcast episode: Our Duty to Celebrate Racial Diversity as Women of Faith – 207