Ending skin color as a matter of identity

We’ve invented a lot of things in the United States. Some glorious. Some horrific. One of the horrors is using skin color as a matter of identity. Before this unusual invention, language, religion, tribe, and nation were the ways we selected our groups.

We see this in the Bible, where the only reference in the entire collection of 66 books to skin color is Jeremiah 13:23 — “Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.” That’s it. A simple reference that carried no judgmental weight. People noticed skin color, of course, but it never figured into identity. Language, faith, and relational ties were far more significant.

In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes,download1.png

But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.

Throughout the book, Coates repeatedly uses the phrase “people who believe they are white” instead of simply referring to them as “white” (borrowing the phrase from James Baldwin). It’s a jarringly awkward phrase. But I’m glad he uses it, because it point out the error of thinking that way.

Those who refer to themselves as white (and are referred to as white by others) used to have a wide variety of ethnic identities until those identities got erased and replaced by the blandest, most vanilla category of them all: white.

Think about this. I am 50% Italian, with the other half of my ancestry deriving from a British mix from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and England. Each of those ethnic groups had long and deep traditions of religion, diet, calendar celebrations, clothing, and language. But all of those got stripped away when my grandparents came to the United States and got reduced down to “white.” The only remaining inheritance from that rich tradition is a single Italian recipe: pastasciutta. It’s a great recipe that’s unique to my family, but that’s all I’ve got.

Instead of rich ethnic traditions, I’m stuck with “white.”

And what benefit is “white” to me? I guess there’s some “white privilege,” and I’m not going to argue with that, even though I chalk much of that up to the hard work my grandparents put in during their poor immigrant years when being Italian was actually a strike against them. But along with the privilege is a large helping of “white guilt,” even though my forefathers didn’t own slaves or even live in the United States during the horrible era of slavery.

Being lumped in as “white” has me feeling guilty for something neither I nor my ancestors participated in. That’s what I call a raw deal.

In fact, my own life experience (until the past few years of living in Oregon, which is very “white”) has included a rich interchange between myself and other ethnicities.

The photo at the top of this post is of me and my junior high flag football team, made up for four “black,” four “white”, and two Fijian players and our “black” coach. At least the Fijians got to retain their ancestral identities. Those of us with African and European origins got lumped and steamrolled into “black” and “white.”

I have a sister who married a Chinese man, but her red-haired granddaughter will be considered “white.”

When I was in college and brought a date to my apartment for dinner, she was surprised that I’d never mentioned the skin color of one of my two roommates. “Why didn’t you tell me he was black?” she asked. “It didn’t occur to me,” I said. “I just think of him as Dennis, not as black.”

When I was with a gathering of almost 100 pastors, all of whom we’d call “white,” one of them asked if any of us have “black” staff members. No one raised a hand, including me. But later on that day, it occurred to me that my youth pastor is African-American. But I don’t think of her as black, I just think of her as Faith.

When I brought Watoto, an African children’s choir, to the church I was pastoring, my 4-year-old son came up to me and said, “I don’t like their skin.” And I thought to myself, “What have I done to my child by having him grow up in such a homogenous community.” But after six of them spent the night at our home, my son was playing with them as if skin color didn’t matter at all.

My Mexican-American friends in high school all retained their language, their cuisine, their love of soccer and baseball, and their connection to Mexico. I envied them their heritage, since all I had was a thin “white” Americanism.

When I moved my California-raised self to Illinois to work at a magazine during a hiatus from college, I discovered that being “white” in American isn’t the same from one part of the country to another. Our skin tones may look similar, but there are different cultural pockets all over this vast country of ours. We aren’t as homogenous as we look, as demographics lists suggest. And there I was as a 21-year-old “white” American among other “white” Americans, going through culture shock in my own country because I’d expected all us “white folks” to be the same. The same was true when I went to graduate school in Canada.

We may seem monochrome, but we’re not monocultural.

This is why I find the biblical way of thinking about people to be far more helpful. We aren’t grouped by skin color, but by language and relational connections. But that’s not all. The Scriptures go even father than that. In Jesus, we are all adopted into one family with God as our Father and Jesus himself as our brother. Therefore, because we are baptized into this new identity in Christ, we are brothers and sisters despite our differing skin tones.

Paul writes in Galatians 3:26-29,

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. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

I don’t know that this new identity will help anyone except those who have been baptized into Jesus, but I do hope that it helps us step out of a “red and yellow, black and white” way of thinking about people.

When we come to the final book of the Bible, we do not find our ethnicities bulldozed and gone. Rather, we find all of them whole and bent-kneed before the Maker and Lord of all nations. There is no flattened out blackness and whiteness. Rather, there is a harmonious cacophony of praise as with one voice we sing to him in our various languages and out of our various ethnicities.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10)

On that day, with all of our differences and uniquenesses intact, just as God has given them to us, we will finally get beyond skin color as a matter of identity. I’d like to practice it now.