I am a Dominican, married to an American, living in the Middle East. I have been a foreigner, an immigrant and an expat.
Even though I come from a country where racial prejudice is quite prevalent, I was surprised when I moved to the US to discover an altogether different flavor of it. While it is a big problem in my country, it is not a systemic problem in the same way as it is in the US. Slavery and racial segregation are not part of our collective memory as a country. I moved to the US as an adult and while I am an American citizen now, I have never expected it to feel like my home country.
Seeking to understand the problem in the US, I asked a lot of questions over the last 10 years. I talked to black friends and read books by African American authors.
Even though I had become more familiar with racial prejudice in the US, when a dear friend asked me, “what is your experience as a woman writer of color?”, the question actually took me by surprise. It isn’t a category I am used to thinking about myself.
Growing up in the DR I was not a minority. When I relocated to the US after my wedding, I mainly thought of myself as a foreigner in a cross-cultural marriage, and wasn’t focused on the color of my skin (though always proud of it). Later, living in the Middle East I have lived in both international and Arab communities. In neither one I’ve stood out color-wise because in the international world I was just one more nationality of many, and in the Arab world I actually look Arab (because I am half Palestinian by blood).
That is why her question has taken me on a deeper journey this past year. What circumstances and variables have played into my experience as a woman of color? How is my experience similar and how is it different from other people of color?
I have sat down and talked to Hispanic friends who moved to the US as adults, to Dominicans who grew up in the US, and Dominicans living abroad in European countries. I have talked to Asian American friends who experienced racial prejudice not only living in the US but also abroad. I have talked to black mamas and adoptive moms to black boys and listened to their experience. I have also asked questions to friends in interracial marriages like mine.
There’s two things that have struck me as I have listened, discussed and thought about my own experiences overseas and at home:
- Racial prejudice is so insidious that there is no race, age, or gender exempt from it.
Living in the Middle East the last 5 years I have seen the narrative “my race is better than your race” played out among all peoples. I have known African men and women exploited in labor camps, Philippina workers treated as slaves by other races, and Palestinians mistreated by people from other nationalities.
I have also seen that narrative among my own people. We are by definition a mixed race- there is no such thing as a pure Dominican. We are a mix of Spanish, Native American and African blood. When someone had stronger European or Arab features, there was always great pride in that. But the truth is, as one of our poems says, “Todos tenemos el negro detras de la oreja” (black roots/ heritage behind our ears)
And yet, even though we all have a black roots, we too struggle with racial prejudice. Every time each of my babies is born, fellow countrymen have “complimented” them for how light skinned they are.
I remember hearing classmates laughing at others for the size of their nose, or the texture of their hair. If someone wanted to insult someone else, they used derogatory racial name-calling. While racism wasn’t tolerated in my Christian community in the DR and we were taught about Imago Dei, it definitely was a topic and struggle that came up often.
I have also seen racism closer to home. Even though my children live in a cross-cultural home in an Arab country, we have needed to engage with them on this topic. One of them was honest enough (praise the Lord) to share with me that they don’t always like how I look because my skin is darker. This, and several other comments of that nature, of course, have led us to many conversations, where we, together, go to our Father and ask him for his eyes to see.
But racism isn’t just out there. It has been in my heart. I have had to repent many times over the years every time that in one way or another I have thought:
“My race is better than your race”
“This race over here is better than that race over there.”
I have sinned in judging people from other countries just because of how they look, without knowing them at all. There are times I have been more interested in getting to know people that are like me, looking down in my heart on those who are different. I have been more willing to sacrifice my time and my energy for those I deem worthy of that sacrifice than others, sometimes due to race. I haven’t repented quickly enough of prejudice but have nursed pride and superiority. This grieves the heart of my Father and is one of the sins that nailed my Jesus to the cross.
My friend, I suspect that just as I have seen abroad, among my people, my kids and myself, the insidious sin of prejudice shows up in a million ways and thoughts for you too. When we instinctively trust someone just because they are white or western looking; when we judge someone’s intelligence by their accent in English; when we reject or despise someone because they don’t meet our standards of beauty (texture of hair, size of their nose, color of their skin); when we decide not to adopt a biracial or African American baby because of race; when we are indifferent to the suffering of people of color; when we don’t want our daughter to marry a man of another country or race, we are sinning and we must repent.
Racial prejudice is not “a respectable sin.” It dehumanizes others and can lead to death (literally). It is an attack against the image of God in every person; and also a distortion of the image of God in us because that is not Christ in us. It is actually demonic wisdom (James 3: 15-19) and it needs to die.
Thankfully there is so much hope for us, even as we lament both the state of the world and the sin in our hearts. Maybe as the Lord keeps opening your eyes to this sin in your heart, you are grieved. And rightly so. But friend, the amazing news for us in Christ is that racial prejudice is a crucified sin.
It is not part of the new creation that we became as soon as we put our faith in Christ. Racial prejudice is the product of the life of the old man. Sorrowfully, we still have muscle memory of that life. But praise God, the old man was really left at the grave. So now, we kill sin by reckoning it dead (Romans 6: 4) and remembering it has no power over us.
As soon as the Spirit shines a light on our racial prejudice, by grace and by faith in the Son, we have the Spirit’s help to repent. When we pray, “Father, forgive me, I don’t want to sin this way” he loves to answer. We have the life of Christ in us to hate what He hates and love what he loves.
The hard labor of putting prejudice to death has to be laced with repentance. Ask the Lord to grant you ongoing repentance and to faithfully root out this form of pride. So Christian, through the life of the Son of God who lives in you:
Pray for faith to see all peoples with the eyes of Christ. Repent. Engage. Read God’s Word so that He transforms you as you behold his glory and holiness more and more. Study African American history. Practice hospitality. Ask questions. Repent. Have hard conversations. Listen. Confess. Befriend. Train your kids. Parent them through prayer. Labor in every way to not be part of a system and a generation that perpetuates racial prejudice. Repent and pray again.
But friends, I have noticed something else.
- People of color all have a different story.
Just because someone is “not white” that doesn’t mean they are like everyone else that is not white. They may or may not come from an affluent background. They may or may not have a good education. They may or may not come from a broken home. The differences are vast and keep going.
The fact is, every single person is a story, a different story. We are shaped by a thousand of God-designed circumstances. Every story is part of the larger redemptive Story headed towards a Throne where people from every tongue and tribe will worship together.
As a woman of color with a very different background as that of my friends’ of color, there is a lot I am learning. It has been profoundly helpful, insightful and painful to sit down and listen to them.
Reading African American literature and talking to my friends has broadened my understanding and deepened my compassion. I know what it feels like not to belong. But I don’t know what that feels like living in your own country or having a history that many of your fellow countrymen don’t seem to know or care about. I don’t know what it is like to have my personal space continually violated because people want to touch my hair without asking me first. I don’t agonize about others rejecting my children because of their skin color. But the more I learn, the more my friends’ grief is becoming my own.
It has pained me to recognize racial prejudice everywhere is often mixed with other kinds of prejudice, especially socio economic prejudice. Many people I know – Dominicans and otherwise- who have experienced racial discrimination have also experienced other kinds of suffering and loss from fellow human beings.
Many variables – cultural background, my family history, my country’s history – have played a role in the way I experience racial prejudice. While I have experienced mild forms of it, the brown color of my skin has not been a source of significant suffering for me. What I have felt (generally speaking) in evangelical American communities I have been a part of is ignorance, sometimes indifference and moral superiority from other cultures.
I have often heard Christian Americans talk about other cultures as somehow more flawed than their own. Even in people who are helping other cultures, I have sensed condescension and impatience towards them.
On different occasions I have been treated as someone who has the same experiences and history as all people of color. Other times, I am simply the token minority they need, to show that there’s diversity in that community. But I haven’t often felt a personal interest in those particular elements of my story that contribute to that diversity they say they value and want so much.
It has been a gift when American friends ask me questions and make space for all that I am, and for the way they communicate that all I am, matters.
My point is, from my own experience as a woman of color and from my own need to learn about other people of colour, I am more and more convinced of this: we need to cultivate holy curiosity about people, a curiosity driven by radical love for God.
- How much do you really know about your Asian neighbor? What is it like for her to live/work/study in the US?
- Have you sat down with a black friend and asked honest questions about her experience?
- What was it like to grow up in your Muslim friend’s home? What did she love about it?
- What are the hobbies of the foreign college student that comes to your church? Do you know?
- How many people of color have you opened your home to?
- Are you a cultural critic interacting with other cultures more aware of their faults than their strengths? Or are you engaging with these cultures, with wonder at their history and their suffering, with a heart to learn from them and really understand and know “what is the state of the gospel among your people?”
Friend, seek those different from you. Don’t assume you know them well just because you know them. God is writing a story with their lives, filled with twists, surprises, suffering and joy that is worth your time, your affections, and interest. Don’t dismiss their experience because it is not your experience.
Learn the art of asking loving awkward questions. Yes, read books about black history and racial reconciliation, read about other faiths and cultures…but more importantly, sit down – face to face- and listen. Attend a culturally diverse solid church to rub shoulders and lock arms with fellow believers different from you. Move to a neighborhood where you are the minority. Pray for your blind spots to be revealed.
Make this leaning in a way of life. It will help you see people for who they are more fully, it will breed compassion and a deeper love for the God who made us all in his very image.
My Brother, my sister – our Father has shown us what is good. So let’s do it by faith in our elder Brother, who acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with his God has enabled us to do the same by his Spirit in us.
Resources that have helped me so far:
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton
Becoming by Michelle Obama
United by Trillia Newbell
Let’s Talk about Race by Julius Lester
God’s Very Good Idea by Trillia Newbell
The Colors of Us by Karen Katz