Culture & Race, Restoration & Reconciliation

When even Jesus is white

“Mama,” she ran toward me through the sand, “something really funny just happened.”

We were relaxing at the local murky-pond-called-a-lake on a quiet summer day.  “Really?” I grinned at her, eager for the humor of a five-year-old. “What was so funny?”

“Some kid just asked me if I was from China!!!” she sounded shocked.  “Why would anyone think I was from China!?  Isn’t that funny?!?”

“Yeah, honey,” I smiled, covering the ache inside. “That’s just crazy.”

She shrugged her shoulders and skipped back to the beach, oblivious to her mama’s sinking shoulders.  We’d lived as one of the only biracial families in our small-town cornfield for several years at that point, and I was wearing thin on the lack of awareness we ran into around every corner.  My margins to tolerate the monocultural masses were shrinking, and their ignorance had worn me thin.

I know, I know.  But they’re just kids.  They don’t mean any harm, right?

But what about the friend who whispered to me that no one would play with her black son at recess?  What about the teachers who wouldn’t do a damn thing about his isolation, claiming he was just ‘quiet’? Or the time another friend’s daughter was called a ‘burnt hot dog’?  What about the teenagers who had run my brown husband and white self off the road, sticking their heads out of the truck with angry shouts?  Or the time my husband confronted another group of teenagers who were harassing an African American just walking down the street?  What about the threatening phone call that woke us up in the dead of the night?

Maybe they didn’t mean harm, but maybe they did.  All I knew for certain was that I had no ability to tell the difference, and I didn’t much like having to choose.

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My sweet daughter climbed into the van after preschool later that year and dissolved into tears, “Why am I the only brown kid, mama?”

Unwisely, I attempted a rational explanation and she shut me down cold. “No, mama!  Everyone is America is white! Everyone except me.”

It was clear she just needed to vent so I listened for awhile and then reattempted my explanation, “Not everyone is white, sweetie.  Think of your uncle and your cousin and all of Thaatha’s family and-”

Furious, she interrupted me, “NO, mama!  Everyone is white except me.  I’m the only brown kid.  Even Jesus is white!”

She might as well have stuck a knife through my heart.  Those blasted colonialist publishers who had to go and make Jesus look just like them – they were fully responsible for my child feeling on the outs.  I collected myself and told her that actually, Jesus wasn’t white, and that the people who painted the pictures of Him got a little too focused on themselves and didn’t think about how Jesus really looked.  “He probably looked much more like you,” I told her in an attempt to soothe her angst.

Even at five, my intuitive daughter knew what it felt like to live at the margins.  Sometimes she chuckled at it and called it silly; but other times it made her crumble to pieces.

Since we left the cornfields, I’ve had my own moments of chuckling and crumbling before God, asking why we had to endure cultural isolation for so long, why my daughter had to live those hard questions at such a young age, and why we felt so isolated in a place that so many (white) people loved to call home.

For now, there are no clear answers, other than knowing that Jesus lived in the margins, too. And when He asked my husband and I to walk this path of living between worlds, he promised to walk with us through it, threatening phone calls and all.  That doesn’t mean we’ll always know how, or do it flawlessly, or be responsible to fix it; but it does mean that when the bitterness creeps in, we exhale, “Father, forgive them…” and await the slow restoration of our hearts from the breaking days of the cornfields.

What I’m learning from those marginal years is that if we don’t know healing in our own crumbled moments, we won’t ever see the beautiful sights of the healed ones.  For racial healing to run deep in our stubbornly shallow world, it must be led by the wounded healers who love one another fiercely and forgivingly, willing to wade through the murky waters of the margins.

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11 thoughts on “When even Jesus is white”

  1. I appreciate this honest, personal experience. I am always trying to figure out how to talk to my children about race/ethnicity so that they can both understand their own heritage and also so they can be welcoming and loving to others. I’ve been grateful for some of your posts/resources on the topic. It’s a tricky journey to be sure.

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  2. So tough for a child to learn lessons early that shouldn’t have to be learned at all. On the upside, I see young children completely and blissfully unaware of the differences between different ethnicities – not only are they unable to name the categories that their friends fall into, they are unable to categorize them at all. That is a beautiful thing. One hopes for a day when children learn about the interesting differences in peoples’ backgrounds before they learn about hurtful stereotypes.

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  3. Thank you for this. Beautiful and inspiring words for a deep pain. This: “But it does mean that when the bitterness creeps in, we exhale, ‘Father, forgive them…’ and await the slow restoration of our hearts from the breaking days of the cornfields.”

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  4. I have that blended race family experience too. Sometimes the answers just don’t soothe.

    Jesus pictures can be the worst offender sometimes. Whenever I see him represented as any ethnicity other than typical middle eastern, I think of cultural hegemony. The Son of God transcends race, of course. But Jesus was born a Jew in the Middle East and that’s how he looked.

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  5. Beautiful and hard. Your words at the end are quite remarkable in their beauty and their truth. So many feelings as you relayed the story of your daughter, and your own response. I’ll message you privately a story that still has me choking. As someone who is becoming more aware of privilege, and my personal privilege, daily I am soaking up your thoughts through this blog.

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