The murder of George Floyd has sparked protests and conversations all over the United States regarding police brutality and race relations more generally. As a biracial American, these conversations are nothing new. Growing up in Portland, Oregon (also known as the whitest city in the nation), I have found myself being the “Blackest” person in the room more times than not. Navigating my role as the de facto representative of “everything Black” has been anything but easy and straightforward.
For some background, my mother is white, and my father is a first generation Ethiopian American. Growing up, I went to a predominately white Christian school and did not have my first true Black friend until I moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in the 8th grade. Since everyone around me at school and church were mostly white, I also saw myself as white. It was not until around the second grade that I began to realize that maybe I was different. I started to notice that my skin was darker, and my hair was curlier than my friends’. In our school Thanksgiving play, I wasn’t cast as a pilgrim like my friends, I was cast as a Native American. The boys in the class would put pencils in my hair to see if it would stay in without me noticing. My classmates would all look at me when we would go over MLK or slavery in our history books. Etc. etc. etc. I knew I was different, but I didn’t feel like I was “Black.”
My dad being from Ethiopia meant that I did not have the same experience that other Black or biracial kids have growing up. What I mean by that is this – the African immigrant experience is different than the African American (those whose ancestors were enslaved) experience. My dad still experienced (and continues to experience) anti-Black racism like most Black men, but unlike other Black men, because he was an immigrant meant that he had to learn how to navigate the American world alone. He did not have parents, uncles and aunts, etc. who knew how to survive as a Black person in the United States before him. He does not have the generational trauma that is passed down through families whose ancestors were enslaved. To top it all off, living in Portland meant that my family was not in community with many other Black people. Because of this, I did not have a solid understanding of what Black America was like or anything about Black culture. And yet my peers still looked to me to be the Black encyclopedia.
Moving back to the United States after living in Ethiopia during my sophomore year of high school was a tough transition. Living in Ethiopia brought about such a deeper understanding of my Ethiopian heritage and culture. I finally had a strong sense of identity as an Ethiopian and as a white American. But when I moved back to the States, that identity I had built was crushed yet again by my predominately white community flatly labelling me as “Black.” Again, I was expected to be the know-all on Black issues and Black culture. The micro-aggressions I faced in high school as one of the only Black students in my class is at times overwhelming to think about. I went to a Christian high school in a fairly wealthy part of Portland. I did not fit in for many reasons but being a mixed/Black kid was what really made me stand out. I would get side comments daily about me, my hair, if I could “speak Black,” etc. When I started to apply for colleges, my teachers and peers would say things such as “The only reason you got a full ride to that school is because you’re Black,” or “If you were white, they wouldn’t have even considered your application.”
It felt liberating to graduate and to finally go off to university where I could be in community with other Black and Brown people. Although I was still at a PWI (predominately white institution), I felt much more welcome and seen than I had ever before during high school. It was a breath of fresh air and a sigh of relief. During my time in undergrad, I was able to partner with the other BIPOC students to help make our university a more inclusive place of students and faculty of color. It felt so validating and healing to do this work and be seen rather than labelled and criticized like I had been in high school.
I am so quick to look back at my high school experience with bitterness. Until this day I think of the things that were said and cringe. What has been fascinating over these past few months in light of the Black Lives Matter protests is that the very students who used to debate me, make fun of me, perpetuate microaggressions, and such in high school are now speaking out about racism and police brutality. My first response was “Um… that’s not okay!” I was so quick to disregard their newfound solidarity in the Black struggle because of what they did to me in high school. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that in reality I was just refusing to forgive them because it was the easier thing to do than to forgive.
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘’If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.’” Luke 17:3-4
It doesn’t matter how many times someone said a microaggression about me, insulted me or my family, or undermined me because of my race – God has called me as His disciple to forgive every time. Forgiveness sounds a lot easier than it really is, and I have had to learn this time and time again. Anger is easier than forgiveness. Ultimately, I think that me clinging to my bitterness is a form of self-righteousness and that my unforgiving heart is a sign of pride. If I truly saw myself as one who messes up and needs redemption every day, then how on earth can I turn and not forgive my neighbor?
Now, I think I need to make it clear that forgiveness does not mean that we don’t address the wrongs that happened. I wish it was that simple. I think forgiveness is active. Forgiveness is also justice work. It means that while I forgive I also allow space for the other person to continue to learn and grow in their understanding around race. This can look like me supporting them in their walk to anti-racism, calling them out if they slip up, but all the while continuing to love and support them as a fellow child of God.
I am by no means perfect either when it comes to race. Even as a biracial person, I slip up and say or do the wrong thing. So just as I help support by white and non-Black friends and family, I also need to humble myself and acknowledge my own privilege and need for growth as a biracial person.
There is a LOT of deep-rooted hurt and pain that has plagued the church in America for centuries. As a biracial person, I think it is my duty to help build that bridge in the church to bring about healing so that the church can instead be on the front lines of fighting for justice. So what does that look like for me? I think it starts with me forgiving my white friends who have hurt me so that they and myself can grow in maturity and solidarity. It also looks like me reaching out to my Black brothers and sisters in Christ to hear about their stories and hear how I, as a biracial person, can use my privilege to help bring healing.
I would highly encourage anyone who is reading this to also think about your own role in bringing about healing and justice inside and through the church. Does it look like apologizing to a friend you may have hurt? Forgiving a friend who has hurt you? Having those tough conversations are what will hopefully bring about the changes needed to bring deeper unity in the greater Church.