The Importance of Discovering Your Own Ethnic Identity
When you think about the “normal American,” what image comes into your mind? Who is a stereotypical American? What age are they? What gender? What size, hair or eye color? What language do they speak?
What race are they?
If you are a white person, like myself, that image probably looks a lot like you. And for good reason. It is what we know. But our unchecked assumptions reveal a lot about the culture or the waters we are swimming in. We are not being racists in imagining this person. Just name a reality. That reality reveals that we live in a radicalized society. White is normal. White is American.
As we go through this series on race and explore how we can be bridge builders, reconcilers, and create a more just society, one of the key issues we have to address is coming to terms with our own ethnic identity.
If we don’t connect ourselves into our own immigration, ethnic or cultural heritage, we will have an incredibly hard time appreciating the ethnic or cultural heritage of others.
For myself and many other white folks, we did not grow up in homes that talked about race. Since it was not talked about, we grew up assuming race was not an issue anymore. Race was something other people talked about, but we had moved beyond seeing race and “color.” We were colorblind and proud. So when I first began to sit with people who so quickly and frequently talked about race, I was VERY uncomfortable. I did not have vocabulary for this conversation and was often afraid to cross some sort of invisible line or make myself the fool.
Thankfully, others gave the grace I needed and pushed me. They reminded me that we are all made in the image of God. Our DNA is 99.9% the same, and although race is a social construct, race does have dramatic implications for how people of color experience the world.
Being a “normal American” meant I did not primarily define myself as white. If I had to list 10 things about myself, white would have never made the list. I might have listed things like athletic, student or photographer, but definitely not my gender and probably not my race. I had never identified primarily as white. I was an individual and was known for my accomplishments and other achievements. But this reality for me was not the reality for others.
Black and brown people are labeled and identified by their skin color. Society starts there, and understanding that reality for others pushed me to know myself. I had to move out of “normal American” thinking.
If you are white and desiring to pursue a life of justice and reconciliation, may I challenge you to explore your own cultural and ethnic identity.
What I Learned About My Ethnic and Cultural Identity
Moving out of a colorblind concept meant I would tap into my family history. Come to find out I have a really culturally rich one! The most known side of my family (my father's side) has roots connected into Poland and Prussia from around 1695, and we have roots in the Anabaptist (specifically Mennonite Brethren) tradition. If you do not know much about the Anabaptists, they were a religious group that came out of the reformation and declared that baptism was only for adults who could profess faith in Jesus (now a common evangelical position). These Anabaptists were killed for their faith, even by the Lutherans and Calvinists!
Mennonites specifically connected to the teachings of Jesus, particularly the Sermon on the Mount. They embraced an ethic of nonviolence, and for this reason found refuge in countries where they would not be enlisted in national military service. In fact, both my family and my wife’s family come from what is now today Gdansk, Poland. Our families were part of a large Mennonite immigration in the late 1890s to Kansas and Oklahoma, and then eventually to Central California in the early 1900s.
So why does this all matter?
Knowing part of your ethnic and cultural history and roots gives you an identity other than “American.” Understanding my ethnic history has given me a deep appreciation for the Anabaptist tradition and anchored me in a way I never had been before. What I have come to understand about my family's heritage is:
- My relatives have been immigrants many times over.
- My family has been persecuted for their faith.
- Because of World War II, my family had to give up Low German and many cultural practices in order to assimilate into American culture.
- The call to active non-violence has cost my family much.
- For generations my family has held faith and discipleship as a very important principle.
- America has given my family a place to thrive, but the melting pot has also caused us to lose our identity.
Coming to appreciate my cultural heritage has allowed me to ask about others’ cultural heritages and not pretend that they do not exist. People love to talk about themselves. People love to talk about their culture. When you ask someone from somewhere else to tell you about themselves, their traditions, foods and practices, they will light up. Why? Because their culture is part of who they are.
Understanding your own culture and family heritage, and then learning to step into another’s culture is an important starting point in racial justice and reconciliation. In many ways it is a small step, but I believe that unless this step is taken, you cannot begin to recognize the waters we are all swimming in.
When I enter conversations on race and how it has played into our history as a people, I am open to learning from other people and cultures. I know my cultural and social place, and can now welcome other places into that framework.
It’s a good reminder. We have to be grounded in our own ethnic identity to do the work of racial reconciliation and justice.
Being colorblind is not helpful. In fact, being colorblind is being lazy.
So what is your ethnic identity, and how can it help you as you help people become reconciled to God and each other?
Learn more about what you need to know before talking about race in Part 2: Hearing Multiple Perspectives.