“So what are you, exactly?”
I’m asked that often. When people see my dark-black and curly hair, my somewhat “almond-shaped” eyes, my pale skin with a yellow undertone — and yet freckles — they wonder. They can’t place my ethnicity in a box, so they feel unsettled, maybe even threatened.
Depending on my mood, I choose one of a few answers. If I’m feeling sarcastic: “I’m human, thanks. And you?” Or if I’m feeling cryptic: “Exotic, obviously.” If I’m feeling sarcastic and preachy: “Me? I’m part of the Colossians 3:12 ‘Beloved Community,’ part of God’s people that He loves from the center of His being.”
I’ve also learned to play dumb, answering with my own question: “Oh, how do you mean? Are you asking about my Myers-Briggs personality profile or maybe my Enneagram?” Obviously, they aren’t. But hoping they’ll actually hear themselves, I like to make people say it: “No, what ethnicity are you? Where are you from? Why do you look so different?” What ethnicity am I, indeed.
A Hard Question
If I’m feeling patient, loving and strong enough, I invite folks to hear my story. They’d better get comfortable, because it takes a while. When the Holy Spirit leads me in being gracious, I answer that awkward question by sharing about my Thai national birthfather and my European American mom. Then I share about my African American dad, who married my mom and adopted me when I was five. I talk about being a proud New Mexican — born and raised. I share about my first trip to Thailand, in my early thirties, to see my paternal birth family. I mention my multiethnic church family in Mississippi, the heart of the Deep South. I also share that being a campus minister has shaped my heart to see diverse groups of students and faculty come together and learn more about Jesus. I explain that being an author gives me the privilege of hearing and sharing others’ stories, even as I keep figuring out my own life story.
“What are you?” is so multilayered. Sometimes I do want to talk about my mixed heritage and family of origin. Sometimes I want to talk about my current family or my various work and creative projects. And sometimes I just want to talk about a book I’m reading, a dessert I enjoy, or whatever ridiculous TV show I’m watching. We all deserve to be seen as more than just our ethnic appearance, as much as it is an important part of our story.
Not Fitting In
Because being multiethnic and multicultural can mean never really fitting in — with strangers, but perhaps even more so with family — I have an almost perpetual sense of displacement. I’m obviously White with my Black family, awkwardly American with my Thai family and confusingly “ethnic” with my White family. My mixed story means my kids also are inescapably multiethnic. Even if I had managed to find a racially Thai/White and culturally Black/White husband (God did bless me with a White man who has a heart for racial reconciliation), my multiethnicity means that my children, too, are pretty much guaranteed a “mixed marriage.”
Being mixed can also mean never really being at home in one’s own skin — a feeling of constant otherness. For a long time, it meant resenting my very self, because I stir up questions wherever I go. Even if I’m the only person in the room, the damning question reverberates in my head. I hear not just What am I? but also the heart of it, the frightening underlying message that if no one can tell what I am, maybe I’m not much of anything.
Perhaps you resonate with this. You’re weary from feeling stuck in the middle or being forced to choose sides. Or maybe you’re intrigued by your multiethnicity and wonder where to go next. Perhaps you’re interested learning more about what it means to be “mixed” not because you’re multiethnic, but your child, best friend, neighbor, or coworker is. You’re hoping to find ways to better understand and love people, to celebrate them in their fullness. Or perhaps you’re curious because you’ve noticed more and more people who defy description and don’t fit into neat categories.
Whatever your reason is to learn more about “mixed folks,”meet God here. Meet with the Lord Jesus, who knows what it’s like to be multiethnic due to his Jewish, Canaanite and Moabite heritage. Receive anew healing and a sense of calling from the precious King Jesus, who knows what it means to live in liminal spaces and on the margins. On earth, He was a minority; and in heaven, though He even now sits on the throne, He also waits for His kingdom to come fully and his will to be done perfectly.
Walk with the merciful God who also knows what it’s like to be multicultural, because He’s the ultimate multieverything, incomprehensibly the “one person, two natures,” three-in-one, triune God. He is the θεανθρωπος (theanthropos) — the God-man, the ultimate “both/and,” whose incarnation and atoning sacrifice make racial reconciliation — reconciliation of any kind — actually possible between fallen people.
Do you believe that being ethnically mixed is a privilege? If I’m honest, I have to ask: Do I? As with everything else tied up in multiethnicity, the answer is yes, no and everything in-between. Some days — maybe even most days — I’m grateful for my ethnic story. Other days, it’s hard to focus on the joy of multiethnicity instead of the grief. This is especially true when I’m asked “What are you?” several times, or when people assume I’m monoethnically White, missing the other parts of my story.
Being mixed means being a stranger and sojourner wherever one goes, in every sense of the phrase. But that’s not always bad. See the face of Him who — you will discover — doesn’t look that different from you, no matter your skin tone. See the joy of Him who rejoices when a lost sheep is found, when a lost child comes home.
Like Moses (who minister Neil Rendall tells us was multicultural, knew the tension of living in different worlds and had his own questions of identity), we “mixed folks” are strangers in a strange land in the here and now (Ex 2:22). Yet, we who follow Christ do have a home. So, dear siblings, trusting in Jesus means citizenship in a kingdom that bases our ultimate value on belonging to Christ, not in our ethnic identity. And yet — and yet — this kingdom does not obliterate the beauty of our individual ethnic and cultural stories. The kingdom of God establishes our primary Christian identity without us losing the value of our ethnic identity.
Our identity as part of the redeemed family actually gives our ethnic identity the most joy and meaning — our place in the story. All believers are indeed on a journey, traveling together to, as author C. S. Lewis puts it, a “far-off country” for which we long.