Racialization meant that people sometimes saw me as white, black or other, depending on their own lived experiences, beliefs, and worldviews.Anita Coleman
I remember a time, 1990, in San Diego, when a young French man, Patrice, asked me, “Why are they letting all these Asians into the country?”
He was angry because the San Diego immigration authorities had just sent his girlfriend back to France. Apparently, she had come as a visitor the previous summer, taken up a job that she was not supposed to do, returned to France, and was trying to re-enter the country to keep the job. I looked at Patrice, puzzled. What did he think I was?
“Why are you telling me this, Patrice?”
“Because you’re one of us. You understand,” he said.
I was puzzled. What did Patrice mean? Who was “us”? When I asked, he replied, “Us. White people.” That was my first insight into the construction of whiteness.
New immigrant groups are always on a journey to whiteness; the Irish for example weren’t originally considered white.
Writers have teased out nuances of being black, white, and other in America. Ralph Ellison, for example, has written powerfully about invisibility. “I am invisible. . . . It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves.” To Patrice the real me was invisible.
Even when I was growing up in India, people would ask, “Where are you from?”
Given to dreaming, I would give a different answer every time: Sri Lanka, Madagascar, New Zealand. As I grew older, the diplomatic answer and what I hoped would invoke laughter became “Space cadet. Planet Earth.” Few understood.
Differentiation, I learned, was the crux of identity and group formation. Learning to see differences was the norm. Categorization was fundamental; without it, I was invisible. People required my geographic, social, economic, political, national, sexual, and religious labels in order to “see” me, in order for me to “compute.”
America, the great melting pot, I thought, would be different. Coming to the United States, I wore a small gold cross on a chain around my neck proudly. The cross symbolized my identity in Christ, passionate devotion to God, and determination to live life the Jesus way. It had been possible in India, despite the fact that Christians were a minority. Might America be different? I still could recall my Dad saying, “At least you’re going to a Christian country.”
The concept of “an identity in Christ,” however, proved to be almost unheard of in the Midwestern churches I frequented. The process of my racialization began. My markers included dusky skin, a “British” accent, graduate student status, and the diamonds in my ears.
All these were commented upon quite candidly, but it was my adventurous confidence that puzzled the church people. They did not know what to do with me. Slowly church became irrelevant to my immigrant life. I left the church. The Spirit never departed from me, though, for I learned to embrace with bold joy any hyphenated American identity that onlookers saw fit to bestow on me: African, bi-racial, Islander, whatever! I was, after all, imago Dei.
I did well in school and work, with everybody praising my “WASP” (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) work ethic. I landed jobs where I became living proof of the good things resulting from British colonialism and American immigration policy.
In group photographs, my chocolate-brown color contrasted vividly with the pale white skin that surrounded me, a wonderful testament to American diversity. My “upper class” accent, petite figure, and “well-informed” intelligence—I have a Ph.D.—drew admiring remarks. Life in the ivory tower protected and indeed gave me many privileges. There I might have remained except life throws everybody curveballs.
One day I caught mine, quit the academic life, and came back to the church, my core identity in Christ reinstated.
On the surface, in my new church, the old categories that made me a foreigner, a heathen, were gone. I taught women’s Bible studies, was ordained a deacon, joined the missions committee, and served as coordinator for women’s retreats. The trouble started when I began to exercise wider leadership.
Presbyterian Women, this summer, appreciating Anita’s identity
The church people were much more interested in celebrating my “different” heritage than in considering me one of their own. Since I’d grown up in a Christian home and had now spent more years in the United States than in India, this was not easy to do! I didn’t speak an Indian language fluently, had worn Indian clothing only occasionally even while growing up in India, and there was no “back home.” America was home.
Still, I was obedient and since I loved to dress up, I learned to enjoy wearing Indian costumes, the fancier the better. I reconnected with friends in India, and began to do “mission” by speaking up on behalf of the poor there.
Soon I was oscillating between visibility and invisibility, between American and foreign cultures—often refusing positions of leadership, performing the submission a non-white woman ought to have (and it is a performance), always working hard, and being rarely listened to, heard, or invited into social life with native-born Americans.
Diversity, Hybridity. Fusion. Melting pot. We are all a mixed people. DNA studies are telling us that we’re all migrated from Africa but came here to America in different ways. Obvious differences of skin color and phenotypical variations don’t tell our whole stories. Global tribes are becoming more common as diasporas are created – Little Saigon, Little India, Little Italy.
Bias, categorization, and racism though are real.
As I educated myself about race and its perniciousness, I began to seek a language that unifies us. What can that language be?
I’ll give you a small example. I don’t identify myself as “white,” “black,” or as a “person of color.” Instead I embrace the language of my faith. I am a child of God. On census and other boxes I choose, Other – proudly. Labels that name us, even when we co-opt them, have the power to shame us. I don’t want to give anybody that kind of power over me.
Growing up in a cosmopolitan city in India where there was no “white” dominant race, I was free to see and imagine myself in a way that I am sometimes not allowed to in the US. It took me a long time to take off the shackles people tried to put on me and reclaim myself as a child of God, woman, reader, writer, wife, mother, librarian, professor, researcher, faith leader, and more!
I quit racializing myself. I began to use moral reasoning as a force of great good to draw people together. I began using the language of Christian anti-racism. Neither whiteness nor blackness nor the language of skin color, culture, and ethnicity describe our full humanity.
Watch Anita Coleman speaking on Disrupting Racism
Rise, Shine, Be Woke: 7 people from four different generations, 4 women leading edge baby boomers, a baby buster, an immigrant woman (Anita), and a young Millennial first generation American man share their lived experiences about being black, white, and other in Christian, middle class America. Rise, Shine, Be Woke is currently available on Amazon Kindle (e-book). Print and iBook editions will be available in October 2018.