This post is an extension from Part One of When Race Matters: A Discussion About Ethnic Identity. It is a thoughtful contribution that sets the scene for this post, so if you have not read part one you can easily access it by clicking the green link above.
Cue the music..
“Now, this is a story all about how,
My life got flipped-turned upside down,
And I’d like to take a minute,
Just sit right there,
I’ll tell you how I went from the “whitest black girl”
to more racially aware?”
Who am I?
I am an African American who identifies as a Christian, wife, counselor, daughter, sister, friend, and leader. Growing up immersed in a predominantly white context impacted my sense of self as an African American. It wasn’t that I didn’t know I was black. I knew that, my friends knew that, and we often made jokes to highlight this difference. However, I strongly believed at that point that racism was no longer a problem, slavery was over so why did race matter? On top of that, my experience of other black people was that we were loud and got into trouble.
I wasn’t about that black life, I was shy, quiet, often developed friendships with others that were on the outskirts (other international students/those who weren’t popular) and was a good person who was more concerned about whether or not I seemed like a “good Christian.” My parents instilled values for respect of others, especially our elders, to be polite, and to follow the 10 commandments. I was (and still am) grateful for their faith and the decisions that they have made to make sure that we had access to good education and to live in a safe environment. So, for the majority of these earlier years of life I lived in the Pre-encounter phase: limited consciousness of self as “other.”
Realizing Racism Around Me
It wasn’t until college that my awareness of myself as a racial being came up. In my search for a career and community I found myself taking a number of classes in sociology and having conversations about my ethnic identity. I still recall a feeling of disillusionment and disappointment in humanity as I realized that racism still existed. I wrote a paper about the disparities that the cafeteria workers that I had befriended faced compared to their white managers. It was heartbreaking, but also empowering. Racism existed and I felt a need to consider the stories of the powerless.
Struggling with Anger, Confusion and Shame
Not only did I find out that other people’s stories important, but mine mattered as well. Through my experience with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship I began to explore my ethnic identity. Looking back now, to think that a community of faith would care about this part of me is truly amazing and encouraging. I was in the encounter phase now and I was hurt, angry, and confused. I felt ashamed that I had highly assimilated to the dominant culture, that I had spent so much time rejecting the black community and therefore had a low ethnic identity. I felt like a part of me had been missing and while I was anxious to reclaim that part of me and to feel like I belonged in the black community, I also felt very uncomfortable in the black community.
Over a number of different opportunities I began to immerse myself in the black community: through campus events, summer volunteer experiences and time exploring my family tree. This my friends, took a number of years of feeling like an “imposter” within my own community. I vividly remember sitting on a swing wondering if I would ever feel more confident in my own racial skin? In that moment, I remember feeling the sense that “things would be ok, and to hang in there.”
Living With Authenticity
Today, I feel that I am authentically “living my best life” as a black female. I have had more conversations and discussions on race and ethnicity being married to a handsome white man than I ever have before. I live in a diverse community, attend a church of interracial couples, and continue to engage in social activities mostly attended by black people-while still being a comic book nerd :-). I recognize that being black and a part of our community is being proud of where you have come from and acknowledging those who have helped you get there. I recognize that while it’s important and necessary to speak up and advocate against experiences of oppression, I also represent my community in my competency as a counselor and leader. And I still have moments where I ask my husband, “do I look black enough because I’m about to be around a whole bunch of black people.” My identity development is a journey, one that isn’t linear but as each stage is experienced and re-experienced I feel more confident in who I am.
So often, my clients engage in counseling because they want to live more authentically as their true self. They are tired of suppressing or hiding a part of themselves. Their curiosity, bravery, and commitment to personal growth requires that they look at more of the picture of their lives. In talking about your racial, ethnic, or cultural development I believe your view widens and your picture becomes more focused.
If you’ve read this story and experience any form of solidarity then I feel that taking the time to share my story has met its success. No matter what ethnicity you are, if you haven’t considered your own ethnic identity, then a counselor might be a safe partnership in exploring your identity that you might not have known was available. No matter your race, you hold your own cultural identity and exploring a shared common experience has the potential to tie you to a cultural history that is rich in pain and in beauty. In our differences we are stronger. Please know your ethnic identity is important, and don’t hesitate to call if you’d like to have a continuing conversation about this.
Written by therapist Pamela Larkin