Twenty-five years ago, I didn’t care much about racial reconciliation.
Raised in a multiethnic, multicultural family with Thai heritage, a White mom, and an adoptive Black dad, I thought I understood diversity. In high school, I played En Vogue’s hit single, Free Your Mind (“Be colorblind, don’t be so shallow”) on repeat. Though in my formative years I was often racialized (“Do you know Kung Fu?”), I was living a mostly colorblind existence. I sought refuge in the false promises of shallow diversity.
Even then I knew something was missing, so when I became a believer in college, everything seemed to click into place. I didn’t need to worry about race or ethnicity anymore, I just needed to preach the gospel. That was all that mattered; the rest was irrelevant.
Given the ugliness of racism, it’s not surprising when folks (incorrectly) conclude that a utopian society is one where race is no longer an issue. One of the many problems with colorblindness, though, is that it simply doesn’t work. Sarah Shin puts it beautifully: “Colorblindness, though well intentioned, is inhospitable…[it] assumes that we are similar enough and that we all only have good intentions, so we can avoid our differences.”1 When we’re steeped in that mindset, it’s a long road back from the lies of false unity to the truth of the multiethnic Kingdom of God.
A Winding Journey
When I married my White husband, I left my Black and White family of origin, my mestizx home state of New Mexico, and headed to Atlanta, Georgia—the city supposedly “too busy to hate” during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. While there, I lived a pretty white-bread life. The only “diversity” we had in our close circles were other folks of color who had also assimilated to White culture.
In my bubble of privilege, I knew that there were discrepancies in how darker-skinned folks were treated, but I persisted in the belief that colorblindness was the answer. My proximity to whiteness—my ability to “pass” as a majority culture person—allowed me to mostly ignore issues of race and ethnicity. Once again, I was steeped in an evangelical mindset that takes the world-changing words of Galatians 3:28 and twists them.
But life events pushed me out of my comfort zone: joining staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, better connecting with my Black family, and traveling to Thailand for the first time to meet my birth family. I started to feel the significance of my ethnicity in a way I hadn’t previously. And as I began pressing into issues of race and ethnicity—especially my multiethnicity—the lines between my tidy categories began to blur.
The Beauty of Melanin
That’s actually a good thing, to have one’s neat categories disrupted. When folks advocate for colorblindness, it’s grossly misconstruing the context and emphasis of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, wherein he hopes for a brighter future where his “four little children one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”2
What folks often willfully miss is that although Dr. King wanted them to be judged by their actions and character, not their skin tone, that does not mean he wanted them to be defined and seen only through the lens of their actions and character. He was not hoping and longing for a place where the beauty of his children’s dark skin would be ignored, but rather for a time when their dark, melanin-rich skin would be celebrated, instead of it being used to falsely denigrate the truth of their humanity. He was longing, fighting, and sacrificing for the true Kingdom.
I often missed that nuance, and the rest of the 2010s were a series of fits and starts in my ethnic identity journey. In 2009, Barack Obama became our nation’s first Black president, and the ideal of colorblindness was once again on the horizon. My husband and I had our first daughter later that same year, and we believed that here was a perfect example of racial reconciliation. A mixed child—proof that love could conquer the differences that divide us, that our country was finally ready to move past its ugly history. I was elated. My neat categories were re-established. God was on the move, bringing harmony and hope. Those of us with privilege were so sure that a “post-racial” world would bring the healing and equality so desperately needed.
When we left the ATL and moved to Jackson, Mississippi, in 2010, I worried that this would be a step backward from our supposedly diverse life in Atlanta. I was surprised and pleased to discover that conversations were happening—in many ways more authentically than in the ATL—and I began to actually be in fellowship with many folks of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. But even as I acknowledged the truth of past racial issues—it’s hard to ignore them when living in Mississippi—I felt that they were mostly past. That somehow these things were being dealt with. That there was progress.
And then on August 9, 2014, Mike Brown was shot.
Justice For Some
President Obama (who, interestingly enough, is mixed-ethnicity Black and White) was two years into his second term in 2014. This was supposed to be an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity where race wasn’t an issue anymore. But as I (along with many other privileged folks) watched Mike Brown’s blood flowing away from his crumpled body, I had to really listen to the truth.
Finally, I began to see how much a colorblindness mentality favors those who are already in the ethnic and cultural norm, not the minority. The senseless murder of Mike Brown was opening the eyes of so many of us to see how colorblindness doesn’t help—and even more importantly, how it brings direct harm.
From Being Blind to Being Brave
So, if not colorblindness, what then? In her 2014 TED Talk, finance executive Mellody Hobson calls our society to be not colorblind, but colorbrave. “‘Race in America makes people completely uncomfortable,’ says Hobson. ‘Bringing it up is the conversational equivalent of touching the third rail.’”3 Being colorbrave means celebrating the “shocking” truth that we should actually see and celebrate our differences.
At best, colorblindness is starting from a White, majority culture, “universal” perspective and then seeking to fit stories of people of color into it, as long as they can adapt accordingly. As long as they don’t make the majority uncomfortable. It’s relying on human effort, timing, and goodness, instead of seeing God’s heart for justice, his perfect timing, his goodness and grace.
Colorbraveness is centering the stories of people of color (and other minorities) and inviting majority culture folks to re-orient themselves to a truly universal experience. Colorbraveness is when a child points out and rejoices that her skin is a very different color than her friend’s skin, when a coworker uplifts the voice and accomplishments of his colleague, when black and brown folks can be authentic to the ways in which their beauty and joy comes in the context of certain cultures and experiences.
Truly Biblical colorbraveness means following the multiethnic brown savior to see and value all skin tones as good, and right, and uniquely beautiful. It means ensuring that black and brown folks can be truly themselves as God has designed them, not because it’s popular or strategic, but simply because it’s how God has always intended his church to be.
Perhaps the bravest thing of all is to admit that we need each other—created in a wide array of diversity—to truly see the image of the living God. Ultimately, our story centers on seeing Jesus, who even now sits on the throne with a holy, perfect, incorruptible, brown multiethnic body. So when we see each other clearly, we know him more.
Sarah Shin, Beyond Colorblind: Redeeming Our Ethnic Journey, InterVarsity Press 2017, 6. ↩