The only qualification that I have to write about having brown skin is that I have brown skin.
In my lifetime, I have managed to partake of more privilege than I care to admit. In 1998 when 36% of indigenous kids did not complete year 10, I was graduating from University. I may have looked the part, but I was a few laps ahead.
My well-rehearsed answer to the frequently asked question of “Where are you from?” was as simple as, “My mother is English, and my Dad is from a Pacific Island north of Fiji.” This usually satiated the curiosity surrounding my skin tone.
The next question was “How do you say your name?”
When I left home at the age of seventeen, I changed my name to something more palatable. I didn’t want to be “that” different anymore.
I can count the times that I have been racially abused on one hand and for this I am thankful – but because of it, I also feel deep discomfort.
To most, I’m not black enough.
I don’t have an accent; I’m educated, and I’m “not really from here”, so that has often given me a spot on the team, albeit the last sub-in. When I was younger, I was comforted by the feeling that people didn’t see me as different. As I get older though and grow more deeply into this world, my awareness has grown too. The disparity of wealth and privilege is hard to ignore and people not seeing my colour has begun to offend me.
Last week, I found myself at a shopping centre after a day in the office. I was alone and browsing in a clothes store. There were a few customers, but it all seemed pretty quiet when I arrived. The shopkeeper spotted me sifting through the sale rack. He came over to me and began filling me in on what I’d just missed witnessing. A young girl had been trying on some clothes in his store. When she was leaving, he asked her if he could check her bag. She obliged, but moments later came back with her Aunty, who wasn’t happy and began to tell the shop owner so. There must have been some yelling because he described it as “making a scene”.
I listened with care because it seemed really important to him that he shared this story with me, but I was waiting for the next line… because I’d heard it a million times before.
“I’m not racist….but (insert reasons for justifying the search)”
In the past, these moments have made me feel incredibly inadequate and dualistic. The odd derogatory comment or racist joke (but never about me) is often met with my uncomfortable silence or a nervous chuckle to hide the sting. For this, I am not proud.
In the store, I found myself glancing down at my arm, checking myself. Yep. My skin is still the same colour. Here’s someone telling me that I’m not black enough again. Someone seeking assurance that if I nod or don’t say anything at all that they can continue to tell themselves the same lie.
We may joke about the line “some of my best friends are…” but it’s a thing and people use it often if only to shut down the conversation.
The shopkeeper seemed like he was seeking my assurance and waiting for my response.
“The world is certainly a pretty f*cked up place don’t you think?”
He didn’t expect me to say that. The truth is, I didn’t expect me to say that.
I kept going, not sure what was going to come next, “I’m sure that you’re convinced that you had every reason to check that young girl’s bag. Just like her Aunt was convinced that she had every reason to suspect your request was racially motivated. It’s not your fault; it’s not her fault – it’s the broken world we live in. I’m sorry for the both of you”.
In hindsight, it must have seemed a little vague and altogether weird, especially because I just walked out after that. I had nothing else to offer him at that time.
I couldn’t tell him that if he thought about it, we live in a whitewashed world whether we realise it or not. The world where nations have been founded on the idea that some lives don’t matter. Our nation is one of them and because of that history, the price is still being paid. I wanted to explain that it wasn’t him personally. He probably didn’t realise that it was this way and that I believed for some people, the realisation may never come.
I couldn’t tell him that I felt like the world was telling itself lies and then believing them. That simply by saying “I’m not a racist” or responding to #blacklivesmatter with #alllivesmatter – does not strip you of responsibility. Years of privilege and power has done that.
We recognise that being race-blind in times like these in order to disengage from the conversation does more harm than good.
The world is craving unity. Even individuals that engage in violence. Every human heart begs for belonging. Making us all the same will not bring change. Recognising that we are all different and celebrating those differences rather than holding them against each other can bring change. It’s time to understand that an individual’s identity comes with the colour of their skin whether you want to hear it or not. Particularly when your skin colour puts you in the minority. In the ‘different’ category.
In the same way that my interaction with that shop-keeper bemuses me, I am continually confused that racial discrimination and injustice hold so little space, if any at all, in our Christian community and conversation. It is often easier for us to support a child in a far-away, developing country, than it is to address how well we are doing at loving our indigenous brothers and sisters. I know I’m guilty of it.
Why the silence?
There is an intersection between someone else’s story and your listening that creates a moment for empathy to do its best work in you.
For so long, I’ve been silent about my free-pass at being ‘practically white’ when all the while, hoarding my privilege and reducing the “other” to an abstraction. Conveniently adapting scripture to hide my fear of what I didn’t know.
My silence in the face of other people’s injustice brings me to my knees pleading for forgiveness. I’m convinced that now is not the time for a pause in conversation, but like Gandhi suggests, we must speak only if it improves upon the silence.
Justice – the kind that Jesus calls us to – is meant to make you feel uncomfortable. Not for the sake of it, but because it’s so antithetical to the culture in which we swim that it feels awkward. We shouldn’t be afraid of feeling that. Awkward doesn’t equal ‘bad’ and, if change is to come, we’ll need to break our silence and stand up for the silenced.
How that something looks is for us to figure. Start a conversation with God and then with someone else you trust to help you figure out what Jesus wants you to do and then set about doing it together because, since we have such a hope, we are to be bold.