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The "Other" Box
Originally published in Conspire's Fall 2013 magazine (Dee Dee Risher's editing makes me sound way better):
I’ve always checked the “other” box. Forms never seem to have a spot for my racial and ethnic identity: child of Egyptian immigrants, Christian, and evangelical, but not in the normal way. Egypt is diverse, but with the vast majority of the population identifying as Muslim and the small Christian population almost all Coptic Christian, not evangelical, I was never counted. For me the question of identity is rich and complex.
Growing up, it didn’t strike me to ask myself who I was. (No one else in my suburban township did). I believed Paul’s famous “Jew nor Greek” passage (Eph. 3:28), which makes us all one under Christ. I understood Paul asking us to transcend the identity the world places on us and be free to follow Jesus. We are equally gifted; and Jesus can transform us.
Now I understand that we cannot be whole without self-awareness of our racial and cultural identities. Those who think that color blindness is desirable—or even possible—lead us down a false path.
Due to my education and class, I’m often perceived as white. But I don’t have the most important element of being white: white-skin privilege. Most of my life I have been surrounded by “colorblind” Christians who unconsciously reflect the racial environment we are each shaped by. Because of my ability to articulate myself in English, people assume I understand U.S. clichés. (I still struggle with these). I wear a “brown shield” everywhere I go. Brown skin with a beard in an airport of a federal building is bad news. But in the poor, urban community where I live, it makes me a non-story.
I joined an antiracist church committed to reconciliation in Philadelphia. My church community and workplace, Circle of Hope, addresses racism by solving practical problems and fighting for systemic justice. Our two thrift stores employ low-income people and give surplus to families in need. We advocate for the public education system in Philadelphia, which is 85 percent minority. We work to reform the incarceration system and fight gun violence. We lobby the city to return vacant land to low-income, predominantly minority neighborhoods for affordable housing, urban farming, and small business development. In a world where incarceration rates, income inequality, public education funding, and unemployment are clearly stratified along racial lines, every church needs to be actively antiracist.
We often attract people who value ethnic pluralism and are often disappointed to discover that our demographic makeup is more white than they anticipated. I once felt the same. People are drawn for good and bad reasons, and some come to assuage their own guilt around power and privilege. A diverse community will never substitute for our own interior work on identity and race.
Naturally, we relate more easily to people that are like us. (I recently met another Egyptian man who grew up in an evangelical home, and it truly felt like I met a long lost brother.) Yet we all need to be intentional about loving the “other”—the person who is unlike us, who does not share the same ideas, convictions, cultural norms, or interests.
Those who are part of the dominant culture sometimes feel entitled to a diverse community just because they are well-meaning people who are not racist. We sometimes carry that sense of entitlement and expectation to our faith communities, too—we expect it to be diverse for us, without trying to relate diversely. But just because we talk about diversity doesn’t mean we have cross-cultural relationships in our life. It is easier to consume diversity than it is to actually construct it.
We want the right bean count so we can feel better about ourselves. A smattering of nonwhite faces vindicates our skills at building diversity. This only divides us into the modern, imperialistic categories that got us into this mess. I’m often both counted as a person of color, then informed I am not “ethnic” enough.
To expect our communities to look like the United Nations is artificial and drips with entitlement. No matter how badly we want our communities to be diverse in terms of race, class, or age, they will not be unless we each do our own racial work, which is ongoing.
Be committed to diversity in your regular life—the coffee shops you visit, the restaurants you frequent, the books you read, the TV shows you watch, the transit you use. Be intentional in constructing a life that is lived in mixed spaces and be ready to enter groups as a minority, not a majority. Talk about your feelings, sorrow, and difficulty as you do this work. It won’t come naturally, and you will be uncomfortable. Rely on each other, knowing that our commitment to interdependence helps us to be fully ourselves in Christ.
Believe in who Jesus made you to be. Believe in being the beloved, which goes beyond racial categories. Know that the message of Jesus Christ is a revolution that can help nurture selflessness that breeds love and produces real change. Repent and forgive each other endlessly.
We will mess up. We will probably inadvertently perpetuate systemic racism. We may tokenize our new friends without realizing it. If we are going to do this miraculous thing, we need to pray, constantly, believing that our commitment to interdependence helps us to be fully ourselves in Christ.