Life As A Cultural Chameleon: Being Passionately Black In A Multicultural World

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I’m black. Let’s start with this base statement.

Merriam-Webster defines black as “of or relating to a race of people who have dark skin and who come originally from Africa.”

I have dark brown skin and my ancestors were brought (they didn’t volitionally come) from Africa. I’m black.

Being black isn’t something that I do. It’s not heightened or lessened by what I wear. It is not affirmed or negated by how I speak. It cannot be validated or disputed by my personal interests, hobbies, or abilities. It is evident in my skin and my ancestral line. It is rooted deeply in the shared experiences of those who’ve gone before me. It is a collective memory that causes delight yet terrorizes my soul. Being a black person is in skin, but that gruesome voyage from Africa to the Americas and the hundreds of years in between is what has shaped “black” in America. After hundreds of years of shared experiences across plantations and estates throughout America, blackness has formed. I am a part of that. “I am the dream and hope of a slave”. I am black.

I have to start with that because some people seem to forget who I am. Some people have uttered those foolish words of “You’re not really black” or “You’re the whitest black guy I’ve ever met”. They let the Chacos fool them. They’re confused because of the shorts above my knee. They’re baffled by my lack of knowledge of hip-hop and my nonexistent skill in basketball. They see the different colors of the people who are closest to me in my life and they think that my awareness is lessened. They hear me speak, and the lack of slang startles them. They hear about my life and they think the lack of “struggle” is a clear disproval of my blackness. “People have turned ethnicity into a verb”, as Antoine Mack once told me. But you see, I recognize that blackness is in my skin and in the collective memory and awareness that I am a part of. I cannot rid myself of it and I would never want to. It goes deeper than cultural norms. It’s a consciousness that transcends what I wear, a reality that surpasses the way I speak. I carry the image of God in my blackness just as His image is carried in every ethnic group in different ways.

Yes, God cares about all ethnic groups in particular as we all carry his image. This is seen in the story of Esther when she goes before the king on behalf of the Jews who Haman was trying to kill because Mordecai, Esther’s cousin, threatened his ego. She was selected to be queen and as she entered leadership in this non-Jewish kingdom, she was in a different place than others of her ethnicity. When Mordecai told her about the plan and how she needed to do something she was scared because you could be killed if you went before the king without being summoned. But Mordecai’s words have been oh so powerful to me in these days. Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews.” Even if there‘d been some loophole for her to not be killed, she still wouldn’t have been able to escape because the killing of family and friends would have tormented her. Her corporate association with the Jewish people is what propelled her to act though surrounded by another ethnicity in a position where she could have distanced herself.

And here lies the tension of my life. I am surrounded by Korean, White, and Hispanic people and I could choose to try and distance myself from the problems that plague black people in this country. But it is the corporate association that draws me in. It is the corporate sharing of God’s image in blackness that is beautiful to me. It is the realization that it was God-led people who led Underground Railroad escapes, slave rebellions and revolts, and the Civil Rights Movement. It is God who fueled his servants to deal with the pain inflicted upon black people in America. It is this God who reveals Himself through the black experience that I am a stakeholder in.

People forget that I love being black and my love for it is fueled by the Spirit of God. I have deep theological convictions about what it means to be black. We see in the black experience how God suffers with His people, redeems His people, liberates His people, and empowers His people. The list could go on and on, but, many times, people want to cut the list and conversation about my blackness short because it makes things too complicated. It’s easy to talk with me when I’m talking about camping, hiking, biking, Friends, travel, food, etc. But people must remember that though outwardly I have the skill to be a cultural chameleon, at the end of the day my true color is black. It’s in my skin and my shared experience and history. I’m sure Haman thought Esther was cool when she invited him over for a party, but was thrown off when he realized that though she naturally functioned in another setting, she was still a Jew.

So, I especially get angry about murders of black people because I am connected to the black experience in America. Each murder is a reminder of the racist storyline that we are continuing as time progresses. There is no end to this timeline, but oh how I long for the day when there will be.

Sandra Bland. Samuel Dubose. Tamir Rice. Eric Garner Michael Brown. Tanisha Anderson. Emmitt Till. Medgar Evers. The list could sadly go on and on and on. The list will never hold the names of the black people killed and not documented on top of the 4,000 known lynchings from our sordid past.

No one told Esther that all lives in Persia mattered. Esther saw that Jewish life was in danger and she was willing to die to protect her people. Her connection to her people fueled her efforts to save them though she was in a completely different life situation as queen.

Youth without direction who find solace in gangs will kill others. My heart is broken that the system is so terribly flawed that these cycles continue, but my understanding of broken family systems and why “hoods” even exist, gives me compassion and drives my work to positively influence black youth as I point them to God.

Police with adequate training should not feel so threatened to the point where they need to kill unarmed people. My heart is broken that the system is so terribly flawed that these cycles continue, but my understanding of systemic racism and shared memory drives my anger when black people are unjustly killed by police officers who are supposed to be trained to use deadly weapons appropriately.

Comparing police violence to youth violence is like comparing apples and charcoal.

We are working. We are on the ground, but decades of bad cycles takes hard work to change, especially when systems are still opposed to the people that we work with.

If you are Christian reading this, I give you the same type warning that Mordecai gave Esther. Don’t think that just because you’re in a different place in life, these issues don’t affect you. We are all one body. There are churches fighting for change in these neighborhoods where youth violence happens. Some of those that have been killed were faithful brothers and sisters in the faith. The most vivid example is that of Mother Emanuel AME where 9 of our brothers and sisters in the family of God were killed in a house of God. The black church exists because the church in America would not rise above cultural racism and be a unified body. How do we move forward in a manner that reflects what the body of Christ should be – multicultural, loving, and opposing to the parts of culture that are oh so wrong? How do we become so one with each other that injustice to a group of us in the body feels like a personal offense?

We build relationships. We get to know one another. You look at your life and ask, “What misconceptions do I have about [insert ethnicity]?” Get to know people from different backgrounds. I have had disagreements and arguments about race with many of my close friends, black and non-black. Now, my relationships with these people are better because of those disagreements that were talked through.

The cancer of racism has plagued the internal organ known as the black church, which has been so vital to the life of the body of Christ in America. Yet we continue to ignore it. We continue to forget that this cancer spreads throughout Christ’s body. We need The Great Physician to heal us, yet we continue to ignore our disease.

My name is John Caleb Pendleton. I’m black and I’m thankful.

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