In the last post I explained the origins of how we stumbled into having a “Euro Heritage Month” to go alongside the other 3 big Heritage months at River City.
One of the events the planning team sponsored this month was called “Unashamedly White.” The idea was borne out of the struggle that many sincere and caring Whites confront as they try to grapple with issues of race, class, power, and privilege, and ultimately differentiating shame from responsibility and concern.
There is an elusive balance that White folks have to try and find. On one hand we have to honestly understand and grasp the history of our nation, and embrace that it has always had vestiges of White supremacy. On the other, we have to embrace that God didn’t have an accident when we were created as White people. We need to boldly claim our heritage and allow that to become part of the reconciliation process that God is initiating in this world. We need to be sensitive, thoughtful, learners, and co-sojourners, but we need not be ashamed. Shame is very different than carrying an understanding and responsibility for the past. Shame shuts down the process.
“Unashamedly White” was designed to tell the stories of people who have wrestled with this dilemma and have found some level of peace in both affirming their racial identity and affirming the reality of the history we find ourselves in. All 4 stories were compelling and provoking. One that stood out to me was Melecio Ponce, who most know as Mace. Below is the story he shared with our community of how he has wrestled to understand his racial identity against the much bigger backdrop of the story of God:
My name is Melecio Guadalupe Ponce. I’m half Mexican on my Dad’s side and half white on my mom’s side. I’m not sure what the “white” side is. I’ve asked my mom and she’s not really sure either. I grew up in Peoria which is a few hours south of Chicago. Growing up I was never really concerned about what my white side was. No one ever asked and it was never an issue. I basically considered my self Mexican probably because we hung with my dad’s family more than mom’s. My hood was a mixture of black, white, Mexican and a few Asians. Race was never really an issue because we were all poor. Issues were more about class than race. It was the people who lived in nice houses on top of the hill vs. those of us poor people at the bottom. We felt they looked down on us. I had a racial mix of friends but we were all basically living in the black culture. The music we listened to, break dancing, food we ate, the way we dressed and sports idols were all black. We didn’t try to be black or no one ever accused us of trying to be black, it’s just how we were raised and we were accepted. I felt a sense of pride to be accepted into the black culture. After graduating eighth grade, I spent a week in Mississippi with a friend and I was basically the only non-black person in the town. But people accepted me and I felt comfortable. It reminded me of stories my dad told me about his family growing up in the projects and being one of the only non-black families living there. I felt down!
Right before high school we moved and I went to a small predominantly white high school. At this point I found it necessary to display the fact that I was Mexican. It was really more about not being White than it was about being Mexican. I wanted to distance myself from these middle class well to do white people who I thought looked down on me and were probably racist. Looking back I realize that they were barely better off then we were. They were probably living paycheck to paycheck and barely getting by. They probably only had just a little more than we did. In high school being Mexican and being down with black people gave me a sense of pride in the white school.
It wasn’t until I went to college that my whiteness came into question. So many people wanted to know what my white side was. They couldn’t understand how I couldn’t know. I was really surprised about how much it came up. The people asking were primarily from the Chicago area. Once I moved here years later, I realized why so many of them were asking me. Chicago is so segregated and your racial background is such a huge part of your identity here. At this point I wasn’t necessarily as concerned with distancing myself from being white. I was just trying to be me and feel comfortable in a new environment. I just concentrated on trying to meet people, which wasn’t hard for me to do. I quickly gained many different friends of different races and as a freshman was invited to join both a black and white fraternity. I guess it made me feel good to be wanted and accepted by people and to know that I was still down with black people. Some people used to tell me that I was a black man trapped inside a white man’s body. Again, I wasn’t trying to be something I wasn’t, I was just being me. I decided not to join either and ended up living with a group of 6 white guys all of whom I’m still very close with today. This was both good and bad. Good because it somewhat forced me to embrace my white side but bad because at the same time, it reinforced the hate I felt for white people. Still today, my wife, Breah, tells me that I hate white people. It’s funny because she’s white. A couple things made me feel that way. Both had to do with the assumptions they made about me. The first had to do with money. This made me feel out of place more than hatred. We would want to do different things and I’d say I have no money. They’d respond by saying just tell your parents to put some money in your account. I don’t think you can deposit food stamps! They’d also make derogatory racial comments assuming I felt the same way. It’s actually happened my entire life, still today, because I look white, people just assume. At the same time, these were all good guys and good friends and they’d do anything for me and for their black friends. They just had these different views about race that I could not understand. But it reinforced my theory that middle class white people as a whole were racist.
After college I moved to Chicago and continued to live with some of those guys. I gained many other friends as well but 99% were white. After some years I started to feel guilty that I was no longer gaining many black friends. I met a few through work, and still had contact with my old friends but found it hard to meet people of other races in Chicago because it’s so segregated. In a sense, I started feeling like a sell out. It’s a weird feeling to be white and feel like a sell out for hanging out with only white people. Craziness! I essentially became white. Hung out with white people at white places and did white things. I felt a little uncomfortable and disconnected from my roots. I thought about trying to be more intentional about finding black friends but that just didn’t feel right to me. My relationships have always developed organically. I didn’t want to force anything. I have such a wide range (in terms of race, background, class) of friends for that reason.
It was 2004 when I starting seeking God and 2005 when I started believing and accepted Christ as my Savior. During this time, as I was visiting different churches, I realized churches were also segregated and felt really uncomfortable at the all white churches I visited. I felt as though I would be able to connect with people there because they were not like me. They were too white. In reality I was unfairly judging them. I liked the message but felt as the though the community did not represent was God’s Kingdom was supposed to be in terms of racial diversity. I eventually found Armitage Baptist which is much like River City in terms of diversity and felt comfortable. After a couple years there, I started coming to River City. Once I was here for awhile I realized that God truly did call me to this church. The mission of what we are seeking is so important. Not only did I need to be in a place that emphasized reconciliation with God and with other races and cultures, I was put here to reconcile my own racial identity within myself. This hit home a couple years ago when Pastor Daniel preached one the most important and meaningful messages of my life. He was talking about how many of us are so proud of our racial heritage because it gives us a sense of identity. Brandon also talked about finding our identity last week. We want to know who we are and where we fit in so we wear our race as a badge of pride because it defines us. However, consciously for some and unconsciously for others, our racial pride also gives us a sense or superiority over others and makes us feel better about ourselves. But as a Christian, our identity should be rooted in Christ first, not in your race. Our race is not the primary definition of us. It’s important and is a part of who we are. But it’s secondary to being a child of Christ. After hearing this I realized that my racial background and if I was Mexican, white or down with black people didn’t really matter. I was created by and I’m loved by God. That’s who I am! Beyond that, I thought, why should I be so proud to be an American? I had nothing to do with the fact that I was born in this country. God placed me here. Why should I be so proud of something I had absolutely nothing to do with? Where I was born and where I have citizenship is just a temporary stop before my eternal resting place with my Savoir!! And is someone who was born in another country any different than me? Should I be more proud than him or her? We’re all God’s children!! I’m not saying that our race, culture and experiences are not important. They definitely do define us and we should seek to understand other cultures. It’s important to do so. However, keep perspective of who you are first. Before I’m Mexican/White, I’m a Christian! That’s why I feel a church like River City is so important in this world. It teaches both!
To sum up where how I feel today and to paint a picture of how my experiences and God have shaped me, I’ll use the words of someone else. My nephew, Emiliano, was applying for colleges a year or so ago. As part of one of the applications, he had to write a paper about someone who influenced him. He wrote about me. We have always been close, but I never knew he felt this way about me or that I displayed myself this way.
By all appearances my uncle is a White male, who lives with his White wife and White baby in a Chicago Suburb. He is a likeable guy who worships God, loves his family and holds a deep affection for his mostly White friends. Just talk with him and you’ll find that he is half Mexican and half White. (He is “Mexican light”, while my father is the darker version of the family tree). He lives in a predominantly Black neighborhood and attends a multi racial church. It is his genuine roots to his past that continue to call him home to the familiarity of the “hood” and that make him one of the most influential people in my life. When one of my high school teachers said the word “nigger” in class, everyone expected my Black mother to be outraged. Surprisingly enough, she was the voice of reason. My Mexican father was the voice of anger and my “White” uncle was the voice of the people. He was able to articulate what my mother could not. If she said it, it was because she’s Black. If my father said it, it was because he’s married to a Black. But if my White uncle said it, it was because it was right. “It” is that my teacher never would have allowed the word to escape her mouth if another adult, no matter the race, had been present. My uncle can say that the word is never appropriate and the world is okay with that. Had my mother or father spoke to its inappropriateness, they would have been accused of having hurt feelings and making it a racial issue because they are “colored”. We all instinctively know that it’s wrong to say “nigger”, but we don’t voice it. I am constantly in awe of my uncle, a man who “made it” in the White world and could very easily live life without drawing attention to his ethnic consciousness. But instead he chooses to do the civil thing. I admire that trait in him. It is never about his Black sister-in-law or the Black neighborhood that he grew up in or the Black nephew that he has. In talking with him, you’d never know that he has any of those things. It is always about the right thing. I know that our past can shape our future but he and my dad came from the same past and their lives are in no way a reflection of each other. My Uncle is White and living in the Black hood. My father is Mexican and living in a white suburb. Neither man is trying to define themselves by their racial makeup. They know who they are. What gives my uncle the competitive edge, so to speak, is that he doesn’t look anything like me, yet he stands up for people who look just like me. It’s because of people like him that my world is better today. And it’s his influence on me that will help make it a better tomorrow.