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Talking About Race with Teens

Quick link: Lessons about Tolerance from the only white kid on this high school step team

I had the enormous privilege of interviewing my nephew via Skype a few months ago to talk about his step competition team, race, and privilege. I had a lot to learn and this teen spoke articulately and humbly about the issues he and his generation face and what they can and are doing about it. Of course I’m slightly biased, but I think he’s a great kid and I absolutely love the vision and community of his HYPE team and leader, William Joyner.

My sister’s family has been folded into this community in real, authentic, and racially-reconciling ways and the story of these kids doing what they love, together, is so important and ever more relevant.

While I wouldn’t have chosen the word “Tolerance” to be in this title, I’m really happy with how this piece has been received by the HYPE community. Tolerance would imply that these young men sort of reluctantly put up with each other. That is not the case at all, these guys love each other and support each other. Some of them have walked through fire together and with their families and their relationships move far deeper than mere tolerance. But…such goes editing. Look beyond that and enjoy a piece of good news from the generation that will change our nation for the better.

Check out the HYPE Facebook page to read what they are saying about the interview and to see some photos and some videos of these talented kids.

White Chocolate and RaceAt a high school assembly in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, the HYPE step crew prepares to perform. They’ve performed for packed crowds before — on America’s Got Talent, at Walt Disney World, and in dozens of competitions. But today’s performance is especially nerve-wracking for one member.

The student body settles in to watch. They are 96% non-white and all eyes seem to be glued to the only white team member. Performing is always a rush, but today, in front of his peers, my nephew Emmaus doesn’t want to miss a single beat.

The dance begins. The boys stomp and clap and tumble and flip through the air in an intense and relentless rhythm. Within seconds, the students are on their feet, cheering. They focus on Emmaus and at the end of the performance — when the team points him out and calls him their nickname, “White Chocolate” — the students go nuts shouting and clapping for their classmate…


Click here to read the rest: Lessons about Tolerance from the only white kid on this high school step team


Pondering Privilege, a Book Review

Jody Fernando has written a beautiful, practical, and challenging book: Pondering Privilege: Toward a deeper understanding of whiteness, race, and faith.

Jody blogs at Between Worlds and if any Djibouti Jones readers have read When Rich Westerners Don’t Know They’re Being Rich Westerners, know that that blog post was inspired by Jody’s superb post When White People Don’t Know They’re Being White. That’s how I first met Jody, three years ago now and I continue to be challenged and inspired by her writing.

Pondering Privilege takes what Jody started with that viral post and deepens it. As a white woman in a brown family, her perspective is uniquely helpful to someone like me – a white woman in a white family, living in a brown country.

The book could be a quick read but Jody raises such important issues and asks such challenging questions that it is a book one could sit with for weeks. It will make readers uncomfortable and this is a good thing – anyone who wants to grow in their ability to communicate about race, to understand, to seek forgiveness, and to deepen community and move toward healing, should read this book.

Jody takes concepts like ‘cultural competency’ and replaces them with ‘cultural humility,’ examines privilege, and calls out white people for our ignorant ways of thinking and acting as well as addressing the issue of entire systems of privilege. She will not let us sit in complacency.

Each chapter ends with questions to ponder, which makes this an excellent book club choice for people who are ready and willing to wrestle, to be brutally honest with themselves and others, and who want to grow.

For me, the best part of Jody’s book is the utterly practical but radically transformative 21-Day Race Challenge. This alone makes buying the book well worth it because, if you take her up on the challenge, you will be changed. This isn’t a book to read and put away on the shelf, it is a book that can, if you let it, seep into your life and actually change things for the better.

*I received an ARC (advanced reader copy) of this book for review.

What Ta-Nehisi Coates Taught Me About Privilege and Revenge

Quick link: Revenge and Privilege

Revenge and Privilege

I had a confusing conversation with a language tutor about four years ago. I understood all the words but I was completely missing something cultural in what she was explaining to me. I’ve thought about the conversation off and on and finally understood it one day when I was listening to an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Everything clicked into place and I was filled with shame at my failure to see what I had been missing.

Coates is the author of several stunning articles and, most recently, the book Between the World and Me, which I highly recommend.

Here’s an excerpt from my essay, at Brain Child:

My Somali language lesson one day ended with my tutor telling me a story about her twelve-year old daughter, Kadra, at school.

The previous week another student stole Kadra’s red pen and wouldn’t give it back. Kadra got angry about it and after class they got into a yelling match. The yelling quickly devolved into physical fighting and the other student scratched Kadra’s face until it bled and bit her ear, hard. Kadra got revenge for the ear – she bit the other girl’s breast during their tussle. But at home that evening, my tutor told Kadra to go back the next day and scratch the girl’s face.

Biting the breast had been a good idea but Kadra needed to get revenge for the scratches, hers were just now scabbing over, as well.

Kadra followed her mother’s advice the following morning and scratched the girl with all five fingernails. That afternoon the girl and her mother came to Kadra’s house to apologize for stealing the pen and purchased her a new one.

I was shocked…

Click here to read the rest of Revenge and Privilege

What Do You Call a Person Who Doesn’t Fit Neat Categories?

I stopped at a red light and kids swarmed my car. It is the cool season in Djibouti so my window was down and the kids thrust their hands through the window and asked for water. Several of them stood on any ledge they could find on the car.

They were speaking broken, thickly accented French.

“I don’t have any water,” I said, in Somali. Then I started asking them their names.

The kids started laughing. “You’re speaking Somali!” a couple shouted.

“Are you Somali?” one little girl asked.

“No,” I said.

“But you’re speaking Somali, so you must be.” She asked me again,” Are you Somali?”

“Yes,” I said and laughed.

“But you aren’t black,” she said. “You’re red.”

An argument ensued among the kids. Some argued that I was Somali, others that I was Chinese, and others just didn’t know what I could possibly be. Finally, they came to a group conclusion.

“You’re galo,” the girl said. Gal is the Somali word for ‘infidel’ and it can also be used to identify anyone who is not Somali.

“I’m not galo,” I said. “I have a religion and I fear God.”

Now they were stumped.

“What do we call a red person (white – another kid shouted from the other side of the street) who fears God?” the girl asked.

At that point the light turned green and all the cars behind me started honking so I had to drive on, leaving them to ponder this conundrum.

what are you1

What do you call a person who doesn’t fit into the categories you have known all your life and constructed in order to cram people inside them?

I’m more peachy with brown moles and some freckles than red or white. I’m not Somali. I’m not Chinese. I’m not an infidel. I’m not Muslim but I cover my hair sometimes and I say “insha Allah” and “Alhumdillalah” and fast and pray. I’m not the kind of Christian I’ve heard people here describe – the kind who gets drunk on Easter and who thinks Santa Claus is Jesus.

I am American, that’s a label I can claim because of my birth certificate and passport. I’m also a mother, there are three clear evidences of this fact. I’m a wife, there is also legal evidence of this.

But you might not know these things about me the first time we meet. In order to find out about me, you would have to ask questions, be curious, initiate conversation. You would have to lay aside assumptions and engage. This goes the same for me and these kids.

When I see street kids spot my car and descend in swarms of outstretched hands, I could make lots of assumptions. I could lump them into that category I just wrote: street kids, with all the attending prejudices. Or I can ask them their names, tease them about their sticky faces, ask them where they keep their family goats, and generally get them laughing. In those brief moments before the light turns green, I can treat them like the individuals with names and unique personalities that they are.

They aren’t objects to label and slip into categories. And neither am I. So before making assumptions or jumping to conclusions, let’s talk.

By |January 25th, 2016|Categories: Expat Thoughts, Faith|Tags: , , |5 Comments

Expatriate, Immigrant, Racist?

I’ve always assumed I’m an expatriate (please, let’s be clear that this is not an ex-patriot. please). Lately, this has come into question. Quite a few people have forwarded, shared on Facebook, or tweeted to me an article picked up by The Guardian: Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? One person left a comment on my last piece for Brain Child (The Expatriate at the Parent Teacher Association Meeting). She said she wondered why I thought I was an expatriate. She seemed to think I was wrong to use that word.

expat or immigrant

I confess that I hadn’t given this much thought. Is my use of the word ‘expatriate’ racist? Have white people appropriated the word and are non-white people limited in their ability to claim it? As it came to my attention more and more I decided it was time to think about it. There are two levels (at least) to this. One is the dictionary definition level. The other is the experiential level.

So, I looked up the official dictionary definitions and found this at the Global Coach Center:

According to Miriam-Webster:

  • the word “Expatriate” is actually a verb or an adjective and means someone “living in a foreign land”.
  • the word “Immigrant” is a noun and means “a person who comes to a country to take permanent residence”.

If we go only by these definitions above, I see one major distinction that sets them apart.  Immigrants have an intention to stay – whereas for the expatriates this intention isn’t mentioned and isn’t clear.

Turns out immigrants can be expatriates but expatriates are not necessarily immigrants. According to Google an expat is someone living outside their native country. An immigrant is someone permanently residing outside their native country.

This idea of permanence is significant both in how it relates to the new country and the old country. An expatriate tends to engage less in the host country and maintains a stronger tie to the old country. An immigrant might feel a greater sense of loss toward the old country and also a greater sense of responsibility and intention in engaging in the host country. Kind of like renting versus owning. An expat is a renter, an immigrant is an owner.

By definition then, I am an expatriate. I don’t intend to stay in Djibouti for my entire life and since that is very clear, I can’t claim the immigrant term.

Now, that is in the dictionary. Frankly, I was at first surprised at the fury with which the article is written. It kind of seems like a rant and I’ve heard at least one person refer to it as total bullshit. I’m still willing to address the issue because I think it brings up something really important and complicated. But I was surprised because I looked at my experience:

My first thoughts took me to the most diverse place I know well – the protestant church I attend here in Djibouti. There are people from Uganda, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Kenya, Congo, Nigeria, Burundi, America, England, Switzerland, Korea, France, Germany… I think of us as expatriates. Some have lived here for decades, some for weeks. Myself, I’ve passed the decade point. I never thought of any of the others, regardless of skin color or economic or social class, as immigrants. We are here for work and we are expatriates.

Because none of us intends to stay forever.

We might stay here a long time. We might even die here, though that isn’t our intention. But we maintain residency and passport and voting rights and tax-paying responsibilities, etc. in our home countries which are not this one. To me, that is an expatriate. We’re here but we’re also slightly not here. We’re renters.

An immigrant is someone who comes, possibly against their will or preference, like a refugee, and goes all in. They will stay in this new country. They might go back but that isn’t in the plan as far as they know it. They invest in a different way, a more personal way, weaving themselves into the fabric of the new country and letting it weave itself into them. They are owners.

I had never considered that skin color or country of origin had anything to do with what we call ourselves.  There are white immigrants in Djibouti. There are black expatriates.

But that is just my experience and I’m learning that in different parts of the world, this is very different. I was helped by Hana Omar who commented on my FB page that in Europe there does seem to be a strong class and racial component to which term is used. And that is where this article in the Guardian is coming from – experience, which for the author, clearly included racism and hurtful interactions.

In raising this topic among others, it is clear there are related words that are much more racially charged (the following examples come from the comment thread on my FB page for this Guardian article). Words like migrant worker, which seems to apply exclusively to non-white people even though they are technically expatriates. Or in some places Foreign Domestic Workers who are also technically expatriates but that word isn’t applied to them. In Texas, the guys on the oil rigs are expats but the gas station employee, also in the US on a work visa, isn’t. One person mentioned that this could be because status (and the words used to convey that status) is affected by the terms of employment and his comment stuck with me because these examples turn the focus of the conversation from race to wealth and class, also problematic but not necessarily racist.

But expatriate and immigrant? Both words are beautiful and should be worn with pride by those to whom they belong. Expats are (generally) curious and open and passionate about two worlds. They are bridge people who can take the best of two places and cultures and blend them or use them to sharpen each other. Immigrants are (generally) curious and open and passionate about two worlds. They are also bridge people who can take the best of two places and cultures and blend them or use them to sharpen each other.

But the terms matter, they aren’t conveying the same thing. For example, expatriates have the struggle of doing the splits, of keeping a toe in two countries and the longer they live abroad, the further apart the two countries become, the deeper they must sink into the split. This hurts.  And immigrants have the struggle of grief, they have left behind a place they knew and instinctively understood and are straining to fit into a place that doesn’t inherently recognize them. This also hurts. We have something in common but we are not the same.

What do I conclude? Two things. One, I can confidently say I’m an expatriate. And two, I can’t assume by looking at someone that they are an expatriate or an immigrant. I have to talk to them and hear their story. What?! That’s right, always and ever back to getting to know people. Listening, asking questions, hearing where they came from and where they are going and not jumping to conclusions based on previous experience or expectations or skin color or job title.

So while it is rather easy to simply answer the question based on the dictionary, it is much harder to dive into these areas of race and class and assumption. I stand by my belief that I’m an expatriate and I feel comfortable using it without feeling like doing so labels me racist or elitist but I’m thankful for this conversation. It help me analyze and consider the experiences of others and it challenge me to examine how I make assumptions based on externals.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Expatriate or immigrant? Racist? Elitist?

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