In my Congregation as Learning Community class the other week, we had an exercise in which we were asked to self-identify our ethnic culture and then consider the practices and values our cultures generally hold and how some of those either affirm or go against the Gospel. As a “culturally self-aware” American studies grad, that task wasn’t too difficult for me, but only because I spent almost 3 years asking such questions. I then wondered how some of the high schoolers I work with at church would respond to similar questions.
So, tonight before our youth group started, I was able to talk with 6 young men and 3 young ladies, asking them how they would define their ethnicity/culture/race, and how some aspects of their culture (secular & Christian) either support or go against living the Christian lifestyle. (My second question was very difficult to convey in non-jargony terms! I had to rephrase it several times, and even then, I don’t think everyone got it.)
Only one student was white alone; she called herself “Irish” and shared how she goes “all out” on St. Patrick’s Day, but is more generically “white” the rest of the year—her “Irishness” didn’t define her that much. Another student was “German/Italian/Irish/Salvadorian” and says he has a particular fondness for Korean girls. He goes to Burroughs High School in Burbank, where he said he was in the minority as a “white person” (differentiating himself from Armenians), and contrasted that to Burbank High, where his step-brother goes, which he said was predominately white. He said it felt weird to him when he visited it once for that very reason. Don was “white” and a “little Mexican”; Justin was “Mexican and white” and as a skater kid, said he “feels like crap” when other Mexicans (mainly cholos) call him “white,” but says he himself often “forgets” that he’s Mexican because he sees his crowd and friends as white. Author Robert W. Pazmiño, in his book Latin American Journey, describes this tension: “…new-breed or new-generation Hispanics are looked down on both by Latin Americans for their cultural impurity and by whites for their ethnic ties.” (107)
That tension of living in two cultural worlds was echoed by two biracial (Black and white) females, one who felt segregated against by Black students, and the other (who looks stereotypically white) who said she sometimes feels like she “has to chose sides.” Trey is very light skinned, but said he was “99.9999% Black.” When the students were asked how important their ethnicity was in forming their self-identity, almost all of them said it wasn’t, that they primarily saw themselves as just “people, like everyone else,” though these questions reveal that ethnic-based tensions do arise from time-to-time. Ethnic identification was least important to the predominately white students, who usually had the most difficulty answering my questions, but that wasn’t surprising, since “majority culture” people in almost any society often lack the same type of ethnic self-awareness that minorities do. (Please see my "comment" below)
When I asked the students to try to compare their culture with the Gospel, 80% of the students had a real hard time figuring that out. Kyle, who sees himself as “Mexican and European” pointed out that most Latinos are Catholic, and therefore “religious,” and kind of “reserved,” and that family was very important to them. Sam, who said he is “Black, obviously” (he has very dark skin) gave the strongest voice in support of having a more conscious cultural identity, saying that as a Black man he felt it was important to “step up” by example, instead of “being lazy,” to help “eliminate stereotypes.” He said he sometimes receives criticism from other Blacks who say he is “whitewashed.” In relation to the church, he felt the “Black church” is strong in its Pentecostal-type worship, and that they have that as a gift to offer to the “white church.” He said a cultural problem is that many Blacks “will go and praise the Lord at church and then go and smoke pot with their hommies that same afternoon”; that people often compartmentalize their faith.
A great thing about our youth group is its ethnic diversity and how the students, by-and-large, build friendships across racial and ethnic lines, finding more commonality in their humanity and faith than their culture of origin. Nevertheless, these conversations show there is still work to be done among them in building understanding about these issues, which seem to lie beneath the surface, to help better understand the cultural strengths, weaknesses, and biases we bring to our faith journeys. From a cultural analysis perspective, these students in many ways reflect new types of mestizaje, “mixed” people--the product of multiple cultures, creators of new ethnic identities--and even more so when you add a religion that is life-transforming to the mix.