What is your Earliest Memory of Being Aware of Your "Race"? - Radical

What is your Earliest Memory of Being Aware of Your “Race”?

How should Christians think about race? What role can and should it play in a person’s identity? In this conversation, Pastor David Platt and his team describe their earliest recollections of their race and distinguish this from their God-given identity. Even though race is a common classification in the present day, we learn that it is largely man-made and based on physical characteristics. Instead of assigning value to people based on their race, we can celebrate the value of all humans because of their God-given identity. Pastor Platt and his team help us to have a better conversation about racial identity, acknowledging the reality of its classifications but striving towards a more comprehensive and biblical identity.

  1. The Definition of Race
  2. Mankind’s Categorization of Race
  3. Stories of Recognizing Race

Why don’t we dive in along those lines, Mike, just when we think about race, how do we think about that?

I want to ask you guys a question, but let me set up the question a little bit because some people watching or listening may not necessarily be as familiar with race in our country. Nationality is the country that you’re from, or at least that you consider home. Ethnicity is a group of people that share a common language, history, and culture. So you can have many different ethnic groups within one nation, so for example, different tribes in Nigeria or over 2,000 people groups in India. But then race is a way of classifying people and then assigning value to people based on physical characteristics.

How the System of Race was Created in the U.S.

Here in the U.S., that system of race was created based on the physical characteristic of skin color, and it wasn’t like that originally necessarily. Later European immigrants that came to North America, like people from South and Eastern Europe, they weren’t originally considered white. In fact, they were discriminated against and weren’t seen as equal with other Europeans from England and other places.

Over time, basically European colonists needed a way to define Africans as subhuman in order to justify basically using them as property. So that’s kind of where our racial categories come from. Eventually, you have other non-European, Brown-skinned groups who immigrated to the United States, so those racial categories grew to include Asians and Latinos and on and on and on.

I share all of that, and this is an important point, in that system, white is at the top, which was basically defined as human, and Black was at the bottom, which was basically defined as a capital asset, and everybody else kind of fell somewhere in between. Now, the reason I bring all that up is because all these racial categories were made up. They were invented, not talking about our ethnicity or nationality, but specifically talking about our, quote/unquote, race. So we all have different experiences learning about and finding our place within that racial system.

Earliest Memory of Being Aware of Your Race

Here’s the question. That was a long set up, but important for the question. What is your earliest memory of being aware of your race as defined in American society? Part of the reason I ask that is because a lot of times when I talk to later immigrant groups, James, you kind of talked about first or second or 1.5, later immigrant groups come in, and they’re just thrown into the mix. You know what I mean? So we all have a story about first realizing what racial group people assigned us to. So what’s your earliest memory of realizing that?

I’ll jump in there. I think when it first hit me was about age five. My grandfather was a pastor of an all-African American church and the kindergarten I went to, I definitely stood out, and also in where my grandpa lived. So I think at that age is when I realized I was white. Until then, I don’t think it ever came up. It was kind of a cool way to grow up also and just be immersed and to be different. So that’s what I remembered, it was age five.

I believe, mine was in elementary school as well. My grandmother and great-grandfather, they spoke our native tongue, but they wouldn’t teach us our Choctaw language because they wanted us to learn English. My parents could understand the Choctaw language, but they didn’t teach us Choctaw. I went to mostly an all-white elementary school.

There were times where they would pull us out to go to a special class, and we would learn how to do Native crafts. I didn’t really understand what was going on. I just know we felt like we got a little special attention, got to go make something fun, then we jumped back into class and go on. It was, I guess, elementary school that I understood that I was really different than anyone, than most people at my school.

Growing Up in the 1970s

For me, growing up in the US in the 1970s, my father was a white American and my mom is from Mexico, but I was not aware of that designated ethnic group. However, when I married Gustavo, who is from Mexico, and we started visiting Latino communities, and I changed my name, my last name, that’s when I started to notice that people began to treat me different. So it was quite late into my life.

For me, until I came to United States, it was very confusing and even I have lived here for many years. So it was very confusing why they’re asking me these things. Initially, honestly, I thought they were asking me my immigration status. They were asking me other kinds of questions. I just couldn’t understand. Because when I grew up, I used to read books. I used to read books of Black people, different stories, it didn’t make any difference to me. So when I came in, all those questions, I just couldn’t understand.

I remember, I think, as early as second or third grade, a classmate who was white just very plainly asking me, “Hey, don’t you wish you were white?” I think it was then that I didn’t just realize, or I no longer looked around the classroom and just saw colors, but I understood that there were some colors that were deemed better than. That was as early as second or third grade.

I think for myself, I became aware of my race early in life, and that was by my parents. My parents wanted me to know not only was I Black and how people perceived that, but they also wanted me to know that my skin color and the texture of my hair was beautiful in their eyes and also beautiful in the eyes of God.

Because they knew that during that time, maybe not explicitly, maybe during the ’80s and ’90s, people weren’t coming up to me and doing explicitly racist things, but she just knew we lived in a world in which all the advertisements and all the movies and all the hero statuses were fair-skinned people. So if she didn’t jump ahead of that and assign value to my skin color and my hair texture, the world would do it for me. So she saw that as being a responsible thing to do, and I’d agree with that.

Remembering Being First Called Black

I’ll jump in there because my story is similar to Eric and Janique, being Black. I vividly remember, I don’t know why I remember this conversation happening in the bathroom, but I just remember my mom mentioning that I was Black or that we were Black or something, and I was like, “No.” I was debating her. I was like, “No, I’m Brown. What are you talking about?” and her having to explain it.

She had to explain it for the same reason you mentioned, Eric, so that there would be a sense of healthy pride or a healthy sense of, “Hey, Black is beautiful and valuable,” but also as a young Black man at the time, boy, she really began to try to help me understand, her and my father, the implications and maybe even consequences of being, quote/unquote, Black in the United States. I vividly remember that conversation. And my wife will tell you, I don’t remember nothing. I hardly remember my kids’ names.

I can [inaudible 00:09:26]. Similarly, I was in elementary school. Where I grew up, and most of where Mike’s spent his childhood too, we lived in an area that was predominantly African American. Maybe not, I don’t know. It just seemed like there were Black people everywhere. I went to a predominantly Black church, school. It wasn’t until my parents moved me to a different school, so I went to a school and they put me in a TAG program. That was the first time I was one Black kid in a room of 20 or so mostly white kids.

I just remember a kid in the class, a boy. I don’t remember the context of it. I just remember him calling me a dumb Black b-word, and that was the first time someone else had told me I was Black. I think that kind of just helped me be like, “Oh.” I knew about Black people, but I didn’t know there was something wrong with it, that you would attach that word to something degrading. Does that make sense?

When I first moved to the States at age of 11, fifth grade in elementary school, I think, that’s when I heard the racial slurs for the first time. Not knowing any English, but I knew that I was being made fun of. So that made me deeply aware of my race for the first time.

Singled Out As Asian

For me, it’s similar. I think I was nine years old. My earliest memory was when I was singled out as an Asian kid when I lived in DR and El Salvador prior to coming to the US, so all my childhood experiences there was filled with racial slurs and out-casted. I had to eat lunch alone. So ever since I moved to the US, I purposely immersed myself in an Asian American bubble back in California. All high school friends, college friends, and even our home church members were Asian Americans. I knew that I chose these circles of friends because I felt the most comfortable there and validated there and safe. So that’s my experience.

For me, I have to be honest, a lot of this sounds foreign to me. I grew up on a Marine Corps base for many of the first years of my life. The military, Todd knows, is pretty diverse place. Also, my grandmother, she passed away a couple years ago, but she was a full-blood Filipino from the island Negros, and our family really celebrates that part of our heritage. We all know how to cook the food, and I’d go on and on about her really interesting history. So there was a long time where, honestly, it didn’t really come up in my family. We were exposed to diversity. Our grandmother, who we were very close to, was diverse.

But there wasn’t a lot of emphasis that there were problems here surrounding the differences in human beings in America until my dad got out of the Marine Corps, and I started being exposed to different areas in southwestern Virginia and things like that. Then people started asking me, “What are you?” because I’m white, but my dad, he looks more Filipino than I do. He had a lot of derogatory nicknames in the Marine Corps, too, but it was mostly joking. For whatever reason at that time, it was just kind of accepted, or it was kind of classified as just general bullying, not racism. You were just taught to push back against the bully.

But not a lot of conversation around race until people started asking me probably around middle school what am I. Then I started thinking either they were just… I would say Filipino, and they’d say, “Where’s that?” But I can honestly say that I didn’t have a lot of derogatory terms. I wasn’t picked on a lot for it. When I started realizing that other people were picked on significantly for it, I had to learn and grow through that and try to understand why. That’s been a lifetime of a journey. You want to say anything?

Growing Up in a Non-Diverse Community

I thought really long and hard about how to answer this question. I don’t know that there was a moment that I had a realization that I was white. I grew up in a fairly non-diverse community. I went to church and my church had a school, and that’s where I spent pretty much every day of my life. It was a predominantly white church. I remember the first Black schoolmate that I had, and they were the only Black student in the class. I remember, “Oh, that’s our Black friend,” but I never attributed, “Oh, well, then that means that I’m white.” So I don’t really know how to answer that because I never had a realization of an assignment to myself, if that makes any sense at all.

I think it makes a lot of sense, Jess. I was thinking a pretty similar thing in my own life. Heather, you mentioned or we were talking about it, when did you first realize?

I was a little older. It was my eighth grade year, and all my friends were moving away, because we started high school in eighth grade. A lot of my friends started moving away because we were the first year where they started the Minority-to-Majority program. They took kids from one part of the county and bused students from one part to the other part. I was really confused. Like, “Why were all my friends moving away?” because we were going to high school, and I was really excited about this new experience.

It took me a really long time to figure out, and my parents never really gave me a good answer either. I just remember thinking, I never really got a good explanation, but it was because the high school was becoming extremely diverse with just students really of all different races. It was really interesting to see how different families that we were a part of reacted to it. So I did kind of grow up in, for high school, a pretty diverse school. I thought that that was the way high schools were. So it was just interesting.

God’s Grace

Really, I feel like, by God’s grace, there wasn’t a ton of tension, but I think I was honestly pretty ignorant. I feel like I didn’t necessarily pick up on all the tension and understand all the tension that was there, but I had a really great experience in high school in a diverse environment. But now that I’m older and I’m having more conversations and I’m more aware of everything, I realize, wow, I really didn’t understand everything that was going on around me. I wish that, even at that age, I had been more aware and not so ignorant.

I think that’s the best word to describe me is just ignorant. I grew up and lived, I have lived most of my life in a pretty white bubble, and just not even stopping to think about why that is or what is unhelpful or unhealthy about that. That’s what’s so humbling just even having this conversation.

David Platt

David Platt serves as a pastor in metro Washington, D.C. He is the founder of Radical.

David received his Ph.D. from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and is the author of Don’t Hold Back, Radical, Follow MeCounter CultureSomething Needs to ChangeBefore You Vote, as well as the multiple volumes of the Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary series.

Along with his wife and children, he lives in the Washington, D.C. metro area.


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