going global

These days, it’s easy to be a “citizen of the world.” Within a minute, I scan storm updates for the Caribbean on Twitter, get an email alert from one of my French advisees, and dig into a burrito from the joint next door as I sit in a dress made in El Salvador. Without breaking a sweat, I participate in a network of nations I may never physically step into. And if I’m feeling extra-cosmopolitan, I can add a filter to my Facebook profile picture to showcase my support for the most recent country facing disaster. I could even send money to them.

Sarcasm aside, this is not to say we are all laissez-faire in the way we approach global issues, but we should acknowledge we have a low bar to jump when it comes to being interconnected with the rest of the world. We simply are and always have been. And when disaster and controversy strikes, it often shakes us enough to start reevaluating our borders. Then we can decide whether to huddle within them or reach out to the people on the other side–or reform the borders altogether.

Borders perplex me because when you really think about it, they are so antithetical to how human identity and living works. We literally have these lines on a map that some powerful people decided would separate where I belong from all that is Foreign. In one sense I get it: as humans, we block information, people into categories to order our understanding of the world. On the other hand, I keep asking: When we live in a country created by and composed of people from the entire globe, what are America’s borders?

In a childhood bookmarked with Melting Pot coloring pages and Diversity Day fairs, I found myself confused by this question of borders when I asked my white classmates about their background, and they answered: “I’m just American.” I never answered with “American” first when asked the same question (which I was–constantly) because I had become conditioned to respond with my racial and ethnic identities first. People were not looking for or expecting me to say I was American first. I wasn’t white, and so it felt like my peers wanted to figure out the foreignness in me before placing me safely in the “American” category.

Even in elementary school, it was made clear to me that despite our professed love for diversity, Americans are selectively global. Not only that, we only seem to embrace our global identity when it either suits our economic interests or preserves our image as a beautifully inclusive and mixed nation.

The increasing use of rhetoric that champions the cause of “Made in America” and “America First” offers striking evidence of this posture. With each new Executive Order, our national gaze draws further inwards as we anxiously survey our borders, afraid that the threats out there have already infiltrated our land and must be purged.

Why? Because there is the American identity (“the” not “an”), the purest notion of what it means to be an American–and the people we fear don’t fit into it.

No one will say outright that “Being American means you’re white and have lived here for 7 generations,” but our history as a country reinforces this definition of American identity as the norm. Newly-instated policies are preceded by other attempts to reconfigure who deserves to count as American, some of the earliest being the Naturalization Act of 1790 (citizenship limited to white persons) and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (which lasted a decade and gave way to other stigmas).

Suggestions to accept more Norwegians over African immigrants provoke deja vu when you remember that white-passing Cuban elites were airlifted to America first during Fidel Castro’s regime while poor brown and black Cubans were over-represented among the “Marielitos” fleeing on homemade boats. (La Lucha for Cuba: Religion and Politics on the Streets of Miami by Miguel de LaToree sheds light on this dynamic). Our country has made it pretty clear in the past what immigrants are undesirable.

Our hyphenated labels also index what we value, separating the “regular” Americans from those who are conspicuous: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, etc. The Unhyphenated become the standard, and their legitimacy as citizens, residents is rarely questioned. Whiteness buys you this buffer: your lack of hyphen projects that you have deep roots in this country, worked hard to earn your place here, and followed the law like an upright model of the American Dream (unless you have a noticeable accent that isn’t posh or sexy–there you’re edging a little too close to being “ethnic”).

Awareness of this standard grows when you examine its inverse: the Hyphenated.  In contrast to American residents deemed White, those classified with hyphenated identities are reflexively set at a distance. They aren’t in our murals of Americana, ploughing fields, building skyscrapers, and dancing under red, white, and blue. Their belonging is not secure, and our well-chronicled efforts to get rid of our undesirables prove it.

We prove it when we criminalize those of Latin American descent even as wring profit from them. We prove it when we reduce Asian immigrants to accents and stereotypes, casting them as foreigners when many have roots here for the same 7 generations as many White Americans. We prove it when we insinuate that Black Americans-some immigrants who moved here and others descended from peoples forcibly brought here-still need to prove themselves worthy and polite enough for their lives to be equally valued and defended. We prove it when we say nothing as our president diminishes the humanity of immigrants and signs order after order shoving out peoples who traveled here as long as decades ago to seek asylum, prosperity, and, ultimately, another home.

In America, we internalize suspicion towards people in the hyphen, people who are visibly non-White. Even if they play by our rules, their loyalty is constantly questioned, their every action representative of a whole population still being assessed as worthy. A Muslim woman wearing a hijab must prove what she isn’t (a terrorist) before proving what she is (an American). And even then, the security of that identity is never assured. If one person in her community missteps, the whole group suffers the fallout. White Americans get to be individuals; everyone else needs to maintain the goodwill towards their people group lest the tides change again.

The kindly image of the Melting Pot is replaced by the series of hurdles to jump over before you can even enter the pot. Then you will be allowed to keep your color, maybe a few trinkets of your culture (because in America we love to collect the exotic things of others), and then make the highly recommended and profitable choice to melt away into AMERICA. Whiteness determines how many ties to the countries outside of American borders you will be allowed to hold onto. Too much and the purity of the pot’s mixture gets diluted.

“But that’s not what America is!” you tell me, and after all, I live in New York City and see the evidence of a very different country teeming with people from all over the world with all their garb, practices, and languages. So if we have these proud beacons of multiculturalism right in the U.S.A., why this concern about policing each others’ American-ness?

Our anxiety remains because America is positioned as a White nation, not a global one.

We are caught in a disturbing paradox when we can declare we care for the poor in Africa, the trafficked in India, the homeless in the Caribbean and Mexico hit by storm after storm and remain conveniently silent when our national leaders tell us our neighbors from those “shithole” places are dangerous. Rather than wrestling with the multiplicity of our national identity, we build walls, deport even once-legal residents, and shun refugees. We are reactive instead of curious about how people come here and deeply ignorant of how America’s historic actions often contribute to migration because of the harm we have caused other nations (the book Harvest of Empire by Juan Gonzalez speaks to the stories connecting Latin America and the US).

This is how we counteract the narrative that America is a pure nation whose heritage must be enshrined in glass: we reject the call to prioritize American self-interests when “just American” is only a synonym for White. White Americans must examine the sense of entitlement that results in the racialized picking and choosing of who can come to our national table. True equity-building will require the humility of those who are racially and/or economically privileged to accept the invitation to the tables of marginalized peoples and collaborate with them.

When this happens, our political actions, even our conversations with friends, begin to rise above the charged rhetoric that splits our country into “conservatives” and “liberals.” We linger in the tension of tougher questions: how to exercise compassion and mercy towards people different from me, how to be faithful in stewarding our country’s resources, how to take ownership of wrongs committed against other nations.

And this question above all: what borders of the heart determine the ones of the soil? If my heart has already decided to shut certain people out, I will not permit them into my house. I will not call them American. I will not call them my sister or brother.

The borders our nation has laid out, however you feel about them, are eclipsed by the borderless love of Christ. This does not negate the need for national security nor the pressing interest for economic stability; instead, Christ’s love positions all other concerns in hierarchy under the commandment to love and delight in our neighbors without preexisting conditions. We begin here, and our vision of our diverse country clarifies and gains durability. We begin here, and our steps forward will dignify each other rather than divide us from each other.

Americans’ selective globality renders us incapable of envisioning a country where cooking jollof rice and arroz con pollo and curry chicken and hot dogs are all deeply and equally American. Not ethnic, not niche–American.  As Moana’s father tells her in the movie: “Our people are not out there–they are right here.”

The world isn’t just out there in the places where people send aid and missionaries. It’s not limited to the places that resource our coffee and bananas and cell phone parts. The world is right here in America, spilling over our borders and reminding us that if we say we are “global citizens,” we must also choose to be accountable to the people our lives touch everyday and share this land with us. 

do it again, do it again

New recipe. New job. New shoes. New movement. New haircut. New leader. New year.

We love beginnings–I love them. There’s a giddiness to that first step, leap, and bound. Possibilities ahead, the disappointments of the past cast behind, and you plan and dream for that dewy, shining land stretched before you, waiting to be conquered.

I remember when I started my first full-time job last fall, how I scrambled out of my blankets before the alarm went off and paced back-and-forth at the train stop, thrilled to begin another day. I tacked sheet after sheet of paper above my desk, scrawling all over them with new ideas to improve school programming, bright blue diagrams and arrows pointing to the results of yet another brainstorming session over lunch.

I remember how those first months took organic shape, how I knew with bone-deep certainty that I was in the right place and the work was a natural fit.

Looking back upon this year, I can see how the months have worn into me like denim taking the sun’s beating, changing color over time. Mistakes made (mine), emails piling, student crises spiking, spreadsheets looming, and more mistakes chafe at the mystique and wonder of a new job until you start having those moments where you need reminding of why you’re there.

It’s easy to fixate on everything that went wrong or was lacking. It seems to be human nature that we inflate our failures and linger in our losses. January 1st appeals to us because it’s our reset button: we get to start over. But how long does that anticipation nurse us before bad news, boredom, or just sheer doneness sets in again?

I don’t want to start 2018 the same way I started 2017–or frankly, the way I start most things. In the past, I would hinge all my hopes on the list of goals I drew up and sailed through the initial days, expecting that everything will be different once the clock struck twelve. Then when things got hard, when I found myself caught in the same routines, I got tired and those dreams collected dust, discarded as winter rolled on.

There are reasons for this weariness. 2017 has been a year where I’ve seen the division of my country sharpen and splinter. It’s been a year of destructive storms and shootings and conversations cut off. It’s been a year of uncertainty and unjust laws. It’s been a year of crying, raging against the same problems. It’s been a year where we all got tired of the daily grind and the daily headlines.

But as I prepare now for 2018, here’s the difference from December 31st, 2016: it’s no longer only about beginnings. 

Yes, the first day of January comes, symbolic and stainless. But for everything else outside the calendar box…it continues. The struggles of the previous year and years are still there, the hurt is still-deep-in there, the living people who matter to us are still there, and the work in our hands is still there. They may have lost their glamour and we may have lost our fire, but that doesn’t mean we stop there and pretend we can start again from a vacuum.

No, we build upon what we had before, and above pursuing the changes we want to see in ourselves and in the world, we pursue Christ first, who orients us to rightly engage all other things of weight. This is persistence: instead of only chasing the attraction of the new we can accomplish, we continue to labor in the soil where God has strategically placed us to bring renewal. 

We invite God to extend our vision and work through us so we not only think of “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy” as Philippians 4:8 invokes, but our daily actions and choices will also testify to all facets of God’s glory.

The words of Christian thinker G.K. Chesterton in his work Orthodoxy come to mind now, words shared with me during a Faith and Work class I took a few months ago:

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

These words resonated powerfully with me when I first heard them, speaking to me in midst of the sleep-deprived doldrums of my work. They refreshed my soul then, and I offer them to you now as a reminder that a year cannot be defined solely by the mountaintop experiences of our greatest successes and milestones, but rather by every single seemingly-mundane moment in the valleys between them. 

It’s hard to move forward and know that even while you work towards the growth and change that is needed, there are many things around you that will remain. There will be emails to address and political reps to call and protest signs to make and meals to cook and friends to pray for and meetings to attend and headlines to grieve and alarms to answer. But I invite us to move boldly through these everydays not with grimness and resignation, but with confidence and compassion, knowing God already goes before us.

We get to choose everyday to work with everything we’ve been given, love with all our God-given capacity, and build slowly towards dreams that cannot be contained within a day, a year. We live and endure along a road to eternity where even our routines are worship to God.

I take ownership of what has been laid in my hands and the burdens laid on my heart. I confess my passivity, my pride, and my fear that prevent me from taking a stand and trusting God to sustain me through the struggles and hard work to come. I confess this and lay it before God-knowing I’ll be tested in these areas again and again-with this declaration: I am not a static character in a stale book. No, I am changing and learning as I endure the long race, mirroring my Savior who endured the cross to scorn its shame and bring freedom. So I’ll wake up and go to work and write about racism and check in on my friends and pay bills and plan events and thank God for it all.

I realize now that I didn’t write as much this year, and while I could feel guilty about that, I won’t fixate on things not done. A new year comes, and with faith, with hope, I will keep going. For me, exercising persistence will involve everyday choices to pray, research, and write. I will continue as a scholar, servant and advocate, acknowledging that the capacity for blessing others through these roles is only fully realized when I pursue Christ first.

Persistence fueled by divine hope shatters unjust strongholds and welds communities together where there was once estrangement and ignorance. It illuminates, clarifies, and clears a way for a world still waiting, still yearning to unfold.

Wake up tomorrow and do it again. Do it again, do it again, and watch the world change with you.

Thanks for reading, commenting, and reflecting with me in 2017. I hope alongside you for the new year, and I look forward to continuing together. 

being ethnic: part II

Read part I here

In middle school, there was this expensive Japanese procedure that promised to straighten your hair–permanently. It was trending among some of the girls in my class, and I remember when the girl who sat next to me in Social Studies had it done. Her hair flipped over her shoulder, glossy and gleaming and smooth in a streamlined shape. I started to fantasize about my hair looking the same way, liberated from the frustrated tangle of curls that got too frizzy in the humidity and were just overall too big and wild. My hair didn’t cling to my face gently like the hair of my white friends or drape in loose, soft curls down my back.

Nope. My rebellious strands were determined to explode out of my scalp, reaching out to the air at all angles. Since apparently my hair wouldn’t cooperate with my noble efforts to blend in better with my classmates (thanks again Hair), I tried other ways of standing out…less. I wore muted pastels when it wasn’t spring. I smeared that awful Limited Too roll-on glitter gel onto my cheeks (popular then but ultimately a bad life decision). I stayed quiet in class, eyes on the paper in front of me.

Despite these efforts, I remained-to my dismay-blatantly different. I was curvier, curlier, and considerably browner, and not in a lotion-tan-from-summer way. People already commented on how exotic my sister and I looked–so I finally decided by the end of high school that’s what I would be. I would be mezclada (mixed) and wear it as a badge. There was no point in fighting it anymore.

Hands positioned on my hips, I twisted my tongue to sound “ghetto,” brash and sassy and defiant in ways I couldn’t dare be otherwise. I dropped references to “my culture” into conversation, helped by my leadership roles in our Latino heritage club and attendance at other “ethnic” soirees. By my first year in college, I was blaring merengue in my room and wrapping my body in bright colors and patterns, coordinating and clashing and stepping out of my dorm determined to be noticed.

I zipped myself into the costume of the Other, slipped into it any moment I felt out of place. At least if I exaggerated my difference from my peers, it was my choice rather than being made an anomaly and feeling hyper-conscious of my race when I was the only person of color in the room (which was often in a white-majority college). There was a certain headiness, a power in walking through campus with tribal prints on my back and wooden earrings large enough to scrape my shoulders. I wore diversity on my arms, all flavor and spice and inescapable brightness–and I would never be called white inside.

It was a performance. Not all of it, because part of me genuinely experimented with my blackness, figuring out what could feel natural to me. But somehow I had gone from an exercise in self-exploration to making my ethnicity, my race an idol. I craved the comments, the praise my perceived exoticism won me because for once I controlled the narrative of how I was seen. I was no longer the awkward mixed girl from the suburbs whose blackness and Latina-ness felt inadequate and inauthentic. Using my clothes, my hair, my voice, and my embrace of my communities’ historical suffering, I staked my place as a Cool Minority. I belonged.

Once, I wanted to de-ethnicize myself. Now I was in danger of making my ethnicity the only thing of value I had. My frustration took fire because I was tired, so tired, of seeing  whiteness as the norm on TV, in school, and so I centered myself on the defiant resilience of people who looked like me and the cultures born and shaped out of our marginalization. Ironically, in challenging the sway of racism over me, I found my vision dominated and shrunken by the effort of resisting it because I still tethered my worth to my racial identity.

Black is beautiful and latinidad is pride, but they are not God.

I can’t point to the moment where I realized this, when I saw how far my pendulum had swung to the extreme. My gaze cleared, clarified, and I saw my efforts for what they were: a defense mechanism. I had hid my hurt deep under the celebration of my cultures and the defense of them against injustice. I hid it deep enough to believe that I was taking ownership of my racial identities when in reality…I just felt lacking. I had never been dissoluble in white spaces, but I didn’t feel fully integrated when with people of color either.

There is a keen sense of tragedy in living as a slave to insecurity when you are a daughter, received and loved exactly as you are. I needed to be reminded that I wasn’t just born with brown skin and curly hair and with a family whose heritage spans continents–I was designed with all of this.

God intentionally made me brown and black and called it beauty because he is the originator and source of Beauty. He made me knowing how the world I was born into would constantly cast my value into doubt. He has crafted my story even through the lies I’ve believed and the ways I’ve tried to grasp my own power and maintain it. I still forget so often that I serve the one Most Powerful, one who has already given me access to power and hope and a future free from pleasing others because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

My world needs to be less Afro-centric and more Savior-centric because I’ve been saved by Christ to recognize the inherent value in the cultures that have shaped me and the dignity of not only my ethnic communities, but also my Euro-American sisters and brothers. When that is my anchor, I am actually truly free to take ownership of my story still unfolding.

So what does it mean to be ethnic? From the still-distorted lens of my racialized country, it means you’re not white, you’re not one thing, you’re not categorizable. You are framed as desirable for having “culture,” but you will always be foreign. Your story will be forced into archetypes and tropes to make your identity accessible to white people.

But I’m not black, Latina, mixed in the ways I thought I had to be. I didn’t grow up with rap or hip-hop; I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish; I didn’t grow up tortured over a splintered racial identity.

I did grow up in a grassy suburb where my best friends were white and I loved them. I did have lunches of Costco freebies and went to pottery painting birthday parties and wore flared jeans and my mother’s colored blazers. I did dance to 80s pop music by myself in the kitchen and warbled Motown duets with my father. I did go to Civil Rights museums and Disney World. I did let my hair grow even when I didn’t know how to take care of it. I did visit my Abuela in the Bronx and go on picnics with Cubano sandwiches and batida de mango. I did watch Sister, Sister and Star Wars, and High Noon because my parents wanted us to get the references dropped in newspaper articles and fancy parties. I did learn to dance bachata and went home to eat curry chicken and rice and peas.

My story is not “ethnic.” It’s normal–complicated and imperfect, but normal. It always has been.

(so is yours) 



I cheered when Diana Prince climbed the trench ladder and walked onto the battlefield. Incoming bullets smashed her steel wrist-plates and flew apart as her arms raised to meet them, and in that moment I think a lot of women felt a jolt of validation as we watched her charge forth across No Man’s Land.

Only a week later, I was walking along a sidewalk in West Harlem to pick up dinner, glancing at my phone here and there to check if I was going the right way (my friends know my sense of direction is…severely limited), and then my eyes flicked back up, catching something before my mind could compute it. Then it registered that my path forward had just narrowed. My eyes traced the lines of men framing both sides of the walkway, lounging, chatting, eating, and already I felt my heartbeat accelerate.

The space in the middle seemed to constrict, forming a tighter and tighter V, and I had seconds to make a choice. I could weave around to cross the street and keep going from there. I’d done that in the past where I just didn’t feel like dealing with it. This time I steeled myself, trapped in my stuttered breath and tried to keep my pace even–and I walked forward.

My gaze fixed on the corner bodega on the other side, and I tried to focus on anything, anything but the weight of eyes sliding over my body and the words already forming in the mouths of those who would judge it.

Hey sweetie. Lookin’ good. Sexy. Hey honey. Nice ass. Nice. Nice. 

Worse were the appraising nods I could sense but not see, but the corner was approaching and I was almost there, almost there–THERE! It was over. I made it. I let myself exhale but stayed vigilant, my eyes already on another group of men two blocks ahead.

I wonder now if No Man’s Land only exists in wars and myths because from what I could see as I navigated the sidewalks in NYC, everywhere is All Man’s Land.

What I don’t think a lot of men realize is that their bodies take up space in this land differently than my woman’s body does. Anyone can be a victim of crime on the street, anyone can be harassed, but when my body, presented as woman, walks through New York City, the space then made available to me targets its vulnerability–my vulnerability. That vulnerability is intensified by my identity as a woman of color because now I have this idea of the “exotic” attached to my body as well, a label that gives others license to define my sexuality and take advantage of it. This reminds me that more times than not, I will need to be hyper-conscious of the way I move through spaces dominated by men and prepare myself for all the ways it can go wrong.

I learned as a brown girl in a predominately white middle school that even in spaces where the gender demographics seem pretty equal, things can go wrong. I learned this when a white boy reached out his hand to grab my butt, smacked it, laughed, and then sauntered off through the hallway because he had nothing to be ashamed of. I stood still, mind blank, not sure of what to think or feel, not even later when I told the vice principal and she fluttered about me in distress, trying to get to the bottom of it. They never found him.

They never find a lot of them–the men who hurt my sisters, the ones who harass them, assault them, linger in the memories they try to forget, the ones who expose the grim reality that the space we take up is often less valued because the anxiety and pain that comes with it goes unacknowledged and unaddressed. I can only speak for myself and what I’ve seen and experienced, but I know of the stories of deep pain that were not trusted to be legitimate. I know of stories where my sisters did not know comfort, did not know justice. We all do. They may take up the space of a news byline for a day, but that is not enough. It never is.

I believe we have been created in God’s image and cherished as such, and I am disturbed when the dignity of that is threatened. We should not be in a land where I am used to having my body inspected and commented on by men, where I am expected to respond to their “praise” with smiles because I’ll be seen as ungrateful or rude if I don’t. We should not be in a land where the weight of this expectation compresses our space, inhibits us from moving fully within the freedom God intended us for.

And this space isn’t always physical. You only need to look at the way we talk about women in the media because apparently if we talk frankly about these things we’re framed as crazy, emotional, bossy, demanding liars in the workplace and in the home who want too much and hate men. I’m not even going to dignify the latter with more words than it deserves.

To present as woman involves this unspoken demand by society to tuck yourself in and resign yourself to the space allotted to you. I am to accept the space between the walls of catcalled words and reaching hands and should not expect or ask for more. I should not expect to take up more space in a conversation with a group of men without being interrupted or questioned. I should not expect to challenge attitudes that feed into rape culture and win.

I am expected to fear nights (and days) walking alone and carrying pepper spray and my mother’s stories.

But the God I serve did not design me to settle for fists clenched in fear, eyes averted, and a mouth clamped closed. I was born into a minefield with a desperate need for #metoo, but I’ve been liberated by Christ to be a conqueror, wondrous and woman all at once.

Charge into this truth together. There is much to conquer, and we need each other.

storm progression 

I saw a spider once. I was 14, absently pushing the lawnmower forward across my front yard, and then I froze. A web hung only inches from my face, suspended between the spiked branches of a fir tree. And there it was–the spider. The size of a glass bead, it watched me with a dozen black eyes that dared me to step closer.

Pincers whirling as they wrapped the mummified remains of a now-silent mosquito, the spider showed no awkwardness as its legs flit along its geometric net. The strands caught the dim afternoon light and became silver, and in that moment I forgot ever learning that only giants-the big and strong-deserve mention. Here was a tiny spider holding court on a kingdom of thread, and its every movement resonated as a defiance of gravity.

It probably felt the drops before I did. They began in whispers, falling through the fog that thickened the air, making every breath more labored than before. A drop fell here and there, dampening my jeans in spotted patterns.

It lay in wait for several seconds. Then the rain pounced, bulleting my skin, water dragging my hair down in tangled wet ropes. I fought to keep my head up as the rain roared, the threat of thunder bristling within now glowering clouds. No light remained, and still I stood there, hovering over the spider.

Legs only flickers in the gloom, the spider darted in circles, spinning defenses into every line that tied the web to the tree. But there was no way to evade the drops, no way to diminish their weight, and with another roar the wind soon joined them. The web swung and shook as the wind hammered it, and through the slit of my eyes still open, I saw the spider center itself in the web and go still. The clouds sagged further and unloaded their wet wreckage upon us, muffling a teenager’s prayers for a spider’s survival.

I don’t remember what happened next. Maybe I returned to the warmth of my house and wrung out my wet clothes. Maybe I stayed longer. But I remember the spell of watching the spider, palms slick and grasped together as I waited in the dark to see if it would hold on.

A childhood of Animal Planet documentaries taught me that the world is treacherous. A sudden surge of rain can rip a creature’s home apart, ending lives in an instant. But pain, tragedy, can also be an insidious slow crawl. It starts with whispered hints of wetness, innocuous, soft, cleansing. Then it builds and builds, saturating the earth until it’s drowning and choking the air until finally all you see are walls of water crashing around you. And sometimes…it’s both at once. Sometimes it depends on who is the spider and who is the one watching.

That is how oppression works. It’s not one incident, one blatant display of violence. It’s in the murmurings about “those people,” the slipping away of black people from neighborhoods they once lived in for decades, the slow encroachment of hotels and chain restaurants on indigenous land. It’s in the measured accumulation of choices that prioritize the interests and livelihoods of the chosen groups over the less favored.

This is the hardest part for the privileged to grasp: the rain that parches their thirst and feeds their fields can be the threat of drowning for a spider.

Certain storms pass (hey we don’t have segregated bathrooms anymore!), but the additional danger rain presents is that it can oh so easily wipe away all the evidence of what happened before, giving us license to pretend that we don’t walk upon soiled ground.

We could pretend for years that we have progressed differently than we have, and that we have become all-enlightened in that span.

We have progressed. We have progressed from Mamies to the black nannys I see pushing strollers of white toddlers through Washington Square Park. We have progressed from plantations to prisons where black bodies outnumber white by a nearly 5 to 1 ratio. We have progressed from ni***rs to thugs as names to frame our undesirables. We have progressed from auction block sketches to our body parts partitioned and sold in the form of butt lifters and lip plumpers and tanning lotions. We have progressed from lynchings to black boys left bleeding out on streets because they still looked too threatening to be given the benefit of the doubt.

Rain is recycled, moving from pools and reservoirs to the well of mouths and then back to earth and returned to cloud. In a similar way, oppression (simply put: the unjust and often exploitative systematic treatment of a group of people for the benefit of another group) is recycled. It takes new forms, finds new ways to seep into the next generation, and it feels utterly normal…except to the ones who feel the wetness as a threat rather than a giver of life.

But here is where the analogy ends: unlike rain, the repetition of oppressive forces like racism is not natural. It is deeply unnatural as it is a distortion of the intimate community God designed us for. As a friend put it to me: It is “incompatible with the Gospel” many of consider our core truth, yet it is diffused into our everyday life because our world is imperfect. With each new history I learn, I realize how long and wearying this constant threat towards your personhood must be for the people who have lived to see the same patterns emerge in the next generation.

This is not to say that nothing has changed: I sit here typing as a black and Latina woman, educated with a Master’s degree, and I sit on buses with white neighbors and walk through the city most days after sundown. My sister is happily married to a white man who cherishes her; my brother is studying engineering. We are our ancestors’ great hope.

Yet this coexists with the reality that racism and its foundation in white supremacy very much persist in our country (and globally I might add). I may not fear sundown, but many with my skin color fear what will happen their children when hooded and playing after dark. I may have an advanced degree, but I have also been in schools in the South Bronx where too many black girls and boys sleep in a shelter or have a family member who is incarcerated. Interracial marriage is embraced far more easily now, but my darker-skinned sisters are still not approached as equally beautiful, equally desirable, and not defined solely in terms of their strength and stoicism and sass.

As a member of communities in my country that face these struggles, standing through a storm means I hold two truths in tandem and in tension:

  • The first is that you stand on a home, the good things that have been crafted from the labors of those you came before you. They toiled for your benefit so you can live out their unrealized dreams, and opportunity is more available for you now than they could have ever imagined. There is hope wedded to that reality, that there is much for you to receive and then also so much more for you to give back so others can be lifted too.
  • The second is that you stand under threat from the same forces of division and loss and death that your ancestors faced. It can be demoralizing and so, so tiring to feel unsafe within your skin and feel like you are crying out for an end to the injustice and few people around you are listening or are willing to stand by you. Whether you stay quiet or scream out, seeing the evidence that your people have been positioned as less valued in your country is a very real and daily hurt.

But there is this: there is also progression when you are in motion as the rain falls. Despair paralyzes our movement-and how tempting it can be-but when you have hope tethered to a truth outside of yourself, you will not crash to the ground. I believe I have found that hope in Jesus Christ, and the only reason I can challenge what is evil and wrong in this world is because he loves me and cares about all those things too–and definitely more than I am capable of. 

Sometimes getting up each day with a prayer on your lips and your eyes open is an act of defiance. Sometimes watching the news, having a conversation with a friend, going to work the next day is an echo of resilience. Helplessness is an easy sinkhole when you are struck just how much pain is around you; I felt it many moments these past weeks as I watched the events in Charlottesville, in Texas unfold. It feels sometimes like I am doing the bare minimum by just waking up and mentioning these, but if the alternative is checking out entirely, then I choose to give what God enables me to give.

I want to end by affirming you, my sisters and brothers who are black, for weathering the storm–not because you are heroic or romantic or tragically noble, but because you are making choices each day to keep going.

I affirm you for choosing to get up each morning, even if you find yourself too heavy-hearted to walk out the door or too tired to watch the news again as you head to work.

I affirm you for teaching in schools where others might have have given up on the “bad kids” and fighting for those children.

I affirm you for building friendships outside of your race, for intentionally reaching out to build bridges even when it’s hard to share your stories or keep explaining how real racism is for you.

I affirm you for forgiving those who hurt you, even if they never understand why the impact of their actions looms larger than their individual selves.

I affirm you for creating hair products that embrace our God-given features and clothing that connects us to homelands we were taken from and homelands we migrated from.

I affirm you for studying our histories so you can shed light on what’s been hidden.

I affirm you for listening to your friends when they are depressed and angry–and for laughing with them and celebrating good times together.

I affirm you for challenging the powerful through your voices and essays and blog posts, for preaching resistance and lament and reconciliation to your communities when bitterness and separation would be so much more bearable.

I affirm you for hugging your kids and telling them they are precious.

I affirm you for cleaning our buildings and restaurants and parks and making at least a few spaces cleaner than what the world would abandon them to be.

I affirm you for staying on top of not only what’s in the world news, but also what’s happened down the street from you–for cherishing the local and making it matter.

I affirm you for celebrating the diversity of us, whether that be from the Caribbean or West and East Africa, or from distant parts of Europe and Asia, or a line of ancestors rooted in this very soil.

And I affirm you for resisting the rain and declaring: “This day it must end.” It may not stop with that charge, but neither will it dampen the ground where you take space and keep it dry.



I wrote these words two months ago, but the events of the past weeks in regards to Philando Castile and Charleena Lyles drew me to revisit them today and finally post this…

I take a seat at the diversity training the way I usually do: leaned forward and legs crossed. I nod at a few familiar faces (didn’t I see you at the last workshop?) and settle in for three hours of pair-shares, somber documentary clips, and a zoom through the social justice lexicon. I’m a race vet, fingers stained with ink and eyes hyper-vigilant.

The PowerPoint presentation flickers into being, and I enter the trenches of race education once more.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve attended trainings, seminars, workshops, conferences, and lectures about racism and oppression. It started in college when my brown-black self was still waking up to the words that began to build frameworks around my experiences, around the early moments that prickled because of some then-unknown source. The moments where I felt…off and didn’t understand why. I went to my first race talk on campus as a freshman, and suddenly those sensations took on names.

Microaggressions. Internalized racism. Whiteness. Assimilation.

Learning those words, saturating myself in my country’s history of racial discrimination held a quaint sort of tragedy: it liberated me from the belief that the summary of my past experiences amounted to little more than paranoia. It also clamped hard on my heart when I realized that I have always been an alienated body. Few people named the reality for me, so until that moment in the college auditorium when other students shared their stories, the moments of feeling inferior fell through my fingers–unacknowledged.

I know now there are no stages of grief. There are also no stages for waking up and realizing how black you are. Words were given to me that clarified colors once blurred, so I understood why being the only brown girl in my elementary school class made me self-conscious in crowds, why being praised as “exotic” by strangers raised this gilded fence around my self-image so I was approached as special but also less than normal. Why I lied when my cool Latina classmate in middle school mocked me for getting straight As, and I told her I got a C because only the white kids flaunted their high grades and honors classes. Why my fingers twitched when my white friends reached to twist their fingers in my hair. Why I divided myself into percentages when asked the question triggered by my skin: What are you? 

Why I carry the memory of Amadou Diallo’s face years after I saw his story play out on the news when I was a 7. He haunts me still.

Once I had words, sieves to contain and interpret these feelings, these experiences, I craved more. For so long I felt denied from experiencing the weight of all this, these sins done against the communities tied to me by shared story and shared blood. Now I wanted to know all our stories and hear them affirmed again and again and again so the fire ignited in me would never dare die.

But knowing is one thing. Dealing with the cost of that knowledge, the hows and whys of your people’s suffering is another. And in my stubborn, self-righteous heart, I thought that all the interracial dialogues and real-talk had armed me for it, trained me to process my past quickly so I could march to the next battlefield. I tried not to look back, convinced that what lay there couldn’t help me. So I bound past hurts to my chest, reined in my tears, and made smiles my armor.

Then I attended what I thought would just be another diversity training, and we read the article Why I Am An Angry Black Woman by Dominique Matti out loud. These words struck me:

Because when I got married people assumed I was pregnant. Because people who know I’m married call my husband my “baby daddy.” Because my pregnancy with my son was plagued with videos of black lives being taken in cold blood. Because their murderers still walk the streets. Because the nation sent me a message that my son’s life didn’t matter. Because when Tamir Rice was murdered I curled up on the bed and sobbed, cupping my belly. Because my son heard me sobbing from the inside. Because they don’t care about us. Because when I was 7 months pregnant my neighbor asked me to help him move a dresser up a flight of stairs. Because I am not seen as a woman. Because I am not allowed to be fragile.

The moment teetered, held still for a quiet, pregnant moment, and then I dropped away into a crashing wave of everything because that’s what I felt–everything. Every childhood slight crystallized, every silencing word made louder, every murder seen, every spot of color lonely and lost in a pale world–I felt it all. Salient identity in that moment? black, black, BLACK.

The staff and students in the room kept talking, their voices passing over me like distant breezes, but I was untouched. My fingers fisted into the folds of my dress and I tugged hard on my tears, ramming them back inside that pit where Black Girls’ neglected feelings pool.

I am never prepared for those moments where it hits me all over again that I, me, not just a person on the news or in a class lecture, hurt at the hands of Racism. Not as much as others, a voice whispers, and in many ways, that is true. There is so much suffering I have never known. But as a friend reminded me, “Pain is pain,” and when the cobbled walls of a well of pain is pricked enough, with a crack it opens and all that grief floods out.

It’s not even all my pain–it’s the weight of wrong done against people who are treated with suspicion, doubt, and dismissal in my country. It’s seeing it in the news everyday, seeing our government cast blame onto black people, immigrant people, my people while simultaneously neglecting to hear their cries for justice. It’s seeing the polite apathy in too many churches because “our” issues are too political and divisive rather than daily realities.

And yet…when I leave the training shaking, it’s not because of these huge overarching issues. It’s all there in some amorphous sea of grief inside me, but in that moment, I cry for myself. I rarely cry for the little exotic brown girl and the preteen mixed kid who called herself a mutt and the anxious college student on the margins of too many places and the adult woman more comfortable discussing other people’s racial pain from an informed distance than acknowledging her own.

I don’t feel my feet as I cross over pavement because I’m pouring out, every emotion vivid in orange and red–like the dots smarting in your eyes when you look straight at the sun. It’s all there, inescapable because my walls have collapsed. I don’t even care enough that people on the sidewalk can see my tears–I don’t care.

Every thought swells to the surface, unfiltered, and I cry for myself at last.

I am fragile then, whispery cracks webbed across my body so even as I catch my breath and return to work and the day ends, I feel that any slight pressure, a glance, a brush of compassion, will undo me again. I find myself yearning to talk to someone and resisting the urge because I’m afraid that I’ll pour myself through and drown someone else. I have no energy to prop my walls; I want a cocoon where no headlines exist to catalog black tragedies.

What happens to black and brown girls when we stop being strong like the world tells us to be? 

I pray that God finds them like he finds me again and again, stumbling on blurry sidewalks, huddling silently on kitchen floors, hugging my pillow under the covers of hushed dark in my room. I have only feeble begging on my lips, but he finds me in that place where the world is too heavy for me and I have no way of handling it.

He calls me hija, quelinda, beloved one as I curl inwards, trembling from the memories he watched unfold.

I don’t ask him for the strength to fix myself and the world and feel better. I sit in my shuddering fragility and ask for Him. There is nothing there but his black and brown daughter, asking for permission not to be strong.

He says yes, and the soft silence that follows trundles me as I pour out into his waiting arms.


being ethnic: part I

What are you?

Human–unless aliens a la Star Trek secretly inhabit my body (sometimes I do wonder…). I also happen to be, as you see, brown of skin with curls that I am currently avoiding the impulse to drag my fingers through. I am also a loquacious nerd with an affinity for Thai curry, but somehow I don’t think that is the answer you’re looking for.

It’s an innocent enough question, one I’ve answered from age 7 onwards (basically once I had a firm grasp of reasoning and language). You’d think it would be the most innocuous getting-to-know-youism, the kind of thing that crops up in Censuses, countless work applications, and most civil conversations. And when someone poses the question, offhand, eyes eager, my responses have ranged wildly from a practiced statistical breakdown of my family genealogy to a shrugged “Mutt.”

Now I wonder if I ever owed anybody but myself the answer.

Why am I approached with this question a disproportionate number of times compared to my white friends–even some of my black and Asian-identifying friends?

Welcome to the world of the Ambiguously Brown.

There are no borders in this land, only a blurred ombre of colors shifting on their spectrum. If you reach the places where they turn opaque, you may be granted exit. But know this: this realm welcomes more people than it allows to leave, and the ticket for entry is easy to come by.

Tan/olive/light brown skin. Check.

Curly, wavy or undefinable hair texture. Check.

Eyes slanted a few degrees or more. Requires review. Additional mark if the eyes are an unusual color. 

Seeming mismatch of lips, jaw, nose, and brow. Check.

The first surveying question relegates me to Ambiguity, the Indiscernible because at first glance, I cannot be figured out (why do I need to be?). Other mixed people can easily spot me–we tend to recognize our own- but with people still unused to the reality that humans take form in millions of permutations, my body amounts to a question mark.

What are you? functions as a hypothesis, and my answer will either corroborate their theories or result in further confusion if my answer fails to fall neatly into packed categories.

I danced with a older guy a few months ago in a crowded Midtown studio, trying to follow his swiveling salsa steps when he suddenly leaned towards my ear and whispered, “So what are you mami?” Words bursting out before my mind even wrapped around the question, I said: “Dominican on my mother’s side and Black with some Chinese on my dad’s side.” His smile was instantaneous, and if his hand was not gripping mine in that moment, I was sure that he would have pointed a finger at me in triumph. “I knew it!” he crowed. “I knew there had to be something else mixed in you.”

Congratulations. You have solved my genetic puzzle.

I wish I could count on two hands how many times I’ve smiled indulgently when another person has “figured me out,” but I can’t. My features present an enigma to people who are not familiar with the combinations they can make, and there is a sense of vindication when they can confirm that I am beautiful, I am exceptional simply because I’m not “just black” or just any one thing. My face is a solvable equation, elements to be discerned and separated out.

It’s not even as if What are you? is some terrible question. It can arise out of honest curiosity, a desire to know me better, to understand, but it is all too often married to the assumption that I don’t present as something easily categorizable. The subtext of the question makes my skin prickle. In that moment, I am made aware of my deviation from some unspoken norm when a few seconds ago, I was just Joanna. Rather than representing a cause for celebration, the multiplicity in my identity contrives distance between me and my ethnic communities because I am framed in a way that sets me apart from them. I am congratulated for transcending them (see: colorism), for ascending to an aspirational plane when all I want is to be normalized (see: not exotic). I am not White, yet neither do I belong fully and wholly to another category; I am in limbo.

Those of mixed heritage or of backgrounds not conventionally realized within American spaces (I think of my friends who are Arab, Indigenous, Latinx of all shades, Mediterranean, Pacific Islander) encounter this challenge to their identity because our features render us indissoluble. Once you are known, people can access your self-hood, compute your stories and locate them within their preset schemas. When your features defy easy definition, you remain a mystery, a beautiful, uncomfortable mystery that designates your status as a Passer.

There is a reason Latinx actors have played characters from every race. Even JLo has been Italian, Mediterranean, and even, on occasion, Latina on the big screen. Those who can pass for multiple backgrounds present an opportunity for society because they can be plugged in when needed, versatile tools activated when the situation calls for it. Blended into backgrounds with ease, manipulated to fit a variety of narratives, our bodies cease to become our own. Can you belong to yourself when so many others claim you for their use?

There is power in passing–I acknowledge that. A connection is forged by the bridge of my brown arms, and I am received into communities I do not even belong to by blood. I am, strangely enough, the embodiment of Paul’s assertion to be “all things to all people.” Outside of American borders, I may even enter lands with less suspicion because brown equates to safety, alludes to the comfort of kin rather than the fear of pale imperialist conquerors. My sister visited India last summer and passed through the borders and into open arms. The residents could hardly believe her when she told them that she was not, in fact, Indian. They clothed her and fed her as one of their own anyway.

Our ambiguity can draw others to us, allow for communion amidst perceived similarity.

But with passing also comes a strain of loneliness in being the New World, an entity and category unto yourself. Strangers may exult in discovering in you what you have always known to be the everyday and banal. Those of us indigenous to this mode of existence have crafted new ways to name ourselves, be they Afro-Latina, Blasian, or Desi. Some may deride this action as pandering to identity politics; I call it valuing the diversity woven into our stories, our skin by generating more lenses through which to interpret them. We give breath to our realities and resist the gazes that cast them as perpetually foreign and novelty. 

A recognition of fluidity is vital in this endeavor since, “We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience,” as Michael Ondaatje asserts in The English Patient. I am American. I am Black. I am Afro-Latina. I am multi-ethnic. I am descended from that vast continent called Asia and that dear, distant motherland called Africa. The heartbeat of each identity becomes pronounced, drums louder depending on what space I inhabit and whose company I am in.

Inside the walls of the places I call home, all these things thrum inside my veins simultaneously. There is no division there, no fractions concerning my grandparents and great-grandparents to work out. Then I step out my door and board the 1 train to downtown Manhattan, watching the mosaic of faces around me shift colors, and somewhere along the rail, amidst the shaking and rattling through neighborhoods, I become Ambiguously Brown. I become what the Seventeen magazines I used to read as a teen call “ethnic.” I feel then the weight of others’ gazes, cemented from over two decades of probing questions. Though devoid of green skin and Klingon brow ridges and spiked antennae, I become alien–again.