Stephanie Brye, UTD
I’m Stephanie Brye. I am a student at UTD, and a Corefa in this ministry. And I am from Africa. You might be thinking, “So if you’re from Africa, then why are you white?” The truth is that I lied just now. I am a European American with parents who are culturally middle-class white American. We moved to a country in Central Africa when I was two years old because my parents were missionaries.
You might picture me running around, playing with African kids, speaking “African”, and going home to our candlelit hut each night after a long day of playing with the wild animals. Or you might picture me living in some sort of all-black western country, with an air-conditioned house, school every day, and lots of friends.
We actually lived in one half of a duplex in a compound with other missionaries from many different countries. The gates to the compound were under 24-hour guard to protect us from the crime of the city around us. We didn’t have air-conditioning, but we had a luscious yard which was kept up by gardeners. My parents hired a Cameroonian woman to come do housework and cook during the weekdays so my mom could homeschool us like most of the other missionary kids.
The church I grew up going to was approximately 1000 Africans jampacked onto wooden benches in a large unairconditioned auditorium… plus four white people. Hint: we were those white people. The children there relentlessly laughed and stared at my sister and me. Nothing we did made them stop. It wasn’t malicious, just a cultural difference.
The truth is that I didn’t fit into Cameroonian culture, and I probably never could. My pale skin and blond hair immediately declared that I was different. I was a white minority. By the standards of most Americans, my life, home, and possessions were very humble. But to the average Cameroonian, my family was impossibly wealthy. I can’t count the number of times the police stopped us on the road only to lie about a tail light being out, trying to hassle us into a bribe, something my parents could never get used to.
My expectations of how we would be treated, as Caucasians from one of the wealthiest countries in the world, were based in reality. When we came to the US permanently in 2007, I had very little shaping my concept of American race relations except for history books and novels. I remembering being pleasantly surprised every time a black person spoke English. African American kids didn’t laugh and stare at me, because I looked like most kids in this country. It didn’t take me long to get used to being incognito though. I was very different on the inside, but nobody knew just by looking at me. My race told people I was something that my experiences didn’t agree with.
I distinctly remember the 2008 election. We had the radio on one night and this woman was arguing with the talk show host about being set free from slavery with the election of Barack Obama. The host responded that this woman had never personally been a slave. It was hard to see how what she was saying made sense. I knew that slavery had been abolished for over a century. That’s when I realized that this was not over, that there were still strong feelings lurking under the surface about race and what that means. Being white still wasn’t a negative thing to me, though, until the last day of high school.
You know those people who have bad social skills? They sit down in the group but insist on talking to you specifically and only you. You can’t help but be frustrated. This girl had been sitting with my friends and me at lunch all year long. She was an immature freshman and she just happened to be half black, a quarter Latina, and a quarter Caucasian. On the last day, she took offense at a couple of the girls in my group and me whispering about some stupid boy business. She started to say loudly, “whispering is rude”, over and over again. We invited her to come join us but she just kept repeating herself. Finally, she said, “I guess I can’t expect anything else since it’s just part of white culture”. The situation exploded; she poured out all of her resentment that had been building up all year long. I foolishly told her that racism was a two-way street. Then she said that she was incapable of being racist because she was so many races. It took a mediated conversation with our parents and our principal to work out some sort of resolution. Her dad said that she heard these kinds of things from her white grandpa but hadn’t learned yet when it’s appropriate to repeat them and when it’s not. I was crushed that someone was making assumptions about my culture and people with my skin color being intrinsically rude and racist. I had definitely spent significantly more time around black people than she had, thanks to my childhood in Africa.
I was very angry and felt betrayed for a long time. Though I had never had much to say before about race, now I believed I had no voice at all in this. Being white seemed like being stamped with horrible stereotypes and blame for years of problems.
Since starting college I have experienced so much diversity. I feel at home in it; it’s like going back to my childhood in the country I didn’t belong to. Some of you might feel like I do. There is something so comforting about knowing that there is room and understanding for me, regardless of what I know or don’t know. In our community, let’s remember to extend the same grace we receive to others who don’t see race and culture in the same dimensions we do. “Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, always making allowance for each other’s faults, because of your love.” That comes from Ephesians 4. Each of you is an individual, regardless of where you come from, what you look like, or how much you conform to a specific culture. Being stereotyped hurts, no matter what your race is, because it dehumanizes you. It says that you are nothing more than what you look or act like. If you’ve been burned, please, give grace to the other millions or billions of people who were misrepresented by that person. Make allowance for their faults because of your love. Even making “friendly” off-hand assumptions does the same thing. We have to be humble and gentle in how we approach those we don’t know very well, from cultures we don’t really understand.
We live in a fallen world. Every race and culture has something to be ashamed of in it’s history. “Mourn with those who mourn.” But there’s also something to be proud of. “Rejoice with those who rejoice.” That’s a biblical command from Romans 12:15, from our all-knowing Father in Heaven, not a suggestion for those that haven’t been hurt. Let’s learn to cry with each other over injustice and celebrate the victories too. Romans 12:2 says, “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.” Whether you’ve been around the world or not, there’s always another person’s unheard story. Their voice is precious to God.