A Way of Re-Defining Ourselves

In our online Bible study, we are reading the story of Moses. Every time I read the great stories of the Old Testament, I see something different in them. This time, I saw in Moses the prototype for being a multi-racial person in a racist society.

Moses, you may remember, was a Hebrew baby born in an era when the Egyptian Pharoah, worried about being overrun by a growing immigrant population, decreed that all Hebrew boys should be killed at birth. His artful sister managed to get him set up in the heart of Pharoah’s household, nursed by his own mother, having played upon the emotions of Pharoah’s daughter.

So he’s Hebrew, being raised as an Egyptian prince. Read the rest of Exodus to find out how THAT worked out. Eventually, Moses comes to be a leader of his people, but a reluctant leader, never quite sure if he was one or the other.

Multi-racial leaders often share this dilemma. On one hand, they have unique insight into another ethnicity. On the other, they are never fully accepted into either tribe. Increasingly, people in America, especially young people, define themselves as multi-racial, so this dynamic will be more common.

The point at which it connects to spiritual practice is around that self-definition. Most Americans are actually multi-racial. We have just chosen to accent the ethnicity that seemed the most functional and socially acceptable. I suggest that like Moses, we engage in the spiritual discipline of re-defining ourselves by all our ethnicities.

I am a very light-skinned Caucasian with blond hair. When people think “white”, that’s me. On one side of the family, we can trace back to the Mayflower. But I am also an amalgam of Irish/Scot/Italian. Influenced by some Irish friends, I started looking at what my Irish heritage meant. Now, for those of you who are dark-skinned, this may seem a distinction without a difference. But ask Irish immigrants from the early part of the century; in their lived experience Irish is not “white”. The family birth name was changed to be more “American”. We have no record of the transition from Ireland to the US, most likely because there was no legal migration. The Irish were considered foreigners by the English and Dutch colonists.

When I re-defined who I am to include my undocumented relatives, who had to change their names, who may have suffered the starvation of the potato blight, who at one point married “above themselves”, who were regarded as “other”, the world looks different to me. Like Moses, I was enraged when I saw “my people” being oppressed. The us/them got more complicated. Most family trees have some branches bearing different fruit. When we re-envision ourselves as heirs of those traditions as well as the majority ethnicity in our family, we open ourselves up to new ways of understanding the world and our place in it.

If you have not, you should watch some of the work done by Henry Louis Gates on race in America, including http://www.pbs.org/wnet/facesofamerica/

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