When asked to articulate my ethnic journey, I was initially nervous because to discuss my ethnicity with other people is to admit that my ethnicity is something different from the norm, something that separates me from others. Not only do I feel unqualified to bring about such discourse, but I also feel that no one can truly grapple with such a complex and dynamic process. However, I do understand that I have a journey—just like everyone reading this—and this journey matters. Thus, I decided to go for it.
But before I discuss what I’ve learned, I have to explain how I’ve learned it. For all of my life, my ethnicity has been both nonexistent yet important. By nonexistent, I mean that I always wanted to think I was just like everyone else. Seeing the world “color blind” was, to me, the easiest thing to do because to see everyone as the same was to convince myself that I wasn’t different, or God-forbid, inferior in any way. Yet I still saw my identity as important, because my ethnicity—amongst many other aspects—is a significant part of who I am. Nevertheless, my concern has always been that the world sees the opposite—instead of nonexistent and important, my ethnicity may be seen as obvious yet trivial. As early as elementary school, I would worry that people first acknowledged me for my skin color, or questioned “what” I am behind my back, or even had predisposed ideas about my ethnicity and what that says about me. Unfortunately, my concern wasn’t too irrational. In the past, people—most of whom I deemed friends, but also teachers, guidance counselors, and even strangers—have made certain comments or questions, assumptions or jokes, that remained on my mind much longer than it probably remained on theirs. Because to them, it was meaningless, but to me, it meant everything; to me, it meant that my very being was susceptible to distinction, ridicule, or even contempt. The world would see me as Mexican-American even if I just wanted to be American; it would see me as Ryan who has brown skin, rather than just Ryan. Yet at the same time, I feared the world would see my identity as unimportant, and this concern is also not irrational. If any aspect of my ethnic identity is unique, it is rarely seen as a valuable contribution to America’s diverse culture but rather as a bump in the road that is too be avoided or removed. Even at Berkeley, I can’t help but feel that the boast of diversity and progress are fabricated and futile, and instead I sense that the university and its constituents often consider me intellectually inferior and culturally unwanted.
So, to go back to the beginning, when I was asked to talk about my ethnic journey, I initially thought that I would discuss this happy, conclusive journey of accepting who I am and remembering that it doesn’t even matter because my identity is solely in Jesus.
Well, as I began to brainstorm this talk, I realized I was only half-right. For one, yes, my identity remains centrally in Jesus, but to diminish the value of my ethnicity is to diminish a part of God’s creation. And if God created my skin-color, heritage, and culture, then these matter to him, and should matter to me, too. Psalm 139: 13-14 says, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” So, the first thing I’ve been learning is that yes, my ethnic identity matters, just as every facet of who I am—and every fiber of who you are—does, in fact, matter to God.
Similarly, it is only half-right to say that my journey was happy and conclusive because, really, it has often been difficult and complicated. Because for me to pretend all is well is a disgrace to all people before me who have suffered prejudice, discrimination, or hatred. For me to look only at the good I’ve experienced and not the bad is to turn a blind eye—to accept that ignorance is bliss. No, I’m never to hold a grudge, or withhold forgiveness and grace, or wallow in self-pity, but that doesn’t mean that I have to overlook any hardships I have faced or will face because of my ethnicity. In other words, it is disrespectful to God—who values justice and love—for me to ignore the issues in my life and in those of so many others, and for me to sit back and pretend that neither is important to God is foolish and dangerous. Isaiah 1:17 says, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” So, the second thing I’ve learned is that the problems that arise from my ethnic identity are valid and real, and they must be used to grow my character and to help others who’ve experienced the same.
Ultimately, I can simplify my ethnic journey as this: Yes, I am first and foremost one of God’s creations, and that is exactly why I matter, as do those who suffer from all acts of hatred and prejudice around the world. Thus, until I embrace Jesus in His perfect heavenly realm, on this Earth I am to love who I am, help others to do the same, and forgive anyone who says differently.