A Letter to A Third Culture Woman

Set Up:

About a month ago I was in a reconciliation circle where we answered the prompt, “Tell us about a time you’ve been misunderstood because of race or profession.” The last woman in the circle to speak appeared to be in her mid-to-late forties. You could tell right as she started speaking that she was already emotional. Within a few minutes of her talking she was full on weeping.

The reason she was weeping was because she is half White and half Mexican. As a girl her mixed ethnicity never really bothered her, but once she became a teenager it suddenly became a big deal. At around thirteen or fourteen she started noticing her white girlfriends from school distancing themselves from her and making subtle, passive comments about her dark hair and skin color. Meanwhile, when she was around her relatives, her cousins would pick on her because she talked “white” and didn’t speak Spanish.

For at least three decades this woman has felt out of place everywhere she goes because she always feels less than and like she doesn’t belong. I too have felt her exact same struggles and desperately wish I could have comforted her more in the moment. In all likelihood I’ll never see that woman again. Even so, I decided to write her a letter.

My Letter

Ma’am,

Thank you for your vulnerability and willingness to share the pain and struggle that you’ve been dealing with since you were a girl. I am grateful for the opportunity to hear your story and have been personally encouraged by it as I have experienced an identical struggle.

Like you, when I became a teenager it was as if my voice started to crack and my skin color (or lack of color) suddenly fell into the spotlight. Going to school in a predominately Hispanic neighborhood I was usually one of the whitest kids, and my last name (Hart) only made me “whiter” to my peers. It didn’t matter that my older brother was dark, that my mother’s family all spoke Spanish fluently and come from a line of Bernals, Zepedas, and Rosales. Nor did it matter that my father’s family isn’t even American, they all live in Israel. I had hazel eyes and light skin, so it was assumed that I was both ethnically and culturally white.

When I was seventeen my mom and I moved from a predominantly Hispanic inner-city neighborhood to the suburbs. It was the first time in my life I lived in the suburbs. During the first day at my new school, I was greeted by the vice principal who made it clear he thought I was trouble and he had his eye on me because he “knew all about the school I was transferring from.” My entire first day, I had two different police officers follow me from class to class reminding me “this is a good school, we don’t tolerate trouble here.” During gym class when I tried to get in on a basketball game with some white kids they responded, “Why do you talk like that, are you from Mexico or something?” Then they proceeded to laugh and go on with their game like I wasn’t there.

It was there that I learned I was too white for the brown kids and too brown for the white kids.

Through my teenage years and then as a young man in the Navy I struggled deeply with the question, “who am I?”  As I am sure you know there is a tension we constantly feel from walking between two worlds. It wasn’t until about three years ago that I learned there is a sociological term for what we feel.

What you and I have dealt with for the majority of our lives is what sociologists call “third culture.”

Third culture is defined as, “circumstances that lead someone to feel compelled to come to terms with their indigenous culture but also assimilate into the new culture they have been plunged into.”

For you and I we feel our “third cultureness” predominately because we are ethnically mixed. However, the more I began to understand third culture the more I realized there are vast amounts of first and second generation minorities and people of mixed ethnicities who are also third culture.

What has been the most liberating for me, and what I hope encourages you the most is the truth that we are not a mistake. If you’re like me you’ve at least catered the question, “God why couldn’t I just be brown or white? Why did you make me this way?” Now I know to bring God into this is to presume you have some faith or relationship with God. However, as a Christian my entire worldview is built upon  a creator God whose image we are made in. It is my conviction that the most unloving thing I could do is empathize and share how I identify with your pain, but never speak of the hope I have in Jesus.

How God has brought me the greatest amount of comfort and now joy in being made the way he has made me is mainly through his word, the Bible. My hope and prayer is that you find comfort and joy through God’s own words in the same way he has comforted me.

In Genesis 1:27 the Bible says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” You and I, though we feel different and struggle with recognizing where we fit between these two worlds, can find comfort in knowing we are image bearers of God.

Then in Revelation 7:9 the Bible says, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the Lamb, clothed in white robes…” This passage is giving us a snapshot of the worship taking place around Jesus in heaven. It is clear people from every nation, tribe, and ethnicity will be represented in heaven. As much as that means Africans, Indians, Anglos, Asians, etc… it also includes people of mixed ethnicity, like you and me.

Finally, I want you to know that Jesus knows first hand what it feels like to be third culture like we do. Jesus who is God in the flesh came into our world as the ultimate outsider and chose to live among us. Not only did he choose to live among us, the creator among his creation, but he also chose to die for both you and I. You see Jesus lives the life we cannot and dies the death we deserve so that through faith in him we may have a new life in Christ.

As I close, I want you to know it is because of Jesus that an angry, confused kid can now see that being third culture is a blessing and not a mistake. Just as Jesus bridges the gap between a Holy God and sinful man, people like you and I now have the unique opportunity demonstrate the gospel through bridging the gap between the cultures we come from. My prayer is that you would know Jesus and find comfort in the way he’s made you. By his grace I pray he gives you boldness to become a bridge that brings people of different ethnicities together under the banner of Jesus.

Grace and peace,

James,

One thought on “A Letter to A Third Culture Woman

  1. James, I am going to hang on to this for future reference. Our two children both married people of a different ethnic group. I have heard that 30% of Hispanics born in the U.S.A. marry someone from another ethnic group. One of the things that stood out to me is that this didn’t seem to become an issue until becoming a teenager. My family is white, but our children grew up in an almost entirely Hispanic neighborhood. I still remember when our son came home from his elementary school one day and said he wished he was brown.

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