What is ethnic identity? Let’s break it down.
In the Bible, the words traditionally translated nation (Heb goyim and Gk ethnos) refer to a community with a common ancestry and therefore a common inherited history. In English, however, the best word for a group’s distinct corporate ancestry and history is not nation but ethnicity.*
So then what is ethnic identity?
If ethnicity refers to our corporately inherited history, and identity is how we think about ourselves, then ethnic identity is how we narrate our corporate history.
Do We Even Need to Understand Ethnic Identity?
But hold on! Why do we need to think about our corporate history? Isn’t it better to not think about ourselves at all? In one sense, yes. Because of sin, self-reflection of any sort can degenerate into self-absorption.
But the truth is that all of us have stories we tell about ourselves– spoken and unspoken, conscious and subconscious:
- My father left us, so I must be unwanted.
- If I work enough, I will always succeed.
- I am not really good at anything.
One of my personal narratives that I have held for a long time is, I am not a leader. It’s only in recently, after 25 years of almost continuous leadership, that I have accepted that that narrative as untrue.
In the same way, our communities have stories, and we have ways of telling ourselves those stories – spoken and unspoken, consciously and subconsciously:
- We deserve to be in charge because we work the hardest.
- Being successful makes me less like my people.
- We are unredeemable because we are defined by our racial sin.
When I came on staff in the South in the 90’s, I entered an almost exclusively White social world. I thought I would never get married, because no White woman would want to marry a Chinese man. I had internalized a vision of masculinity arising from the American narrative – one that contradicted many parts the Chinese narrative of masculinity. (By the way, I was married two years later – to a White woman.)
Personal and Ethnic Identity in light of the Gospel
If a healthy personal identity is the ability to tell our personal stories in light of the gospel – a good creation, a tragic fall, Christ’s gracious redemption, and the nearness of God’s new creation – then what is healthy ethnic identity?
Let’s start with what is NOT healthy ethnic identity:
- It is not about “finding yourself.”
- It is not about Black power or Brown power, about being “Asian enough” or a “good (i.e. open-minded) White person.”
- It is not even about celebrating characteristics of your ethnic culture (such as food, art, language, etc.).
The goal of ethnic identity is not about whether you can conform to the norm but rather whether you can glory in your story.
Healthy ethnic identity is the ability to call out the creational good, and the deep brokenness, and the redemptive potential that can be found within your corporate story. It is learning to tell re-tell the story of your people in light of God’s story. The goal of ethnic identity is not about whether you can conform to a norm but whether you can glory in your story.
3 Ways to Grow in Healthy Ethnic Identity
Here a few suggestions about how to do grow in your ethnic identity:
- Rather than distance yourself from your heritage, own it. You may not fit all the characteristics of your ethnic heritage, but you have inherited its story, with all the good and bad parts. Get used to calling yourself “German American” or “Vietnamese” or “Afro-Caribbean.” Most of us are actually inheritors of multiple corporate stories, especially those of us who are multiracial/multiethnic. So own them all!
- Learn about the story of your peoples. The more specific the better. And the point is not to become an expert on history, but rather to embrace another dimension of the gospel. Affirm the common grace in the good parts, grieve the broken parts – regardless of how much you personally may embody them.
- Use your corporate identities to identify and connect with those similar from you as well as those who are different. The details of your corporate story, like your individual story, are meant to be used by God in redemptive relationships. This is as likely to happen along lines of difference as along lines of similarity. In mentoring an African American staff, one of his most meaningful interactions with me was when I was manifesting my inner “Chinese dad.”
*In recent centuries, the word nation has grown to denote common government, politically negotiated borders, and economic system.