Racism is a shapeshifter, but I have fortitude

Photo: Kelly Lacy, Pexels. Photo: Kelly Lacy, Pexels.

As one who does not speak English as a first language, I enjoy learning new words.

I’ve added a word to my vocabulary recently: fortitude. Webster’s dictionary defines fortitude as the strength of mind that enables a person to encounter danger or bear pain or adversity with courage.

Now I can say that I see fortitude every day, especially in the eyes of my Black, Latinx and Asian immigrant brothers and sisters.

Even though Black people are still being shot and murdered by the police, Asians are still being beaten, and people of color and minorities are being marginalized, they all refuse to give up. They still go out for work and go about their lives.

They refuse to be brought down by systemic oppression. They resist giving up and living in fear.
That’s fortitude.

Racism is real, and I have learned that racist oppression is just the tip of the iceberg, with white power hidden below the water.

If we don’t recognize it, that does not mean it doesn’t exist. We need to be brave enough to name it as it is.

In Indonesia, back in the ’80s and ’90s, I was raised to believe that white people are better than Black people ­except in two things — sports and ­music. Later, I learned this belief was the result of systemic oppression. It was as if white people only let Black people ­advance in those two areas.

I admit that I came to the United States with many preconceptions about race. I was “whitewashed” — ­another word I learned recently.

I have learned that, in addition to democracy, one of the leading U.S. exports is white supremacy, wrapped up in Western capitalism.

White supremacy impacts people’s lives in many ways. For example, in my home country, even today, people think lighter skin is better; it gives advantages.

I used to take a beauty product to make my skin look lighter. I used to dye my hair blonde.

All over the world, people of color have adopted the white American standard of “beauty.”

I have learned that racism is a shapeshifter. It can change its form. Its first shape was colonization. Then it changed into Western capitalism.

This makes me wonder: Is our freedom real, or do we just exchange one form of domination for another?

THe name of my column is “Intercultural Life” because I believe God’s dream is a mutual transformation among all cultures. But if I fail to name the dominant culture — the one that perpetuates white power — then I’m afraid we are on the way toward assimilation into white culture, or to cultural segregation.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said the most segregated hour in America is 11 a.m. on Sunday. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we have homework to do — not just to learn about other cultures but to dismantle the favoring of whiteness. We also need to empower people who are marginalized by the cultural systems of oppression.

I’m grateful that I have learned a new language and that I am still learning new words. But my homework is not done yet.

As a Southeast Asian/Indonesian/Ambonesse-Menadonesse, I still need to unlearn all the social preconditioning that white supremacy has imposed on me. I mention my race and ethnic background here because I refuse to allow the system to put me into one of its boxes.

I need to reclaim the identity that was taken from me and honor what I still have. I need to find healing for my wounds and empower others along the way.

In Matthew 9, it takes fortitude for a bleeding woman to reach out for Jesus’ robes. On the other hand, in the same chapter, a synagogue leader may have known that if he called Jesus to heal his daughter, it might dismantle his privilege and status.

These two people come from different social and power dynamics. One is privileged. One has suffered and been marginalized for a long time. But the good news is Jesus heals all who come to him.
May Jesus heal us all from the wound of racism.

Hendy Matahelemual

Hendy Stevan Matahelemual is an ordained minister in Mosaic Mennonite Conference and lives in Philadelphia. 

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