Open Letter to A Struggling Third Culture Woman

Awhile back I was in a reconciliation circle where we were given the prompt, “Tell us about a time you’ve been misunderstood because of race or profession.” The last woman to speak was visibily emotional. Within a few minutes she was completely weeping.

She was crying 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. Around thirteen or fourteen she started noticing her white classmates distancing themselves from her and making subtle, passive comments about her dark hair and skin color. When around her Mexican cousins she would be picked on for talking “white” and not speaking Spanish.

For three decades this woman has felt out of place and like she doesn’t belong. I’ve also felt the struggle to fit in and wish I could have comforted her more in the moment. In all likelihood I’ll never see this woman again. 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 felt since childhood. I am grateful for the opportunity to hear your story, and I confess I’ve wrestled with the same struggles.

Like you, as a teenager my skin color (or lack of color) became a big deal. Going to school in a predominately Latino neighborhood I was usually the whitest kid, 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 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 our Latino inner-city neighborhood to the suburbs. It was the first time in my life I lived in the suburbs. On my first day at a new high school I was greeted by the vice principal thought I was trouble because he “knew all about the school I was transferring from.” During my first day I was followed by two police officers who kept reminding me “this is a good school, we don’t tolerate trouble here.” When I tried to play basketball with some white kids they told me, “Why do you talk like that, are you from Mexico or something?”

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 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 walking between two worlds. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I learned there is a sociological term for people like us.

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.”

We feel our “third cultureness” because we are ethnically mixed. The more I began to understand third culture and the concept of the more I understood there are many 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. As a Christian my entire worldview is built upon  a creator God whose image all people 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.

I have found the greatest amount of comfort and joy in the way God has made me through his word, the Bible. My hope and prayer is that you find comfort and joy through God’s own words the same way I have.

Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Though we struggle recognizing where we fit between two cultures, we can find comfort in knowing we are equally image bearers of God, the same way our white, and Mexican families are.

Furthermore, Revelation 7:9 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’s 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, God in the flesh, came into our world as the ultimate outsider and chose to live among us. 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 can have a new life in Christ.

In closing, please know it is because of Jesus that an angry, confused kid can now see that being third culture is a blessing and not a curse. Just as Jesus bridges the gap between a Holy God and sinful man, people like you and I now have the unique opportunity to demonstrate the gospel through bridging the gap between the two cultures that make us who we are. I pray 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,