Mockery, Body Shame, and Forgiveness

Healing from the wounds of racial ridicule

by Michelle Reyes

When I was in eighth grade, a boy stood up in the middle of Bible class (of all classes) and shouted, “Hey! Look at Michelle! She’s ugly cuz she’s got hair on her arms.” As eyes turned in my direction, I stared wide-eyed with cheeks flushed at this instigator, shocked at what I just heard. But as my fellow students, people I had called “friend,” began to look at me and laugh, shock quickly turned into humiliation. Never in my life had I wanted to be more invisible than in that moment. My shoulders hung low as I sank into my desk and, even after the teacher walked in to begin class, my eyes never looked up again.

That experience was not my first wound from racial ridicule, nor was it the last. I’m an East Indian gal with brown skin, brown eyes, and black hair, but for some reason God decided that I should grow up in a predominately Scandinavian community in suburban Minnesota, a place where, at the time, very few minorities lived. My sister and I were the only non-white girls in our high school, and our peers made sure we knew and felt our otherness. The wounds of racial ridicule are not quick to heal.

In an article published by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology (October 2017) on the environmental injustice of beauty, researchers show how racist beauty standards do a lot of damage to non-white women. They write: “Racial discrimination based on European beauty norms can lead to internalized racism, body shame, and skin tone dissatisfaction,” and I can attest to this truth first hand. For years, I tried to hide my brownness. I made desperate attempts to fit in, to be treated as “normal,” and to look as non-Indian as possible. At one point, I even shaved the hair off my arms to conform.

Thankfully, since those early adolescent years, I’ve begun a personal journey of healing and restoration. I’ve found exemplary models in Christian minority leaders, from the gals that host Truth’s Table Podcast (Michelle Higgins, Christina Edmondson, and Ekemini Uwan) to Lecrae, Anthony Bradley, Justo Gonzalez, Trillia Newbell, and Bruce Fields. Their words and lives encourage me in my own process of racial and cultural identity development. I have now gained a proper understanding and appreciation of who God created me to be. Now, when I read Genesis 1:26, I see the inherent dignity and worth of my ethnicity as integral to the Imago Dei. My skin color reflects a piece of God himself, and that is beautiful.

However, racial healing requires more than just introspection and integrative awareness. I also have learned to forgive and, for this, I have looked to the model of Christ. When Jesus hung on the cross, he cried out, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). This cry has shaped me, pushed me, challenged me. Jemar Tisby wrote for Religion News Service (November 2018) about how to talk about racism in the church. He said, “No matter how discouraging racial conditions become, bitterness is not a healthy option,” and he’s right. Jesus himself never became bitter. And if Jesus chose to forgive his mockers, I can strive to forgive mine too.

My journey is far from over. I still experience mundane forms of racism in the day-to-day, but as I move forward, I choose joy instead of hate, and hope instead of despair. My theology serves as a balm to my heart and mind, and my community of color encourages me to keep embracing my identity as an Indian woman fully and confidently.

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