I was raised in what I would call a very white culture. I’d heard the question “what are you” countless times. While I’ve heard it less as an adult (or at least phrased differently), it is still tempting for me to irritably respond “a person” instead of telling people my ethnic background.
However, my perspective on identifying myself as non-white was recently challenged by a simple check box.
I was completing the personal info section where I was to indicate my race and noticed a new option: Middle Eastern/North African. What? I shouldn’t have been shocked that progress was being made, but I was. Up until then, I’d always identified as white. Not because my ethnicity didn’t matter; more so because there was never a properly labeled box to check.
I’m half a European mix and half Syrian. Identifying my race on a form (until that moment), “white” most closely fit my cultural background. I was unexpectedly faced not only with the decision of what to mark but the chance to connect with the fullness of my heritage. I couldn’t simply check “white” when there was finally an option that reflected the depth of who I am.
Why was defining my race such a big deal in the first place?
At that moment, I saw two truths come to the surface:
- My identity comes first and foremost from who I am in Jesus,
- And my ethnic heritage is not irrelevant. It actually matters.
You may or may not believe in spiritual stuff, but as a follower of God, my life has been completely changed by learning that my identity is fully in Him. We are all children of God, formed in His image.
Psalm 139: 13-14 says,
“For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
I’d been following Jesus for a while, so I had no problem embracing my spiritual identity. In fact, it was almost easier. People don’t typically feel comfortable coming up to you out of the blue and requesting you define your spiritual beliefs. (A completely different story when it comes to heritage!)
Yet, when it came to my ethnic identity, I stored it away. I realized the beauty and fullness of it had never really had a voice, an accurate representation. But if God designed humanity to display so much diversity, there must be value in expressing it, right?
Seeing my race/ethnicity option next to that box unlocked a deeper understanding of who God made me to be. Don’t we all want to see ourselves the way God sees us? And feel comfortable in the bodies He’s created us in?
We are each intentionally and uniquely made, and that includes our ethnic background.
Though I always identified as white and was simultaneously proud of my Syrian heritage, I didn’t identify with my Syrian ethnicity THAT much. It was my great grandparents who immigrated to America, settled in Ohio, and have been here since.
Previous generations of my family just wanted to blend in as American and not be viewed differently. Other than the occasional family story or traditional Syrian recipe, being Middle Eastern and white were one in the same for them. Most of my Friday nights were spent eating pizza like any other American teenager. Inadvertently, the mindset of blending in became the norm.
I am extremely lucky that I haven’t experienced discrimination for being Syrian, as nothing really prevents me from typically showing up as white. And even though I often have been able to slide under the radar most of the time, that “what are you” question (and the sting of it) always manages to creep back up. It makes me feel as if my personality, values—everything that makes me human—does not matter. It makes me feel as if the inquiring party doesn’t care to get to know me past the surface level. Thankfully, God says otherwise. I suddenly realized how deeply all of who I am matters.
So, if I know who God says I am, then why are we talking about race?
Well, I have been wondering how those who are only one or two generations removed from their background’s culture, who look and dress more distinctly “other” than white, might feel.
When they are forced to check a box, and the race option does not hold whichever one they need to see themselves reflected, what is the narrative that this population is being told? They do not receive the ease of sliding under the radar. Instead, they are treated differently, sometimes racially profiled, or even discriminated against.
Why do I now feel like I can say that my race is half Middle-Eastern, and half-white, simply because a form now provides that option? Couldn’t I have identified my race as Middle Eastern before? Sure, I could have. But I didn’t feel like I was allowed, especially when my country didn’t recognize it as such on their paperwork. That’s why I practically did a happy dance in my seat when I saw the new options. An entire population of people could finally mark a box that represented them.
The reality of our cultural climate right now is this: How our culture defines us is perceived by our race, and it influences our experiences. It is NOT something we choose, and yet it DOES have an effect.
Look around you and tell me if you want to debate it. Events happening all around us clearly indicate that representation matters. Diversity in our God-given identities matters. And neither diminishes the other because God gave both.
God and Jesus didn’t look at us and say, “I don’t see color.” Jesus knew different races and cultures existed. Many books of the Bible begin by introducing a person’s place of origin and heritage. Revelation 7:9 says:
“After this, I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”
The body of Christ is described as culturally diverse. I believe God wanted us to find value in our culture, to celebrate our differences—not assimilate.
What if we treated each other based on who we are spiritually (treating everyone as beloved children of God) and still valued the unique ethnic lines we came from (honoring the diversity God built into humanity)?
We have many battles left in the fight for racial injustice. But, I am hopeful that the racial climate is changing. One entire ethnic group can now feel recognized.
If you also do not feel fully connected to your background, I encourage you to learn about the cultural traditions of your heritage and find honor in it.
If you’re someone who asks, “what are you?” Add more honor to your question. Make it a whole conversation. Don’t just check the curiosity box, but learn to value the incredible diversity God intended for us to experience.
And if you’ve been on the receiving end of the “what are you?” question, consider leaning into it more. Embrace your ethnic and spiritual identities proudly and share your story. Conversations really do hold power to propel change.
So what am I?
I am a child of God, fearfully and wonderfully made, who’s newly leaning in and celebrating the beauty and blessing of my Syrian heritage.