March 2, 2015

Beyond Skin Color

By Upper Room Books
Jefferson Furtado

Jefferson Furtado

Living in a culture outside your own can be a fantastic and frightening experience. Through the past 14 years that I have lived in the United States, I have experienced both acceptances and rejection, inclusion and exclusion, love and pain, connection and disconnection. The person I am today was born through a long journey of self-discovery.

I am Brazilian but live away from home. I am American, but not North American. I am black, but not an African-American. I am Latino, but not Hispanic. So, the guiding question throughout my journey became, How do I honor my heritage while adapting to this new world?

The first few months I lived in the state of Mississippi were filled with cultural shocks and new life experiences. I moved from a multigenerational, multicultural, and socioeconomically diverse environment to a historically black college, in a predominantly white state, with a predominantly older population. My first great cultural shock came not too long after I moved to Holly Springs, Mississippi. Though I took great pride in my “otherness”—the richness and uniqueness of my cultural and ethnic background—I soon learned that my classmates saw me very differently. For many of my classmates, I was another black student who talked a little funny. For them, we were not too different because the moment we stepped outside our campus we would be treated the same. The ghost of racism would look at our faces with the same perspective and respond to us with the same prejudice.

Despite their perspectives, my life experience was not theirs. Our native language was not the same. Our cultural experiences were as far apart as the east is from the west. But yet there was something similar about us. We were kinfolk. We shared something that could only be described  as a silent shared experience that went beyond our skin color. This experience enabled relational connections to flourish and personal relationships to grow.

These relational connections first manifested themselves through classroom interactions. At that point, I had only lived in the U.S. for a few months and had a difficult time understanding “southern speak.” While I was sitting in a speech class, the professor gave some instructions that sounded like gibberish to my ears. I only knew they were important because every student, other than me, paused to take notes. So I turned to a classmate and asked, “What did he say?” The classmate responded, “You were sitting here too, so you should have paid attention.”

Both the classmate and I made some assumptions about each other. He assumed I understood English just as well as he did. I assumed he knew English was my second language and that some Mississippians spoke a different dialect of it. Our moment of tension passed. Thanks to time and additional conversations, this classmate became one of my closest friends. The time we spent together in and outside of class was instructional in helping us better understand each other’s background and personality. My friend and I discovered that though we were raised thousands of miles apart, our upbringing was not too different. We shared a common passion for Christ, music, and culture. Today my friend speaks my native language, has a great appreciation for my culture, and plans to someday live in my country.

The relationships I developed helped me realize that living in a different culture did not mean that I had to lose my own. I understood that it was important for me to help others to learn about my cultural background, but it was equally important for me to learn about theirs. This was an intentional process of relationship building and mutual disclosure. This was an invitation to vulnerability, change, and growth. My friends helped me realize that I did not have to be self-conscious about not knowing every American cultural reference in songs, media, or comedy. It was all right not to know the Saturday morning cartoon lineup from the 1980s and 1990s.

My journey to self-discovery was not a journey toward assimilation. Despite my experiences in a historically black college, my consciousness of  black history, and my personal relationship with African-Americans, I am still a Brazilian. My experiences, culture, and language are still my own. My journey led me to a path of cultural integration. This process tells me that my culture is valuable, respected, and accepted. But it also challenges me to value, respect, accept, and learn from the cultures of those who surround me. This was a path of transformation. I am no longer the same. The friends who have shared in this journey with me are no longer the same. We have been transformed by our relationships.


Editor’s Note: Usually an excerpt from The Upper Room Disciplines appears in this blog on Mondays. However, due to recent inclement weather, we have had a backlog of posts. Check back on Wednesday for the Disciplines post for this week.

Jefferson Furtado is a husband, father, and United Methodist pastor.


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