My true self is far more than my ethnicity, politics, or occupation.
In my formative years I lived in North Idaho. It was the 1980s, and the Idaho panhandle was a hotbed of civil unrest due to the aggressive nature of the Aryan Nation brotherhood who had established their base there. Richard Butler and his army kept a guarded compound where they hosted leaders and groups who were dedicated to creating a “pure white Christian nation.” The Aryans exploded bombs on buildings, paraded skinheads (a youth faction of the Aryan Nation) down the street, and burned crosses on lawns of Jewish families. Needless to say, non-white families were not flocking to the area.
I graduated in a class of 550 students – and only three people of color. There I was, an adopted Korean, being raised by a white mother, in one of the whitest cities in the nation. An enigma of racial understanding.
While I did struggle with the usual adolescent angst of fitting in, my true identity crisis didn’t begin in earnest until I entered my first year of college.
When I started college in Seattle in 1990, I made an amazing discovery: large numbers of Asian people lived there! I know that sounds silly, but the homogenous culture in which I’d grown up had hardly prepared me. Perhaps even more shocking than discovering the Asian community was the realization that I belonged to it.
The Korean students befriended me, taught me to use chopsticks, mocked my “white girl” misunderstandings of their culture, and accepted me as one of their own. I began to learn the language. (Cuss words first, how to order food, second, and finally, pleasantries. Priorities!) Even though I did not grow up Korean, speak the language, or know the customs, I was comfortable in the midst of my newfound tribe. It was familia – the kind of at-home feeling that lets you kick your feet up, relax, and sink into a couch.
Suddenly I was confused. Was I Korean? Or was I white? I felt like I was supposed to choose, like picking your favorite sports team. But this choice had far more weight than just deciding whether I preferred noodles or rice. In fact, I began to feel like my ethnicity was the most important detail about me.
At this point the identity thieves began to circle overhead. They eyed my confidence and security like hungry vultures. They deemed my artistic nature, my love of learning, and my relationships unimportant—the only thing that mattered was the conversation of race.
Yet family, friends, culture, history, economics, physiology, and geography all inform our identity. From our first breath until our last, our lives are much like a snowball rolling downhill—gathering not leaves and stray mittens but relationships and experiences. From birth through childhood and beyond, these relationships and experiences imprint us. Like a Polaroid photo, identity takes shape, becoming clearer as time passes.
When Jesus asked Peter, “Who do people say that I am?” was he looking for validation? Certainly not. He was fully aware that he was not John the Baptizer or the prophet Elijah come back in flesh to visit the saints. Jesus was confident in his role as Messiah. His history, lineage, and call were all woven together into a clear knowledge of who he was. Fully God and fully human.
But Peter was struggling to know his place. Was he a solid friend, a confidant, a betrayer, or a disciple? Of course he was all of those things. But the totality of Peter’s identity shows up in its full strength in the courts of the Sanhedrin. “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13-20, NIV).
Embracing his common, ordinary, uneducated human self led Peter to act with purpose in the face of threat and fear. It took great courage for him to stand in a place of judgment and declare, “This is who I am, and he is why I am here.” I believe that having been with Jesus allowed Peter to understand that the fullness of his identity was necessary, with all its nuances, to accomplish the purposes for which he was created.
In college the identity thieves inserted themselves into my confusion over race. Was I white? Korean? Both? In my mid-twenties I was a female working in the male-dominated world of ministry, and my identity was threatened again by the feeling that I had to prove myself as a pastor. Ten years later, I found myself fighting to reclaim my identity after over-working and under-caring for myself. Now in my forties, I wonder what challenge I’ll face next.
I am thrilled to serve with the Covenant—and one significant reason is because of our shared value that ethnicity and culture is to be honored. Yet sometimes, with the very best of intentions, others encourage me to more fully “embrace” my ethnicity. This is confusing for a girl whose Korean friends nicknamed her “Chiquita” because they said I was “white on the inside.” Yet during my first months in the Covenant, I was told that I would have more opportunity because I am Asian and female – which only bewildered me.
I don’t want anybody to see my slanted eyes, glossy black hair, or slight figure and make assumptions or opinions about me based solely on my ethnicity. My white husband also feels this challenge. He wants to be recognized for his character before someone assumes that he is unaware of his white privilege. And I want the same for him. I no more want to receive extra opportunities based on my ethnicity than I do white males to be similarly privileged.
Here is what I have discovered. I am more than just my name(s), Emily Jill (Llafet) Riley/Nang Ee Cho, or any other singular detail about my life. Overemphasizing one aspect of who I am creates an incomplete representation of the whole me. I am Korean, American, mama, wife, daughter, sister, artist, and pastor. Each of those monikers, tasks, or titles is important. But my identity is not one singular factoid.
Just as my ethnicity is not the sum of my identity, neither is my gender, family of origin, history, or occupation. Identity is not determined by our role as mother, father, husband, wife, son, daughter, or grandparent. It’s not a nine-digit number or the details on a birth certificate. It’s even more than our fingerprints, even though they distinguish us from every other human on the planet. Our identity is all of those things.
I am proud to say that, imperfect mess that it is, my identity was formed in and by my Savior. Dear friends, let us see one another beyond the color of our skin, our nation of origin, the language we speak, our theological views, our financial status, the wounds we have endured, or the imperfections and talents that glow so brightly under the lights of criticism, jealousy, and scrutiny. Let us celebrate each person in his or her completeness and entirety.
This article was written by E. Jill Riley.
About the Author
E. Jill Riley is the lead pastor and church planter of Navigate, a Covenant congregation in Billings, Montana. She is a proud Asian American who wants people to understand that she is more than the shape of her eyes and color of her skin – and desires the same grace for her white, blue-eyed husband and copper-haired, fair-skinned daughter. Each year she challenges herself to develop a new skill – this year it’s painting which, she adds, is not going well.