What my skin color means: Seeing privilege and oppression on a Walmart run

I consider my skin color to be like my favorite coffee order, a Mocha. But if I’m being real with myself and with you, I’m probably more of a white chocolate mocha. I was born to a black mother and a white father. And on paperwork, I’d list my ethnicity as Pacific Islander, White, and Black. Or “Other” when I can’t choose all three. 

When I was in 7th grade, my dad and I traveled to the states for my cousin’s wedding. I remember worrying and fretting over traveling for the first time, without my whole family. I asked my dad, “How will they know I’m your daughter?” In my perception, I looked too dark, too different to be my dad’s daughter. I didn’t feel like my existence could be explained without both parents by my side. They were the roadmap to my skin color. And without that road map, what am I?

Am I black, am I white? Am I more black or more white? Or am I a perfectly blended, beautiful version of both? I am a half-cuss (half-caste- a derogatory word for mixed-race but don’t worry its a good term in PNG).

I’ve been thinking a lot about my skin color especially in light of the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. I am half-black, yes, but I can not begin to understand what my brothers and sisters go through in this country. I mourn their deaths and I mourn the continual oppression of black and brown Americans. 

A part of me is on the outside looking in hoping to understand, the other stands in solidarity. 

As I reflect on my white chocolate mocha skin color, I also reflect on the privilege that it has given me. My color whether I notice it or not defines me and with it comes privilege, responsibility, and a continual reflection of what that means to me and those around me.

My skin color changes. 

For most of my childhood, I lived in Papua New Guinea, it’s two degrees from the equator – so hot and humid. But when I moved to the east coast for college with the four seasons, my skin color changed without the 24/7 sun. When it’s summer, my true mocha skin comes out to play. I get tan once more, and It helps show that I am half-cuss. In the winter, however, I get lighter. But it’s not just the sun that changes my skin color.

People change my skin color…

My skin color means something different to other people. Based on my appearance, the way I dress, my hairdo, people assume I am a race or another. This was very evident when I joined a new doctor’s office for the first time. My intake nurse filled out my paperwork and asked me a few questions. Months later, I realized that my race/ethnicity said white. It wasn’t a huge deal, but I wanted it to be more accurate. The next time I went in, I told the nurse that some of my info was incorrect.

She was happy to help and asked what field was wrong. I said race/ethnicity. Once she pulls up my file, she starts laughing, and says, “I don’t know who filled this out but yea we definitely need to fix that.” She was African American and thought it was humorous that I was listed as white. She could tell that I had one or more races and she understood. Her daughter was mixed like me and she shared that people would mistake her too, and categorize her without asking or clarifying. The first nurse was white, and she wasn’t wrong in her assumption, she was just half right!

Understanding my skin color is important 

Understanding my skin color and how I’m perceived by others is important because it speaks to how I”m treated daily. It’s true. People change how they treat me based on how they see me, regardless of color. For example, based on the way you dress people might see you as well off or classify you as poor. People have preconceived notions of others and appearance goes a long way in defining that perception whether we want to admit it or not. 

Everyone has a sketchy Walmart

Everyone has that Walmart in their town or city that is just sketch. You go there because it’s convenient but you dread it because you see the strangest, funniest, and scariest people and things. The one thing that stands out to me is that there is always an employee that stands by the exit. Waiting, watching, almost lurking. Checking for receipts.

I remember one particular day, my husband and I went to pick up a few items. A Walmart employee helped us then checked us out in electronics (all the way at the back of the store). We got our things and our receipt and headed for the door. As we got closer, panic started to set deep within my gut. I started looking for my receipt, double-checking that everything we had bought was in a grocery bag.

I started to veer towards the check-out stations, but Jonny kept walking to the front door. He was going to head straight out the entrance! He was calm and cool and I and I kept telling myself over and over – Act natural, act natural, act natural. We walked out the front door, no problems. Nada. 

I grew up in a small coastal town of Wewak in Papua New Guinea and our small town had a handful of shops. Like you could count them on your hand. Our favorite grocery store was Tang Mow, a Chinese family-owned grocery store. To be honest, all our stores in Wewak were owned by Asians. (Which is its own separate story about wealth disparity in PNG). Like all the other stores in PNG, Tang Mow had hired security guards at the entrance and exit of every door. When you go into the store, you have to check your bag (anything bigger than a small purse), and the security had the right to pat you down as they saw fit and always, always look at your receipt. 

Unless of course, you were white. Unless of course… you were me. 

You see, for the first 19 years of my life, I held my head high, walked straight ahead, and walked past 2 sometimes 3 security guards that didn’t stop me or ask for my receipt. I was a half-cuss, I was American, and my mom was a very well-known person in our town (some people even called her the queen of Wewak, true story!). 

Sometimes there would be a new guard that would dare try to check my receipt or look in my bags, and they would be shut down immediately by one of my relatives or other townspeople. I never thought twice about walking out that door. But in a mid-sized central Pennsylvania Walmart, I was scared.

At my local Walmart, every person of color slows down at the exist, pulls out their receipt. And almost always, the employee looks at it. I do that too. I slow down too. I take out my receipt too. However, 50% of the time, they don’t check it, they just wave me through. 

Back in PNG, my friends, family, and fellow Papua New Guineas always had their receipts checked thoroughly, with the guard looking through each bag, and skimming the receipt to make sure the items matched. They endured pat-downs, and bag checks. These security guards were betraying their own people by elevating me and people with my skin color. And treating their own like criminals, intent on stealing and never given a chance or benefit of the doubt. And I hated, I mean hated those security guards. I hated their uniform and who they represented. We all did.

I had the privilege, white privilege, to be able to skip all that grocery store torment that seemed normal and was widely accepted around the country. I hadn’t thought twice about this since I came to the states, but every time I go to Walmart, I slow down, take out my receipt, holding it firmly and visibly in my hand. Sometimes, I put the receipt up to my face, pretending to brush my hair or rub my eyes. Just to make sure they see it. To make sure I don’t look like I’m doing something wrong. 

Have you ever done that? Have you ever had to think about that crinkly little piece of paper? Have you ever had to use it as your ticket, your get out of jail free card? Literally.

Seeing privilege and oppression on a Walmart run

As I’m pondering my Walmart run and this elaborate security system in Papua New Guinea, I think about the rampant racism throughout both countries. I am by no means an expert and I can’t say that I understand what a Black American or all people of color in the U.S goes through. But I see my story as an allegory for racism in the U.S. Let’s spell it out.

Tang Mow (the grocery store) is the United States. It’s the schools, the jobs, the opportunities that everyone should have equal access to. You need groceries to survive, to live, and to thrive just like you need education, jobs, and opportunities. But Tang Mow has put up a security system, a barrier, an inhibitor, that makes it difficult for people of color to enter. In PNG, you’re treated like a criminal before you can even enter the building. You have to check your bag, all bags. And even then, it’s checked on the way out. 

While you’re in some stores in PNG, there are employees (Asian employees and store owners) stationed throughout every aisle watching as people shop. Making sure that no one is stealing. They’re sole job, is to sit there and watch. 

A little much right? Demeaning. horrific. racist. Can you imagine? Can you imagine walking around a store with all eyes on you, lurking, not just at the exit, but in every aisle? 

This security system divides out black people and people of color. It says inherently you are not good enough, smart enough, secure enough to shop without surveillance, without judgment. You have no rights. Instead, I assume you will steal, I assume you are criminal because of your skin color. So I will sit here, doing absolutely nothing, but watch you. I’m not talking cameras, I’m talking people.

This racism in Papua New Guinea is just accepted as normal, the Asians own the stores, Papua New Guinean security guards police their own people, and white people can walk in and out of the stores freely. It’s so blatant and in your face. It’s hard to ignore.

The systems in place in the United States, might not be as blatant to some (it is blatant if you look), but it’s there. And it’s just as harmful and painful. The systems, check, filter, analyze, people of color as they try to enter the workforce, school, and embrace opportunities that should be equal but aren’t. 

The security guards at the exit are the police, the politicians, and the systems that are set in place to slow down, stop, and examen the blacks and people of color. Those security guards go unchecked, they do as they please, and are conditioned to stop blacks and people of color. And they are conditioned to let some people, white people, privileged people, people who don’t look like they’re going to steal (however that’s determined) pass through the store and exit safely with their bags. 

In the U.S. and PNG, white people don’t need that receipt, that proof that you followed the rules during your shopping trip. It’s widely accepted that you didn’t steal. In PNG, you get to keep your bag, you get to walk around and leave without being checked. And In the U.S., I bet that Walmart employee would wave you through… no questions asked. And maybe sometimes they’d look at your receipt if you offered it, but it’s less likely.

For argument’s sake, the Walmart employee might not look at every receipt from a person of color. I’m not saying that all people of color in the US are forced to show their receipt, not all are forced to slow down and have their bags looked at. But most offer to anyways because they’ve been conditioned. Better safe than sorry.

I would bet that all people of color, especially black Americans think to ask for their receipt, make sure they have it in their hand, ready, just in case. Why? Because there are those chances that they might be stopped, and forced to prove their innocence. It’s better to have a get out of jail free card than to be stuck without one.

Who would think that a little crinkly piece of paper could hold so much power? 

The best of both worlds: 7 Pros and Cons to living between worlds

I know. I know. It’s a Hannah Montana song. I don’t know much about that show, I didn’t grow up watching it, but I DO know about living in between two worlds, living the best of both worlds. I’m not talking about being a teenage superstar and trying to balance having a normal life. I’m talking about growing up with two cultures, two backgrounds and a whole lot of goods and bads to pull from. If you don’t know much about my background you can read my first blog, Sticking in like a sore thumb

Defining worlds 

In my story I lived in two different parts of the world, I spent most of my childhood in Papua New Guinea and my adulthood so far in the United States. So I lived in two literally different worlds, different in culture, language, people groups, and so much more. I moved from one country to the next and then back again. The last couple of years I’ve been in one place and have been able to reflect on the pros and cons of the lifestyle I’ve lived.

But everyone’s story is different. Everyone has different worlds that they live between. Maybe you come from a military background where your family moved from base to base, country to country, where ever the military sent you and your family. Maybe your family moved for business or as missionaries. Or maybe you just moved because of other circumstances.

Maybe you have parents from two different cultures so your worlds consist of two or more languages and two or more traditions that are blended together. Maybe you are an expatriate, an immigrant, or a refugee. Each of us have worlds, cultures, communities that clash, intermingle, and intertwine to make us who we are. And there are pros and cons to living in multiple worlds. 

#1 PRO: Experiencing diverse and unique countries, cultures, and people

Because I got to move around a lot growing up, I was able to experience unique countries, cultures, and people. We passed through various new places on our way back to one of my two worlds. I experienced new people that I interacted with in both Papua New Guinea and the U.S and now as an adult visiting countries that I’ve never been to and exploring the world. These experiences have shaped who I am, it’s added to my personality, and my identity.

Childhood friends and sisters

#2 CON: I never got to paint my room
Because we moved a lot, we had renters in our houses, so our walls always had to stay one color which was white (or a light blue in Papua New Guinea.) I always wanted to paint my room, but I was never able to. When my husband and I bought our home, (his childhood home, I might add) we had his sister paint a beautiful sunrise picture of Papua New Guinea in our bedroom. I love my wall! 

Do you have something like that because of all your moving around? More important than painting your room, having multiple worlds means that it’s hard to put down roots. And that can be exciting, but it can also be painful, to never have a place that is home.

My beautiful sunrise wall that my sister-in-law painted for me.

#3 PRO: Being flexible and adaptable 
I’ve learned to be adaptable and flexible in various situations and life itself. You learn to sleep in airport chairs or on the floor, you learn to pack a suitcase in haste and take only the essentials. You learn to pick up and go wherever the mission, military, business, or family told you to. My flexibility is an important part of who I am. It helps me adapt and be flexible in situations, in new experiences, and with new people.

These learned skills have helped me throughout my life with jobs and relationships. It’s especially helpful with change. Change is sometimes our worst enemy. We try to control change because we fear it. But being adaptable and flexible, it helps us embrace change and we make it our friend.

Little Jodie sleeping in one of the numerous airports

#4 CON: Struggle with identity and a sense of belonging

Feeling like you are from everywhere and nowhere. This one is a tough one. Having multiple worlds means a split identity and losing a sense of belonging to all places and no places at the same time. This can bring on despair, confusion, and sometimes depression. I talk about this in my blog Sticking In like a sore thumb. Check it out for more details.

#5 PRO: Being Bilingual or Multilingual

You can speak several languages. With rich culture and experiences comes the ability to communicate with people in the language that you grew up in. I’m so grateful to be bilingual or multilingual. It helps me with communication, not only linguistically but also through body language, and cross-cultural similarities. You learn to find the commonalities between yourself and people that might seem different to you.

#6 CON: Saying goodbyes and see you laters
The hardest thing about living within multiple worlds is many many goodbyes and see you laters. It’s tiresome, painful, excruciating to continually say goodbye to those you love as you move. It hurts, and it takes a part of you every time you do it. BUT it’s always amazing when you can turn those goodbyes and see you laters to hello again!

#7 PRO: Being a Global Citizen
With all the traveling, and cross-cultural experiences we have become global citizens. Global citizens that understand the world, care for it, and hopefully change it. Because of all my experiences, my heart hurts for the world – all the poverty, hunger, and injustices. And as a global citizen, I try to do what I can to fight these injustices.

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Searching for friends & making real connections

As a kid it seems so easy to make friends. You play with each other, talk, exchange stories, or share toys and voila! You’ve made a friend. On my first day of grade 1 in Seattle, Wa., I was nervous about going to school. Being a new kid, my first time in the states, it was scary and intimidating. My dad told me that my goal for the first day was to make one friend. Just one friend. And I did.

Standing in line to get into our classroom, I talked to the girl in front of me. I said hi and we hit it off. We played together at recess and when it was time to go home, we waved goodbye as our parents picked us up. When I got home, my dad asked if I made a friend and he asked me her name. I didn’t know her name but I made a friend.

It seems so easy as a kid, doesn’t it?

But as an adult, it can be tough to make friends. The process takes longer, it can be awkward, vulnerable, and you have to really put yourself out there. (SCARY!) One of my toughest experiences with making friends was in 9th grade. I was in a rough place when we came from Papua New Guinea to Seattle for a year furlough. I was headed to a full fledge American high school. Crazy, terrifying, and did I say terrifying? I was closed off and felt out of place.  I grew up running around barefoot, sliding down muddy mountains in the rain, and a diehard fan of rugby. Nothing about me was similar to the people that I would meet at my new high school. At least that’s what I convinced myself. 

For most of my freshman year, I had one friend. She was a wonderful friend. We ate lunch together, sat together in all our classes. But I hid myself. I hid from her and from everyone in my classes. I hid behind shyness and fear, worried that if she or anyone else saw me, they would not accept me. I hid and decided it was okay, because I was only there for a year, and I’d have to move back. 

We moved back to Papua New Guinea (PNG) for grades 10-12 and I shipped off to boarding school. It was an 1 hour and 40 minute plane ride  (a small Cessna 206) to a Wycliffe Bible Translator’s missionary compound. I lived in a hostel (dorm) with other kids whose parents were in other parts of the country, and my whole school of grades 7-12 was less than 150 students. My community, was built in and set up for me. This made it easier to make deep lasting connections. Connections that last to this day. 

But like most of my life, the season ended and I moved yet again and had to start fresh. I moved to central Pennsylvania to attend Messiah College. I was worried about making friends and finding real connections again. All my past experiences in the U.S had left me feeling isolated and alone, because I felt like “other”. This time was different. I was fortunate to make lifelong friends amongst the international student community. Again I found deep connections, and felt a sense of belonging. 

Showing up or shutting out

But making and keeping friends post-college was tough. A demanding job that I loved, a boyfriend that I was just getting to know, friends moving all over the country and world. I didn’t realize how tough it would be to keep current friendships thriving and create new ones when you don’t have a close-knit community like a college campus, or a literal fenced-in missionary base. 

Somewhere along the journey, I realized that I reverted back to my ninth grade mindset. Worried that if I showed up in my relationships and friendships, that I would not be accepted. If anyone saw me for me, well, I just wouldn’t let them see me. And eventually I would move again or relocate like I had for the previous 21 years of my life. 

But year one post-college went by, then two, then three and I’m still living in central Pa. with a husband that I love, with some college friends that stayed in the area and a realization in April 2020 that I was a chameleon, blending into my surroundings. Only showcasing the parts of me that fit in with the people I rubbed shoulders with. And that blending turned into slowing fading and withering into someone that could not be known.

But that was a lie that I had told myself my whole life. To stay safe, painfully safe – It was easier to shut out than to show up. 

Life Gets in the way

In the “adult life” world, at least in the U.S., you have to schedule dinner or coffee dates to see friends. It’s hard to stop by and just hang out. “Life gets in the way” or “I’m just too busy” or “too tired” – all excuses I used with myself as weeks and sometimes months went by without seeing my friends. 

But how does life get in the way of connection? Of friendships? Life is connection. Life is relationships. Without it? I don’t think it makes us human.

Humans desire deep connection to others but yet we find ourselves alone and isolated from the very thing that gives us life. We use the self-check out lines at stores because it’s easier than small talk with a cashier. It’s easier to watch tv (my favorite pastime by the way) than to engage in conversations. And we stay confined to home, work, and back again. I did all these things. And a year went by, and another, and another. Life just got in the way. Right? 

After my awakening, as I’ll call it. I have a deep desire to be known and accepted. To have friendships flourish. To connect with a stranger, cause Corona (Covid-19). Real connections with people isn’t easy, its not a science or an inherited gift. It’s something that has to be toiled over with blood and sweat and grit. 

I am a person of faith and I now realize that no matter how hard I try to shut out people or show up to people, I can’t be fully known. I believe that only God, knows all of me, all of you. Our goods, our bads, our hurts, our pains, and He loves all of it.

And we can get glimpses of that beautiful gift by letting in people, making real connections and friendships. My deep desire is to making real connections, not to make one friend or 30, but to seen, heard, and loved. I don’t want to be a chameleon, that blends into the background. I don’t want to hide parts of me that are weird and quirky and probably pretty darn cool. 

And I hope you don’t either!

I want to leave you with this song, Known by Tauren Wells. This is my desire for myself and for you. I’m trying to love my dirty, muddy barefoot, rugby loving self. 

Sticking in like a sore thumb…

I know, I know. The saying is sticking out like a sore thumb.

I’ve always felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb, my whole life. Whether I was the only student in my class with an American accent or the only person of color in a room (Whether it be lighter than the rest, or a tad darker). It was hard not to notice how much I stuck out. It became such an important and distinguished part of who I was — how much I stuck out or how much I fit in. 

For many years I weighed myself and my identity based on that concept. Do I stick out like a sore thumb or do I stick in? Do “others” see me as one of their own, or as other? Am I with or without acceptance, belonging, and kinship?

I am neither this nor that. Not quite fitting into the mold and makeup of the places that I lived, the people that I rubbed shoulders with. I’ve always tried to blend into the environment that I was in, to fit into the constructs of a society, of a people. But as much I molded and tried. I still stuck out a little. 

The most hated question

Everyone has that one question that they hate answering when meeting someone for the first time. Mine? Mine is ‘Where are you from?’ I hate that question. Even now at 26, I slightly cringe when I hear the question. Always uncertain and cautious when answering. Why you ask? Because sharing my family background and upbringing is very difficult and complicated. Even to this day. My identity, who I am, was and is, complicated. Even now in writing this blog post, I don’t quite know how to phrase it. Okay. Breath. Here we go: 

  • My father is from Seattle, Washington, and went to Papua New Guinea in the 80s to become a missionary.
  • My mother is from Papua New Guinea and lived there her whole life until she met and married my father.
  • I was born in Papua New Guinea and grew up there for most of my childhood.
  • I spent year-long furloughs (missionary term for coming to [country of orgin] to rest, connect with [home] churches, and with partners) for grades 1st, 4th, and 9th. 
  • I came to the US for college from 2012-2016
  • I have been living in the US since 2016
  • I am a dual-citizen of both countries and held passports for both countries until my 18th birthday.

Oh wow. That’s a lot. Sorry, you asked yet? 😉 

So why share a long list of bullet points to explain my identity and background? This isn’t the best way to explain who I am or answer the question where are you from? BUT I hate putting myself into a box. The box manufactured by words, by language, by people’s perception – it’s too small. 

My history and my background is so colorful, complicated, and beautiful it’s hard to explain with a couple of words. I am from 2 countries, with 2 cultures, with 2 races, lived in multiple cities, towns, and states. I moved a lot, back and forth, went to a handful of schools, and met new people every time I moved. 

I care for both my cultures and both my backgrounds that it feels like an act of betrayal to say that I am one or the other. It felt like a betrayal of my parents, my countries, and myself. I want to stick out like a sore thumb. At least a little…

This balancing act that I have played my whole life is exhausting. Trying to stay true to who I was but not share my whole life story with every new friend in the first five minutes of meeting. It’s very draining to know who to share which parts with so that I would fit in and most importantly not make the other person(s) uncomfortable. 

So why?

I woke up one rainy April morning in 2020, feeling lonely and isolated. There’s a global pandemic going on and the US had government-mandated everyone to isolate ourselves. I laid in my bed, contemplating my loneliness, the isolation that had become my life due to the pandemic. Wait, was this really the reason? 

I started to think about my overall life. I was in an isolating job, that kept me on the road. But even before that, I kept myself away from others and making connections. Why? And as a reel of excuses and complaints raced through my head, the truth hit me. It hit me hard. That somewhere along my 26 years of life, I had decided that sharing who I was with others was too complicated. Too uncomfortable. That I would stick out too much. My identity and my background that I had been so proud of for years, was too complicated and too hard to share…. So why try at all. 

Without effort, I had made myself a chameleon. Blending, no, fading into the background until I had completely vanished. I had no color, no flavor, just another person “sticking in” to the mainstream society. Sticking in because I didn’t want to stick out. I did the very thing that I didn’t want to do, I buried my two cultures, my two countries, even my two races. I had betrayed myself. The very thing that I did not want to do, was to choose between my worlds. And I had chosen none. 

By choosing none, my relationships and friendships weren’t as authentic, but just a blending. Friends would talk and laugh about the nickelodeon shows they watched as kids, or talk about the fad toys they grew up playing with. I’d just smile and nod, pretending to understand, but not connecting. Not knowing and being a part of it. It left me lonely. 

I am a sore thumb.

A thumb looks and functions slightly different than the other fingers on a hand. I tried to bend and bruise my thumb to make it look and feel like the other fingers, but it just left me sore. And it left me still a thumb. 

I started this blog in hopes to find other sore thumbs, people who don’t quite fit in anywhere but instead fit in everywhere or nowhere at all. Which is okay.

Which I think is great!