My existence in high school sometimes felt like one extended experience of humiliation.
The boys in my grade had a running joke about the way I looked. One time, as I sat down in a classroom, a boy stood up and shouted, “Hey, look at Michelle! She’s so ugly.” Never in my life had I wanted to be more invisible than in that moment. I still remember the way all eyes turned to look at me, and an immediate roar of laughter erupted across the room. I heard one girl ask out loud, “Why are you so dark anyways?” Another guy leaned over and said, “You know no one’s ever going to date you, right?” All I could do was hang my shoulders low and sink down as far as I could into my chair, hoping it would swallow me whole.
I was the lone brown-skinned Indian girl in an all-white town. No one in my school, my church, or my neighborhood looked like me or lived life like me. But I had the same desires as everyone else in high school: I wanted friends, I wanted to fit in, to be liked, maybe even to have a boyfriend.
The boy’s words in class that day lingered with me: you know no one’s ever going to date you. The boys in my grade had an awful ranking system. They openly discussed how pretty each of the girls were. They’d rank them and say who they would want to date first, second, etc. You get the picture. It was horrible. Boys should never treat girls in this way. Ever. Girls should never be reduced to sexual objects and valued because of their looks. Nevertheless, I was never included on these lists because of my brown skin. I’m glad now that I wasn’t part of those lists, but back then I continually felt mortified that I was known as the ugly and un-dateable girl.
To make matters worse, some of the kids called me “Pocahontas,” a name they hoped would make me feel insulted. I was the brunt of a sad joke, made sadder still by the fact that I was being misidentified for a Native American woman, and even worse that a Native American woman was used as a racial slur against me. None of this was okay.
Eventually, the shame was too much to bear and I started trying to hide my Indianness. I wore long-sleeved shirts to hide my arms. I stopped wearing traditional Indian clothes in public.
I also stopped bringing Indian food to lunch because my peers made fun of how it looked and smelled. This type of food-shaming is wrong and it continues today.
I told myself that hiding my real self was worth it. If I could figure out how to act like the cool kids, dress like the pretty girls, do my hair the way they did, or talk the way they did, then maybe my peers wouldn’t make fun of me in class anymore, exclude me from parties, or say my culture was weird.
Unfortunately, this led to a different problem. When people first got to know me, they’d ask questions like, “You’re sort of Indian, right?” My Indian friends and cousins would constantly tell me that I wasn’t a true Indian. All of a sudden, I didn’t know who I was anymore or how I was supposed to live my life. As a bicultural, second-generation Indian American, I wasn’t fully Asian, but I wasn’t really white either. I had no friends and, above all else, I didn’t understand why God made me the way he did.
I really wish that someone would have told me in high school that who I was, as a bicultural Indian American girl, mattered. I wish I could have had a Bible as a kid that depicted Jesus as a brown-skinned man. I wish one of my pastors or Bible teachers would have told me that I was created with a beautiful, God-given, cultural identity. I was born and raised in a Christian home and throughout high school I loved Jesus with all my heart. But I had no idea that Jesus was a brown-skinned person like me. I had no idea that he experienced similar insults and rejections during his life on earth. I wish that someone could have mapped this out for me when I was in high school, so that I could have looked to him for encouragement.
The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School
My life has always been one of straddling fences and living in the in-between. Being Indian American means being a mestizo: a person in between worlds and never fully fitting in anywhere. It means being misunderstood, miscategorized, and misplaced. But I’m not the only one who was created as a mestizo. Jesus was a person between worlds long before I was. In his incarnate form, he too had a bicultural identity.
First, Jesus is both God and man. This is what we mean when we talk about the incarnation. Jesus steps outside of his original nature in heaven to become a man on earth. He is a celestial immigrant who leaves the realms of heaven to pitch his tent among men.
Second, he is born as a brown-skinned disenfranchised Jew in a Roman world. Matthew 2:13 clearly identifies Jesus as a refugee. The classic modern-day definition of a refugee is a person/family forced to flee their homeland for fear of persecution. This is exactly what happens to Jesus as a little boy, when Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt in order to save his life.
For much of his earthly life, Jesus experiences racial taunts and insults. One of his own disciples, Nathaniel, when he first hears of Jesus’s origins, remarks, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46a). After all, it was a poor and overlooked town. But God chooses Nazareth to be the hometown of our King.
In John 8, the religious leaders try to insult Jesus by calling him a demon and a Samaritan (a people group who were half-Jew and half-Gentile). At that time there was extreme racial tension between Jews and Samaritans. The leaders use the word Samaritan as a racial slur—intended to shame Jesus’s identity. But Jesus is not bothered by this taunt. Instead, these experiences propel his ministry forward.
Since Jesus is treated as a misfit and pushed to the margin, he also knows how to best love and care for others at the margins. He is an outsider himself and so he identifies especially with other outsiders. The same Jesus who is called a Samaritan is the One who goes out of his way to find and love a Samaritan (see John 4). The same Jesus who is called a demon is the One who heals the demon-possessed (see Luke 8). The same Jesus who is mocked for his hometown, seeks out his disciples from similar towns and villages. He doesn’t visit the big cities or invite the wealthy, beautiful, or talented. Instead, Jesus seeks his disciples in Galilee, a rural region that was largely insignificant in the world’s eyes, with a population of about 300,000 scattered in some two hundred villages. It’s here that he first calls blue-collared fisherman to follow him.
You see, Jesus understood loneliness. He was rejected for many reasons, including the color of his skin and his ethnicity. Luke 9:58 tells us, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus knew how it felt to be misunderstood, to not ever feel at home in this world, and to be rejected. But for Jesus, all of these experiences were worth it. Despite the pain and the hardships he endured, he embraced being a misfit to meet us where we are. He acquired our customs, languages, and pains in order to care for us, to heal us, and to unite us. In fact, it is through his death and resurrection that Jesus embraced the way of suffering, the taunts, the pains of rejection, and even death so that we could be invited into his family among equals.
The Jesus I Want You to Know
Maybe you are a misfit like me because of your skin color. Or maybe you’re a misfit for other reasons. Whatever the case, or whatever you’ve been told, I want you to know that Jesus identifies with your feelings of isolation and misunderstanding; he was a misfit too. He knows your pain and identifies with your struggles. He welcomes you to come and share your heart and hurts with him.
Moreover, know that your experiences and feelings as a misfit can actually be a gift. It’s the misfits who have a high radar for people on the margins. You know when someone is being bullied or shamed, because you’ve been there, and you also know how to empathize, care, and love on the hurting. This is how you can point people to Jesus.
Whatever it is that sets you apart, you have a powerful role to play in the kingdom of God. You are the bridge builders. Because you stand in the gap, you can fight for unity and reconciliation in a way that no one else can. As a mestizo—neither fully in one world or the other—you can be Christ’s representatives to the world around you.
You are deeply loved by God. Rejoice and live in this freedom.
Excerpt adapted from The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School © 2021 by Cameron Cole and Charlotte Getz. Published by New Growth Press. May not be reproduced without prior written permission.
The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School
The pressure of being a teenager can be overwhelming. But the hardest thing can be feeling alone, that you have no one to share your most difficult problems with. In The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School, thirty authors from many different backgrounds come together to say, “We get it—and Jesus gets it too.”