I was 10 years old when I first learned how to assimilate.
After summer break, I returned to school to discover the outdoor activities – swimming, riding my bike & hours spent on the playground – had a high price. I knew I looked different from my new classmates with my darker skin tone and coarse, curly hair. They had made that clear the year prior through comments, questions and isolation. They also taught me that being different wasn’t okay. At the time, I didn’t realize I had the ability to control my own narrative. But I was a quick study.
Learning the Tricks
As I little girl, I didn’t care about navigating these water in a healthy manner. All I cared about was:
1. Silencing the comments
2. Being accepted.
I became a silent observer, taking mental note of the source behind the way my peers perceived me. And I learned what I needed to do to fit in. Sacrifices would clearly need to be made, but I was willing to do whatever was necessary.
I sacrificed the activities I loved to keep my skin from getting too dark. No more swimming, bike rides or afternoons on the swings.
I kept my hair short until I learned how to straighten it.
I used long sleeves and pants to cover what I couldn’t change.
The comments & questions became less, but I still wasn’t accepted. At the time, I didn’t care about the cost. It was a price I was willing to pay…because I didn’t realize its extent.
What child would? What child does?
The Cost of Assimilating
But make no mistake…there was a cost…and it was high.
It cost me some of my favorite activities, things I’ve rediscovered as an adult and been able to share with my own family.
It cost me my self worth. I was willing to be who others said I needed to be rather than the person God created. That mindset followed me well into adulthood.
It cost me the truth. Despite my mom’s best efforts to encourage me and pour truth into me, I chose to believe the lie that I had to shed pieces of myself in order to be accepted. It was a lie I believed for far too long. In the end, like all lies, it led to despair and pain while the truth led to healing & freedom!
No one wakes up one day with the desire to find a way to assimilate into their surroundings. Everyone longs to belong, to be accepted. They want to be valued, seen and known.
The truth is assimilation will never equal acceptance.
Helping Your Student
Kids and teens are perceptive.
They know when people are being polite and when they truly care.
I was young but I felt the difference. I didn’t realize it then, but it was making a lasting impact on me and the way I saw myself. Students today feel the same. They feel the same pressures. They want desperately to belong to a group of friends, a team or even a family. And they’re willing to do what is required of them to do so. Or they withdraw altogether.
So how do we help?
We, the adults in their lives – parents, family members, youth pastors, teachers, counselors – can help. But it takes grace, patience and consistency.
1. Encourage their own self worth.
God doesn’t make mistakes and He didn’t with you or the student(s) in your life. Encourage them to love themselves well. Celebrate their gifts, help find outlets for their talent and support their interests. I’ll be honest, this can be the hardest. It’s easy to tell someone else how much they’re loved and valued. It’s another story for them to embrace the truth on their own. Be patient and consistent.
2. Expose them to the beauty of their culture.
As a student, it can be hard to find your place. When you’re a Mixed Race child or teen that can be even harder. You feel like you don’t fit in with peer groups. And at times, you feel like you don’t even fit into your own family. Having multiple ethnicities or cultures can be confusing. But it can also be beautiful! Help your student learn they don’t have to choose a side. Teach them about their various cultures so they feel comfortable & confident. If you’re not sure how, perhaps you never learned about your own culture, it’s not too late. You can learn together. In turn, your kids get to watch your vulnerability as you grow together.
3. Give them space.
As an adult, you speak from a different perspective. It may be easier for you to say, “Just be yourself and don’t care what others think.” But we forget what it’s like to be their age and just want to be accepted. Don’t give up. Continue to encourage, support and love your student(s) well. Sometimes that means planting the seed and being there when they need you while not pushing. As much as we want, we can’t force them to see themselves differently than they do. Now that isn’t to say it will never happen. It took me 25 years…but all of the seeds of truth planted by my mom, reaped a harvest. Yours will too. Give them time and space for God to do His work in their heart.