It’s not easy living in a brown body. There is this pain I carry in almost every space I enter, a fear that wracks my mind and heart as I wonder if the people I’m about to meet will see the real me or just the color of my skin. When people only see my skin color, they often make assumptions about me. They stereotype, they label — usually inaccurately and at my expense.
I’ve grown up in a world where people have continually mistaken my identity. The plight of many bicultural Indian-Americans, like myself, is that we are confused with everyone else, including Iranians, Iraqis, Latinas, Turks, and more. But, even worse, this ignorance is often followed by various degrees of shaming and rejection. I’ve been accused of being a terrorist. I’m regularly given pat downs at airport security. I’ve been denied service at restaurants. I’ve been called “Pocahontas,” and a lot worse. I try my best to shrug off these experiences, to act like they don’t hurt, but they do. Deep down, I long to be known and understood and valued just the way I am.
Recently, however, I had an experience with mistaken identity that rendered me completely helpless. It’s one thing to deal with racism within your own personhood, but when it happens to your children, it’s almost unbearable.
Just a few months ago, I had to take my son to the doctor because I was pretty sure he had bronchitis. I had spent days rubbing his back and holding him tight as his whole body shook from a deep, horrible cough. Every breath was a struggle as he wheezed in and out. It got so bad at night that he slept sitting up in my arms, but even then, the pain would periodically wake him and bring us both to tears.
By the third day, we were both physically and emotionally exhausted, and I knew it was time to see the doctor. I packed my three-year-old into our car, and because our family is on Medicaid, we headed to our local government clinic. But after waiting over an hour in a small, dirty back room, a doctor walked in, took one look at us, and refused to prescribe him medicine.
He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Why don’t you work on improving your son’s diet first before I give him medicine? I’d start by laying off those spicy Cheetos.” His words hit me like a ton of bricks. I gasped for words, but nothing came out. I clung tight to my little boy, whose head was against my chest, as he relapsed into another fit of uncontrollable cough, and I could barely keep the tears from pouring down my face.
It was a moment I will never forget. A gut-wrenching, horror-filled fear rushed over me as I sat there helpless to advocate for my own son’s health. No mother should ever have to experience that.
My son was being denied medicine because of this doctor’s false assumptions of who we were. He kept referring to me as “Miss Reyes,” which is my husband’s last name, but because of it, he mistakenly thought I was Latina. Not only that, he assumed I was a single Latina mother and assumed my dietary preferences, thereby equating my brown skin to a poor diet — a crime on so many levels.
I mentioned to him that neither I nor my son had ever eaten Cheetos before, let alone the spicy ones, but that was right before he walked out of the room.
I was left on my own with my son, and I felt worthless. This experience of mistaken identity made me feel less-than and inferior to that white doctor in the clinic. His words, his confusion over who I was, and the power that he held over me were threats to my humanity. I had to fight hard not to believe his lies.
To be honest, though, experiences like this one are nothing compared to the horrors that many of my brown-skinned brothers and sisters have faced in this country. My mistaken identity initially denied my son access to medicine; others, however, have lost their lives.
At (in)courage, we seek to be women of courage, and this issue is where I need courage most these days. This is just a glimpse of what I experience in my day-to-day, but I share it because this is my life. It is hard. It’s hard for me as a woman, as a Christian, as a pastor’s wife, and as a mother. My flesh wants to lash out in anger at the cruelty my kids and I have experienced. Honestly, it is a struggle to cling to Christ in these moments. It’s a struggle to forgive and to “love my enemy” because these kinds of racial wounds run deep. But I also don’t want people’s cruel words to own me or control me either. I know that in Christ, I’m not just a survivor; I’m a fighter.
So, I fight the pains of mistaken identity with the truth that I am known by Christ. Scripture reminds me that Jesus knows me as His own, that He knows me by name, and that I am His. John 10:14 says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” Every time someone insults me or rejects me because of mistaken identity, I remind myself that Jesus never mistakes my identity, and He loves me just the way I am. He made me a bicultural Indian-American woman on purpose. He calls me beautiful and tells me I have worth and dignity and purpose, and He says the same to you.
Perhaps like me, you too need to hear how Jesus gives us the strength, the courage, and the perseverance to be brave women in the face of mistaken identity. On the other hand, perhaps you have never been confused for someone else because of the color of your skin. Instead, God may be calling you to be brave in order to use your privilege and power to speak against things like racial profiling and to speak up on behalf of those who have been silenced. We are all on different places in our journey of known and mistaken identities, and God has a word for each of us as we navigate this difficult and bumpy road.
Encounters with people like my son’s doctor cause deep and lasting wounds, but as I continue to cling to Christ, I also find healing and the strength to keep pressing on in faith and in love. The truth of our identity in Christ is our strength, and I pray that these words wash courage and healing over you today as well.
Jesus never mistakes my identity, and He loves me just the way I am. -Michelle Reyes (@dr_reyes2): Click To Tweet