I like to think that I don’t have prejudices about people groups, but as much as I try not to, I do. I’m not talking about plain old American racism here; I just have ideas from my experiences and the culture I belong to about the way certain groups behave. Sometimes they're positive prejudices, sometimes negative, and sometimes neither, really.
That’s why I host exchange students. I like to see how these other cultures are. From the people who belong to those cultures.
Even when I think I don’t know anything about a culture, I still have ideas deep in my subconscious. When Barbara came, I thought I knew nothing about Brazilian culture, but I’ve learned over the last few weeks that I did. Some bad, some good, some weird.
For example, just look at where Americans use the descriptor "Brazilian." Like French fries or Italian dressing. The two that immediately pop into my head are Brazilian waxes and Brazilian bikinis, which immediately sexualizes the entire culture.
But mostly what I thought about Brazil was that it was nothing like us: some kind of exotic land of scantily clad women in big headdresses for Carnaval. I’m embarrassed that I even thought something like this even if I didn’t consciously think it. In fact, I rarely thought about Brazil. With Barbara, every day I learn something new about how similar we as a country are to Brazil.
When Joop* came, I had the same problem, but on the opposite end. I had this idea that Americans were so much like Europeans. I thought that my upbringing in the Dutch capital of America would prepare me for living with a Dutchman, but it didn’t. The Dutch are about as much like us as cats are like dogs. Sure, they both are popular domestic pets, have fur and tails. ...
I don’t think I’m the only American with this prejudice. It’s pervasive in both conservative and liberal circles. From keep the dirty people to the south of our border out to thinking Europe’s socialized systems will be the panacea for America.
Since a young child, I’ve always wanted to be a missionary to Europe, but I’ve also been conscious of cultural appropriation and colonialism.
So, was it okay that I wanted to be a missionary? Yes. Because I learned in missionary school classes (that’s not really what they’re called. More like cross-cultural studies, etc.) that is was important to present God in a culturally appropriate way.
Some of the best missionaries I know have completely interred themselves into the culture they minister to. Often even being buried in the country that adopted them. But not everyone has this cross-cultural education, and in the past, not everyone did this. Unfortunately, missionaries can get kind of a bad rap as colonialists, which really aggravates most modern missionaries, who work very hard to avoid cultural contamination.
Once while talking to a friend strongly interested in social justice, with a very liberal bent, she told me I could be a missionary to Europe because I shared a culture with them. This statement unsettled me a little back then. I knew they weren’t just the same as us, and I was learning daily with Joop that they really weren’t anything like us.
But I could hear her context: You can go there because they’re white, like you.
I’ve been thinking more about that conversation since I’ve gotten Barbara. Sure, she’s a little bit browner than I (and let's be honest, most of the world is a little browner than my ghostly complexion), but I feel so much more culturally kin to her than Joop, even though he looks like me. He’s a spitting image of my son. Freckled, pasty, redheaded, and tall. And yes, he lives an hour away from where my ancestors emigrated from.
But guess what? Barbara’s ancestors immigrated to the Americas from Europe too. Mostly Germany.
So why does everyone think we’re like Europe? Maybe because they’re mostly white, and so is the US?
Let’s break that down and see if it’s true.
In 2014, the US had about 62% non-Hispanic white people, but that’s been steadily dropping as more and more of us are marrying interracially, as non-white birth rates rise, and as we get more immigrants from non-European countries.
However, there’s a big problem with labeling all those 62% of white people in America as the same as European white people. According to the United States Census Bureau, white people are defined as "having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa."
What this means is that Middle Eastern and African peoples are labeled as white here. They are not in Europe.
Between Europeans shying away from gathering racial demographics and them also considering different white groups as different ethnic groups, it’s hard for me to find exact statistics on non-white people in Europe. If you look up ethnic minorities for Europe, the Dutch will show up. According to the statistics, ethnic minorities make up 14% of the European population, but those are white ethnic minorities like the Dutch.
I did find one tiny line in Wikipedia that said 4% of the population in Europe is non-European. So 4% of Europeans are from Africa, including North Africa, the Middle East, the Americas, and Asia. Two of those groups are considered white by American census standards. And many of those from the Americas are also considered white by American standards too.
So, no, we’re not white like Europe. Unless you can find me some different statistics.…
On the flip side, Brazil is as racially diverse as the United States. Many of its people immigrated from Europe, or were brought over by the slave trade. They were white pioneers moving natives off the land and bringing in slaves for their big Northern** plantations that grew sugar cane. They have many of the same political, racial, and economic problems that we do. They value individual freedoms over collective thought.
So, no, Barbara does not have to live with violence day in and day out. In fact, she was afraid of America because of our gun violence, folks. Afraid of our violence. And our ghettos. Not all of Brazil is a favala. Just like not all of America is a ghetto, or the projects, hood, etc.
And no, she’s not poor and here on some sort of charity scholarship from wacky liberals who want to abolish our borders. She’s a smart girl who goes to a good public school system, has divorced parents whom she sees all the time, is a vegetarian, and has parents well off enough to spend the amount of a nice used car to send her here. Her favorite foods are things like sushi (because even a vegetarian has to make exception for sushi!), French fries, and mushrooms. On the weekend, she has Sunday dinner with her extended family and goes to the beach with friends.
Brazilians, like Americans, love barbecue, have clashes between police and the hood (or as they call them, favalas), must travel the distance of halfway across the Netherlands just to get to the other side of their city, and have this strange slavery divide between the North and South.
So I go back to my original question: Why is it okay for me to be a missionary in Europe, but not in South America?
One friend suggested it was okay because America and Europe share a religion...
Do we? Even if Europe was Christian, which it’s not, European Christianity is vastly different from American Christianity. And besides that, Christianity was never European in the beginning. It was Middle Eastern, and first spread and took hold in Africa.
Where did this pervasive myth that we Americans are so European come from? Our ancestors left there. That continent did not want them, so they came here, and they did their best to differentiate themselves from Europeans. The US had a war with England. A war. Because we didn’t want to be like them.
Why do we have this myth that poverty-stricken South and Central Americans all live in villages plagued by constant violence? Let them in; they need our help! Or Keep them out because they’ll bring violence with them. Why do we think they are dirty, or exotic? Don’t we have that here too? We’re just used to our brand.
I have no answer. ... I just know that the western hemisphere, mostly populated by immigrants and pioneers, has more in common with each other than with anyone, including white Europeans, in the eastern hemisphere.
*Just take a look at their names: Barbara Martens and Joop Wijnandts. If you don’t know Joop and are an American, and you can pronounce his name correctly (without using Google Translate), I’ll give you $10. Seriously. And no, Jupe Widge-nats is not how you pronounce it.
**Because everything is switched in the southern hemisphere, their plantations are in the north, where it’s warmer.
I live in Athens, Georgia, with my son, my husband, and an ever-revolving list of exchange students, who are a never-ending source of entertainment and writing material.