Nathaniel Jennings tells his personal story of growing up in a mixed-race household. As he discovered, the shade of one’s skin can produce a range of reactions and feelings whether one is in Bangladesh, England, or elsewhere. Christians, he argues, should stand behind those without privilege or power and seek the reconciliation and peace that comes through Jesus Christ.
Nathaniel Jennings was born in Bangladesh but did his higher education in the United Kingdom. He did his BA(Hons) in South Asian History at SOAS, University of London. He later got his MTh through Queens University Belfast, with his dissertation on the church in Islamic contexts. He currently resides in Belfast with his wife Donna and children Micah (12) and Tabitha (10) and serves as OMF’s Area Representative for Ireland.
A Personal Reflection on Experiences of Race and Racism
Mission Round Table Vol. 15 No. 2 (May-Aug 2020): 35-39
As I watched the footage of the murder of George Floyd on 25 May I was initially pretty numb. This was probably due to my own hard heartedness and the saturation of my mind with the constant flow, through the media, of stories and images of abuse, humiliation, and murder of men and women by other men and women around the world.
But my heart did soften and I began to process the true magnitude of the crime committed, the countless other similar crimes it brought to attention, and the deep grief and anger it stirred in millions around the world. This then led me to consider what my own part should be in making a stand against violence and hatred—whether silent or acted out—that is directed towards black lives. I am still working on that.
However, it also provoked in me a review of my own identity as someone with black heritage and to reflect upon how race and identity had impacted and affected me and my family.
My father is a white American, of English and Irish stock, with some Native American blood in the mix too.
My mother’s mother was white English and her father black Jamaican. Apparently, my maternal grandfather also had some South Asian roots. In addition, he had four Chinese half-sisters from his mother’s second marriage.
My dad grew up in the segregated South of the USA. When he was a child, it was illegal for whites and blacks to marry. At the Christian college he went to, if a white girl wanted to date a black guy, permission from the white student’s parents had to be sought.
My mum was from a working-class background in the north of England. Little academically was expected of her in school where one teacher referred to her and her classmates as “gutter rats”. My mother was the first person of color to graduate from her nursing training college.
I have three younger sisters and a younger brother and we all have different shades of color and complexions, ranging from my brother who has quite dark skin and black afro hair to one of my sisters who has curly light brown hair and hazel eyes. I have a dark complexion and I am often asked if I am from North Africa or South America. I mention this because though we have the same ethnic make-up, our features and complexions have affected how we have experienced the world and been treated by people.
My mum and dad have lived in Bangladesh for most of the last forty-six years, first settling there in 1974. They have been involved in humanitarian work and seeking to show people the love, goodness, and grace of God. I was born in Bangladesh and spent most of the first twelve years of my life there. I then returned to work there for seven years after attending secondary school and university in England. I met my Northern Irish wife, Donna, in Bangladesh, and have now lived in Belfast for the past ten years.
My first memory of becoming aware of racial differences was when riding on a rickshaw with my parents through the town of Barisal in southern Bangladesh. This was a town long associated with the exploitation and abuses that accompanied British colonial rule. Parallel to this was a long presence of Christian missionaries seeking to serve and convert the local population. Three European priests were murdered in the town, one during my childhood. Everywhere we went, we would hear cries of “red monkey, red monkey,” the term many of the local children used for white folk. Throughout my childhood, I had to endure hearing such taunts from strangers aimed at my father and light-skinned sisters. I particularly hated it when men would “meow” at my sisters because of their “cat-like” light-colored eyes.
And yet the overwhelming experience of our family in relation to Bangladeshis was of welcome, affection, care, and extraordinary kindness and generosity. They seemed honored that we had chosen to live amongst them, and determined to make sure that we were respected and well treated. We lived in 100 percent Muslim villages where we felt completely safe and secure. As my parents lived humbly, respectfully, and generously amongst our hosts, they in return became extremely protective of us.
Of course, there were always exceptions. I remember after the visit of my Jamaican grandad to Bangladesh, a village girl yelled “Moni (my Bangla name) negro, Moni negro” every time she saw me. She herself had a particularly dark complexion, which in Bangladesh would have hindered her prospects with regard to marriage and all kinds of other aspirations, as tone of skin is associated with attractiveness, caste, and class.
I remember watching Nigeria play a World Cup football match with a group of men who spent much of the time laughing at the Africans’ “strange” features and physiques and how these “mountain men” had learnt to play football.
I also remember that often when I was with white kids, Bangladeshis were more interested in them than me. But generally, I was able to blend in because of my brown skin and black hair, a reality I found to be a huge blessing.
In one village my parents served in for four years, most of my friends were from the Garo tribe. The Garos numbered about sixty thousand out of the one hundred and fifty million population of Bangladesh, ninety-five percent of whom are Bengali Muslims. They are of Tibeto-Burman ethnicity, formerly animists, but now almost one hundred percent Christian, at least nominally. They have had much of their ancestral land taken by Bengali Muslims, are treated as second-class citizens, generally seen as primitive and unclean, and often referred to as “junglees” and “flat noses”. However, I also remember some Garo boys boasting about how across the border in northeast India—where they were the majority—if they found Bengali Muslims, they could beat them and treat them as they wished.
Every three or four years, we would spend summers in Arkansas, in the American south, with my dad’s family. I am not sure how his white family responded when he married my mum, but I do remember us all being loved and spoilt rotten by our white, southern American grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
When I was twelve, our family moved from rural Bangladesh to inner city north Manchester (Oldham) for my education. My parents chose to live in the neighborhood because it was about ninety-five percent Muslim, mainly Pakistani. Not long after moving there, my white friend and I were roughed up by a group of Pakistani boys. I am not sure if it had anything to do with our race or just some sort of “welcome to the area” ritual!
I went to a Church of England secondary school. Out of two thousand students, I think only four were non-white when I joined. I seemed to be a great novelty to the other students. In the first week, I was christened “Chief” and on the walk up to the playing fields for PE, my classmates formed a line behind me, holding javelins, and said I was taking them on a hunt. It wasn’t helped by the fact that I ended up throwing my javelin an impressive distance, which confirmed to them that I had had a lot of practice throwing spears, wherever I had come from! To be honest, I found it all quite amusing and didn’t mind the attention, but I do cringe now in hindsight.
I was called all sorts of names in that place: “nigger,” “black bastard,” “jungle bunny,” and “Paki,” being the most common. It was a brutal place and lots of boys and girls were called lots of names due to social background, intellect, disabilities, weight, physical features, etc. There was a guy in my class who was openly a member of the National Front who I know couldn’t stand me, though he generally kept to himself. For years, every time I walked into a classroom, another boy would say, “What’s that smell?” which was always followed by sniggers from others. He would often follow it up by saying, “You don’t mind do you, Chief?” In response, I would keep my head down and sheepishly smile while I burnt inside with anger and shame.
I seemed to be put in a lot of bottom-set classes from which I was unable to get out, despite later going on to do well academically in higher education.
The experience at that school which sticks with me most prominently was in a German language class. The teacher, a white lady originally from Germany but long settled in England, was at her desk when one boy started to tell racist jokes to the amusement of the rest of the class. The teacher surely heard but said nothing. I was enraged by the fact that she had the power to intervene and yet chose to let my humiliation carry on.
Years later, when I bumped into the guy who had ridiculed me, he said he was sorry if he had done anything that upset me whilst at school but didn’t elaborate and I didn’t pressure him to do so. I know that he had also been mercilessly physically and verbally bullied by some other boys for being overweight.
When I moved to Sixth Form College to do my “A” Levels, I was the last student to arrive in the first class and saw that all the Asians were sitting on one side of the room with the whites on the other. I was obviously expected to choose who I was with. I went and sat with the others with brown skin and that was me for the next two years—part of the ethnic minorities’ group—in this racially divided class.
During my time in Manchester, I spent a lot of time with and grew very close to my Jamaican grandad. He had migrated to England as part of the Windrush generation in the late 1940s. I learnt of his painful experiences as a black man in England. He told me how he had been asked if he had a tail, how he had been refused accommodation because of his skin colour, and how one white homeowner threw a bucket of water over him when he knocked at their door to enquire about renting a room. In the early days of his life in England, he spent nights sleeping in phone boxes.
University in London was so different to school in Oldham! It was a place where my complexion and multi-cultural background was a positive thing rather than something not to draw attention to. The only thing I remember being made to feel any shame about was my Christian faith. There were only three of us in the Christian Union and being a Christian in that environment, at that time, was definitely not considered cool, and we were often mocked.
The only negative experience I recall relating to race came about because I used to walk from my student halls to university with a South Korean girl. She eventually told me that it would be better for her if we weren’t seen together as often, as the other Korean students were spreading rumours that she was going out with “a black”. She also said that if such stories got back to her parents, they would be dismayed.
During my uni days, traveling back and forth between the UK and Bangladesh via the Middle East as a dark-skinned young man, I got plenty of firsthand experience of how Muslims are treated with mistrust and suspicion in the West. In UK airports, I was often assumed to be a Muslim and seemed to be almost always selected for the “random” checks of my baggage and often interrogated.
After uni, I returned to the land I still so loved—Bangladesh. My brother, fourteen years younger than I, was now a teenager and I realized he had had a quite different experience of Bangladesh than I. His bigger build and afro hair drew him a lot of attention, much of which was accompanied by a mocking tone. I remember being in a car with him with the windows down and someone yelling something at him and throwing a mango seed through the window which cut his cheek.
I did have a bad experience when I was on an outing with friends and family to a national monument just outside Dhaka. It was about the time the US was bombing Afghanistan, post 9/11. A demonstration started outside with much ranting and flag burning. Some locals told us that if we were Christians, we would have our throats slit. I was wearing local dress and was able to get through the crowd and move our car to another place where the others could climb over a wall, get in, and be driven away.
Since I had learnt Bengali as a kid and with my complexion, I was able to blend into Bangladeshi life and roam around wherever I wished without unwanted attention. However, I found life much harder after marrying my Northern Irish wife. I was often asked where I had “got her”. The unwanted attention and often crude remarks made about her from men were a constant source of irritation.
We were devastated to have to make the decision to leave Bangladesh and settle in Belfast for the welfare of our son who was diagnosed with autism just before his second birthday in 2010. However, we realized it would have taken an incredible amount of grace to endure the attitudes that exist towards differently-abled people there. I remember a dear Bangladeshi friend who told me a number of times that the reason my parents’ landlord’s son was disabled was because his father had been a corrupt police officer and this was God’s judgement.
In Northern Ireland, I have been well welcomed and treated. Repeatedly being told that I speak good English and being asked where I am really from and when I converted to Christianity feels a bit patronizing, but I don’t believe the sources of these utterances held any ill will towards me. One Christian leader, during a meeting to plan a multicultural event, did turn to me and say, “I am sure you must have friends who play the bongo drums. Can you get them to come along?” I found that comment slightly funny and slightly insulting at the same time!
However, I have a Sudanese friend who lives in a different part of Belfast who says he is called racist names every day. And I know in my time in the city, there have been many cases of families from ethnic minority backgrounds that have been forced to move out of certain neighborhoods because of abuse they have suffered.
Returning to the murder of George Floyd. Black people are naturally outraged by what has happened to them time and time again in America and are determined to stop it from happening anymore. With my own black heritage, I feel a part of this too, even if I don’t agree with all the methods and messages embodied by some of those demanding real change. Even so, the realities faced by them come home to me.
Eight years ago, my brother moved to the States for college as he had long dreamed of. While there, he has experienced much abuse because of his skin color. A few months back, whilst taking part in a legal and peaceful protest in Los Angeles, he was shot twice with rubber bullets, and has bruises to show for it.
While I have generally avoided viewing my own journey and interactions with people through the lens of race, looking back I now see that my friends, family, and I have been affected in varying ways by our appearance and racial identity. I, along with many others, suffer because of the racist attitudes that continue to plague our societies. Particular historical and cultural moments come along when we get opportunities to speak up and challenge this, and this is such a time and such an opportunity. To stay silent would be wrong. As one who has also experienced being a victim of racism and has seen someone with privilege and the power to protect me choose to do nothing and let me suffer, my hope and prayer is that the powerful and the privileged in this present situation will have the empathy and courage to take a stand to see the righting of the wrongs that have been for so long afflicted on their black brothers and sisters.
I don’t say any of this from a position of moral high ground. Looking back on my own life, there were times when I was in positions of privilege too. In Bangladesh, in particular, this came with my relative wealth and my UK and US passports. There were times when I stood up for the poor, the marginalized, and the religious and ethnic minorities against others in positions of privilege and power. However, to my shame, I could also tell stories of when I did not. This may have been due to fear, selfishness, my own apathy, or simply having myself been intoxicated by some of the prevailing prejudices and wrong attitudes of the culture I was living and breathing in. Countless times, I heard and saw the abuse of the other, the weak, and the differently able and crossed the road and carried on with my own business. Sometimes, I wish I could go back in time and be given another chance to show the courage and the decency to stand alongside people who are being oppressed.
As a Christian, this is my duty. If I understand that the implication of the Bible’s narrative of God’s creation of man and woman means each human is of equal and immense value in his sight; if I see how, throughout Scripture, God always longed for people of all nations to know his loving kindness; if I comprehend that Jesus inaugurated a new kingdom which would bring together, as brothers and sisters, people of every culture and ethnic background under his rule; if I realize that at Pentecost the Holy Spirit was poured out and this new kingdom was ushered in as people of many lands heard the message of the gospel, each in their own language, and it was Good News for every one of them; if I believe that the book of Revelation shows us how God wills the eternal future to be, with people of all tongues and tribes and nations, together adoring him in harmony; then I must strive to see that kingdom come here on earth, as it will be in heaven.
Jesus showed us how to play our own personal part in this unfolding story. It involves each of us being willing to cast aside our rights, power, and privilege and endure pain and humiliation in seeking the salvation of those who are oppressed, abused, and held in bondage. To see them bestowed with love, honor, liberty, and a glorious hope for the future in which they can become all they were created to be.
During this reflection, much of the focus has been on negative encounters and experiences relating to race and identity. However, my experiences of being a mixed-race person living between worlds has been overwhelmingly positive. Life has been rich and full because of it and I am truly thankful for my unique identity and life journey up to this point—an identity first and foremost as a child of God, and a journey marked by his grace and presence. A true delight in my personal story so far has been the opportunities to experience community and worship with fellow followers of Jesus from all over this world, and be part of a fellowship in which class, color, race, gender, and ability are secondary to our love for and trust in Jesus.
This remains a tangible witness to the power of the gospel of redemption and reconciliation to a world full of hatred and conflict. As Jesus said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34–35).
Due to history, politics, worldviews, and theology, first-century Jews and Gentiles were worlds apart and deeply antagonistic towards each other. But God, through Jesus, changed everything. As Paul wrote:
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility… His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2:16–22)
How the world needs this today. Where there are barriers and hostilities, Lord, use us to bring reconciliation and peace.
Let us make this our prayer:
The wondrous cross that saved my soul,
that bore my sin and bought me whole,
a further wonder did achieve—
uniting all those who believe.
The wondrous cross brought down the wall,
stilling the strife between us all.
Now from all flesh—Gentile and Jew—
God forms one Body from the two.
Though we are many, we are one:
each part reflecting God’s great Son.
Female and male, servant and free,
bound by one Spirit’s unity.
Across the earth, the Church expands.
Saints lift God’s praise in distant lands,
while many weep and suffer loss,
still clinging to the wondrous cross.
Forgive us, Lord, the harm we do
when we refuse to follow You.
Forsaking love, we grasp at power.
Come, heal our sickness in this hour.
O, love amazing, love divine—
transform our hearts. (Lord, start with mine!)
As we’ve received, teach us to give:
born in your love, in love to live.