People of Color, Outward Appearances, and Academia: Lessons from 80s Pop Culture

In the late 1980s, there was a popular television show called 21 Jump Street. Johnny Depp and friends portrayed cops in their twenties. Because they were too young looking to be taken seriously, they went undercover in high schools to take down drug dealers, gangs, etc. By today’s standards, the show was painfully bad—a guilty pleasure which few people will admit to having watched. (Personally I, um… only heard about it from a friend.) Still, it raised some interesting questions about the importance we place on outward appearance and first impressions.

At a university reception last week, a colleague told me, “You hardly look old enough to be a faculty member!” I and other faculty of color occasionally hear this. I’ve even heard some Asian American students joke about how hard it is to guess an Asian person’s age. I smiled and mumbled something about earning my first doctorate 25 years ago. I am young looking. But as an Asian American, all of my relatives are “young looking” too. Although she did not intend anything mean-spirited, what I perceived my colleague saying was, “You look younger than how a white person of the same chronological age would look!”

While I’m certain my colleague did not intend any ill will, as a nearly fifty year-old professor with two doctorates, I also know that youthful outward appearance can sometimes be used as a rationale to dismiss the voices of people of color. “He or she is a young kid. Just starting out. Not worth taking seriously.” Sadly, this happens in academia, in the working world, and even in InterVarsity. What spiritual lesson can we learn? The scriptures tell us that, “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7b, NASB). How can we learn to see other people as God sees them?

First, if you feel that you have been misjudged—based on your race, gender, or some other characteristic—share your story. I mentioned that Asians are often perceived as having a youthful outward appearance, but this can also be true for Latinos, African Americans and Native Americans. Sometimes people are misjudged based on their gender, their country of origin, or their socioeconomic status. We may even unfairly dismiss people when they speak with a southern accent, or come from a rural part of the United States.

Second, realize that all of us can sometimes misjudge one another. We all face a temptation to dismiss others based on their outward appearance. At the same reception, I met another professor from rural Georgia who had a deep southern accent. To be honest, I had preconceived notions about her (despite the fact that I was born and grew up in rural Appalachia myself). I only recognized her intelligence and expertise when we shared a pleasant conversation. The Message paraphrases it this way: “It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own.” (Matthew 7). We all need to realize that we don’t always get it right. We need to have a humble attitude, apologize when needed, and be willing to extend grace to others.


Photo by 3dman_eu (Pixabay)

Third, make an extra effort to listen, learn, and get to know others. In addition to sharing our frustrations, we should be open to moving beyond resentments and learning from others. Invite someone who is different from you to share his or her story. Find out how the other person’s upbringing and experiences influence his or her perceptions. Dwelling on times when we feel we’ve been treated unfairly—based on race, gender, or some other characteristic—can rob us of hope and optimism for the future. Ask God to show you how to forgive. Forgiveness allows us to move forward with life experience that informs, but does not control our future.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever felt misjudged by others? Was it at school, work, church, or some other setting? Share your experience in the comments below, or start your own discussion.
  2. Can you think of an instance when you might have unintentionally prejudged someone else? Describe.
  3. Do you ever hold on to grudges over past offenses? Are there areas where you may need to ask for God’s help in learning how to forgive?
  4. In the future, when you feel misjudged by others, how might you respond in a way that is respectful, positive and constructive? Consider role-playing your response with a friend to practice.
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Scott Santibanez

Tito Scott Santibañez is an adjunct professor at Emory University and Trinity School for Ministry. As a volunteer physician, he has provided medical care for underserved populations for nearly 25 years. He also has a doctorate from seminary.

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