A few years before I married Nick, he was pursuing a PhD while living in Boston’s Hyde Square, a mostly Dominican, Puerto Rican, and African American inner-city community. He had a desire to make a difference in the community, so he volunteered with Young Life as an outreach worker to at-risk youth of color. The Young Life center was based in a three-story (triple decker) house where Nick, the White program director, and a team of mostly Black men offered mentoring, tutoring, academic advising, and recreation at no cost. On the night of October 23, 1989, an incident stunned Nick, the community, and the country. Charles Stuart, a White man, called 911 to report that minutes after leaving a birthing class at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Mission Hill, a six-foot tall Black man with a raspy voice wearing a black sweatsuit shot him in the stomach and his wife Carol in the head. The city and the nation believed Charles, and the Boston police invaded the Mission Hill community. They rode into area housing developments in patrol cars and on horseback looking for the shooter. Black males were rounded up as suspects and then openly humiliated by frisks and strip searches. Onlookers assumed the men to be criminals.
A few nights later, after a long youth meeting, Nick offered to drive some of the teens to their apartment in Mission Hill. When the teens ran from Nick’s car, they were stopped, frisked, and roughed up by roving police officers. Nick sat quietly in his Honda Civic praying that the situation would not escalate and that he would go unnoticed.
The next day the teens arrived at the Young Life center racially traumatized, their hurt and anger overflowing with tears and threats of retaliation. But they were defenseless without anyone to advocate on their behalf. The city and the nation got swept up into the Stuart narrative. A Black man was arrested and assumed to be the killer. Later on, Charles’s brother Matthew confessed that the Black man held in custody was not guilty—his brother, Charles, had killed Carol and shot himself. On January 3, 1990, as the full story became known, Charles Stuart took his lies with him as he jumped off Boston’s Tobin Bridge to his death. The Los Angeles Times reported, “Was Stuart’s suspected plot to kill his wife so extra-ordinarily cunning that an entire city cannot be faulted for having been duped? Or did Boston also fall victim to its own prejudices and stereotypes when it ignored inconsistencies in Stuart’s story and launched a manhunt that tore apart a racially mixed neighborhood?”
Although Nick and the team had a lot to say about the deception in the Stuart case, they never fully processed the emotional injury inflicted on the teens. The city of Boston made excuses for their response but never offered an official apology to the Black males in the community. The only thing Nick knew to do was to deny the racial trauma, wear a mask of indifference to hide his shame that he was helpless, and keep it moving. Nick learned this way of navigating through life from his parents.
Pamela and Winston
Nick’s mom, Pamela, was born in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and moved to the United Kingdom for nursing school when she was eighteen years old. She lived under the guardianship of her uncle George, an immigrant from Trinidad, and Aunt Rose, his White wife from London. Pam was the queen of the code-switch, a term that reflects how effortlessly her accent changed from West Indian patois to the Queen’s English, depending on the company she kept. This helped her to persevere through nursing training while living in North London during the 1950’s. Pam became an exceptional midwifery nurse, a statuesque woman with a heart and nurturing presence so vast that even the most colicky babies would nestle in her bosom and quickly be lulled to sleep. At the age of thirty, Pam married Winston, an immigrant to the United Kingdom from St. Elizabeth Parish, Jamaica, and ten years her senior. Winston was an aspiring engineer.
Soon Winston and Pam were parents to three kids, Nicholas and his twin sisters. Winston carried on with his studies, but he faced systemic racism and classism in the UK educational system. His college professors had low expectations of him and often ignored or belittled him. Even as he was prevented from advancing, he began assisting White master’s degree students in their projects. Each night Winston came home sullen and with a short fuse. Conversation with his family was limited, and playtimes with his kids were infrequent; interactions were mostly for disciplinary reasons if at all. Each morning Winston left for work wearing an unseen mask of shame to hide his deep disappointment.
An immigrant’s story can seem heroic, but sometimes it includes shame, silent pain, and a mask. Shame is not the same as guilt, an emotion that arises when we have in fact done something wrong. People of color may carry shame accompanied by internalized racism that says it is not what you have done but who you are that is wrong. Because of shame, we feel we are defective, unacceptable, incompetent, or fundamentally damaged goods. Shame tells us who and what we are not, but God tells us who and what we are and what we can do.
Although Brené Brown’s research does not specifically address the roots and impact of shame on people of color, she does bring to light some important truths: “Shame keeps us from telling our own stories and prevents us from listening to others tell their stories . . . We silence our voices and keep our secrets out of the fear of disconnection.”
Too often, rather than being ourselves, people of color present a false image that affects how we view ourselves and how we relate to others. We have lives full of “should” and “ought to,” and when confronted with any personal limitations, we experience deep shame. When we wear a mask rather than deal with reality, we can become overly responsible and end up carrying burdens that we were not meant to bear. We live a double life. There is a big difference between how we are at home and who we are in public, or who we are on the inside and on the outside.
According to the American Psychological Association, impostor syndrome is a significant struggle for women and people of color. Impostor syndrome is not about the low self-esteem of people of color. Experiences of racism cause people of color to feel powerless. Although we are still able to function, the sting remains. A consequence of racism is that it becomes internalized by people of color across socioeconomic lines. This causes some folks to struggle to accept their God-given abilities and accomplishments. Others have been repeatedly told that they are inadequate or less than, and soon they believe it. People of color cannot be open about their feelings, needs, or struggles with worthiness when they are in an environment where they are labeled an impostor. This was Winston and Pam’s story.
There are biblical stories of people who wear the mask of false bravado while struggling to admit their brokenness and need; others struggle with their greatness. In John 4 Jesus goes out of his way to have a divine appointment with a Samaritan woman at a well. Although everyone else came to the well in the earlier and cooler part of the day, this woman chose to come in the heat of the day when she would not be seen. She wanted to avoid the glances and the whispers. She wore a figurative mask to isolate herself from others. We do the same, and we too know the loneliness of not having anyone meet us in our pain. But Jesus met her just like he meets us; he comes where and when we least expect him. The encounter is remarkable because as a Jew, Jesus should not be speaking to her. She was a mixed-race Samaritan woman, whose status was considered just above that of cattle and who was thought to be unclean. Like most of us, she had a past full of things done to her and choices made by her that contributed to who she became. Like many of us, she had experiences that gave her negative messages about herself, her race, and God.
As the years rolled by without a college degree, Winston and Pam realized that the options for Winston were limited, given the social restrictions of class and race in the United Kingdom. Sometimes the Lord opens an unexpected door. When Nick was eleven and his sisters were eight, the family immigrated to the United States, carrying only their most precious belongings in suitcases. Other doors opened when Winston found employment at the New York Institute of Technology as a supervisor of an engineering lab and completed his degree, confirming for him that the roadblocks he faced in the United Kingdom were race-based. Although Winston and Pam were self-sufficient, the strain of building a new life drove them to a small Assembly of God church where they recommitted their lives to Christ. Almost overnight Winston became more relaxed after work, and weekends were opportunities for fun. Sundays, in particular, were now focused on the Lord and family. Nick felt he had finally gotten the father he always wanted.
For Pam, the transition was not as rosy. She carried considerable responsibility and authority as a midwifery nurse in the United Kingdom. In the United States midwifery was not as well respected. And Pam was a Black woman who refused to “stay in her place.” Arguments were frequent with doctors who used forceps and other invasive techniques, or relied heavily and unnecessarily on cesarean sections to remove babies from the womb. Pam could no longer be part of a system that violated her deeply held personal values. She became a conventional nurse, and it was not long before her nursing skills would come in handy when Winston experienced frequent and painful urination. His doctor brushed them off repeatedly after checkups and general tests revealed nothing.
Research studies have shown that because of systemic racism there is significant bias in the quality of medical treatment received according to one’s racial group. Black men are more likely to experience treatment delays and postoperative complications dealing with cancer of the prostate than White men. Because of Pam’s insistence, Winston finally got a second opinion. The new doctor returned with a troubling diagnosis of moderately advanced prostate cancer. Pam helped Winston navigate the medical establishment to get proper treatment, and he eventually went into remission.
Pam and Winston believed that education was the ticket to success in the world. On Nick’s first day of school, Pam sat him down and recited an instruction that he and his sisters after him would call “The Catechism”—betraying their Anglican roots. She told Nick that he is a Black boy in a White world, and White people will expect him to do poorly or they would have no expectations of him at all. Each week she would remind him that he was gifted but could not be just as good as his White classmates; he had to blow away the competition. A long-standing consequence was that Nick often felt like an impostor. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Nick accepted the lie of shame and self-hatred that said there must be something defective about him because he had to do extra things to get noticed. Somehow, just being himself was not good enough. His anger was directed outwards in two directions: anger toward White people who set up standards of acceptance and benefited from systemic racism, and anger directed toward other Blacks who were not meeting that standard or who messed up his game.
Nick worked hard and it paid off. Pam and Winston proudly announced to their church family that Nick was accepted into Massachusetts Institution of Technology (MIT). The summer before his freshman year Nick received an invitation to participate in an academic and student support program for incoming students of color. Nick did not participate, partly because he thought he did not need it, and partly because he feared being labeled as a person of color who got into MIT because they lowered their standards. During his first semester Nick began experiencing stereotype threats, and by the end of the term his fear was realized as his grades were flailing. Nick was fundamentally lonely. He trusted no one, neither Whites nor Blacks. He created an emotional wall around himself that cut him off from authentic relationships. He wore a mask and retreated into the books and excelling at school. In doing so, Nick ran away from his pain and anger over the situation. Because he did not want to be hurt, he morphed and assimilated. His White friends would say of him, “When I think about you, I don’t think that you are Black.” This was not good news, because Nick is Black and comes with a culture and a legacy. Nick disavowed this when he wore the mask, and White people disavowed it when they did not see him in his totality.
During Nick’s freshman year his dad’s cancer returned with a vengeance, and by his sophomore year his father passed away. That year, while trying to deal with such great loss, Nick was belittled by a racist professor who took every opportunity to engage in microaggressions to communicate to Nick that he did not belong. Nick watched his professor fully engage with White students, but the professor either ignored him or was straight faced with hints of contempt. Nick did not know how to respond and feared the consequence if he did.
In some cases when we have issues with authority figures, we either react in open rebellion against them, or because we feel it is too risky, we do not speak the truth nor do we trust ourselves or others. Instead, we become passive-aggressive or manipulative in an attempt to get our message across. People of color may respond this way because of the fear of retaliation. It is difficult to say what we really feel, so the result is a lot of confusion. We may not know what we want because we have never had the chance to express our hearts. When we feel diminished or shamed, we may lash out in anger as a form of retaliation.
Nick did not process the grief over the loss of his father. It was impossible for him to see how the impostor syndrome was affecting him while he was in a place where he was told that he was an impostor. Nick passed the course and later graduated from MIT. He still wore a mask and thought, Maybe Mom’s catechism was right.
It took another five years before Nick had a pivotal experience that helped him to heal from racial trauma and find freedom from the impostor syndrome. He participated in an emotional healing conference in Philadelphia that literally transformed his life. When Nick arrived at the healing conference he had little hope for change. Yet he prayed for insight and healing, particularly about why it was difficult to emotionally connect with Jonathan, our then two-year old son. As the conference drew to a close, Nick sat alone, an emotionless impostor. During the closing prayer, I asked a Black man to pray with Nick. As the man prayed, grief washed over Nick. He doubled over, wailing loudly and was thoroughly broken as he began to see how interpersonal and generational racial trauma caused him to close off emotionally from his son.
He was repeating his mom’s attempt to prepare her Black son for the harsh realities of life—and he was as disconnected from his Black son as his father had been. Another man came and prayed, and a grave disappointment surfaced as Nick spoke of how he finally got the father he always wanted only to have him snatched away. All those years he felt he was not allowed to feel his disappointment. His cries were deep and guttural as he finally tapped into the well of pain he carried when his dad passed away during the fall of his sophomore year.
A New Source
Beyond our hiding or the robust and defiant face that we put on, Jesus knows where we have been and who we really are. In John 4:13‑16 the woman at the well wants water, but what she really needs is water that will quench her deepest thirst. Jesus responds to the woman, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The Holy Spirit brings us into all truth, which includes the fact that behind the mask is a person in need of a Savior. When we come to the Lord just as we are—vulnerable, fearful, and needy—he meets us there and confronts the lies we believe about him, ourselves, and others. He exchanges the lies for the truth that we are loved, forgiven, and transformed. He heals the deep well of shame within us.
After her encounter with Jesus, the woman left her water jar, a subtle but meaningful metaphor. Jesus is now her new source and means of getting her deepest needs met. The woman promptly went into town to spread the good news that the Christ had come. She said to the men, “Come and see a Man Who told me everything I ever did! Can this be the Christ?” The people later said to the woman, “Now we believe! It is no longer because of what you said about Jesus, but we have heard Him ourselves. We know, for sure, that He is the Christ, the One Who saves men of this world from the punishment of their sins” (John 4:29, 42).
Just like the woman at the well, Nick no longer needed to wear a mask and isolate himself from his family and community. His heart had been like the rose of Jericho or the resurrection plant. During the dry season the small gray branches of the plant curl up forming a ball that covers its seedpods. It is one of a few plants known for their ability to survive desiccation. The plant can actually survive this way for years. It looks like it is dead; however, when it receives water, its leaves quickly turn green, and it produces tiny white flowers. With every teardrop, Nick became more alive and resilient. He knows that he will face shaming and racism in the future, so he is diligent about the choices he makes in his thoughts and actions. He continues to need others he can process things with and pray about any future racist incidents and significant racial trauma.
For the past twenty-five years, Nick has met monthly with a supportive group of Black, White, and Brown Christian men: Bil, Scott, and Bill. They call themselves MMOG (mighty men of God); they openly share their struggles and triumphs and pray for one another. These brothers in Christ help Nick see his blind spots: when he is falling into perfectionism or comparison. When Nick is feeling overwhelmed because of racism and life in general and is tempted to hide behind a mask or believe the impostor syndrome’s lies, the men speak truth to him. They challenge him to ask for help or, at other times, not to take himself so seriously. They tell Nick that he is not alone and his life matters. They remind Nick of what Jesus says about him in the Word and that he is unconditionally loved by God and them.
In Isaiah 61:7 we read, Because their shame was double, and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot, therefore they shall possess a double portion; everlasting joy shall be theirs.
After the woman met Jesus at the well, she was freed from shame and received a double portion of blessing in her land. The Lord does the same for each of us. He sees in us something more profound than what the world would tell us. He sees people of color lovingly created to bear his image and likeness and be redeemed by his grace. Jesus says that who we truly are is found in and through him. As we lay down our masks and shame and surrender our pain to Jesus (just as Nick did), we begin to see that the Lord has already bestowed honor on us. We discover the many ways that he blesses us right where we are, as people of color beloved of the Lord. No longer in hiding, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to free others from the weight of shame.