Racism between and within racial ethnic groups exists everywhere. It exists in our small town of 7,000 on the plains of eastern Colorado.
What we do not experience, however, is racism in its most extreme expressions. The redlining, brutality, and systematic dehumanization we witness in some cities simply hasn’t happened here in anyone’s memory. Our Anglo and Hispanic kids grow up together. There’s some social segregation as they grow older, but friends remain friends for lifetimes. We have a very small African American community whom we know personally and love dearly.
I’m not trying to paint our community as perfect. It is not. Skin color gives advantages to some over others. Racial insult is real, and the achievement gap persists. We have work to do. Nevertheless, I lived in St. Louis for eleven years and owned a home in Ferguson–yes, THE Ferguson where Michael Brown was shot by Darren Wilson. I feel qualified to say that the reality here in our small town is simply not the same. In fact, an African American man who moved to our community several years ago told me plainly how much he appreciates living here where he can just be known for himself and not only as a stereotyped black man.
This is good news for our community, but it creates real dissonance for our teenagers as they witness the news from across our nation. Just in the past weeks, they’ve seen the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, and the young people with whom I’ve spoken are appalled and confused. In their small town world views, everyone is known, and everyone has a name. The violence just doesn’t make any sense to them, so they grasp for answers. I hear some try to blame the victim. The black men must have done something wrong, right? No one would treat another human being that way for no reason, right? In facile ways, I hear some dismiss the problem. If I can’t see it, it can’t be real, right? It’s just the media making something out of nothing, right?
Our teens’ questions lead us parents to our own questions: How do we help our teens understand? How do we prepare them to do better as they move out into the world for work and college? How do we demonstrate the compassion of Jesus to all their neighbors, even the ones they have not yet met?
I teach ethics at the local junior college in the spring. In early March, our class topic was race and racial reconciliation. I assembled a group of racially diverse students to present on the topic, speaking for themselves and their own experiences. It was a good plan, until one student got sick, and another had car trouble, and the remaining two students begged for another topic on another night so they could all present together.
The job of speaking about race and racial reconciliation fell to me, a 50 year old white lady. I did the best I could. I gave the students of color in class that night permission to stop me if I said something stupid. They laughed, but, of course, no one stopped me. After class, though, one of them gave me a hug and told me I did “okay.”
With some confidence from that “okay,” I share these thoughts today for fellow parents in this or other similar settings. Here’s what I have to offer:
- Draw on those positive experiences.
Talk to your kids about racism, drawing upon those positive experiences with people who are different from themselves. Those experiences are reference points when they witness racism themselves.
Last summer, we took our church youth group to north St. Louis County. Our crew leader over several days was a wonderful man named Ralph. Here is our group:
Later in the trip, in a conversation with one of the kids about the systemic racism in that area, I could point back to Ralph. “That’s what he lives with every day.” It deepened the understanding and heightened the desire to stand against it.
- Teach about fear.
Fear is powerful. It fuels racism and every other -ism our kids will experience as they move out into the world.
Scratch the surface of just about any teenager, and you’ll find plenty of fear. It looms large in the lives of our adolescents.
In our ongoing conversations about fear, racism can be a point of reference. Racism persists because subtle messages teach us to fear anyone who is different from ourselves, but especially people of color. We can recognize those false fears and learn not to act upon them. If we can teach them not to let their fear of failure stop them from attempting a new and difficult task, then certainly we can teach them not to let their fear of otherness stop them from seeing the image of God in all people.
- Pay attention to our biases.
We all fall into our cultural ruts. It’s inevitable. Be intentional about the media our kids see in our homes from a young age. Here’s a great list of questions we can ask ourselves from Alicia Akins:
- Point to Jesus.
Very few Christian teens in our small town have heard preaching that specifically addresses racism. Even fewer recognize that Jesus stood against the idolatry of separateness. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Our teenagers need to know that Jesus weeps with hearts broken by racial injustice.
In the wake of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, WV, in 2017, we took time in worship to acknowledge the reality of racism in our nation and community. There was no conversation afterwards, no loud amens from the congregation, but a whole lot of head nodding in understanding and appreciation from all generations. We know we have a problem, even if it makes us uncomfortable to acknowledge it.
So, parents, that’s what I have. What about you? What conversations are you having? I’d love to hear more and share what I can.
The peace of Christ be with us all.