To my fellow white parents: how to talk about racism with our kids

White adult hands cradle white child hands that are holding a dandelion

In 2012 when Trayvon Martin was killed, I was sure Zimmerman would be convicted. I realize now how naive that was. His murder was a catalyst for my anti-racist journey, and if you, white friend, are reading this, then you’ve likely experienced a catalyst too. In 2012, my oldest child was only one, and I had no clue what we would eventually discover when he started school.

We’re a white family living in the suburbs with a lot of other white families. When we moved here because of a job, I didn’t know why that was the case. I taught karate at after school middle school programs for a while until I was too pregnant to teach, and didn’t understand why I’d been warned off one school as containing the children who were “difficult.” That school had a much higher percentage of black students for our county than the other two I worked with. I still needed to learn that “good schools” was code for “white schools” and that discrimination in the system becomes clear even amongst the peers of my son as he started kindergarten at the local elementary school. By then I’d learned to see many of the little and not so little things in the system that weight society against a black child from the moment they make their debut in the world.

Different encounters and stories from my five year old made me realize that anti-racist education must start early because the presumption of white innocence and black guilt starts early. Black students even in kindergarten and preschool are more than twice as likely to be suspended as their white or even Hispanic peers. White children are perceived to be more innocent and even seen as younger than their black peers, while black children are often perceived as older and therefore more culpable and are punished more severely. This is seen most drastically in incidents such as the murder of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old child playing with a toy gun, as indeed my boys like to do, who was murdered by the police before the car even came to a complete stop.

The officer who murdered Philando Castile in cold blood for following the law and declaring he had a lawfully owned gun in the car at a traffic stop was acquitted because the jury found his defense that he had been afraid for his life reasonable.

Both of these incidents are just drops in the bucket in what could be a very long list of white people seeing black people as dangerous. Trained officers shooting down a child because his skin made them so afraid, they couldn’t even put the car in park to assess the situation.

And if you are justly horrified by all of this and asking what you can do, I’m saying part of the answer is talking to your white kids about racism.

Perhaps some of your thoughts are like mine were along the lines of, but why should I be the one to destroy my child’s innocence? They shouldn’t have to deal with things like this. I struggled with this as well until my kid encountered racist ideas from his classmates and possibly his teachers and I realized that unless I actively taught my children to be anti-racist from young ages and to break the cycle, our culture in this country will teach them to be racist from the start.
White supremacy is programmed into the very DNA of our nation from the stolen indigenous lands on which we reside to the stolen people from Africa we brought here by force and who built the economy that continues to benefit white people more than black people. Black parents start talking to their kids around the age of five about how they will be seen as different, and if black parents have to talk to their kids about this, white kids shouldn’t be exempt. In fact they can’t be exempt if we want to break the cycles and hopefully build a world where one day, none of us have to have “the talk” with our children on race.

There are so many resources out there on all of this if you haven’t done a deep dive into this yet. I’m writing to you today to share some ideas and resources specifically to help white parents talk to white children about race.

The easiest way is to make sure that they are reading and watching shows that have people of color as protagonists. From Doc McStuffins, to Elena of Avalor, to Molly of Denali, the children’s shows of today are beginning to not only be more diverse in their representations, but also to talk frankly about racism. One of the first episodes of Molly of Denali deals with her grandfather being forcibly sent to one of the boarding schools that the colonists imposed on native children where they cut their hair and punished them for singing and speaking in their native language. The episode is beautifully done and led to an age appropriate discussion about stolen land and boarding schools.

For 8-year-olds or older, “Raising Dion” is not only awesomely written, but deals frankly with racism in schools as experienced by a black child of that age. Shows with representation teach children that all stories are equally important, not just white stories. Shows with representation that also talk about race from the characters perspective are even more invaluable for your child’s anti-racist journey.

One book that I’ve found invaluable to help talk to my now 9-year-old is Not My Idea: A Book about Whiteness. Laid out like a storybook that he could have read by himself, I still sat down and read it with him because we had to stop every few pages and talk through the content. It is a fantastic tool for conversation.

We are the Change is a beautifully illustrated book with quotes from civil rights leaders with short blurbs about who the person was and what they were fighting for. It’s not only inspirational, it can be a great jumping off point for research about the lives and struggles of the people in the book.

Let the Children March by Monica Clark-Robinson is a powerful piece on the Birmingham Children’s Crusade in 1963. It’s told from the perspective of one of the marchers and highlights just how powerful children are in the struggle for social change. Plus if those kids faced hoses and police dogs and spent time in jail while white adults responded by bombing Dr. King’s brother’s home, I think our kids can handle learning about it.

She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman by Erica Armstrong Dunbar is written on a fourth grade reading level or so and is a wonderfully concise biography that adults could learn from along with their children.

A Young People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn fills in many of the intentional gaps created by the white-centered history curriculums taught in schools and homeschools across the nation.

For more ideas and books with black leads, just google “books with black leads for kids” and you’ll see lists of them. Some of the lists are entitled as “books all black kids should read” but I would argue they should be read by all kids. The world in which we immerse them during these formative years is very powerful. I hope to give my kids a jumpstart on their anti-racist journeys so they don’t have as much to unlearn as I do. And if a lot of us white parents start doing this, I truly believe it will normalize anti-racist converstation and shift the culture. After all, in systemic racism, we are the system, and it won’t change until we change.

And if you think you haven’t gone far enough on your own journey to teach your kids, let me leave you with this quote from Ijeoma Oluo: “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.”

Cross-posted to Medium.

One True Sentence: Remembering RHE

Looking up at my clipboard wall from where I sit at my desk
Looking up at my clipboard wall from where I sit at my desk

One year ago, I was in California. I’d just attended the wedding of a friend the night before, and I’d been visiting with my brother and his family and other old friends, so I’d barely had time to check my phone. The evening of the fourth I scrolled my facebook feed and amid the star wars memes, I saw the news that Rachel Held Evans had died. A loud and involuntary “no!” escaped my lips and startled my brother. “What happened?” he asked. And I tried to inadequately explain why I was so upset over this person who I hadn’t known personally.

I’ve been sitting here this morning, crying over all the posts from her friends remembering her and feeling like I didn’t have the “right” to grieve her in the first place, much less this much now. She wasn’t a friend of mine, after all.

But then I called myself up short. Grief is grief, and if you feel it, you feel it. Sometimes one grief is access to other grief, and I may be feeling this heavy today not just because of Rachel but because of, well, everything right now. Several actual friends of mine have lost relatives to the pandemic.

And gee, I bet Rachel would have some really good words for all of us in the midst of all the strangeness, and all the sadness, and all the disappointment, and all the grief.

Trying to process grief on a plane ride home when you’re trying not to turn into a bawling, snotty mess in front of total strangers is no fun, let me tell you.

The loss of Rachel is first her family’s loss and her friends’ loss, but it is also a loss to all of us. Her voice was and is so needed, and while her words will live on, I’m mad she won’t be writing more of them.

Glennon Doyle tweeted part of her new forward for Searching for Sunday: “Then, she’d turn to us. She’d promise us that the giants of power, fear, and shame could never prevail because they didn’t have truth on their side. Then she’d tell us the truth: That we were made in God’s image, fully loved and fully free, and that we were to use that freedom to free others. We believed her.”

In my grief I asked, “Who will replace her?” And of course the answer is “no one.” Each of us are irreplaceable and each of us has our own voice and our own story. But I also felt the answer was “all of you.” All of us who were touched by her life and her work and her story, especially because she used her story to help all of us get free and if that’s not a mandate to get out and tell our own stories, then I don’t know what is.

Her legacy page on facebook has a picture of her desk, as I can only imagine it was left when she got sick. A haphazard pile of books towers on one side, and papers and more books are scattered amidst a couple of jars holding pens and a mug. Above it hangs a corkboard with notes she’d written to herself. As I studied the picture in the days after her death, one stuck out at me. Across three scraps of paper pinned side-by-side she’d written: “ONE TRUE SENTENCE” in all caps and underlined.

When I created my clipboard wall last fall, I included a graphic I made with those words both as a reminder of her work, and as a mandate. Just try to write one true sentence. Imagine what the world would be if we all tapped into the power of our own stories and figured out how to tell them to each other, one true sentence at a time.

Holy Saturday and Disorientation

Holy Saturday and DisorientationLike many of you, I haven’t left my house in over a month at this point. Unlike many of you, this isn’t the first time. Chronic illness as it turns out is fabulous mental preparation for quarantine and social distancing. It’s funny how the things you most wish hadn’t happened are the things that shape you the most.

We wait this Holy Saturday in a world that is holding its breath in a way that has never happened in my lifetime. Too many things are buried and it’s far easier to identify with the grave right now than with the resurrection to come. We Christians walk through this reenactment each year, but we know the ending. We sit with the loss, but we know exactly how long we have to wait for Easter Sunday. But not this year. This year, Easter arrives and we all stay inside. This year the weight of those lost presses on us and the unknown of when this will end is ever-present as though the smog that has lifted from so many of our cities has moved into our collective psyche.

“I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope. My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning” (Psalm 130:4-5).

All of our souls are watching and waiting but unlike the morning, there is no predetermined time that will lift us out of the dangers of this night and start a new day. More like the plague of darkness that came onto Egypt that for the average citizen came from nowhere and must have felt interminable, this night is not an ordinary night. If in the order of things the night stands for chaos and the light for order, this plague of darkness represented a “reversal of creation” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). And even though night and day are coming with their normal regularity, in so many ways we are experiencing a collective unmaking.

For some of us this is a completely new experience. For others, it’s another round in a series of unmaking. When one has experienced chronic illness, disability, mental illness, and/or dark nights of the soul, the only way to survive is to sit with the unmaking. The unbecoming.

You see, I haven’t always been sick. Once I was healthy and energetic, but a combination of things gradually chipped away at who I thought I was and what I thought mattered. Chronic illness that came with mental health struggles and a series of crises of faith has given me a lot of practice at unbecoming.

I’m not sure if it gets any easier, but it does become recognizable, and it helps to put a name on the season at the very least. In seminary, one of my Old Testament professors, John Goldingay, led us on a journey through the Psalms, looking at each of them as either a Psalm of orientation, disorientation, or reorientation. This cycle was imprinted in my mind in my early twenties and has helped me remember that our lives–individually and collectively–often match this pattern.

“Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord” (Psalm 130:1a BCP)

Psalm 130 is a Psalm of disorientation that moves towards a positive declaration of hope “With him is plenteous redemption.” Not all the Psalms do. Psalm 88 is a notable example ending with “darkness is my only companion.” We humans are always searching for meaning, plugging in answers so that the story is complete. We need a narrative to hold onto and to fit our lives into so that we can tell ourselves that our stories make sense. This can be thought of as orientation. When we are oriented, our narratives fit into the metanarrative, we can make sense of our lives and the world.

But then something happens. Usually it’s not on this scale. Usually the disorientation is personal and limited to a small sphere of influence. In many ways, that makes it ever so much harder. Our world gets turned on its head through a death, a diagnosis, or a loss: of a job, a home, a marriage, our faith. And the world keeps puttering on around us even as our personal world comes to a grinding halt.

It’s like the sunshine that hit Nashville after the flood and after the tornado. The days had no business being that bright and beautiful after such heart-wrenching tragedies had just been wrought by the weather. The least nature could do was look ashamed of itself for a while.

We move through the disorientation that hits our lives and eventually we find a new orientation, a new way to process and make sense. We rejoin the world and shape a new narrative for ourselves about how we fit into everything.

This time it’s different. We are experiencing a collective disorientation. We have been plunged into darkness and we don’t know how long it will last. My hope this holy Saturday is that we sit with our collective unmaking, and as we move toward re-orientation in the days and weeks to come we will make something new of our world. May we make a place where there is justice and space for everyone to thrive.