Note: this is a response to Julie at These Walls. Last week she wrote a wonderful post entitled “The Post I’ve Been Waiting to Write on Race.” It’s also a response to comments wondering what individual people can do. I am not a mom, but I have many friends who are white Christian parents – many of them Episcopal priests or priest wives, because of my personal history. I know their struggles and have heard them wrestle with this question. The answers aren’t easy, but it’s too important to sweep under the rug.
To be more specific: what can middle class, white, suburban, Christian moms do?
You are in a rare position, possibly unprecedented in American life. On the one hand, you do not share the same racism that your ancestors likely did. You think that the Civil Rights Movement was good, that segregation is bad, that all humans were given rights by our Creator. You want to pass these beliefs on to your kids; you want them to judge a person on his or her “content of character” rather than skin color or national origin.
On the other hand, you are almost always in white only populations. Your church is mostly white, and many of the Latino congregants go to the Spanish language service. Your suburban neighborhood has one black family, a couple of Asian families… and lots of white families. If your kids went to public schools they would rub shoulders with people of other backgrounds, but they may be below school age, or home schooled, or attending a religious (and mostly white) school. You and your kids could easily go weeks at a time without interacting with anyone who isn’t white and middle-upper middle class.
Your exposure to anything regarding race or racism is Facebook posts which try to make you chose between protecting black Americans and protecting police. You begin to feel defensive, as if you are being blamed for something that your ancestors did. Above all, you feel helpless, because how can one person fight something that looks so entrenched?
The answer, or one of the answers, is in your children.
I’m not simply suggesting that you teach your kids that “racism is bad.” For one thing, they may not understand what racism is (maybe you struggle to answer that question as well?). For another, what I see advocated as the opposite of racism is color blindness, or an attempt to ignore race at all. I think this is a huge mistake, especially if your kids never actually interact with other ethnicities. As humans, we associate more readily with the familiar. If someone is brought up without any conversations about race, and only interacts with people who are white, it will be hard to understand American history, hard to understand current events, hard to empathize with the issues that still plague black communities.
The uncomfortable truth is that society as a whole does not treat black people as equals of white people. When someone brought up to be color blind observes quality of life differences between white and black communities, they conclude that black people must be at fault for these differences. It is a short walk from here to the conclusion that black people are dumber, lazier, more violent, etc, than white people.
Here is what I suggest instead: purposefully pursue relationships with people outside your race/ethnicity, for yourself and – especially – for your kids.
This is not an easy task if you live in suburbia, but it is crucial. Your kids need to spend time with people who don’t look like them. Charity work in the ghetto doesn’t cut it. They need to interact with black and Latino kids as peers. They need to have black adults who are authority figures: to be expected by their parents to obey and respect black adults just as they would white adults. This is one of the most important lessons you can teach your kids.
I’m going to be blunt: I don’t see this as something advocated by conservative Christians. If anything, I see the opposite: shelter your kids; monitor their friendships; protect them from the world. There is an element of truth there. Of course you must keep your kids from unnecessary dangers, and there are actual bad influences that need to be kept at bay. But it’s easy to take this too far. I’m dismayed to see homeschool moms deride the word “socialization,” to argue that their kids are better off without peer influences, that homeschool groups are plenty of socialization.
Take a hard look at your homeschool group, your church groups. Is there a single face there that isn’t white? Does it bother you to be in whites-only spaces?
If it does, that means that you were given a special gift: the gift of friendships and relationships with people of color. Your parents didn’t try to give it to you, it just happened because you lived in a more diverse neighborhood or went to public schools. However, your kids will not have that gift unless you make it happen.If being in a whites only space doesn’t bother you, it’s not cause to beat yourself up or feel defensive. It’s just an unfortunate fact that you probably grew up in segregated circles.
What matters is your response. You can make a generational change by bringing your children into integrated spaces as much as possible. You can make sure that they will be comfortable with black teachers, black coaches, black Bible study leaders. You can make sure that your children will have faces and names to think about when they hear about racially motivated killings.