What Can Moms Do About Racism?

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.

You can make sure that they see the Imago Dei in people who don’t look like them.

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7 Quick Takes: What You Can Do About Racism

seven-quick-takes-friday

1

If you spend any time on the news – or even on Facebook – you’re already sick of hearing about Charleston. Unless, of course, you’re black, in which case it’s too close to home for you to be “sick” of it. In that case, it’s not an item on the news, another tragedy, another shooting. No, it’s another signal that a significant portion of the country sees you as less than human, and some of them will act on it. White people (I speak as one), this is not just another news story. If you think you’re tired, how tired is the community that has to bury the bodies?

2

They are tired, and they are angry, and they need us to listen. Our black brothers and sisters in Christ were gunned down in a church, and the least we can do is listen and educated ourselves. If you think that our country is over racism, listen again. Listen until it clicks, until you say “What can I do?” as a genuine question, not as a defense mechanism.

3

As with so many things, what an individual can do depends, in part, on your vocation. Since I know that some of my readers are mothers, I’ll start with parents. Y’all are on the front lines. You are shaping the next generation. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to say that Jesus loves everyone regardless of skin color. You have to model it.

I grew up in a racist household. Probably many of you did as well. Maybe your father didn’t say racial slurs, but did you get the impression that black people were unsafe? That “black” or “African American” means poor, illiterate, criminal? It’s very, very hard to overcome that, to recognize the implicit racism in your subconscious. Even those of us who consider ourselves unprejudiced have hidden biases that say otherwise. Part of teaching your children is teaching yourself, knowing that you probably have racial prejudice.

4

But how do you teach kids about racism? Isn’t it best to just not mention color at all? That seems to be many parents’ philosophy, but I think it’s flawed, if well-intended. Think of it like sexual ethics. It’s common knowledge that our culture teaches all kinds of harmful messages about sex. As parents, you know this better than anyone, and it’s in the forefront of your mind as you monitor potential movies or have serious discussions with your kids. You would never just let your kids pick up their cues about sex from the culture without your own input. Racism is the same way. It might be politically incorrect to be racist, but that doesn’t mean that the wider culture in America isn’t heavily prejudiced against black people. Even if you homeschool, your kids will bump up against it sooner or later. Don’t let it surprise you; be proactive. Seek ways for your kids to interact with people outside of their own race. Get them used to being with people who are different from them, to see them as real people with their own likes and dislikes and passions. If you see something racist in a movie, don’t just let it pass. Talk to your kids about it, in the same way that you might a commercial that borders on porn.

5

Those who teach have an important role as well, from classroom teachers to religious teachers to homeschooling parents. Here’s my suggestion: start at the local level. Unfortunately, most American communities have a history that was marred by racism in one way or another; fortunately, there are often stories of bravery and progress. Was your town part of the Underground Railroad? Were there sit-ins during the 60s? Were slaves sold in your town? (Even in the Northeast, this is a strong possibility). Make it real for your students, not just something that happened “over there.” Be frank about what’s changed and what hasn’t changed (spoiler: a lot hasn’t changed). Be honest about the fact that racial discrimination is still a problem in our country, and what needs to change.

6

Pastors and priests, I’m going to be real with you (if by any chance you happen to see this). You need to stop being afraid of offending your white congregations. As frightening as it may be – my husband preaches sermons, I get it – it’s your job. We need your help to be the most loving, truth-serving Christians we can be, and sometimes that’s going to mean some tough love. If you didn’t address it this Sunday, do so the next. You might offend the big donors, but I have a feeling that Jesus did plenty of that in His day.

I have been in church my whole life, usually twice on Sunday. I have only once heard a sermon on racism, and it was from a black preacher.

7

And those of us who aren’t teaching anyone? Haha just kidding, we all do. At some point, you or I will be in a room when someone complains about “Canadians” (that’s how people say nigger in public now, FYI). Maybe you’ll witness racial profiling in a store (this has happened to me, and I’m ashamed to admit I kept my head down and did nothing). Maybe you’ll be in a presence of children when that happens. I pray that we will have the cajones to speak up. Like most Southern ladies I was taught to respect my elders and go along quietly with whatever they say or do, even if it’s horribly racist. This is false kindness. Even since reading this article I’ve been chewing on how to live differently. I hope you will too.

Further reading:

Things for White People to do to Fight Racism

Some historical background on Charleston

This explains the difference between simple prejudice (“reverse racism”) and prejudice plus centuries of power.

This writer from Georgia reminds us that racism isn’t just a Southern thing.

This journalist explains the media bias about how black and white criminals are described.

Or just go to the library and pull out Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs and A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas. Learning about what slavery was really like was a huge turning point for me.

Are You Racist? A Handy Quiz.

If you use racial slurs and think that black people are animals, then fine. Whatever. The world is moving on and leaving you behind, and the best we can do is make sure that people like you aren’t given enough power to do damage. Unfortunately, sometimes you get guns or bombs and become a terrorist, and then we have to clean up after you. During the clean up though, we tend to forget that even good white people in America are racists.

I’m talking to good white people. You believe that God loves everyone. You strive to judge by the content of one’s character. You would never dream of using a racist slur. Beyond that, you probably don’t think about race at all, until something like Charleston happens, and then you’re shocked at what an individual would do, so shocked you think that surely he must be mentally ill.

(Most mentally ill people don’t go shooting up churches, but that’s a topic for another day).

Good white person, you have a 99.99999% chance of being deeply but subconsciously racist. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

1. When you see pictures of black teenagers, how old do you think they are? What about white teenagers? What about white men in their 20s? What about black and white children?

2. What do you call a black man when he commits a violent crime? What about a white man who commits a violent crime? Whom do you make excuses for?

3. What is your threshold for “professional looking” on a black person? What about a white person? Are those different thresholds – does the black person need to wear nicer clothes in order to look sufficiently professional?

4. How do you distinguish between a good neighborhood and a bad one? What about a good school verses a bad one?

While you’re thinking, here’s a test developed at Harvard to test implicit racism – i.e. if you have an automatic preference for people of European descent over those of African descent. When I took the test it showed a strong implicit bias towards whites.