Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The "Kids and Race" Conversation

A few weeks ago I shared about why I feel it's so important, really crucial, to choose to intentionally educate our children about ethnicity and culture. A number of people responded really enthusiastically in agreement but wondered where exactly to start. I am by no means an expert, but here is a list of what I have done and am continuing to do for my own individual growth and understanding as well as in learning to educate my family.

(1) Start with yourself. If you are uncomfortable talking about ethnicity and race, you won't get anywhere with your child. Seek to understand your own background, your own culture. Read books about stories different from your own. Watch movies that teach you about different ways of life. And this may be the most obvious thing in the world, but ask yourself "Does my immediate world only look like me?" What ethnicities are represented in your church? Do you have close friends who are people of color, the kind of friends with whom hard conversations can happen and the friendship will actually deepen? Who are your neighbors? What does your child's school look like? His teachers and principal? Her doctors and dentists? His friends? Sports teams and clubs? You may need to make intentional choices to have more diverse surroundings in your life.

(2) Learn to listen. As a white person, some of my biggest hurdles were in learning to hear and believe what my friends were telling me. I wanted to solve it, deny it, wallow in grief about it, but I had to stop reacting and just listen. Just sit with them in it. I had to learn their stories, see which experiences had contributed to who they were to even begin to come to grips with my own voice in this great conversation. Be quick to listen and slow to defend.

(3) Embrace your child's observations. Your children may notice differences in skin color or hair texture or how someone talks. Rather than shushing them and telling them we are "all the same" or it's wrong to notice those things, ask them questions. Well, what color is his skin? What color is your skin? What does this hair feel like? Do you know that there are places where people speak languages other than English? Do yo know that you speak English? What countries can we find on the map? Do you know that your ancestors didn't grow up here and came from other countries like these? Kids love questions, they love trying to answer them and they will ask you 100 more for each one you answer.

(4) Intentionally grow your library. If you are like me, your child's library is full of favorite books you owned as a child, of gifts you've been given by others and by the occasional book your child has actually picked our him or herself. What would it look like if you asked friends of yours with different backgrounds what some of their favorite books were in childhood? Or scoured the internet for lists of books with protagonists that look different from your child or you? Check out some of those books from the library, find your favorites and put them on birthday and Christmas lists. Your child's library should be a picture of the fullness of the ethnic story.

(5) Find ways to celebrate and explore culture. Many of us live in or near cities that are actively promoting cultural conversation. Print out your city's annual civic calendar. Is there an Irish festival coming up? Go ahead and check it out and enjoy the dancing and soda bread. What about a Chinese New Year celebration? Or an African Arts Festival? Vary up your family activities - these types of activities will only increase your child's exposure and give them more opportunities to ask good questions and experience, quite frankly, a lot of fun and food they might not otherwise have had.

(6) Have international nights at home. Wouldn't it be a neat thing to choose one night a week or a month and have an international night? Pick a country and find it on the map, have your children do some coloring or decorating in the colors of its flag, make a meal from that locale, learn to say "hello", "goodbye" and "I love you" in that language. Invite some friends to do this with you- maybe even take turns hosting this with a bunch of families. Geography, culture and good food all in one. Easy win.

(7) Don't just go with America's race conversation timeline. Our education system has relegated the appreciation of certain backgrounds to specific months of the year. If we only celebrate those backgrounds during that month, though, what does that teach our children? That white is normal and everyone else gets one month of thought. Don't just wait until February to talk about black history. Learn enough about it that it becomes a part of American History in your household. Read books like "Heart and Soul" by Kadir Nelson so your kids begin to understand the bigger story. Don't just talk about Native Americans at Thanksgiving and please do not play into the legends our country has built around it, the ways we've whitewashed a great injustice. Learn the real stories of Columbus and the early explorers. Dig deeper and teach truth in age-appropriate ways. Your kids can handle it and will thank you later for your honesty.

(8) Open up your experience of God. I grew up in a middle class, white, northeastern town. Most of the people in my church had Italian or Irish backgrounds and had been raised in Catholic households. As such, I had a specific experience of God molded in that context - one that concentrated on love and holiness. By leaving the north and going to Virginia, I saw a different view of God and how to approach him, one that centered more on grace. When I began going to Gospel Choir concerts and then joined an inner city church and was trained as a worship leader, I saw yet again a different view of God and what it looked like to worship him, one that emphasized his love of freedom and deliverance. All these experiences have deepened and broadened my understanding of who He is and the story he tells. If I only ever worship where I am initially comfortable, I am not just closing myself off to learning more about others but I'm honestly telling God I don't need to know as much about him. That may sound harsh, but I believe it to be true. Teach your children songs that praise him in non-English languages, help them learn to enjoy music written by his people that may not be playing on your local Christian station or be on CCLI's top 10 list that week. I promise you, you'll thank me for it.

(9) Teach your kids to listen. This will flow out of our own good listening. I don't know about you, but I want to raise children who like the sound of other's voices. Who want to ask good questions and then quiet down and listen to the answers rather than children who will compete with others for who can tell the best story about themselves, who are staying quiet through an answer only to formulate their own story in response. Our American tendency is to one-up each other, to love the sound of our own voice and trumpet it freely. I am guilty of this myself. But what would it look like to raise people who cared about other people, who legitimately wanted to know each other's stories and celebrate them, mourn with them, encourage them? Wouldn't that set them up much better to believe the injustice they hear about and be allies in overcoming it?

(10) Give yourself and others grace. There is no one right way to talk about all this. You will fail. You won't have answers. You may even teach your kid the wrong terminology and you will find yourself embarrassed along the way. Your may even unintentionally offend someone. It's ok. Ask for forgiveness, find out how you could have done it differently and then keep going. The important thing is to give it a try. Get to know yourself, your family, your background. Get to know your neighborhood, your schools and places of worship. Get to know your child and his or her unique ways of approaching the world and help them learn how to have these conversations. Never be afraid to ask questions. Look for conversation opportunities in your kids experiences. Make sure your kids know that it is safe to ask you any questions they may have. Be patient with yourself and take your time. You can't educate your child in a single conversation. Don't spent a week reading every book you can get your hands on and tire yourself out. Just slowly, intentionally and honestly weave this as an important conversation into your family's life. As with anything, the more something is just a part of your everyday language, the more the people around you (including your children) believe it to be an integral value in your life.

Here is a list of resources that have helped (or are helping me right now!) along the way. They are by no means exhaustive and I encourage you to follow the links in the articles provided within them and continue to explore.  Some of them relate to faith and race and others are more general. I find new things to read all the time. If you have resources to suggest, PLEASE share them in the comments! I would greatly appreciate it.

Understanding the Issue Yourself

"Being White: Finding Our Place in a Multiethnic World" by Harris and Schaupp

  • If you are white, I suggest reading this book to help you understand your own ethnic background and culture. White people so often just default to thinking we are "normal Americans" and everyone else has a special culture. It's so crucial that we don't do that. 
More Than Equals by Rice and Perkins

Talking to your Children About Race


Children’s Books - Some of these intentionally talk about race and others are just good books that depict diverse characters and honor the values of learning and cultural celebration. I have read a lot of them and am currently reading the others!

The Colors of Us by Karen Katz
The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler
A Rainbow of Friends by PK Hallinan
We’re Different, We’re the Same by Sesame Street
God's Dream by Tutu and Abrams
Chocolate Me by Taye Diggs
Whoever You Are by Mem Fox

Grade School
The Story of Ruby Bridges by Coles
National Geographic Kids: Martin Luther King, Jr.
We March by Shane W. Evans
Dave the Potter by Hill and Collier
Heart and Soul by Kadir Nelson
Under the Same Sun by Sharon Robinson
Henry Aaron's Dream by Matt Tavares
I am Rosa Parks by Rosa Parks and Jim Haskins
Almond Cookies and Dragon Well Tea by Chin-Lee
Black is Brown is Tan by Adoff

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