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Last week I wrote about why we talk about race at church. I mentioned these reasons:

  • Christianity has been used as a tool of racism which means that it falls to Christians, even more than to the non-religious or to people of other faiths, to dismantle the theology that puts white people on top of the racial hierarchy. As long as Christianity continues to be linked with white supremacy, Christians who oppose this view--which is most of us, thanks be to God--need to be equally vocal in their views. For more on how Christianity has supported the view of white supremacy, check out Jennifer Bailey’s excellent video. It’s a few short minutes and well worth every one.
  • Even “progressives” have their baggage. One thing that’s emerged in recent years is the subtlety of white privilege. Even those of us who would never, ever utter a racist word benefit from--and contribute to--white privilege. Which means we have a lot of inner work to do identifying our own biases as well as outer work to do supporting our brothers and sisters who have been fighting to create an America that’s truly equal. And since we hold as a central truth that all people are created in the image of God, the work of racial healing is part of our mission as Christians.
  • Color blind teaching doesn’t work. Many of us have made the mistake of believing that if we don’t talk about race then racism won’t exist. After all, if we don’t highlight our differences, then people will automatically believe that all folks are equal. This sounds nice (and it’s a mistake I made myself) but it’s not true. The truth is, that messages reinforcing racial bias are everywhere. Which means that if we don’t speak out against them, we’ll accidentally internalize them. This is why I’m passionate about talking to kids about race.

Middle and high schoolers are eager to explore ideas of activism so when I talk about race and racism with this age group, I’m more explicit in helping them think about how they can take a stand. By this point, they’ve experienced exclusion in some very real ways. Popularity is becoming a big deal and they know what it’s like to live in fear of being relegated to the “unpopular” table at someone else’s whim. Whereas younger kids can talk about racism in terms of “not nice” and “wrong,” older kids are ready to start labelling things as “unfair,” or “unjust.” As they get older, they can talk about power dynamics and the cost of taking a stand against injustice.

With our youth group, I started our discussion by reading the story of Shiprah and Pu’ah, the Hebrew midwives who resisted Pharoah’s command to commit genocide against all Hebrew male babies. It doesn’t take much here—a few minutes of retelling the Bible story in order to unpack it from its Bible language was all I needed for the kids to gasp in horror. “That’s a horrible story! And it’s in the BIBLE!?”

This is where it’s important to have an actual discussion. The Bible is full of real issues for us to unpack, the problem is we usually reduce them to a few aphorisms. This is especially true as kids get older—for young children, it’s entirely appropriate to avoid the horror stories of the Bible. The Bible isn’t really a children’s book. For older kids, though, addressing these things is important for their faith development. They need to know that the Bible is relevant, otherwise, it’ll get discarded alongside the toys and books they’ve outgrown.

Our discussion became one of ethics. How do we decide when something is wrong? How far should we go to stand up for other people? When is it ok to break a law, as Shiprah and Pu’ah did? What did they risk? What are we willing to risk? What’s it like to be judged just for being who you are? What’s it like to be powerless? What's it like to be powerful? 

When talking with kids of any age about hard issues, the three guiding principles I use are:

  • Let them come to it themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I introduced this topic and I did it with a specific goal in mind. I’m not saying “wait until kids bring it up.” But, there’s a fine line between talking with kids and talking at them. The goal isn’t just to tell kids what’s wrong or right, it’s to help them practice figuring it out.
  • Keep it a safe conversation. Our ultimate goal as adults is to be the people that kids can come to when the going gets rough. That means that we make sure not to accidentally give off the vibe that we’re condescending to them. 
  • Keep labeling these dynamics. Reinforce the vocabulary that kids need to engage with these issues. They've heard the words "race," "racism," "civil disobedience," "ethics," "morals," etc. Each of them could have defined these if I'd asked them to. What they didn't realize was that these were still relevant today. Or that they are part of our faith stories. 

So that's how I do it--but I'm always challenged to do it more and better. For more explicit resources on talking to kids about race and racism, I really like the website Raising Race Conscious Children.

Until next week, grace and peace.