Talking About Race at Church

Over the past year, UCC Longmont has had a few opportunities to spotlight issues of racial justice and healing. The Mind and Soul conference last fall was led by Lee Mun Wah and focused on racism and healing. Church member Julie Nosek led an adult study group using the curriculum White Privilege: Let’s Talk. Church member Amy Boele led a workshop for adults on talking to kids about race and racism. And I’ve made the topics of race, racism and white privilege part of several kids and youth activities.


Why all this conversation about racial justice issues in church? There are a few 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.

So how do I talk to kids about race? 


I borrowed the idea of “true stories and false stories” from Julius Lester’s book Let’s Talk About Race. (We have this book in our church library. Borrow it! It’s long for younger kids but it’s worth doing small chunks at a time and so far, even kids up to 6th grade find it interesting.)


Lester does a great job of talking about differences. He starts by saying “I’m a story, so are you” and then goes on to tell the story of himself, including where he grew up, what his family is like, what he likes and dislikes and what color his skin is.


From there, he talks about how it’s good to be proud of who we are but it’s wrong to think that who we are is better than who others are. He talks about boys believing their better than girls, people who have money believing their better than those who don’t and people of one skin color believing their better than people of other skin colors. He labels these things “false stories.”


Our true stories are our identities. They’re the things that make us who we are--and we should celebrate those. But false stories are the ones that tell some people that they’re better than others. They’re bad stories, stories that do damage.


I’ve read this book twice with our elementary school groups and it’s been a worthwhile discussion both times. Kids love to tell their own stories. At home, take time to talk about their stories--what color are their eyes, where do they live, where are they from, what color is their skin? Then take time to talk about false stories. By 2nd grade, most kids have a story about someone at school who thinks they’re better than others because they live in a certain neighborhood, or play sports, or have a horse or are pretty. Let kids tell these stories too. It’s important that they learn to identify false stories in all of their forms.


The most important thing is to repeat this conversation multiple times in multiple ways. Like all important parenting conversations, talking about race isn’t a one-time shot.


Next post I'll talk a little bit about how I've talked with our older youth about race and what you can expect from each age group when it comes to these conversations. 


Until then, grace and peace.