When did you become aware of race?
Our country is racially divided. Some view a person's race as their sole defining factor. Others refuse to acknowledge the existence of racism and its cruel effects.
I first became aware at age six that my skin color was different from other kids in my class. School integration was in full swing in Valley Station, Kentucky. As far as my classmates were concerned, my brown skin made me less intelligent and less attractive. When I saw images of successful, beautiful and significant people, they never looked like me. All the negative perceptions made me feel inadequate.
Opposition against school integration busing was coming to a boil. My parents rarely talked about racism but were fiercely protective of us kids. I remember peering out the window as we drove past my brother's high school. Scrawled in red spray paint were the letters "KKK."
I was confused. Innocently, I asked my mother what the letters meant. She quickly discounted it as the work of an ignorant person with nothing better to do. I accepted her well-meaning explanation.
It was clear my parents never wanted us to claim a victim mentality but to strive for our goals and dreams. Yet, as a black family in a predominantly white community, the effects of racial bias were inescapable.
Race is Still a Touchy Subject
Today, people still fear talking openly about racism with their children. My three beautiful biracial children have had various versions of "the race talk" typical in black households across the country. It's imperative to acknowledge the existence of racism while coaching my children about positive choices and godly responses.
Like my well-intending mother, many parents choose not to address the ugliness of the issue. Many tell their children, "We may look different from someone else but we are all equal inside and out. All people should be treated the same."
If only it were that simple.
We live in a fallen world and racism needs to be addressed head on. Silence only serves to perpetuate the predominant culture of prejudices.
Another fallacy is encouraging children to believe racial discrimination is the act of only evil people. That simply pushes the problem to the margins and excuses us from any personal responsibility.
Still another problem is delaying the discussion. If your children's source of race perception comes from historical presentations of slavery, black history month or Martin Luther King, it could appear racism is a past problem that's been resolved.
All of this prevents us from reflecting on the unintentional ugliness that may reside in each of us.
It's Time for a Paradigm Shift
As Christ followers, we're able to reframe our basic assumptions and thought patterns to conform to His. We have the incredible power to show our children how to be God's ambassadors.
2 Corinthians 5:18-20 states "That God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors as through God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf to be reconciled to God."
Understanding and overcoming our bias is a process. The following suggestions may help you begin:
- Meet children where they are – developmentally and spiritually.
Children begin to form racial identities early. You can introduce race conversations at age five.
Socially and emotionally, 5 year olds want to be liked. They're generally agreeable to following rules and able to distinguish fantasy from reality.
They're beginning to question many aspects of the world. Why is that person's skin color different from mine? Does the color come off?
It is important to openly discuss their questions. Ask what they think and why. This will give you guidance in your responses.
- Use teachable moments.
If your child stares at someone of a different race in public and questions out loud the differences, do't be embarrassed. View it as an opportunity to discuss race and appropriate social behaviors in a non-shaming way.
When he or she sees something in the news, take advantage of the moment. Discuss the reality of the difficult situations in this world but give them hope in Jesus Christ.
- Encourage cultural respect – for your own culture and others.
Intentionally demonstrate the beautiful tapestry of people God has created. Go to cultural museums or festivals. Try new foods and ethnic theme dinners. Include dinner conversation appreciating the unique contributions and culinary delights of other people.
- Seek out a diverse network of friends.
If you tell your children race doesn't matter yet associate only with your own ethnic group, your words won't sink in.
According to the US2010 project, we live in very segregated neighborhoods. Research shows the average white U.S. family lives in a neighborhood which is 75% or more white. There are societal institutional issues that perpetuate that separation.
If you want your children to value friendships with those of other ethnicities, you must do the same. As the old adage says, "more is caught than taught."
There is nothing wrong with seeing the beautiful hues of skin color. You need not be "color blind." We're all created as God intended. The thing we need to recognize is the inherent value of all people, and to celebrate everyone regardless of skin color.
2 Chronicles 7:14:
"If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land."
Lainna Callentine, MD, MEd, is a pediatrician and member of the Physicians Resource Council of Focus on the Family. She is a speaker, teacher, missionary doctor and the founder of Sciexperience. Her work as an author includes the book series God's Wondrous Machine a hands-on curriculum for children showcasing the human body. Follow Dr. Callentine at sciexperience.com.