Tag Archives: racism

Questions That Break My Heart (Hard Conversations with My Kids)

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I was coming down the stairs this morning, a load of laundry in my arms, when I heard my daughter’s excited voice.

“Look, Mom! Our friends are outside playing! Why aren’t they at school?”

With the day’s to-do list scrolling through my head, I was about to murmur a casual “I don’t know” when I remembered going over my calendar before the kids were up. “Oh, it’s a holiday. They don’t have school today because it’s Martin Luther King, Jr. day.”

And even as I kept walking to the laundry room, I heard her little voice again. “Who’s that? Why does he get a holiday?”

I felt the gravity of the moment suddenly demand a pause in the morning. I set the laundry basket down and went into the living room to look at my precious daughter and my precious son, who had stopped playing to come listen. Kids have the uncanniest sense about when something matters.

For just a few moments, I did my best to explain MLK’s legacy to their very tender 5- and 3-year old hearts. We talked about racism and segregation and laws that said certain individuals didn’t even count as an entire human being. We talked about separate schools and separate bathrooms and hate and fear. We talked about a man speaking up and literally laying his life down because this was so important.

I looked at those wide-eyes, and I knew what they were thinking of. Who they were thinking of. Their favorite friend from our former church. The next-door neighbor girl. The three little girls who live behind us who told my daughter she was the first friend they’d made in the neighborhood. (Never mind that none of them seem to be able to remember each other’s names. They just yell, “Hi, friends!” whenever they see each other.)

When I paused in my explanations, my daughter said very emphatically, “That makes no sense. God makes people in all colors. And besides, we’re supposed to treat others how we want to be treated.”

She was so matter of fact, so simple in her understanding of the situation. And unlike other hard things I’ve had to explain to her, where I end up saying, “It’s just complicated. There’s not always an easy answer,” this feels different. It shouldn’t be complicated. It really shouldn’t. I mean, at this point, dismantling the systems and prejudices and hundreds of years of tensions—well, ok, these are daunting undertakings. But they shouldn’t be.

I’ve never been able to wrap my head even a little bit around the concept of racism. I think we all have to work to overcome various biases and prejudices, get over our fear of differences; these are aspects of flawed humanity that are common to all of us. But to actually consider someone less than—less valuable, less worthy, less human—over skin color or accents or different homeland? I can’t make sense of it.

Then she asked the question, the one that shattered me: “But this doesn’t happen anymore, does it? Since the law was changed?”

And I have to look into those innocent, hopeful, compassionate faces and say, “Yes, it still happens.”

I don’t dismiss the progress. I don’t dismiss the years of efforts, the laws changed, the reconciliation fought for. But I see my own thoughts and frustrations mirrored in their little eyes: mere progress doesn’t seem like enough when people’s value and humanity are on the line.

I became painfully aware of my own lack of knowledge and understanding of this issue, even of MLK’s incredible legacy, as I talked with my children. I realize I have a lot more research and learning and listening to do. I want to know more so that I can do more.

Our conversation finally dwindled down, but as my daughter walked away, she said with all the sass and stubbornness she could muster (which, in this girl, is quite a bit), “Well, I’m just going to love everybody” and did her little “so there” flip of the head.

Well then, sweet girl, you’re miles ahead of so much of the world already. And I think that’s an excellent starting point.

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Filed under Change, Hope, Justice

When It Feels Like the World is Missing the Point

10628631_10152518441896009_750468054027756701_o*Disclaimer: this post will only make sense if it’s read in its entirety. And it’s a little long–I apologize in advance. But stick with me? I think it’s pretty dang important.

My father is Hispanic; his family immigrated to the US when he was a child. My mom is white–a mixture of Scotch-Irish and German descent predominantly, with some other things thrown in there. I’ve been told there is some Italian in there somewhere; I’m not sure where or on whose side or if it even matters. I already got a lot of feisty blood, so what’s some more thrown in?

My life has been one of navigating two cultures. I don’t know it any other way. And I’ve never known which one I more strongly identified with; my pale skin and lack of Spanish linguistic skills kind of nudged me in one direction, but you can’t ignore what makes up half of who you are. In the end, this ambiguity has been a gift more than anything else.

(Although those little boxes where you can check your ethnicity on standardized tests and surveys and government forms always stress me out–which box do I check??? I don’t know!!! There’s no box if you’re mixed. I leave them blank.)

Anyway, the gift is that I adapt easily between people groups. This has even proven true in foreign countries when I don’t know the language or anything else. I just dive right in and absorb it all. And I was taught that all people are to be valued and respected because they are God’s children. To have ever held the notion that being white is somehow superior would have been to dismiss half of who I was. People are precious. Period.

***

It is hard for me to identify with communities that are predominantly made up of any one people group. I grew up in San Antonio which has a large Hispanic population. The school I went to was predominantly white and Hispanic kids, although there were a few black kids there too. I think that just reflects the demographic of the city; I could be wrong.

And then we moved to South Dallas which is so ethnically diverse, I don’t even know how to describe it. At one point the town I spent most of my time in was probably nearly half and half when it came to black and white residents; a rapidly growing Hispanic population I am sure has since shifted the ratios around some more, not quite into thirds, but still each group is significantly represented.

I thought we were a snapshot of America, just an example of how the population trends were going. At the very least I thought we were a snapshot of Texas. But after conversations with friends in other parts of the state and the country, I have realized how completely untrue this is.

***

My first real encounter with racism was as an adult, my first year teaching, to be exact. A student had failed an assignment because she had skipped almost all the parts I had outlined in the handout, so her mother and I had scheduled a conference to discuss it. I showed the mom the assignment sheet I had passed out, and then I showed her the assignment I’d received from her daughter which was barely completed and missing pages. I saw the anger rising in this woman’s face and was starting to feel very sorry for what was awaiting her daughter when she got home, when the woman stood up and started yelling at me: “You’re racist! You’re just penalizing her because she’s black. I bet none of your white students did the assignment right, but they probably passed anyway. You think you’re so much better, but you’re racist. I’m going to the principal!”

I was too shocked to even say anything. She stormed out, and I burst into tears, certain that I was about to be fired from my first real job as an adult. Was she serious? The thought had never even crossed my mind that someone would accuse me of racism.

I want to say that was an isolated incident, but there were a handful of parents who frequently tried to get around their children’s poor academic performance by blaming the racist teacher. It was exhausting. And to be perfectly honest, it hardened me. This is what people refer to as playing the race card–making race an issue when it has nothing to do with the problem at hand. I am sorry to say I came to expect it. I am even sorrier to say that for a while it kept me from being able to hear the legitimate wounds and struggles people were facing. I was too indignant that someone would make an assumption about me based on the color of my skin (ironic, I know).

When I was about to pull my hair out, I sat down with a friend and co-worker one day (who for the sake of the story I need to say also happened to be black) and said, “Please help me. Am I actually being racist and I don’t know it? Or is there such a thing as playing the race card? Why does this keep happening? What am I missing?”

And those questions to her opened up a dialogue that helped me gain some perspective and understanding. In our little neck of the woods, there were definitely times people cried “racism” to detract from the actual issues, BUT this did not negate that racism was alive and well, even in our very diverse community. My friend was highly educated and had run into people’s surprise that she spoke “like a white girl”–as if somehow a black girl couldn’t possibly be well-spoken and intellectual. Her fiancee had been followed by police on more than one occasion when he was hanging out with his brother, suspicion aroused because two young black men surely wouldn’t be out at night unless they were up to no good. Neither of them were alone in these experiences. My heart started softening.

***

I was an English teacher and always had to field an endless number of phone calls and emails from angry black parents whenever it was time to read Huck Finn. The literary purist in me was always indignant. Did these people not understand satire? Could they not see how Mark Twain poked at the foolishness of racism? I held my ground until another dear friend and co-worker lovingly but firmly said to me, “I would never ask my children to read that book. I don’t care what point he’s trying to make. Do you know what it was like in the years immediately following the Civil Rights movement to be one of the only black girls in your school and have a teacher assign this book and all of a sudden your classmates think they have a right to try out this word because it was in literature and you’re the only one around for them to try it out on?”

That book was not on my reading list the next year. There were other ways to teach satire without ripping open wounds for the parents of my students.

***

I am so grateful these friends were in my life to help me see. I don’t say this in a smug “See, I have black friends” way. The corner of the world I grew up in was colorful, so my friendships were colorful. This doesn’t mean I have always been able to clearly see their stories, their struggles, their wounds, their needs. Actually, that has taken me a lot longer than it probably should have.

But I have been learning to see. And I have been reading some portions of history that were most certainly left out of my education. And I am listening to people who live in other places and deal with these things on a far broader scope than I previously imagined. I am no expert–not even close–but the research-hound in me has been unleashed on this matter, and what I am discovering is demanding that I approach current news headlines differently.

And this is where I feel like so much of the world, specifically MY conservative Christian world, is straight up missing the point.

If you are only caught up in all the details of transcripts and autopsies and so on from Michael Brown’s death, you are missing the point.

If your only narrative is the one about police officers doing what they have to do to make it home to their families alive, you are missing the point.

If you are quoting stats about black-on-black crimes and fatherless black households, you are missing the point.

If you are too busy saying looting and rioting isn’t the way to bring change, you are missing the point.

If you are looking at the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner as isolated incidents, you are most certainly missing the point.

Our black brothers and sisters are trying to tell us that something is not right. Actually that lots of somethings are not right. And the vast majority of them would agree that looting and rioting are not the answer, but still they are pleading with us to listen to what is behind those actions.

When my children act out, I can write them off as bad or I can find out what is going on in their hearts that is provoking this response. People’s behavior is evaluated this way all the time; why not now?

I think of the apostle Paul writing that we are a body and if one part is hurt, we all hurt. Well, I have black Christian brothers and sisters who are hurting, and even if I cannot fully understand or grasp what is prompting that pain, dismissing that pain is flat out wrong. Throwing around words like “thug” and “none of us were there so none of us know” and “let’s just wait for the facts” is not remotely helpful. It certainly is not loving or compassionate.

We should sit with them in the pain, mourn with those who mourn, and offer our voice to their prayers. Above all, we lay down our agendas and our politics and our limited lenses, and seek to understand.

There is so much more I could say. I had a whole other section about the police side of this after my experience with my husband going through the police academy and pursuing that career path. Maybe it’s another post for another day because this is already crazy long.

In the end, I am shocked by the lack of compassion I have seen on display, even through silence and refusal to engage. Compassion does not say, “Well, yes it’s tragic, but…” And compassion is not quick to find ways to justify the loss of life. So I am saying, pleading, with all my other Christian brothers and sisters, we can do better. We have to do better.

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Filed under Change, Grieving, Pain

Healing the Race Wounds

Not too long ago, I was sharing with someone about the church my husband and I were at for 16 years before we moved.  It wasn’t perfect because there is no such thing as the perfect church, but there were some significant areas where this church got it very, very right.

The one I perhaps miss the most is that it was a dazzling kaleidoscope of color, so racially diverse.  And I’m not talking about a church that’s like 80% white with a few token black and Hispanic families thrown in so they can pat themselves on the back about being multiracial.  Not even close.  This was the real deal – a congregation with a strong African-American presence, a strong Hispanic presence, a strong Caucasian presence, plus a smattering of all kinds of other backgrounds and nationalities along the way.

I remember once hearing our pastor there mention how other pastor friends had commented on this characteristic and wondered how on earth we made it work.  And I remember thinking, “Why on earth would it not work?”

The context of this conversation was set against the deep racial wounds being exposed by the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman trial.  Truthfully, the depth of it all surprised me.  Not because I’m so naive as to think racism no longer exists in this country, but because I forget what a unique thing it is to grow up in an environment where racial differences were secondary to shared faith and purpose, where friendships were forged by what we had in common.  And when challenges did arise, they were navigated in the context of covenant relationships – we were committed to each other no matter what.

I have been blessed with friendships where we could frankly, lovingly and respectfully discuss issues of race – challenge each other or repent to each other when necessary.  We were able to say to each other, “Help me understand.”  We could face the hard things and walk away, not divided, but further unified.

I’ve had parents say to me, “Would it have been easier to go to an all [insert ethnicity or color] church?  Maybe, but I don’t want my kids growing up that way.  They would miss out on so much.”  So they made a deliberate choice to enlarge their boundaries.

This is the world I grew up in.  So yes, I forget that it’s not normal.  I said as much and the response I got was basically, “Yeah, you really need to get in touch with the rest of the world.”  And for a moment, I felt shamed and guilty, like I had done something wrong.

But the more I thought about it, I’ve concluded perhaps it would be more effective if the rest of the world got in touch with the reality I experienced.  We can stand in our monochromatic corners all day and shout, “Racism!” from afar at each other, but in the end, we will accomplish nothing.  There is no law, no trial verdict that can fix this.

The only way barriers come down is when we refuse to be contained by them.  If we actually want to mend this wound, we have to stop coming at each other insisting on being understood and instead lean in towards each other with a desire and willingness to understand.  And we absolutely must leave our all-(choose-your-color) corners of the universe and do life alongside each other.

And yes, I get that this is easier said than done.  It does get bumpy and difficult sometimes.  But it’s worth the effort and the messiness.  We have to stop imparting to our children the messages that “they’re just too different from us” or “they’re out to get us” or “they’ll never understand us” if we ever expect to make progress.  Instead the message needs to be, “There are people who are different from you, and that may be hard sometimes, but you will be wiser and better and richer if you will soak in everything they can teach and show you about the world.”

I’m crazy enough to believe this is possible.  Because I’ve lived it.  One person, one choice at a time, we can see this wound healed.

 

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Filed under Church, Faith, Healing, Pain