Over two decades ago, my father came back into ministry after a sabbatical (due to his diagnosis, fallout and treatment for bipolar disorder) to serve as pastor at a church in southern Baltimore City. The church, Brooklyn UMC, was situated in a neighborhood bearing the same name. We even had our own Brooklyn Bridge—a train bridge painted in the colors of the rainbow.
I had never lived in a city before. And here I was, entering seventh grade, in a new place, our family still reeling from the couple of years our lives fell apart as Dad had spiraled down then fought his way back up (which took many years yet), heading into a culture shock I imagine any expert would predict.
Except it never really came. Not that I remember today. I had completed sixth grade in a small town (Thurmont) in rural Maryland where the KKK still stood on street corners passing out literature from time to time. As I recall, we had one kid who was ethnically mixed in our grade. That was our diversity.
When we arrived in Baltimore, my mother quickly set to getting our schooling straightened out. When the neighborhood middle school curtly refused her request to visit the school before enrolling me, Mom knew something was amiss and dug into school system rules to find a little-known provision allowing students from Brooklyn to enroll instead in the STEM magnet program a few neighbors over, FSK Middle School (a fitting name for a school just blocks away from Fort McHenry).
At FSK, most of my teachers were African-American. Our student body was very ethnically diverse, and we even had some visiting teachers from a Japanese sister school. I can still sing the chorus to Boyz II Men’s song “End of the Road” in Japanese. It was awesome.
One year we did a months-long study on the Harlem Renaissance, crossing all classes. It never occurred to me that African-American history had a month. Heck, we couldn’t have even covered the entire Harlem Renaissance in a month. It was just history. Our nation’s history. So we studied it.
I was blessed to have the opportunity to grow up in a wildly diverse community, attend middle school in yet another diverse community, then attend high school (Western High School) in a setting where I was an ethnic minority in a school filled with some of the strongest, fiercest, most amazing women.
This was my normal. It is what I lived, but it was also what my parents taught me was normal and ordinary, because of what they said and did, and because of what they didn’t. Because of what they never pointed out was a remarkable experience for a middle class white girl. It was a gift of the United Methodist Church’s itineracy system and two parents who in the midst of our own family’s pain had some lessons about life and the world and people they wanted their kids to learn well.
Today our country is reeling from racial, ethnic, geographical and nationalistic tensions that we feel at times might break us. These tensions are not new, and it is hard to tell whether they are stronger or merely now more visible. They are the worst parts of us. They may seem normal, because we are used to them…or used to glancing away from them, but they are not the normal, the truth, of the kingdom of God. There is nothing about our tendencies to diminish others and promote ourselves which is of God.
Not. A. Single. Thing.
We need to craft a new normal.
Parents—we need to cast a vision for our children that confronts that which we want their futures to avoid. A vision rooted in God’s kingdom—this kingdom we pray and read and sing about but which we are also invited to get bound up in. This vision must also include positive emphasis on what we want our children to face. I know it is daunting to know what to do, what to say, but parents, you have so much power to shape your children. Here are some tips I learned from my parents:
- Help your children be firmly rooted in scripture. I cannot change people. You cannot change people. God can. And God’s word falls clearly and consistently on the side of the opposed and excluded. Help your children be so grounded in scripture that they have no understanding of the distorted theology which calls them to use God’s word to oppress or discriminate against others. If you do this well, your children will one day challenge you on the biases you have yet to fully face. Then you will know you have done well.
- Honor others’ traditions. Actively and intentionally. Learn about other faith traditions, other areas of the nation and world, people of different economic classes and ethnic groups. Read books that have illustrations reflecting all these diversities. One of our girls’ favorite books is about Ramadan. I’ve learned a lot from it too. I love that it not only shows children and adults talking briefly about what Ramadan is, but it also shows an ethnically diverse cast of characters, including some women wearing the hijab. To do this well, you will probably need to raise your game. Learn some yourself. That’s ok. You can probably use to raise your game. We all can. By the way—no, you’re not going to make your kid Muslim by reading a book about Muslims…if that’s how it worked, all kids would become a farmer like Old McDonald. If doing stuff like this makes you uncomfortable, that’s totally fine. Do it anyway. That means you’ve found one of your own growing edges.
- Immerse your children in diversity. Take advantage of the diversity around you. Make an effort to involve your children in activities and take them to events where they will not only see but also interact with people who are different than them. Let them see you in friendships, working with, worshipping with and being with, people who are different than you. Related to the above, make an effort to surround your children at home as well with books, toys, tv shows, movies, etc. which reflect diversity.
- Teach your children history. Your children hopefully are already learning this at school—whether they’re lucky enough to be at a school which studies the Harlem Renaissance, or as our Anna did this year as a kindergartener (at a wildly non-ethnically diverse school—yes, in rural MD) come home and tell her father and I all about Ruby Bridges and ask us when Ruby integrated school in relationship to the timeline of Dr. King’s public work. Encourage curiosity and make an effort to build learning about a diverse history into vacations, museum trips, days out, etc.
- Be willing to confess your own mistakes, biases and faults to your children. Help them thus to learn that we all are responsible for our beliefs and actions and that when we make mistakes (which we will) there is a path to healing and wholeness and that path requires honesty and humility. Teach them that being the most important or right person in the room is not the goal. Being the most gracious, love-filled, image-of-Christ person they can be is.
Parenting is difficult. And at any given moment we’re trying to keep a dozen things in mind while also keeping our own sanity. But our world challenges our own and our children’s efforts to care for the other. The world tells us to fight for our own, hold our ground, and fight to be in control. It’s not going to get easier. As adults we need to find ways to speak up and speak out. Our example speaking up and out is indeed part of the lessons we teach our children.
As parents, we also have immense power to shape the future though our children. We also have the ability to shape our children’s futures.
Parents of white kids (I’m one, remember), keep this in mind: our nation and world are getting more diverse. If valuing all people and make sure your children grow up without hate, prejudice or anger are not a moral imperative for you, consider the practical reality that your children will live as adults in a world which is far more connected and diverse than you have experienced, and even than you can probably imagine. If you teach your children to be scared of foreigners, angry at minorities, bitter about cultural changes, and ignorant of the experiences and histories of others, you are dooming them to futures of their own bitterness, isolation and exclusion.
It is a privilege to be able to decide whether you will teach your children to value diversity or not. If you’re white and you can’t wrap your head around what your privilege looks like, you may find (some of) it here. That your child could go through their entire childhood without having to take a serious look at the history and example of people who are different, or without valuing people who have been historically oppressed—that is possible. Hopefully much less possible now in a world where educators may understand better than you about the world your children will inherit, but probably possible.
So use your privilege wisely. Prepare your children well for their futures. And you know—do what Jesus calls us each to do, which is love and value each other, reach out to the stranger, be willing to be broken in places our hearts are hardened. Allow God’s grace to change and reshape you. Grow into the image of Christ. And help your children be set on the path to do the same.
If you would like resources to help support you, or if you'd like to learn more about specific things Chris and I have and do try (and we are not perfect either) please let me know. If you're still not convinced you need to find ways to confront your bias and teach your children to appreciate and value all, check out testimonies of those whose lives have been broken by hate, including Frank Meeink's Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead.