“But discussing racism isn’t really relevant in my context because my whole congregation is white.” What!?! I cringed when I heard those words spoken by a seminary classmate as we discussed ways to use Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing in young adult ministry. To my classmate the idea that his all white community “back home” needed to have a discussion about race seemed totally foreign. If there weren’t any people of color in his rural town, why bother discussing racism? Discussion of racism is only relevant in a diverse setting, right?!
Are you kidding me!? Of course I spoke up, I tried to be respectful and speak in love to his ignorance but my anger was evident. Afterwards the only person of color in the small class came to me visibly shaken and thanked me for voicing what she felt she could not without being labeled, as she said, “the brown girl playing the race card.”
You may not think that discussions about racial equality matters in your town or in your household but they do, especially if you are raising children. As one of my colleagues in ministry recently stated at a District clergy meeting, “We’re all just one police stop gone wrong away from having a Ferguson in our town.”
I grew up in Kentucky, moved from town to town to city and back again. I experienced rural white life, with only a small handful of African American students in my entire 8th grade class. I then moved and began 9th grade in the largest and most diverse high school in the state, but that’s another story for another time. The point is I understand that some Caucasian children growing up in small town America literally only interact with people of other races when on vacation, if that. Raising your kids to be “good people” is not always enough to keep them from developing fears that may then spiral into racist ideologies.
So how do we do it? How do we raise non-racist kids in almost-all-white towns? Here are some of my thoughts with links to far greater resources than any I could ever come up with on my own.
1. Start talking!
Just because you don’t live in a racially diverse area does not make it any less important to talk to your kids about race and racism.
In her blog Rage Against the Minivan, Kristin Howerton, a Marriage and Family Therapist, mom of an interracial family, Christian, and hilarious blogger has some amazing tips for getting the conversation started. Check out her posts How to Talk to Kids About Race and Racism and Resources For Talking To Kids About Race and Racism
2. Make story time a little more colorful!
What stories your children reading? Are all the main characters white?
If your children aren’t able to build relationships with children of other races or cultures due to demographics of your community literature is an excellent way to help children make new “friends.”
One of our 16-month old sons favorite books is Whose Knees Are These by Jabari Asim. My husband and I agreed it is important for our children to see other faces looking back at them from the pages of their books from a very young age. These images are shaping their impressionable young minds. I’ll admit the first time we read it aloud to them and reached the words, “so brown and so strong, to whom do these fine knees belong” it seemed a little strange, as if as pasty pale white people we weren’t allowed to make this story our own. To our boys it’s just another story about a little boy on his momma’s lap that makes them smile with glee when we reach the end and finally get to see the boy standing tall across the vertical page. However, to us it is a chance to instill in them the beauty of all skin tones, the value of all bodies, and the simple fact that black bodies matter.
For more storytime books with African American characters check out this list compiled by a children’s librarian. More extensive lists exist but this is a good start! If your public library is not stocking diverse books, consider speaking up and requesting that they do even if the books you are requesting don't reflect the culture you live in.
3. Pay attention to leading roles in the movies & television shows your children watch.
Is your little girl (or boy) obsessed with Disney princesses? Make sure she (or he) sees
The Princess and the Frog not just the princesses that look just like her. Cartoons like Doc McStuffins and Little Bill may not seem like a big deal, your kids are probably already watching them, but they matter. Our children need opportunities to break out of a world of sameness. If opportunities to do so in "real life" are hard to come by, why not build empathy and relatability by watching diverse cartoon characters?
4. Diversify the toy box.
It’s great to find a doll that looks just like your kids, that’s part of the reason American Girl dolls are so popular but if your kids rarely have the opportunity to play with children of another race why not diversify their pretend playmates?
It is not only okay to buy a doll of a different race for your child it is a good idea. This image of Angelina Jolie & Brad Pitt's white daughter holding a black doll got a lot of attention and started a firestorm of conversation.
In her article Why It Matters That Angelina Jolie’s White Child Plays With Black Dolls Keli Goff talks about the positive influence white children playing with black dolls can have on others stating, "the simple act could raise cultural consciousness and promote positive self-esteem for girls of color." My boys have dolls so in my opinion the same can be said for boys as well!For more ideas of culturally sensitive toys that promote diversity go here.
5. Live by example! Become a white ally to black people.
I spent much of my childhood living in almost-all-white small towns. So why did I become so passionate about racial equality? My greatest influence was my father who lived by example as a white ally to the African American community. Hands down one of the most helpful articles I have seen come from aftermath of Ferguson is Becoming a White Ally to Black People in the aftermath of the Michale Brown Murder by Janee Woods. Please check it out and read carefully through the details of her suggestions to;
Have more suggestions for parents living in rural or almost-all-white small towns? PLEASE leave a comment below! Let's learn from one another & keep this very important conversation going.