Friday, July 19, 2013

What Should White Parents Tell Our Kids About Race?

A heartwarming video of kids' reactions to a "controversial" Cheerios commercial has gone viral. The commercial depicts an interracial couple, a black man and a white woman, with a beautiful daughter. It provoked a storm of racist comments online, but in this video kids respond quite differently. They like the commercial and express first surprise, and then incredulity that anyone would find it controversial. As I said, it is genuinely heartwarming.

I didn't have the heart to rain on anyone's Facebook parade, especially since it would confirm that I am just incurably grumpy and always find a reason to be gloomy about even good things. That's not how I see it, though, and I hope you'll let me explain. I don't think I would have thought anything of that video if it weren't for the job I do. I would have simply laughed and cried and joined in the group hug. The next generation will deliver us! That is the message of the video. But my job involves working with a lot of poor White children across the age range represented in this video.

The gap between that carefully edited video of carefully selected children and the real world I see here on the ground in northeast Ohio is huge. Despite my professed belief that racism is still a significant problem in American life, my wife and I have been shocked by the anti-Black attitudes expressed by numerous White children we work with. Their statements are all the more remarkable because they come out without any prompting from us. It's not as if we're initiating random conversations about their racial attitudes.

In my experience the range of attitudes among the poor White children here run from hostility to ignorance. Most don't have a sense of what racism is, and few if any seem to be truly anti-racist in their outlook.

Even if the kids we see in that video were representative of the next generation, we could still expect more problems ahead. It is good that these children readily accept two individuals who love each other. But that acceptance does not necessarily mean they will be equipped to deal with a world of systemic disparities and inequality across racial groups. More on this below.

As a White Christian parent, what do you teach your kids about race? By the way, you are teaching them about race one way or another. If it's something that is not discussed in your house, that in itself is a powerful message. But let's assume that most of us do have some sort of explicit conversations. We might tell them about God's design, that we're all the same and race is a fiction we've created. We might tell them that everyone should be treated the same and racism is wrong.

This is all well and good, and it might make your kids into decent people. But if that's as far as it goes, they will be unlikely to have a Christian perspective or be prepared to fight for racial justice. We set our kids up for failure by sending them out into the world with a brittle admonition -- racism is wrong! -- backed up by little sense of how it operates, how it influences the lives of our brothers and sisters, and how it can be resisted. What happens to our kids, for example, when they find out that Blacks are in fact disproportionally poor, do in fact commit disproportionate amounts of violent crime, do in fact occupy disproportionally lower status jobs?

They will tend to develop cognitive dissonance. On the one hand they hold resolutely to a superficial knowledge that racism is wrong, while on the other they begin to look down on those who are not like them. In this dissonance we begin to see the defensiveness and inability for self-examination that plagues so many White adults. "I'm not racist but...what about crime rates...have you seen their neighborhood?" Don't tell me you don't recognize that state of mind. It reflects the views of tens of millions of White Americans.

If there's anything that could safely be called a historical law, it is that the privileged class of a given society inevitably attributes the degradation of the oppressed class to the internal characteristics of its members. It is equally certain that these justifications of the privileged always appear extremely foolish and self-serving in the cold light of history. So it is with race in the United States. The mindset that says, "I'm not a racist but I think the main thing standing in the way of Black people now is a victim mentality or some sort of cultural problem" is the same mindset that justified slavery. It is the same mindset that explained why segregation was necessary a little while longer. It is the mindset of unconscious racism.

It is a measure of how thoroughly White supremacy has done its work. It has pervaded our minds to the point that racism's horrendous effects are seen not for what they are but as evidence of some sort of problem with Blacks. And so even Whites who were trained to abhor racism begin to subtly ask themselves something along the lines of, "what is wrong with Black people?" To ask the question is to play the White supremacist's game. As I wrote last month:
For most of our history, to put it in blunt and simple terms, the white elite has been carrying on this conversation around the question, "What is wrong with black people?" The basic contours of the answer to that query have remained remarkably stable, because the question mostly answers itself. To ask it is to implicitly absolve the dominant society of any wrongdoing or responsibility... By merely asking what is wrong with black people, we play into a narrative that elides what is wrong with America. This is a country in which black people have had to earn what whites possess as a right. And when they do set out to claim those rights, they're seen as seeking after special privileges. As TNC sums it up:

The neighborhoods where black people shoot at each other are the work of racist social engineering. We know this. But we do not say it, because there is almost no political upside. Instead we hand-wave at racism and pretend that individual black morality might overcome many centuries of wrong.
So while we're telling our kids that racism is wrong, we need to tell them about our country that has never treated people equally. We need to take racism seriously and not speak about it as if it is a vanquished foe. They need to know about the unjust social systems that are reproducing White supremacy in their own generation. We need to tell them where they fit into this. They need to know that they are privileged. We should tell them this not because we've adopted some kind of liberal political correctness, but because our reading of scripture compels us to.

If we don't know about these things, then we have extra work to do. If we think these basic truths are political or "liberal" then we have even more work to do. Allowing Christian principles to supersede the imperatives of Whiteness remains one of the hardest things White American Christians have to do. It doesn't come naturally to us, and most churches will subtly tell us no such project is needed.

Paul certainly understood he was privileged. And he encouraged Christians to think of everything they have as a gift. He declared that boasting is completely illegitimate. We can try to spiritualize these instructions away, but the clear intent is for them to apply to every dimension of our lives. Our kids must think of themselves as recipients of undeserved privilege. This is the Gospel brought to every facet of life. It's not just the knowledge that this privilege is unearned. It is the realization that in a more just world we would not possess it in the first place, and that means we need to deliberately give it up. This too is an ethic that pervades the New Testament. If our kids reject this ethic and think of themselves as hardworking achievers who have earned what they have, they will contribute to the next generation of American racism rather than fighting it.

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