Thursday, May 31, 2007

Talking to Children About Race

A good friend wrote to me this past week with a good question. Actually, two good friends wrote with two good but different questions, both suggesting future blog topics. That doesn't happen much, but when it does it's usually a good idea and at least an indication that some people may already be thinking about such things.

So, despite my general aversion to talking about "race," the question for today seems a good topic. I hope it's useful to folks.

Here's the substance of my friend's email:
A couple of weeks ago, we had friends over for dinner. During that time our little boy (3 years old) had a good time playing with their daughter. As my wife was putting our son to bed, out of nowhere, he made the statement that he missed, "my new black friend." I briefly forgot about it until we had another family over, relative of that family who has an African-American father, and during that time our son came up to me and asked me where his new black friend is.

As you've noted before, I don't want to deny his friend's "blackness", but I also want to try and raise him correctly in this area, and am really lacking in wisdom on how to deal with it.

I am thankful that he does notice that these kids are different, and yet sub-consciously notices that he has just as much fun playing with them as any of his other friends, i.e. just because they are "different" doesn't mean that they're not the "same". This provides me with a good segue into being able to continually teach him things like we are all created in the image of God even though we look and act differently, we are all sinners even though we may sin in different ways, and ultimately we all need Christ.

Anyway, I know you're time is limited, so even just a few brief thoughts would be appreciated. Or maybe sometime in the future, you can post something on your blog about your suggestions for how parents can talk about race with their kids, and maybe even how they can talk about the gospel in these discussions.

Actually, I think my friend has a lot of wisdom on how to approach this. What he may feel is a certain lack of confidence, a trepidation shared by many when it comes to talking about race. But his third paragraph is spot on in my opinion. So, the comments below are in some ways an elaboration on that paragraph.

How to talk to children about race:

1. Talk with your children about ethnicity (the nations) rather than "race."
If you've been a reader of this blog, you probably know that I'm not at all a fan of the construct of "race," which suggests intractable differences rooted in a biology, an unbiblical myth of recent origin. The differences among people are indeed real (languages, dress, skin color, etc.), but they are not biologically rooted or determined. Making this distinction brings the people closer to our children and their experience. Rooting identity and culture in race makes healthy exchange a wider bridge to cross because it suggests experience and ways of being that are so foreign as to be rooted in a biology we can't acquire. So, parents would serve their children well by exposing them to cultures and ethnicities without leaving them with the contemporary notion (ofen implicit) that those things are rooted in "race" and therefore unchangeable and "off limits" to alien experience, exploration or questioning. Over time, attempt to leave them with a nuanced understanding of the world... one with shades... in appearance, meaning, and thought.

2. Talk about ethnicity in a way that magnifies the power and wisdom of God.
We should be amazed more often than we are (excuse me for projecting my dullness onto you!) at the sheer power and wisdom of God that can create "difference" and "same" in His creation. Here, as my friend suggests, we want to make a big deal of the wonder of how it is we are both "different" and the "same." But we want to wonder toward God, not as a conundrum to be solved, but as a fact to be marveled at in celebration of who God is. How magnificent must be the mind of our Creator if He leaves us--not just roses--but varieties of roses with different colors and smells but the "same" essential thing? And how awesome must be the power of God if He is able to create of one blood all the people of the earth (Acts 17:26), and to make them all in His image including the observable differences in ethnicity? What our children observe in the differences of people is fertile ground for magnifying the power of God who created us all.

3. Talk about the need of all men for the Savior.
Not only are we alike in our humanity, but we are therefore alike in our sin, guilt, shame and need for divine rescue. We are far more alike than we are different. And the ways in which we are alike when it comes to sin and salvation are far more important than the ways we are alike in cultural, economic, social, psychological, or even physical terms. We often may be tempted to leave our discussion of ethnic similarity or difference at some superficial level rather than pour eternal gospel truth into the conversation. When your three year old surprises you with some observation of ethnic difference, direct the conversation to sin and salvation as the common problem and common need of all men. Pray for a ready mind before the topic comes up, a mind that skillfully takes the child to Jesus and the cross as the solution for the common problem and need. Pray for a ready mind that then gives a child a vision for what she or he can do in the areas of missions and evangelism to be used of God to meet their playmates' greatest need. If we've been talking about ethnicities (the nations as suggested in #1 above), turning to missions is really only one short step away.

4. Talk about the gospel and the church as the plan of God to demonstrate unity across such diversity and to display His wisdom.
Please, please, please don't forget that Eph. 2:11-3:12 is written to a local church... that there are truths there to be applied to this life... as well as hopes that sustain us in imperfection until the next. The church's perfection in displaying the wisdom of God in the unity of people from every nation in "one new man" awaits Christ's return, but the reality of Christ's accomplishment is to be experienced and sought after in this life. Hold the church up as the place where that reality is lived out, where your child's "new black friend" or "new Asian friend" or "new white friend" can truly and joyfully and lastingly be not just a friend but something more, a brother or sister in Christ who makes us one with each other by "creating in himself one new man... and in this one body... reconciling us to God through the cross, by which he put to death our hostility" toward one another. The "mystery of Christ" is that Gentile and Jew are "heirs together..., members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus" and that "through the church, the manifold wisdom of God is made known to the rulers and authroities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Eph. 3:6, 10). Let's center our children's thinking about ethnicity in the divine reality of the church, the new spiritual ethnic group to which all who are Christ's belong and derive their reconciled identity and peace.

Point out the glory of God in His creation, including the ethnicities we see. Point to the glory of Christ, a Savior who saves people from all nations. And point to the church as the place where this salvation and new creation is to be lived out until it's lived out completely in the age to come. In discussions of "race" with our children, keep pointing to God, His Christ, and His church so that our children might learn to see men in accord with the majestic power and work of God in history and redemption.


Bill said...


This is doxological blogging that should lead to doxological parenting. Good stuff!


Les Puryear said...

Excellent post. I believe God made only one "race"...the "human race".


ajcarter said...

Great response, my brother. Question: Does not the question demand a different response or at least approach depending on the racial (or cultural) make up of the family dealing with the question?

FellowElder said...

Bro. Tony,
What did you have in mind?

ajcarter said...

Well T,
Take for example this scenerio:
The other day, I asked my children the question, "When you get to heaven, is there something you would like to ask God?" My son responded, "Yes. I would like to know why He made black people to be slaves."
Now a white father or mother may face the same question from a white son or daughter. However, we know that the question carries with it a much deeper pathos and consideration in a young African-American boy learning the history of America. So while I would address the issues of sin and God's sovereignty, and the reconciliation we find in Christ (see "On Being Black and Reformed), I will also have to answer in ways and with considerations that your average white family would not. Then also consider the implications of this line of questioning in a family that is inter-racial. Theirs would be a different set of considerations.
While all of this comes under the umbrella of the Gospel, I believe it is helpful for our white brothers and sisters to know that while I would answer similar questions, my answers to my children will in all likelihood have to be different,... not better,...just different :-).

What think ya?

John said...

Thank you so much for this post. Very helpful for young parents.

FellowElder said...

I praise God that your son has a father like you, someone who loves Christ above all and is careful to listen before speaking.

I certainly think there may be more or less intensity in questions and answers depending on the ethnic composition of the family. Your son's questions assumes a great degree of identification with suffering of slaves that say an immigrant Italian family may not feel. So, there is need for discernment and sensitivity on a par with the question and the emotion beneath the question. And surely that gets a bit more complex in say an interracial family. Imagine your son asking that of two adoptive white parents.

And yet, I think what all parents want to muster is a similar level of at least empathy in such situations even if it's not their immediate group/ethnic experience. So, I hope that a white parent asked that same question by their white child would have a similar kind of sensitivity to the gravity of the question and perhaps the child's underlying emotional concern. In other words, I hope that on such questions we don't lapse into a kind of privilege that comes from seeing ourselves as "other" at such times.

For example, I can easily say taht when it comes to pogroms or crusades, "yeah, that was bad" and never really empathize with the victims or be indignant toward to guilt and sin in that situation because I'm not thinking of it as "my" history. I probably do that on a range of issues. Your question makes me realize I need to perhaps feel and think more deeply about my kids' questions concerning experiences outside my own ethnic identity and demonstrate more empathy, compassion and concern not just when it strikes close to home but also when it seems worlds apart.

Thanks for the question and the wisdom brother.

ajcarter said...

Right on, my man. Can't wait to see you and your family next month. Can't wait to discuss these and other wonderful kingdom truths with you in person.

Longing for heaven, yet looking forward to seeing you,


Layman said...

Tnank you for your advice and insight. My wife and I are in the process of adopting a child from Ethiopia and will have to face these explainations to our other two boys (ages 4 and 2). The issue of race has never been more on my mind.

Thank you again.

Thoughtz said...

The suggestions you have for parents talking to their children about race are right on point. I also think that because society has a tendency to blow the concept of "race" out of proportion, parents should be the primary influences through which children learn about differences, similarities, and their role in God's kingdom.

G.R.I.T.S. - Dis meenz, Gurls Razed In The Sout said...

very interesting blog, in many respects; also how does this blog link w/the Haddox one? In the wvcHaddox blog, several names are in our family, to-wit: haddox, perry, harris... what a small world. Now, re: the racial ?, I agree to Heavenly Father and JESUS CHRIST, there is only one race, the Human Race; however, I know that life is commanded to multiply and replenish "after its own kind."

Jeremy Pierce said...

Some people take races to be rooted in biological facts that turn out not to exist, but that doesn't mean races are. Races are socially-created categories, and their reality is testified to by the fact that they serve an explanatory role in sociology, they are a means of discrimination and other wrongs, and they serve as a basis for identity formation for far too many people to pretend that they don't exist. I would be among the first to say that this is unfortunate and that we ought to think about ways for humanity to try to move away from thinking in terms of race, but I'm also fairly sure that such a move would be impossible in my own lifetime given how ingrained racial perception is even among those who don't know they're thinking racially.