Day 30: Talking Race with my Southern Mama {31 Days of #WOKE}

Talking Race with my Southern Mama

 

My mother grew up running through the orange clay of Buford, Georgia, a small town northeast of Atlanta. Though I’ve heard stories about their beloved black maid, Sadie, her father’s house calls as the town doctor and her attending boarding school to avoid the chaos of integration, I wanted to know more. Especially now, as I’m discovering the cost of a whispered history. We sat in her home in the mountains of Colorado this afternoon and had a chat while the kids napped.

Me: Do you remember specific ways you saw segregation in Buford?

Most of the blacks lived on one side of the train tracks and the whites lived on the other. I really don’t remember seeing many black children. We all kept to ourselves and went to different schools on different sides of the city. My dad was a doctor and I remember there being separate waiting rooms for whites and “coloreds,” as we called African American people then. My dad’s nurse, Katie, was black, though, and she was a close friend of our family. I don’t think she had much education, but was trained by my grandfather, who was also a doctor.

I don’t remember much overt racism growing up, but I do remember it was illegal for African Americans to even go to the next county over, Forsyth [We stopped and looked up more information on this at this time and found this Fresh Air podcast about the racial cleansing that went on in Forsyth county in 1912.]. Once when we were driving through Forsyth with my dad’s black nurse, Katie, I remember she had to lie down on the floor of the car because it was illegal for her to even be in that county. She also came on vacation with us, which always felt a bit clandestine because it wasn’t like she could even eat in restaurants with us.

Me: What was the perception of Martin Luther King, Jr.? What do you remember hearing about him? How did you feel during the Civil Rights Movement?

It was a bad time. I can’t believe my mom even let us kids watch the news during that time. Although he was respected for his non-violent stance, I just remember my mom telling me that it wasn’t going to end well for Martin Luther King, Jr. because the cops certainly weren’t taking the same nonviolent stance. I didn’t do any marches at that time, but I did do a march later when we lived in Florida for MLK day to become a national holiday. I remember the private Christian school your brother went to for a while voted not to observe MLK day.

Me: Can you tell me more about your house help growing up?

So our main interaction with African Americans was through our maids. Sadie was our maid for 23 years and was like family to us. The day my father told us she had terminal pancreatic cancer was the only day I remember my father crying. We loved her.

She would come to our house every day from 9 AM to 5 PM except Wednesdays and Sundays. We all came home for lunch since our school and my dad’s office was so close and we’d have traditional southern food. When we ate, Sadie would sit in the kitchen just a few feet away while the rest of us ate at the huge round table. Sadie would also do our laundry, clean and come on Saturday mornings to make us pancakes. Since I had four sisters, I remember her chasing away neighbors who were bothering us with her broom. We always hated Wednesdays when Sadie had the day off because the house just felt emptier somehow.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I realized Sadie couldn’t read or write. I also eventually found out she had a daughter being raised by relatives in the north. Because she worked full-time with our family, she wasn’t able to take care of her daughter.

We went to Sadie’s funeral in the black church when she died. We were the only white people there and they had us sit in the front row.

My best friend growing up also had house help. Their family was even more well-off than ours, so they had a live-in upstairs and downstairs maid. And their maids wouldn’t just put the food on the table for them to eat family-style, but would serve them at every meal. They also had a chauffer.

My aunt and grandmother had house help, but they would mostly just clean for them, not cook for them like ours did for our family.

Me: Do you feel like the portrayal of house maids in the book and movie The Help was realistic?

Yes, it was. In that movie, the help wasn’t supposed to use the bathroom in the house. Our maids did use our bathroom, but my wealthy friend I was talking about had a separate bathroom in the garage. And your dad’s grandmother in Jackson, Mississippi, had a bathroom out in the shed for her house help.

Me: What do you remember about the schools being integrated?

It was my junior year of high school and instead of continuing  in the public schools, my mom decided to send me to a private boarding school. There was just a big fear that the schools would be violent when they went through the transition to integration. My sister who was five years younger than me did eventually attend the public schools and observed some violence, but it wasn’t as bad by the time she graduated. I don’t remember there even being many black people when I went to college at the University of Georgia, though I’m sure there were some.

***

Check back tomorrow for the last post in the series! (Woot!) I’ll be doing a bit of rehashing, reflecting and ruminating on how to move forward from here.

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

Image: By Esther Bubley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

*Includes Amazon affiliate links

Day 29: Transcript of ‘The Race Talk’ with my Kids {31 Days of #WOKE}

I had this conversation yesterday with my 4 1/2 year old son and 2 1/2 year old daughter. They had never read this book before and were excited to read it together. Here is the truncated transcript of the video of us reading the book together:

 

[Look at the cover of the book Beautiful by Stacy McAnulty and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff.]

Me: “This book cover has lots of different kinds of kids on it. How do they look different? What are they doing?”

Son: “Silly things!”

Me: “Like what?”

Son: I don’t know. She’s all dirty and laughing. And she is …. no one knows. He’s playing pirates.”

Me: Do any of these kids look like you guys?

Daughter: That’s E and that’s me!

Me: The pirate and the girl with the baseball cap? Do any of them look like you guys?

D: That one looks like me.

S: That one looks like me. Cause it has white skin. That means it’s me.

Me: But is your skin “white”? This is white, right? This cover [pointing at white duvet cover]. Is your skin the color of this?

S: But what is my color? [lifting up his shirt] Yeah, what is this color? [pointing at stomach]

Me: This is “peach”…is what we call our skin color. But we sometimes call our color “white.” And then what do people call this color? [point at African American kid in book]

S: Black.

Me: But is she really black? Is her skin black?

S: BROWN!

Me: So actually even your skin is even a tiny little bit brown. Do you know why we have different color skin? Because God made us different. We all have something in our skin called melanin. Can you say melanin?

S: Melanin.

Me: And that’s what makes our skin different colors. So if you’re white you don’t have a lot of melanin. But if you’re what we call black, then you have a lot of melanin.

S: What IS melanin?

Me: It’s just like a special thing that’s in our skin that makes our skin different colors. So some people are what we call “white,” which is what we are.

S: Do I have that…that…word? Do I have…

Me: Melanin? Yep, we all do.

S: [High-pitched voice] I have melanin?

Me: Actually, when you go out in the sun, it brings out the melanin, so we can be even darker. In sun sometimes our skin turns even a little browner. So in the summer our skin is more brown.

Me: So do you have any friends that are black? Do you know any kids that are brown colored?

S: One.

Me: Who is it?

S: C–

Me: Yep. So C– has more melanin in his skin.

S: I have more melanin.

Me: You have less melanin.

S: What does “less” mean?

Me: Not as much.

S: I have SO MUCH!

[I laugh.]

Me: Let’s read a book.

[Begin reading the book together, asking questions and talking about the pictures.]

Me: So this girl looks a little different, too. What does she look like? [point to Asian girl in picture]

S: She looks like what?

Me: Well, you know how mommy has some Chinese friends? And we speak Chinese together?

S: Yeah.

Me: So this girl looks Chinese, which means she’s “Asian.” So their skin is a little bit white, but it’s also a little bit brown.

D: Read it!

[Continue reading and talking about the pictures and words in the book. I ask what the kids were doing in the pictures and make connections to our lives.]

Me: They all have different kinds of hair, don’t they? So everyone has different kinds of hair, too. It’s all beautiful.

[Continue reading]

Me: [Point at another picture of a black child in the book.] Sometimes, also, when people have brown skin, we call them “African American.”

S: I found an African American! And another African American!

Me: Uh huh. “African American” is what we sometimes call people.

D: And MORE African American. [pointing]

S: Noo. She’s not African American.

[Continue reading, talking and answering many many questions.]

Me: [Reading end of book] “Because they make the world…”

S: Different Colors!

Me: Different Colors. And different colors is better than one color, isn’t it?

[They ask MORE questions about the pictures–unrelated to race.]

Me: [Finish reading.] “Beautiful!” Don’t you think they make the world beautiful? Just like you guys.

Reflection:

I felt like this conversation went really well. My son already knew the terminology “white” and “black,” though I’m not sure where he got it from (possibly from the hours of podcasts I listen to on this topic …). But it was refreshing to talk about how to describe people in a non-threatening, matter-of-fact way. From now on, I’ll try to be more intentional about talking about race as we read books together.

Have you had a conversation like this with your kids? Do you have any other recommendations for me? I’m sure it’s the first of many talks, so there is always room for improvement!

*Contains Amazon affiliate links

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

 

 

Day 28: Two Poems // Teaching in Inner City Chicago // 2002 {31 Days of #WOKE}

teach (2/19/02)

I am afraid of the water.

Cold, murky,

yet others play

freely.

Whether I jumped

or was pushed,

I don’t know.

But I do know

that if

I don’t drown,

I may learn to swim.

 

limbless (2/12/02)

Like the babies born without arms,

without legs;

can I teach them,

pretending they are whole?

Not Civil Rights,

the Kush Empire

or the three branches of government,

but “Please.”

“Thank you.”

“Excuse me.”

“Don’t hit when she hits you.”

“Sit quietly when you are cursed

–when he talks about your mamma.”

As he throws a tantrum over

not getting called on to read about

brown v. board.

“Shut up.”

“I hate you.”

“You look like a black monkey.”

Imagining they are whole

even as I watch them

dismember themselves.

***

For further reading: What ‘White Folks that Teach in the Hood’ Get Wrong about Education

Day 27: A Lesson Plan for Talking to my Preschooler about Race for the First Time {31 Days of #WOKE}

“Kids do see color – and when parents ignore it, the lesson children learn is that diversity is something too scary to talk about.” –Kristen Howerton on Rage Against the Minivan Blog

Why is it important for white parents to talk to their kids about race?

People of color have these kinds of conversations with their children early and frequently, while white people often avoid discussing race with their children altogether. Many of us were taught not to talk about race in favor of being “colorblind.” But it turns out that colorblindness does more harm than good. Instead of raising tolerant children willing to build relationships across color lines, our silence forces our children to draw their own conclusions.

Several articles mentioned that just as you would not just wait for your teenager to learn about sex from the internet or friends, you should not wait for your children learn about race from an untrusted source. As parents, we are the first line of defense in fighting prejudice and racial bias in the next generation–through our children.

The more we talk about race with our kids, the easier it will get. Kids are not naturally awkward; we parents are the ones who need to overcome our fear and anxiety. Here’s my first attempt. I wrote a lesson plan. Because I’m a nerd. (And also a former teacher.)

A Lesson Plan for Talking to my Preschooler about Race for the First Time

(Age 3-5)

Objective: To equip my 4 ½ year old son and 2 ½ year old daughter with the vocabulary to talk about skin color in a positive way.

Materials:

Dolls of various skin tones

Books: Any book including characters of various races will do (don’t choose a book specifically about race—the purpose of this lesson is to normalize race, not talk about racism—that will be for a future lesson). Dr. Vittrup recommends using All the Colors We Are: The Story of How We Got Our Skin Color, by Katie Kissinger.

Optional: Skin-colored crayons

Activity 1: Books

Before reading, ask my kids questions about the appearances of the people in the pictures on the front of the book.

“What is the same about you and them? What is different? Do you know any people that look like this?”

Teach the word “melanin”: (“any of various black, dark brown, reddish-brown, or yellow pigments of animal or plant structures (as skin or hair”)

“Every person’s skin has different amounts of melanin in it, which makes their skin a different color.”

“God made every person on earth and called them ‘good,’ so every color of skin is beautiful.”

“What color is your skin?”

“Our skin is peach or very very light brown, but sometimes people call it ‘white.’ That just means you have less melanin in your skin.”

“Sometimes people call those with more melanin in their skin ‘black.” Everyone is really just different shades of brown.”

Read the book together, asking them to describe the characters throughout, using the descriptive words we talked about.

Activity 2: Dolls

Pull out the dolls and look at them together.

“What color is your doll’s skin? Do they have a lot of melanin or a little?

 

Application: Use the skin-tone-colored crayons to draw pictures of themselves and their friends or color in a coloring book. Talk about race throughout the week as we encounter different characters in books.

***

My kids are away for the weekend with my parents, but I’m hoping to have this conversation with them in the next couple days. I’ll let you know how it goes …

Additional resources for Talking to Our Kids about Race:

This post from the site Raising Race Conscious Children has tons of examples of scripts to explain difficult topics to kids of a variety of ages.

And this post from the same site has a great list of strategies to use in talking to our kids about race.

How Children Learn Who’s In and Who’s Out by Natasha Sistrunk Robinson for Redbud Post

Day 11: Resources for Talking to Our Kids about Race from Scraping Raisins

How to Not (Accidentally) Raise a Racist on The Longest Shortest Time Podcast interview with Dr. Brigitte Vittrup. The show notes for this podcast have a ton of great ideas for books and videos to watch to help educate yourself and your children on race.

**Contains Amazon affiliate links

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

Day 26: The White Savior Complex {31 Days of #WOKE}

 

At first, she was scared of my white skin. But I know we will learn each other. We are bound together by spirit and our humanity. And now, by cloth. I feel like mothering all of this country's children. I was chosen for this! #babygotback #mybackthatis #tickettoride #morningworkout #trim4Him #squatdatot #notmybaby #yet
barbiesavior At first, she was scared of my white skin. But I know we will learn each other. We are bound together by spirit and our humanity. And now, by cloth. I feel like mothering all of this country’s children. I was chosen for this! #babygotback #mybackthatis #tickettoride #morningworkout #trim4Him #squatdatot #notmybaby #yet

In her recent memoir, Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World, former missionary Amy Peterson proposes that it is time to retire the word “missionary.” Why? Perhaps because the word carries vestiges of imperialism, colonialism and the white man conforming the “heathen” to his culture and way of life. It also perpetuates the white savior complex where the white person swoops in to save the day such as in films like Dangerous Minds, Avatar, The Blind Side and The Help. (Which I tried and failed to do my first year teaching in the inner city.)

A popular Instagram account, called Barbie Savior, capitalizes on this theme, showing a Barbie doll in a variety of exotic settings followed by humorous hashtags: #imagiver #igivetopeople #andijustkeepgiving #justlikethegivingtree #exceptiambetter #thesetshirtsaresohotrightnow

The word “missionary” is certainly a loaded word.

Our new church is taking a short term missions trip this summer. Equal parts of me groaned, but also longed to take off for a week this summer to travel to Nicaragua. As someone who has been on short, medium and long-term missions trips, here’s my take on the matter of missions.

On a 5-week trip to Tajikistan in 2004.

1. Short-termers can do a lot of harm.

I won’t harp on this, but when you go into a place without knowing the culture or language, you can create a lot of chaos. (Read The Poisonwood Bible for many examples of what NOT to do—this should be required reading for missionary hopefuls. Also, see my post on The Problem with the Wordless Book.) Many short-termers go on trips to build churches or other structures, but in reality know nothing about building and take jobs away from locals.

Sometimes short-term trips can harm the work of the full-time missionaries. I lived in a remote area of China that had a very large Muslim people group. We had numerous Christian groups come through and talk to Imams at the Mosques and people throughout town, then leave us in a wake of new suspicion from the government. Being a Communist country where missionaries were not allowed, this behavior put our positions at risk. In addition to this, hosting large groups of short-termers can distract long-termers from the work they need to be doing and be very draining. Planning for meals, rides, accommodations and work all while using another language in another country is a lot of work for the long-term missionary.

On a one-week trip to Central America.

2. In spite of this, there is still value in doing short-term trips.

I decided to go into full-time missions because of a short-term mission trip I took with my youth group when I was 16 years old. I don’t think I would have made that decision otherwise. I now see short-term trips more as “vision trips” than anything else. They are an amazing opportunity to expand your worldview and see firsthand what God is doing in other cultures around the world. Even though they can be very expensive, I think this window into another world has life-long implications for westerners experiencing an entirely different way of life. Because of this, I would still encourage anyone to go on a short-term trip.

3. Long-term is better.

Any sort of sustainable mission work is only sustainable because of the longevity of the relationships built over months and years of trust. Learning the nuances of language and culture takes more than a week-long crash course. It requires being immersed for a long period of time. Once you have survived the waves of culture shock, you can begin the hard and sometimes life-long work of making friends and earning a right to share your faith or introduce new ideas for community development.

4. Empowering locals is best.

I still think local people are usually more effective at helping those within a culture than a foreigner would be. Many missions organizations now have this view of training local people and working themselves out of job. This is a broad statement and dependent on the kind of work, but a Chinese can best explain the Bible to another Chinese. A Ugandan will trust another Ugandan more than a white face. And a Nicaraguan will understand where to buy building materials, communicate with contractors and how to complete work on a project in cheaper, more effective ways than a white missionary.

***

Our Spiritual Hierarchy

Those in the church need to be careful about creating hierarchies within Christianity. Growing up, I believed missionaries were at the top of the spiritual hierarchy, then pastors and those involved in domestic full-time ministry. So naturally bankers, construction workers, servers and stay-at-home moms were at the bottom of the spiritual totem pole. You can read more about my journey stepping off the missionary pedestal here and here.

Youth groups and college ministries often perpetuate this myth of the missionary hero as they play intense music, show emotionally moving films and then follow with messages about not wasting your life by getting a normal job and buying a house when you could do the real kingdom work and be a missionary. Why would you want to waste your life when you could make your life count for God?

Now I realize the danger in emotionalizing the call into missions. Many people are on the mission field who do not belong there. And if there were less sensationalism surrounding missions, perhaps the average person might actually be able to see themselves there after all.

I still have a love for other cultures, languages and countries. I would still rather go than stay, but I also know that the subject of missions is not as simple a topic as I once believed.

Amy Peterson concludes: “The word missionary has become more problematic than helpful. Instead of describing reality, it blurs our vision and limits our imaginations. It has outlived its usefulness, and I vote we give it a proper burial” (Dangerous Territory p. 207).

I have to agree.

***

Have you ever done a short term missions trip? What did you learn?

In what way did your “whiteness” impact your ministry positively and/or negatively?

 

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

Image: Barbie Savior Instagram

**Contains Amazon affiliate links

Day 25: Divided by Faith {31 Days of #WOKE}

I have a confession: I choose my Twitter friends based on the color of their skin. Admittedly, this is reverse racism of sorts, but it is the best way I have found to hear the thoughts of people who are underrepresented in my daily life.

Since the election, the collective cry resounding from my Twitter feed is that people of color feel angry and scared, but also betrayed by the white evangelical church, who overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump.

I picked up Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America at exactly the right time. Divided by Faith is a highly researched book digging into the racial divide in our country, but especially as it pertains to the evangelical church. As a culture geek, this was exactly the analysis I was looking for. The book digs into the history of race relations in the church in the United States including the responses of “the greats” like D.L. Moody and Billy Graham towards the racial inequities of their time.

In a national survey of over 2,500 Americans, only 4 percent of white Protestants named racism as an issue. In contrast, a third of African-American Protestants cited racism, with one-quarter naming it as the single most important issue for Christians to address.” (p. 87) The book confronts this discrepancy head-on.

Here are some parts of the book that stood out to me:

“Most evangelicals, even in the North, did not think it their duty to oppose segregation; it was enough to treat blacks they knew personally with courtesy and fairness.” (p. 75)

Early leaders developed four major steps to achieve racial reconciliation:

  1. “Individuals of different races must develop primary relationships with each other.”
  2. “People must recognize social structures of inequality and that all Christians must resist them together. These structures include … unequal access to quality education and housing.”
  3. “Whites, as the main creators and benefactors of the racialized society, must repent of their personal, historical and social sins.”
  4. “African Americans must be willing, when whites ask, to forgive them individually and corporately. Blacks must repent of their anger and whatever hatred they hold towards whites in the system.” (p. 54-55)

Divided by Faith emphasizes the individualism of white evangelicals, pointing out that most do not recognize structural racism. This paragraph gives a good summary of the findings of numerous surveys and interviews conducted by researchers of this book:

“Because the vast majority of white evangelicals do not directly witness individual-level prejudice (with the exception of some relatives who used the “N” word occasionally), the race problem simply cannot be as large an issue as some make it to be. Granted it was a problem in the past, and a residue may remain today because orginal sin remains, but the race problem is not severe. A number of respondents, as a result of their isolation and cultural tool kit, stated that the race problem was overblown, exaggerated by vested interests. A common theme was that the media exaggerated the race problem.” (p. 81)

“One consequence of thoroughgoing evangelical individualism is a tendency to be ahistorical, to not grasp fully how history has an influence on the present.” (p. 81)

“After hundreds of years of efforts, far from being brought closer together, white and black evangelicals, and Americans in general, are widely separated, perceiving and experiencing the world in very different ways.” (p. 88)

This letter from the book exemplifies why I am writing this series:

Letter from Christianity Today, 1971 (p. 57)

*Contains Amazon affiliate links

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

Day 23: The People We See and the People We Don’t {31 Days of #WOKE}

Touching my frizzy brown hair, artificially padded hips and wire-rim black glasses, I smiled into the mirror. This disguise would be perfect.

Navy Pier on a clear sunny day was the setting for the greatest church youth group contest ever: a human scavenger hunt. I altered every part of my appearance I could, even stepping into a new socioeconomic class. I borrowed a broom and dustpan from the janitor at the school where I taught and took up my new position at Navy Pier as a sanitary worker.

I walked through kiosks and tourists, sweeping up popcorn kernels and trash for the next hour, hoping no one would suspect I was not actually an employee. A few times I saw other workers and congratulated myself on the pure luck of choosing the exact right color polo shirt to accompany my khaki pants. I managed to sneak out of sight before they realized I was a phony.

I hadn’t accounted for the amount of times people would ask me for directions to the bathroom. I shocked myself with how quick I was to lie (*ahem* “act”): “This is my first day on the job,” I’d say. Or, “I haven’t been working here very long.”

But there was something else I hadn’t accounted for: The way I was suddenly, magically invisible. People only noticed me when they needed me. No one paid attention to the janitor with the frizzy hair.

My disguise was so convincing that I passed the youth group students numerous times without them recognizing me. When the set amount of time had elapsed, I swept my way over to the McDonalds we had picked as the rendezvous point. A group of ten youth sat at a round table facing the ships docked at the pier.

“Excuse me,” I said, indicating I needed to sweep under their feet.

“Oh, sorry,” they said, moving out of the way.

I swept around the entire table without a single student looking me straight in the face. Even when I was practically touching them, they didn’t see me.

Because I held a broom, I was invisible.

***

I’m learning that part of being “woke” means noticing the unseen systems and people around me. I’m taking shovel to rigid ground and excavating the soil of my whiteness to see what I find there.

Jesus loved and sought out the invisible people living in the margins of society.

Passing a homeless man with a cardboard sign recently, I suddenly thought. “God loves that man as much as he loves me. He knows his name, has plans for him and longs to be known by him.” And the thought surprised me.

The thought revealed my assumption that I am more deserving of love than those lower on the totem pole of society.

But God loves the the homeless man panhandling money as much as he loves me. He is enthralled with the janitor, factory worker and Taco Bell worker. He knows the teenager in the failing school in the inner city and the gang-banger selling drugs for a living. He adores the undocumented immigrant working 60 hour weeks to support his family. God loves the terrorist, murderer and rapist–as much as he loves me.

God’s love is boundless. There is no one who escapes His notice.

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

Day 22: Following Nikole Hannah-Jones Down the Integration Rabbit Hole (Part 2) {31 Days of #WOKE}

Nikole Hannah-Jones is my hero. Haven’t heard of her? Well, do any Google search including the words “school segregation” or “school integration” and you will likely find an article written by her.

The first time I heard of Nikole was on a This American Life Podcast called “The Problem We All Live With,” a two part-er about the benefits of school integration. (If you haven’t listened to it, please download it right now). Having grown up in an aggressive desegregation program in the public school system in Tampa, Florida, then teaching in the city of Chicago, I felt like someone finally outfitted my blurry eyes with the correct prescription glasses for my horrible vision.

I could see.

Since listening to that podcast and a few others, I have been on my own journey towards sight. But I recently heard her on another NPR podcast, Fresh Air, this time talking about intentionally sending her own daughter to a segregated school.

I surprised my family the day I heard that podcast. I listened while chopping apples for oatmeal while my husband got the children dressed.

“YES!” I yelled out. “YES!” ‘

“What?” my husband said, coming down the stairs with our two-year-old on his hip.

“This.” I said, pointing to the voice on my phone. “Her.” I pushed pause and hit rewind for the fourth time. You have to hear this,” I said. Nikole’s voice rang into the kitchen.

“And I say this — and it always feels weird when I say it as a parent, because a lot of other parents look at you a little like you’re maybe not as good of a parent — I don’t think she’s deserving of more than other kids. I just don’t. I think that we can’t say “This school is not good enough for my child” and then sustain that system. I think that that’s just morally wrong. If it’s not good enough for my child, then why are we putting any children in those schools?”

My husband looked at me quizzically. “That last part,” I said. “Listen again.”

If it’s not good enough for my child, then WHY are we putting ANY children in those schools?

***

My first year teaching, in 2002, I taught in a school that was 100 percent African American. The students there had no memory of a white student ever attending. When I taught there, I drove from the diverse north side of the city to the west side of Chicago, a neighborhood called North Lawndale with very few white residents. You can read about my first year teaching back on day two, but I ended up substitute teaching in a different school in the north side every day for two months after teaching in Lawndale. I eventually taught for four years in another north side school in a mainly white area.

Though I’d hardly call the north side schools flashy, I could see a marked difference in the amount of resources available to the schools who had majority white populations. Parents were more involved, more demanding and had a say in the governance of the school. They knew how to pull strings.

As a teacher, you feel trapped in the system. You work hard, love the faces in front of you and fight for justice in your small square. But as a (white) parent, I feel I am holding more of the cards. Now I can choose. Where do I want to send my children? How involved do I want to be in the school? What “rights” do I want to fight for?

I have the power to stay or go.

But I am not only a (former) teacher and current parent, I am also a follower of Christ. So in that way, shouldn’t my demands be different? Shouldn’t my view of my neighbor shift? Shouldn’t my faith move mountains and my love destroy walls?

Deep down, do I believe my children deserve more than other children? And if I find that voice whispering deep in my subconscious, do I have the courage to confront it and ask where it is coming from?

Things get real when it comes to our kids.

Here are some questions I’ve been grappling with lately:

Would I be willing to send my children to a failing school, trusting that they would get enough of what’s lacking from the ways our family would supplement their education?

Would I be willing to send my children to a school where they would be the minority (which will remain hypothetical in my case right now, since the city where we live is majority white)?

Would I be willing to send my children to a school in an unsafe neighborhood?

And if I answer “no,” to any of these, would I be willing to back up my answer with the Bible? Would I have the courage to ask “why” I wouldn’t be willing–from a Jesus-loving/following point of view?

I’d love to hear someone else’s perspective on all of this, so join the conversation in the comments section. I may attempt to address these questions in the days and weeks to come.

***

Here are some other articles by Nikole Hannah-Jones:

Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City, for The New York Times Magazine (June 9, 2016)

Segregation Now, for ProPublica (fall down the ultimate rabbit hole and get lost in the comments on this one!)

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

Day 21: What Ever Happened to Integration? (Part 1) {31 Days of #WOKE}

“I cannot see how the Negro will be totally liberated from the crushing weight of poor education, squalid housing and economic strangulation until he is integrated, with power, into every level of American life.” –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

***

I completed most of my homework on the school bus in sixth and seventh grade, because I rode an hour to and from school. My county in Tampa, Florida, was still under a 1971 court order to integrate its schools when I attended middle school in the 90’s. Those of us in the (mainly white) suburbs were bused to schools in the lower income, predominantly black, areas of Tampa to ensure the schools would be integrated.

“Didn’t it bother you that I went to school in such a rough neighborhood so far from our home?” I asked my mom a few years ago after realizing more about why I attended school so far from our mostly white suburb.

“You were separate,” she said. “All your classes were in the honors hall, so you didn’t interact with many students who actually lived in that neighborhood.”

So even within a school designed to promote integration, white students were kept separate from non-white students by being placed on honors halls. Reflecting back, I realized she was right. Though I had a handful of black students in my class, the majority of my class was still white.

I recently came across a fascinating document from 1973, detailing the implementation of integration in my county along with ten other counties throughout the nation. In it, a school administrator said, “‘Without the benefit of student transportation,’ he concluded, ‘it would be impossible for the schools to overcome the effects of a history of residential and educational segregation.'” (School Segregation in Ten Communities, p. 35)

This is an extremely complex issue, but it seems like busing was the only solution to integrating the schools when the residential areas remained segregated. I wondered if the schools were still integrated today.

Hillsborough County was finally released from its court order to integrate the schools in 2001. The county achieved what is called “unitary status,” meaning they no longer need to be closely supervised by the federal government. According to the Cowen Institute, “To be declared “unitary” by a judge, a school district must demonstrate that it has eliminated all traces of intentional segregation in six areas, called the “Green factors”: 1) student assignment, 2) faculty assignment, 3) staff assignment, 4) transportation, 5) extracurricular activities, and 6) facilities.”

But it seems that what unitary status actually means is that now students can attend their neighborhood schools again since the schools are no longer rigidly supervised. The school I attended for sixth grade is now back to being 73 percent African American, 20 percent Hispanic, 6 percent white and 1 percent “other.” Have the schools, therefore, “re-segregated”?

As a child, I had no idea I was in the middle of a system designed to eliminate segregation. Later, as a teacher in a magnet school in a white area of the city of Chicago, I thought nothing of the fact that most of the students of color at the school rode buses for nearly an hour to attend school because their parents knew the value of integration.

Often we move along in life unaware of the systems that guide and constrain us, much as a fish is oblivious to the water that steers him. I did not see that I was being forcibly integrated, just as my parents accepted the reality of segregated living until they were in their teens. Perhaps it’s time we open our eyes, peer around and start asking questions.

The 1973 document spelling out the integration plan in my county concludes on a positive note:

“Desegregation in this racially and ethnically mixed community
has not been easy, but there is evidence of growing optimism and
satisfaction with what is happening in the schools and community
because of desegregation. Nearly 100 students who had left the school system have reportedly returned. The superintendent’s office reported that it had received fewer than half a dozen calls concerning problems
with busing during the first half of the 1972-73 school year. Some
of those originally opposed to the plan now seem prepared to agree
with the view expressed by the Ventura County Free Press as schools
opened in September 1971:

‘If there is a solution to the racial, social and ethnic differences that divide our society, this is where it seems to be–in kids rubbing elbows with other kids–kids who are different in many ways–and finding that nothing ugly rubs off. It’s a part of education that too many of us grown-ups missed, and if it takes some busing to achieve it for our youngsters then we must face the necessity for busing even without a court order.‘”

Reading this last paragraph is sobering. The writer hoped they were moving towards a solution to end the problem of segregation. But as schools slipped out from under the nose of the federal government and achieved “unitary status,” it seems our school system eased back into segregation.

According to Tanner Colby, author of Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America, in an article for Slate, “The racial balance created by busing was a fiction, and in the absence of those programs we’re just seeing the country for what it has been all along, what it never stopped being: separate and unequal.”

***

What was your experience growing up? What was the racial make-up of your school? What about your children’s school today?

Check back tomorrow for more discussion on this topic.

This article is a fantastic overview of the history of integration in the U.S.: The Massive Liberal Failure on Race, by Tanner Colby for Slate

 

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

*Includes Amazon affiliate links

Day 21: What Ever Happened to Integration? (Part 1) {31 Days of #WOKE}

Day 20: The Problem with the Wordless Book {31 Days of #WOKE}

“The black represents sin, red is the blood of Jesus, which brings us to the next bead—white, when we are washed clean of our sin.”

We sat in pairs and prepared to share the gospel by color. I was 16 and going on my first mission trip to Costa Rica. Our church youth group had practiced our mime for months—an allegory of the story of Jesus–and our bags were loaded with extra Bibles in Spanish. We all memorized some basic Spanish so we could share the gospel as we gave away bracelets with colored beads, called “Power Bands.”

This method of evangelism, a bracelet version of the “Wordless Book” has been an evangelistic tool since the end of the nineteenth century. It is said to have been invented by the famous English preacher, Charles Spurgeon. In this method, each color represents an aspect of the gospel. The Teen Missions website gives the following guide:

Each color of the Wordless Book / Wordless Bracelet represents an important Bible truth about Salvation

BLACKSin  Romans 3:23 | All have sinned

RED Blood  I John 1:7 | Jesus’ blood covers all sin

WHITE Pure Psalm 51:7 | Jesus washes away confessed sin

YELLOW Heaven John 14:2 | Believe on Jesus and receive Eternal Life

GREEN Grow 2 Peter 3:18 | Grow in the knowledge of the Lord

In a sermon delivered in 1866, Spurgeon read the verse : “Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.” (Ps. 51:7), then shared:

“There is something about this in the text, for the person who used this prayer said, “Wash me,” so he was black and needed to be washed; and the blackness was of such a peculiar kind that a miracle was needed to cleanse it away, so that the one who had been black would become white, and so white that he would be “whiter than snow.”

If I were in the presence of an African American as this sermon was delivered, I would certainly be cringing every time the word “black” was spoken.

The imagery of purity being associated with the color white and sin or evil being associated with the color black is commonplace in western culture. But what is happening at the level of our subconscious when we associate “black” with sin and “white” with purity and then turn around and categorize one another as “white” and “black”?

I can hear the naysayers now:

“Don’t be so touchy.”

“Does everything have to be about race?”

But as a mother, I have to wonder what my children internalize when they are taught that black is sin and white is purity.  Which color would you rather be?

Perhaps it is time to abandon the Wordless Book.

If you were (or are) a person of color, how would it make you feel to sing the following song (as is recommended by websites advocating the Wordless Book):

“Wordless Book” Song by Frances M. Johnston

(Show the colors as you sing.) 

(Black) My heart was dark with sin until the Savior came in.

(Red) His precious blood I know

(White) Has washed it white as snow.

(Gold) And in His Word I’m told I’ll walk the streets of gold.

(Green) To grow in Christ each day I read the Bible and pray.

Along with the fact that this method implies that black is bad and white is good, another problem with the Wordless Book is that our associations with color are not universal. When I lived in China, for example, I learned that white is the color of death and used in funerals and red symbolizes good fortune. In this regard, short term missionaries can sometimes do more harm than good when they fail to study language and culture before trying to share Christ in a foreign land.

We can do damage when we assume our western symbols are universal. Using the Wordless Book in a place like China would be nothing more than confusing (which is interesting since according to Wikipedia at least, it was used by China Inland Mission and missionary Hudson Taylor in China).

Open-air preaching in China using the Wordless Book

So what are some alternatives?

Rather than using colors, some people use the metaphors of being “dirty” and “clean,” utilizing object lessons like a dirty T-shirt washed clean to present the truth of salvation. Another alternative is to use the more biblical language of “light” and “darkness” when talking about sin and salvation. Though the Bible uses the word “white” in reference to purity, it never uses the word “black” to describe sin. The closest the Bible comes to color-coding sin is in Isaiah 1:18 that says “Though your sins be like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.”

God can and does use even our faulty methods to share His love. But if there is any chance that our methods offend, confuse, belittle or perpetuate stereotypes, then perhaps we should abandon them for the sake of unity.

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

 

Images: 1) Bracelets  2) Open-air preaching in China