As a pastor, I believe that the most valuable thing we can teach our children is how to follow God, and there are many ways to do that--through prayer, reading the Bible, worship, and serving others. But some of the most impactful ways we affect our children's faith happen in everyday conversations--in the car and as we walk, around the dinner table and when playing games. This is why the first step of talking to our children about race is doing learning for ourselves.
Asking questions of yourself is an important way to start. Consider these: What experiences and events have shaped your understanding of race? How has race played into your story, whether you’ve always realized it at the time or not? How can you avoid the extremes of defensiveness and arrogance and live in ways that are not just “not racist” but actively anti-racist?
Perhaps one of the most challenging, but also rewarding, ways to grow your own understanding of the ways race has impacted your family is to work on a racialized family history. Most BIPOC (which stands for Black, Indigenous, People of Color) do not have the privilege of not identifying as a race or ethnicity. We tend to treat White people of european descent as "normal" while people of other skin tones are "ethnic." Recognizing the ways that ethnicity and race has played out in our families’ stories both informs our understanding of the past, and can empower us to dismantle the aspects of racism at work today.
A racialized family history can start with learning the stories of your family’s immigration. Visit a site like familyseach.org (which is free) or ancestry.com (which charges a fee to access many records) to learn when and where your family members immigrated to the U.S. This information will help you connect the dots between your family’s immigrants and what was going on in the U.S. at that time. This timeline offers an overview of the history of immigration in the United States. Notice if your ancestor was able to immigrate freely and legally to North America. If so, who was not able to immigrate legally at that time, and why?
It is also helpful to look into the history of the cities and towns where your family members have lived in the past 100 years. What did the redlining maps of the 1930s look like? Was their community a sundown town? Was there a Ku Klux Klan club at the local high school or are there newspaper records of their activities? Were public parks and pools always open to people of every color? Think about how these experiences impacted your family’s ability to build generational wealth.
We learn these stories not to discount how hard our ancestors worked or question their motives for survival. It’s about taking a closer look, an honest look, to notice the other factors at play that affected other families more than ours that have led us to the inequalities we see today. When we don’t do this work, we fail to recognize the myths that have been perpetuated in our own families.
In doing this work, I came to see the impact of race in my White family. While my father is a person of color, my mom is White. In researching her family’s history and learning about the impact of things like immigration and the GI Bill in the U.S., I came to see how the opportunities afforded to my ancestors were far greater than those that BIPOC living in the last 100 years have been able to leverage. My great-grandfather immigrated from the Netherlands during a time when there were no restrictions for him. My grandfather served in the military and received the GI Bill which he used to build a home for himself and my grandmother. He took over the business his father began and was able to build it even stronger and larger because of his business acumen. But a BIPOC with the same talent and business acumen would not have received the same opportunities, like the unrestricted immigration my great-grandfather benefited from or the GI Bill granted to my grandfather.
Because my grandfather had acquired some wealth, wealth that he worked hard for, he was able to cosign for my father to get loans to start a business and buy the building it operated in. My dad did this in a Black community where Black people were denied such loans. Again, my dad worked really hard. But a Black man working just as hard would not have had the same opportunities to gain wealth.
This is hard work, but following Christ has never been easy. As parents, we bless our children when we share with them the gifts of understanding, lament, and living for God.
Parents who understand that diversity is a gift to be celebrated and not an obstacle to be resisted will raise kids who do, too. God has made all people in his image and each person matters to him. God is building an ethnically diverse kingdom, calling people from all tribes and nations, and we are called to share God’s love generously to our neighbors. Our glimpse into the future of God’s church is a fellowship that transcends our divisions. It helps to glimpse the future that we are working towards.
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands (Rev. 7:9).
Parents who lament the impact of the sin of racism and repent of the role that they have played in perpetuating that sin, both knowingly and unknowingly, will raise kids who do, too. Ignoring the injustices or minimizing their significance perpetuates the lies and eliminates the racial dialogue that is needed for healing. Naming the injustices and recognizing the sin set us on a path for living into God’ grace. We can be parents who live, not paralyzed by their guilt, but empowered by the freedom we have in Jesus Christ, to restore relationships to God’s original intention for human flourishing.
Rev. Dr. Steven Koster