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Teaching Kids About Race

Reconcilation advocate Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil challenges parents to teach and model respect for other cultures.

Racism has long been an issue in our country. Recent months have again shown how racial and religious conflict can lead to hatred and devastation. As Christians, we believe that under Christ there is no "Jew nor Greek," yet we often struggle to pass that belief on to our children—especially when we live in a culturally homogenous neighborhood or worship in a racially homogenous church. Now, more than ever, it's crucial that we lead our children to love all of God's people, regardless of their ethnicity.

Brenda Salter McNeil is the founder of Overflow Ministries, an organization designed to promote reconciliation and equip ethnically diverse Christian leaders to be ambassadors of change. McNeil is often called in to consult with various organizations and corporations that are experiencing racial tensions. We talked with McNeil about how she, as a mother of two, champions racial and ethnic reconciliation at home.

Is the goal to teach our children to be colorblind?

Kids are smart and they know we're not all the same. When my little girl was 2 years old, she asked me about people's color. She didn't ask in a judgmental way, she asked in a curious way. She asked me who was pink, who was gray, and who was brown. She just used her crayons as a reference point.

Toddlers know people are different, but only different in their color, like her crayons. It's our society that shapes a child's attitude to believe that someone's color means they are lesser or better than other people.

When people talk about being colorblind, they mean to not attach value to color. God is not a respecter of persons by color, and we shouldn't be either. If we tell our kids not to see our color differences, it's confusing. They will see color. What we need to impress on our children is to not make value judgments about people based on their color.

How can we accomplish that with our children?

We must be disciples to our children; the home is the place where faith is imparted into their hearts. I am trying to help my two children grow into the image of Christ and make Jesus Christ their Lord.

One way I disciple my children is through prayer. Every night before bed, we get on our knees and say the Lord's Prayer together. We pause when we say, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven." My children and I talk about what God's kingdom looks like. Revelation 5:9 says, "There before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language." The kingdom of God is a multiethnic, multinational, multilingual place. If we're not raising our children to be part of his kingdom, then we're not pointing them to follow the lordship of Christ toward his kingdom—we're only producing church members and not Christians.

Are we assuming too much to think that we are already teaching our kids to respect other cultures?

We all have the best intentions, but sometimes we aren't aware of our own, subtle disparities. As parents become models of reconciliation at home, they in turn will shape their children. An example of this occurred when an African American friend of mine came with me to an international student conference. She had never seen herself as a person who cared about reconciliation, but she wanted to hear me speak. During the conference, she was surprised at what she learned about herself. She remembered when her son was 12, she told him that when he started dating, and eventually married, his wife had better be an African American. She recognized that her cultural values were more important than her Christian values. After the conference, she went home and apologized to her son. Today she and her family relate differently.

It sounds like these lessons demand that we get out of our comfort zone.

We can say that Jesus loves all the little children of the world, but if we don't socially interact with anyone who is different, or our kids never play with kids from different races, they won't believe it. Their inexperience will defy that as true.

If we don't lead our children to appreciate and learn from our differences, then our children won't see any value in other people. And when we don't see any value in a person, in their color, in their culture and what it represents, then we don't have any need for them. That's why most families don't have friends who look different than they do. How can we value someone we know nothing about?

Are children really able to grasp these concepts?

I believe they are. My son goes to a wonderful Lutheran school, but he is one of only seven children of color in the school. My son's teacher asked me if I would come and speak about racial reconciliation to the fourth- grade class. I decided to do an exercise using puzzle pieces to illustrate my talk based on Ephesians 2:14, which says, "For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility."

I passed out one piece of the puzzle to each child in the class. As I was explaining the exercise, I noticed the kids were already putting their puzzle pieces together, and by the time I was ready to begin, they were half finished. I said, "Hey, you guys didn't even know what I wanted to do. Why did you put the puzzle together?" They said, "Why would you hold one piece of a puzzle? You're supposed to make it fit together." I asked, "Why is it so important to put it together?" One child said, "Because my piece all by itself isn't good enough, and so I had to get Omari's piece of the puzzle, and then Gretchen's piece." They just knew instinctively that they were supposed to put it together.

I said, "You're right. That's what racial reconciliation is. Inside each one of us, God has placed a puzzle piece. When we are reconciled to God, something in us wants to find the rest of the puzzle, the rest of our family. You don't want to be separate and alone." I told the children that when you are reconciled to God, you only have one axis of the cross, like a big stick. But the cross needs a horizontal axis. To make the cross complete, we need to make peace with each other. I left thinking, these kids get it!

The events of September 11 have made it feel almost justifiable to hate a group of people, like fundamentalist Muslims. How can we keep our children from feeling that hatred?

Exposure, exposure! In America, we have been socialized to think racially and prejudicially. We're taught to fear what's different from us, partly because we're socialized to believe that we're the center of our world. We can tell our children not to hate anybody all we want, but no matter what we say, it's what we do that matters most. Children are growing up in an environment where they don't believe what adults say; they're looking at what adults do.

I was in a Laundromat a long time ago that was owned by a Korean family, and the daughter, in my opinion, was harsh and condescending with the customers. I remember having a prejudicial thought about her, and Korean people in general. I thought, How dare you generalize this to every Korean person. As it turns out, my daughter's godfather and godmother are Korean. Our families each have two kids and we spend time together. We eat kimchi over at their house, and they eat soul food over at our house. They defied my stereotype. My family can't be prejudicial about Koreans because our experience tells us otherwise. It's our responsibility to keep our children from stereotyping races by exposure and experience.

How should we handle the racially insensitive comments of other people, especially grandparents who grew up in a different era?

Most of us are too frightened to correct our parents because we want to keep peace. I spoke at a conference about the sacrifice of worship, and how it leads to reconciliation. But we don't want to pay a price for reconciliation because the price would be making a parent angry. We have to bite the bullet. We may not be able to convince them to be different or understand the attitudes we've adopted, but we do have control over how our parents relate when they are around us.

For example, when a parent says a racist joke, have the guts to say, "I don't believe that's the best Christian approach." Your parent may get angry, but that's a part of taking up the cross. Reconciliation will demand that. We can tell our children that Grandpa was wrong for telling ugly jokes: "You'll never hear me say that, and I hope you'll never make remarks like that. Grandpa grew up in a time when many people were prejudiced against other races. Those are the wrong attitudes."

In your work, what's the most common misunderstanding you've come across concerning racial identity?

People are afraid that racial reconciliation means sameness. They think that for me to embrace you means I would have to give up who I am. I don't think we're being asked to meld together in a way that doesn't distinguish who we are. I'm very proud to be African American. I honor the culture that has passed down through my ancestors, and I hope my kids celebrate it, too. Like a puzzle piece, I am a distinct piece, but when I put my piece together with yours, we are stronger and better, not less or worse. We see bigger, we see clearer when we come together. I'm not diminished as a result of coming together.

The other misconception is that Christians think that because we are not harboring prejudice or act outwardly bitter, that people of different races will just want to be with us. That won't work. The next level is to extend an invitation to come—whether it's to our home for dinner or to our church to worship together. For the sake of our children's future, we need to take action and get involved.

—Brenda Salter McNeil (For more information visit www.puzzlepeace.org.)

Take the Next Step

Expose your children to different cultures. Big cities are wonderful cultural centers. There are parades, festivals, art museums, and other multicultural events. You can find event listings in your local newspaper or posted at the library, or you can contact your state's ethnic affairs department.

Suggest to your child that he invite someone racially different over to play. It's an opportunity for your child to make another friend and for you to meet his parents and get acquainted.

Teach your child about his own ethnic heritage. It's difficult to affirm in other people what's never been affirmed in you. Everybody is ethnic! When we talk about multiethnic, people think that only means people of color. Caucasians need to recognize their own diversities and learn about their family's heritage—whether it's German, Swedish, Greek, English, Irish, or whatever.

Trace where Grandma and Grandpa came from. If they are from the Netherlands, pull out the Dutch shoes (or get a pair) and learn about Dutch people. You can make some Dutch food and practice Dutch customs.

Encourage schools and churches to teach racial reconciliation. Urban public school systems deal with diversity, and some have provided sensitivity training for teachers. It's hard to ask teachers to lead something they aren't familiar with. We need racial reconciliation to be a part of public school systems and churches and to incorporate it into the curriculum in a natural way.

Find multiethnic media. These Web sites can help you find resources and more information: click here. A list of 50 multicultural books for children in preschool through fifth grade. click here. The multicultural book review home page offers ideas for teachers and parents. click here. A comprehensive resource site that encourages awareness and sensitivity toward other cultures.

—Brenda Salter McNeil

March/April 2002, Vol. 14, No. 4, Page 28

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