Talking about Race and Power with Kids
Updated: Dec 15, 2019
September 2014 I attended the 26th Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) Conference with thousands of Christians from around the world while serving on a church staff in Raleigh, NC. Learning to celebrate the breadth and depth of The Kingdom of God in a world of inequality, brokenness, and prejudice is an integral part of Christian living. CCDA centers around 3 main areas of change, accessible for even children to live into: Relocation, Redistribution, and Reconciliation.
Relocation: Relocation means choosing to live daily with people of different backgrounds, oftentimes those who have not been afforded the same opportunities. Specifically this means people who experience oppression or lack social mobility. We see our greatest example of relocation in Christ himself, who came as an infant to a lower-class family and spent part of his childhood as a refugee in Egypt. While the CCD commitment to relocation means choosing to move into under-resourced areas, relocation is happening all over the United States; it’s probably happening in your neighborhood.
In Wake County, NC, over 7,000 new students enter the public schools each year, many from countries other than the U.S. These children have relocated. Although only 25% of Wake County as a whole is non-white, over 75% of the children entering as new students are ethnic minorities. These students are entering a predominantly white, affluent county and are learning to reconcile their culture of origin and home culture (not necessarily the same thing) with the culture of Raleigh and of their elementary school. Certainly, not every child of a non-white background is under-resourced, but they will all face some level of racial profiling, and many will experience prejudice. At a very basic level, they are experiencing, perhaps for the first time, life as a minority culture.
All too often, children pick up on “different” and make a negative association such as “weird” or “wrong”. It’s important for parents and other leaders to initiate conversations with children about some of gifts diversity offers our city: different languages, music, art, family traditions, and experiences in other cultures all combine to make a city more wonderful! Talk about what you would want to share about your own culture if you moved to a new culture- are their favorite foods, traditions, or values that you would like to share with someone in a new place? How could a new friend make you feel more at home?
If your child is educated in setting without this rich diversity, consider making a point to spend regular time in diverse settings. Playing at a public playground downtown, participating in park district programs, or shop at stores in more culturally diverse areas of the city. Creating opportunities for positive exposure celebrates gifts and emphasizes that there is a wide variety of people who claim our city as their home.
Redistribution: Many people hear “redistribution” and think “handouts”. CCD practitioners will be the first to say that the last thing we need is to create a top-down, handout-dependent program. Instead, think of redistribution as a sharing of power and resources. Jesus surround himself by 12 men with varying backgrounds, levels of education, and understanding of the Scriptures, investing his time and equipping them to move forward with an important task!
Childhood is full of opportunities to become equipped to be responsible adults. When we give people tasks and opportunities to exercise their personal responsibility and display maturity in a thoughtful environment, we equip them with the experience to make future wise decisions. We regularly redistribute power in our families and communities to welcome children into the privilege of ownership in community life through chores, service project opportunities, celebrations of achievement, and verbal affirmation.
The unfortunate reality is that even among children, there is a power differential that labels some children of privilege as those who possess power, and some children as the recipients of these power dynamics. When our primary exposure to people of diverse backgrounds is in programs where the person who looks different from us is also the person we are going to help, we are still holding all the power! Instead, consider what it looks like to be in a place where mutual transformation is happening, and you are learning alongside each other, or helping each other.
Redistribution of power in the lives of children can look as simple as advocating patience while a classmate learns a skill that your child has already mastered, or extending an invitation to a child without social capital to spend time together at lunch or recess. Being included and welcomed shares a child’s social power and helps build confidence for future situations. Starting in elementary school, the social dynamics of inclusion and exclusion speak powerfully into perception of self-worth. Championing inclusion by extending friendship, patience, and hospitality to classmates is an easy yet radical way to begin to redistribute social power in elementary classrooms.
Reconciliation: Many people mistakenly state that “children are so wonderful- they’re colorblind! They love everyone!”. The sentiment that children don’t make associations with race is false; many studies confirm that children perceive race from very young ages and make choices informed by how they’ve seen (or not seen) that race represented in the media, their home, or community. Under-exposure (not being surrounded by people of other racial backgrounds) can lead to children being uncomfortable in diverse settings, or speculation that “difference” means “unsafe”. For a deeper look, take 10 minutes to watch this video.
Racial reconciliation includes having conversations to teach how to recognize racial differences without assumptions or limitations. It also means educating against cultural, systemic racism in child-appropriate ways. Race has no inherent effect on intelligence, personality, socio-economic level, interest, or family status! Child psychologists (in the video linked above) note that children who are taught about racial equality are more quick to celebrate equality, while children who are assumed to be a “blank-slate” are often making uninformed racial assumptions.
Unfortunately this is an area that will take continued guidance because of how inherent it is in our culture. When you hear your child make an association based on race (even if it is a positive association!), encourage them to rephrase their sentence to make their association with the individual person instead of with their race or ethnicity.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is centered on the reality that reconciliation is possible between sinful people and a holy God, and that this reality of reconciliation is open to all people. When we are born again, we are born into the family line of Christ, and our identity is first and foremost found in him. Because of this reality, we are called to take these values seriously and do the hard work of exploring them intentionally and inviting our youngest brothers and sisters into the richness of a diverse Kingdom.