Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Black Girl on the Birthday Card....and Other Lessons on Race

I worry about screwing up my kids.

Maybe everyone has that worry, but I think I've got more reason to.  My kids are Tanzanian by blood, growing up in Tanzania, but by American parents.  Where will they fit?  Will they be able to identify with Tanzanian culture?  Will they be able to identify with American culture?  I read the news and think, Will they be able to one day navigate African-American culture?  I look at my skin color and think, Am I adequate to help them figure all of this out?  

I've learned a few things by raising black kids.  They've helped me see the world through their eyes.  My daughter Grace received this birthday card from a friend earlier this year:

I've never seen my nine-year-old get so excited about a card before.  "Look, Mommy!" she shouted.  "This card has me on it!  That's me!  How did they find a card with me on it?"

I didn't have the heart to tell her that the drawing on the card really looks nothing like her.  But in that brief exchange, my daughter taught me a whole lot about race.  It only took brown skin and curly black hair for Grace to see herself.  I've learned that Yes, it's really important for kids to see themselves in movies, books, and billboards, whether they are black, white, Asian, or Hispanic.  It's a good thing that more of this is happening in our culture.

So in our house, we celebrate brown-ness and make sure it has a prominent place in our family's culture.  We love Gabby Douglas and Michaela DePrince.  Our favorite movie right now is the new Annie (which makes me tear up every.single.time) and my kids even have a Daddy who went to the movie theater and asked to bring home the life-size cardboard cutout.

Being mom of black kids has made me notice the subtle superiority of white-ness in my own culture.  Have you ever taken a close look at the make-up aisle in Walmart?  Most department store mannequins?  The color of standard band-aids?  The color of Jesus in most Bible story books?  How the color peach is often synonymous with skin-color?

Then I wonder, Is it really superiority that causes this?  Or it is just that we are from a white-majority culture that tends to be clueless?  I was recently bemoaning to Gil the lack of pre-teen chapter books that have dark-skinned main characters.  But he gently reminded me that this might not be an issue of racial prejudice.  It could just be that most authors are white, and people tend to write about what they know.  Is that true?  Or is there really a bias among publishers?  It could be neither.  Or both.  But is it right to assume the worst?

It's so complicated, isn't it?  We cannot deny that racism still exists in our society.  We cannot deny that minorities often have a right to feel angry.  I've lived as a minority in Tanzania for 11 years, and it's given me just a small taste of racial profiling.  Even yesterday, when I was in town, I was slapped with a big fine for an inconsequential traffic violation.  I felt very picked on for 1) being white and 2) being a woman.  I was absolutely furious, and it took 15 minutes of ranting to Gil before I calmed down.  I can't imagine what it must feel like to experience things much worse over a lifetime.

But at the same time, what is the answer?  Affirmative action?  More laws?  Diversity training?  Can we force people to think differently?  Our society has tried....but has it worked?  Maybe to some degree, but obviously not entirely.

Change has to come from the heart.  Not from the government, not from the schools, not from the newspapers.

So as a mom of black kids, what will I teach my kids about race?  How do I keep from screwing up their identities?  How do I make sure they understand their value, give them the confidence to stand up for themselves, and yet prevent a victim mentality?

I find my answers in the gospel.

1)  The Bible teaches that every person has value.  Every person is made in the image of God, regardless of race, sex, culture, country, whether handicapped, unborn, or terminally ill.  Every person has dignity.  Every person has an eternal soul.

I would challenge you to find one other worldview, one other world religion, that gives that kind of value to every single person in the human race.  There is none.  Of course, not every Christian acts this way (see point #2).  And of course, people with other worldviews can still believe it, but if they do, they will always be borrowing from Christianity.  The only way we can see every human as having equal value is by believing that we are created in the image of God.

2)  Every person, whether oppressor or oppressed, has a sinful heart.  All of us stand in judgment before God.  White America is not the only population to struggle with racial prejudice.  We see it in India in the caste system; we saw it in Rwanda when men and women slaughtered 1 million of their friends and neighbors of a different tribe.  We saw in it Liberia, when freed American slaves set up a colony in Africa and proceeded to oppress the local Africans.  And we see it in the New Testament, when over and over again, Paul and the other writers seek to break down the barrier between Jews and Gentiles.

This is our nature.  We must accept this.  Instead of pointing fingers, instead of looking for excuses, we must look inside our own hearts and see that the seeds of hate and prejudice and superiority reside in all of us.  We can't just assume, That's their problem, not mine, because it's all of our problem.

3)  The answer is found at the Cross.  I just don't see any other solution.  The Cross brings us all down to the same level--we all have blown it; we all need to be rescued from our own wretched hearts.  Not one of us has the right to think we are better than someone else.   We all need Jesus; we all need him to change our hearts and our thinking.  We need the love that only he can give to overflow to those around us.

4)  Our primary identity is found there--at the foot of the cross.  God gives us the eyes to see the value of every person.  The cross gives us the perspective that no one has the right to feel superior.  Yes, we can celebrate our cultures and our colors and the things that make us different, because God created culture and he loves it.  But that culture does not define us.  It is only secondary to who we are before God, and who we can become in Christ.

This is what I plead in prayer for my children.  Yes, I know they will be confused about where they belong in this world.  I know they will struggle with their identity.  But I pray they can begin to see that African-ness or American-ness or brownness or whiteness really does not matter when we are all at the foot of the cross.

I would want my kids to know that, no matter what color they were.   I hope you do too.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. (Ephesians 2:14)

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