The “talk” for adolescents in Black households is not about sex and avoiding teenage pregnancy. It focuses on what to do if the police stop you to avoid being arrested or worse. I have seen a circle of boisterous Black youth at a local bus station in Ottawa be threatened and dispersed by police, while a group of laughing white youth nearby were allowed to stay. When I asked about the different treatment, the officer named one group as “troublemakers” and the other as just “hanging out.”
After a local noise complaint escalated, culminating in a 10-year-old Black-Canadian boy being handcuffed in the back of a police car, to “teach him a lesson,” I advocated for his rights as a child; I now regret that I did not say anything about the racist element of that incident. I hear young Black people talk about the impact of needing to be on guard all the time, while other youth can relax. The death of George Floyd erodes hope that it will ever change. I don’t have a good answer for the young Black male who said to me, “It will never change for me.” Large protests with other groups joining in to say that “Black Lives Matter” does renew hope for some, but all too often change does not last.
That set me thinking about what kind of “talk” needs to happen in homes and schools of white Christians. What do we need to teach our children if we take seriously our statements about ending racism? The bystander role – staying quiet when allies are needed – makes us complicit, as well as not speaking out about systemic racism in the allocation of resources and opportunities in all sectors of society. Learning to use the bystander role wisely for justice and violence prevention is a learned skill. Skills in using the bystander role and the advocate role are part of some anti-bullying education.
“Let children be children” say some parents, wanting to preserve an element of “innocent childhood” by avoiding controversial and disturbing topics. Is it good enough to sing sugary songs about God’s love for all children, red and yellow, black and white? Do we need to teach children what racism looks like in their world and how they can take action to be “anti-racist”? At what age do we need a white counter-part to the “talk” that Black children get? Age-appropriate learning is an evolving art and a matter of public discussion in areas such as anti-racism and sex education. I am not a teacher, but my sense is that we often wait too long. It is ironic that, on one hand, there is a desire to preserve innocence by avoiding real-life learning and, at the same time, insistence on telling children they are depraved sinners as a rationale for spanking the bad out of them.
Agents of God’s reconciliation
A growing body of research shows that young children who learn about the reality of injustice in their own worlds are more resilient and less anxious than those who are “protected” by avoiding troubling issues to maintain their “innocence.” Could it be that we harm more than help children by some of our “age-appropriate” censuring of controversial topics in our homes, Sunday schools and Christian schools? The way we talk with and teach children to deal with realities like racism, violence against young people and sexism is important. Young children who develop their own sense of agency – their ability to cope and be moral actors as well are recipients of action – are less likely to experience mental health issues. The calling to be agents of God’s reconciliation starts early with a balanced approach to both our sinfulness and vulnerability and our role as co-creators in God’s mission for God’s world.