Talking to Adults about Racism and Racial Justice

Jun 2, 2021 9:00:00 AM / by Jessica Davis

Last month, I wrote about ways in which leaders in the church, especially white leaders, can prepare for talking with children about racial justice. But doing the same with adults requires a different approach. Helping children develop anti-racist identities is primarily rooted in preparing them for the realities of life in a racist world and clarifying and planning ahead regarding who and what they are accountable to. Helping adults develop anti-racist identities is rooted much more in helping them unlearn the racist thoughts and behaviors that have already taken hold. As you prepare to begin or deepen the anti-racist work in your families and congregations, there are three key principles I hope you will keep in mind.

First and foremost, in doing our anti-racism work with adults, we must prepare to reteach history. It is an oft-repeated aphorism that "history is written by the victors," and it is perhaps nowhere more true than in the history of the church. Getting serious about anti-racism will necessarily mean helping people understand that their history books and beloved elders may have taught them things that were incorrect or were presented in ways that villainized the victims.

Another incredibly important principle of healthy anti-racism work is allowing BIPOC to call the shots while white people do the work. This may be a massive departure from the relationship structures people in your congregations or families are used to. For the last several hundred years, life in the church and much of the world at large has meant that white people had all the decision-making power in virtually every situation, and people of color were there to carry out their orders.

For anti-racism work to not come at the expense of the health of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, this model must be inverted. There will inevitably be an impulse to require the BIPOC folks in the congregation or community to teach about racism and share their experiences, often uncompensated. But they have no obligation to do this work that often comes with a great deal of pain and risk.

As you do your planning for your anti-racism work, please provide safe spaces for the BIPOC people in and around your community to name 1) the changes they would need to see to feel safer and more welcome, 2) the things white folks need to learn to facilitate those changes, and 3) what role, if any, they want to have in implementing this work. Not all BIPOC are called to be educators or activists, and even those who are deserve time to rest. If they do wish to be involved in the work, they need and deserve to be compensated.

Lastly, those planning on doing anti-racist work in Christian community need to prepare to provide pastoral care, both to the white folks and the BIPOC in their midst, even if they aren't pastors. Digging into deep feelings about race, acknowledging historical myth, and especially acknowledging the ways in which white folks in particular have participated in the harm of people of color is hard and emotionally draining work. It may be met with despair, denial, stonewalling, rage, and a host of other challenging emotions and behaviors. Leaders must be ready to meet these with both compassion and firm boundaries.

Equipping adults to unpack and combat racism is messy and complicated. It is also necessary and liberative. We who worship a Middle Eastern Christ must tell the truth about who we are, who we have been, and who God is calling us to become.

Topics: Adults Ministry, race, racism

Jessica Davis

Written by Jessica Davis

Jessica Davis, MA is a Christian educator, pastoral counselor, church consultant, and freelance writer and speaker living in the Philadelphia area. Her ministry passions include: youth ministry, church music, community visioning, and education and advocacy re: diversity, equity, and inclusion. When not doing churchy things, she can usually be found knitting, volunteering with refugees and asylum-seekers, or working as a freelance makeup artist. You can connect with her work through Jessica Davis Church Consulting on Facebook.

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