Talking to Children about Racism and Racial Justice

May 5, 2021 9:00:00 AM / by Jessica Davis

2020 was a year of reckoning that led many of us who are white to heed what people of color have been saying for many years: that racism is a persistent and deadly problem and that it will not be solved until white people learn, grow, and change. To that end, Sparkhouse has decided to run a series of blog posts throughout the late spring and early summer in which people of color write about racism and racial justice as they relate to ministry. We hope you will join us on this learning journey and contemplate what actions you, as a ministry leader, can take to further the cause of racial justice in your church and your community.

Though the concept of race is, relatively speaking, a fairly new one (the concept of race being used to categorize humans according to skin color and physical differences emerged as a product of colonialism from the 16th to 18th centuries), the effects it has had on life in the United States are undeniable. From the churches we attend, to the food we eat, to our life expectancy—it matters what our prevailing culture, and we, believe about race.

We know all this, and we understand that our children need to know all this, too. But what do we tell them when? Do we tell BIPOC children and white children the same things? How do we keep our kids safe while teaching them how to keep others safe?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but as a Black woman with 20+ years as a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion educator and 10+ years as a Christian educator, I have developed a framework that I often use to shape my conversations with children about racism and racial justice. To make it easy to understand, I use the acronym "FAIR."

F: Always convey information that is Factual. Don't lie, even if the motivation for doing so is kind. We needn't share every detail of the truth, but we do need to share the truth. When young Black boys come to me and ask, "Are the police going to shoot me?" I can't tell them no. If I did, they would never trust me again. But I can tell them that there's only a very, very tiny chance of that happening. And I can tell them that community action plans make that chance even smaller, and then we can work with the church council to build such a plan.

A: Age-Appropriate. There is no such thing as "too young to learn about racism." Study after study has shown us that, by the time they start kindergarten, children of all races in the U.S. are very likely to believe that people with white skin are smarter, kinder, more attractive, and more trustworthy than their darker-skinned counterparts. We know that BIPOC children are often treated more harshly than white children when misbehaving in the same ways, even before their second birthday. We also know that children who grow up in the church are even more likely to believe these things (how often does your church talk about lightness/whiteness as good and holy and darkness as representing sin and death?).

So, how do we determine what our children are ready to hear when? By using the same metrics we use to talk about other complex ideas. If we're talking about a death caused by racism, what do the experts tell us children this age understand about death? If we're talking about life being unfair for people of color, what do children this age understand about fairness? (Basic information about developmental stages can be found from CHOC here and from Scholastic here).

I: In whose Interest is what I'm saying? This is a pretty simple one. Focusing our words and deeds on the needs of the people who are the most vulnerable in any given situation is central to the gospel (and it is crucial to teach BIPOC children that this is true even when the most vulnerable person is them).

R: Lastly, the things we tell children about racism must be applicable to Real life. As tempting as it may be to teach white children to "not see color," BIPOC children don't have that option. So it doesn't make sense for that to be a way in which any of our children enter the world. And while consuming diverse media and having discussions about racism are important, more important still are actual real-life skills. Just as our children practice "stop drop and roll," they must also practice what to do if they experience or witness racism.

Of course, no simple acronym is going to erase the impacts of centuries of violence and inequality. But it is my hope that this brief framework can help families and educators to engage this difficult subject in ways that are accessible, practical, and just.

Topics: Children Ministry, race, justice

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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