"We need to break our kids hearts," said Jennifer Harvey in her talk at The Well last Thursday evening. "There's nothing innocent about white innocence." In her follow up to her book Dear White Christians, called Raising White Kids: Bringing up Children in a Racially Unjust America Harvey is inspired by the questions and issues arising from her own parenting, and her desire to again address her own community: white folks. Most of the folks in our congregation who are parent are raising or have raised white kids. And all of us - parents of white kids or not - have ample opportunities to grow in the ways that we engage our families and communities around issues of awareness, bias, privilege and racial justice.
What Dr. Harvey means when she says we must break our children's hearts is that it is only our privilege that allows us to protect our kids from knowing personally the bias and racism experienced daily by people of color. We want our children to be people who are advocates for justice and equality and teaching them that everyone is the same - teaching 'colorblindness' - ignores the fact that people are in fact different. And those differences mean that those who are people of color have been and continue to be treated differently. The only way that our children can fight for their fellow humans, the only way they can be brave together through the awkward and the uncertain is to know the pain and tragedy of what happens because of implicit and explicit racism and then rebuild their understanding that we and they have agency to respond in just ways.
Harvey's book speaks from her own experience as a parent of white children and aunt to two black children. She starts from the beginning (there's literally a chapter called "Where do I start?") for folks who are at a loss for how to initiate conversations in their families. And she acknowledges that it can be fraught and confusing and awkward but presses us to dive in anyway. When we don't find ways of addressing race, children will notice and make their own conclusions about our opinions.
As a parent of a tween, I have my radar attuned to middle grade fiction that addresses issues of race, since I always like books to do a little of the work for me and give me a reference point in conversation. I have two suggestions that I think will also be meaningful reading for adults:
Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson (and any book by her - she writes picture books for younger children as well) deals with race, faith, disability and belonging through the eyes of a sixth grade girl. Franny is a black girl living in an all-black neighborhood but begins to ask questions about how black and white folks should interact when a white kid who looks a lot like Jesus shows up in her classroom. We read this book together and then we used the questions at the back of the book as a starting place for conversation about our own experience and attitudes.
Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes (and anything by her too). I haven't read this one yet but heard the author on The Longest Shortest Time podcast and then went to see her the next day when I discovered that she was speaking and reading at the Seward Park Third Place Books. Her book starts with the shooting of Jerome, a 12-year-old black boy, by a white police officer. It tells the rest of the story through his eyes as a ghost - encountering both the grief of his family and community, a host of other ghosts, including Emmett Till, and the one child who can still see and hear him: Sarah, the daughter of the officer who shot him.
Both of these books are heartbreaking in just the way that Harvey suggests. They will break open our own and our kids' hearts in ways that we can put them back together again full of hope. Much of the hope in the books is lodged in the young protagonists and their peers. I was so impressed by Jewell Parker Rhodes in how full of joy she was in spite of the heavy content of her work. She sparkled with delight in the young people in her audience and urged all of us, young and old alike to tell stories like Jerome's and to talk to each other about how to build hope and justice in our communities. We can start in our own families.