Wednesday, September 21, 2016

your kid is a racist. and so is mine.

I was a senior in college in Austin. I had a job in the after school program in an elementary school near campus. One day one of the kindergarteners, a little girl named Sonya, sat on the playground, buried her face in her knees, and wept.

 "What happened?" I begged her to tell me. Finally she did.

"I was standing at the tree, and we all wrapped our arms around it. And then Hannah said she didn't want to hold my hand because I'm black."

When Hannah's mom came to pick her up, I told her what had happened. Horror spread across her face. "I don't understand!" she cried. "We are not racist! We don't even see color! Her own godfather is black! How could she say such a thing?


A decade passes. Now I am the mother. We named him Shepherd. He was beautiful. He was smart. He was funny. 

When he was twelve months and ten days old, his sister was born. When he was twelve months and fifteen days old, I sat on the bottom stair in our home, holding my peacefully sleeping newborn in my arms. Shepherd toddled over to me and his beautiful, rosebud-lipped sister. He looked at her. Patted her soft pink blanket. Touched her silken hair.

Then, with as much strength as his precious, adorable little hand that was attached to his sweet chubby little arm could muster, he slapped her hard in the face.


A decade, plus two years. Shepherd has three sisters now. His littlest sister is now in kindergarten, just like little Sonya. His littlest sister is also the same color as Sonya. His littlest sister is also the most extroverted extrovert. She loves new adventures and new friends. Begs me every day for a playdate. Lists each of her little friends and asks why they can't play today? Right now? "People person" was a phrase invented for the Bethies in the world.

Bethie also has a speech delay, which hasn't bothered her too much, until now.

The year has been going well, aside from the usual kindergarten end of day tired/cranky/sassiness. But Thursday, she tells me, "Momma, I had a very bad day today at kindagarten."

"Why, sweet girl? What happened?"

"Two boys who sit next to me at the blue table. They were mean to me."

 "What happened? What did they say?"

"I told them to be quiet. They say for me not tell them what to do. Then they say that I talk weird, that I don't talk like them. Then! they tell me I not American, Momma! They say I not America!"


I used to cry with every Oprah, every sad documentary, every long distance commercial. It's possible I even sought these things out for the emotional catharsis. But then I became a mother, five times over. Three of my children are currently in puberty.  My emotional cup runneth over.

I rarely cry over news stories anymore.

But today I did.

Today I read about a freshman girl at American University who had a banana thrown at her while she sat in her dorm room. A black girl. Another mother's daughter who I imagine as beautiful, and smart, and funny as my daughter. A girl who got accepted to American University, an upper middle class, politically liberal, predominantly white educational school in an expensive urban neighborhood.

A school that sounds exactly like Bethie's elementary school in Austin.

A decade from now. I see an 18 year old Bethie in her first year of college. The most extroverted extrovert. Who loves new adventures and new friends. The year has been going well. Then she calls me to tell me about a very, very bad day.

"Momma. They were mean to me. I was sitting in my dorm room studying, and someone came by and threw a banana at me."

Two freshman boys are under investigation at American University. Two smart boys. Probably from upper middle class, educated, politically liberal families. Two boys who saw that other mother's daughter but decided to make it very clear that according to them, she was not human. She was a monkey.

So they threw her a banana.

She didn't belong.
She should go back to Africa.  
She not America.

Racism is taught people say.

But I bet, I just bet, that if you asked the parents of those two boys, they'd be as shocked as Hannah's parents. I doubt they are any white hoods hanging in their closets. I bet they'd say "But we aren't racist! We have black friends! We don't even see color! How could our child say such a thing?"

Fearing the different is inherent. Call it tribalism, call it social identity, call it xenophobia.

I'm a Christian.
I call it original sin.

We are all born haters. We are all born baby-slappers. We all naturally loathe, mock, and alienate the different. We all cling to what we know and who makes us feel secure and who makes us feel like we belong in an uncertain, unforgiving world.

We are all born racist.

Your child is racist.

My child is racist.

Because racism is not taught. Racism is inherent.

Five year old Hannah did not have to be taught to not want to hold Sonja's hand. One year old Shepherd did not have to be taught to hate and envy his little sister for dividing his mother's affections. Two little boys did not have to be taught to shame my daughter for "not being American," which is kindergarten speak for "you're different and you don't belong here" which could quickly evolve into "Go back to Africa."

I used to think that my children would not be racist simply because their dad and I are not racist. Therefore, we didn't really need to discuss it, especially when they were still so little and beautiful and smart and funny.

Racism is taught, right?
So we won't teach them racism.
Problem solved.

But now I realize how callow that was. Because both their dads and I are big readers. But I never expected my kids to learn how to read just because their dad and I read.

Not one of my five children had to be taught to throw food on the floor. Or to throw a tantrum. Or to disrespect their parents. Or to lie. Or to steal. Or to hit their siblings.

None of them have seen their dad or I do any of these things, yet somehow they were born naturals in each of these areas. If my children would became respectful, moral, contributing citizens purely by osmosis, I would have mothered several, perhaps dozens, more.

What I have spent the past decade plus doing is trying do is to UNteach these innate skills. To replace them with the inclination to honor and respect other people, both inside our home and outside of it. To see the image and likeness of God in each and every mean, annoying, hateful, tattling human they encounter, and treat them with dignity not because of how they behave, but simply because of the Image-bearers that they are. 

It is relentless, grueling, frustrating work. Many days I gaze in shock and awe at the vitriol and evil they spew at each other - vitriol and evil that they did not learn from their dad and me. Many days I am convinced that they are unrepentant sociopaths and my life's work will all be in vain.

The only thing that keeps me hopeful is to know that other mothers feel the same way. That my own mother felt the same way. That hearts will change. That prayers will be answered. That my evil little sociopathic children are perfectly normal.

Because to sin is the nature of children.
Yet these children - who commit such atrocities on the people who share their very DNA, their tribe - these children are the ones we expect to be naturally loving and accepting to people who look different from them?

Racism isn't taught.
Racism is inherent.

Love is taught.  
Respect is taught. 
Honor is taught.

Proclaiming "I don't see color" is a horrible thing for you to do to my child.

And to your child.

Because we all see color. Kindergartners see color. College freshmen see color.  My daughter sees color every time she looks in the mirror.

Color is good. Color is what makes life colorful.

Saying color doesn't exist as a parenting technique is as effective as saying sex doesn't exist or stop signs don't exist or the internet doesn't exist. Haphazard at best, and deadly at worst.

And if you pretend it doesn't exist, you certainly can't rejoice in it.

Pretending you don't see color means you can't talk about how wonderful and un-boring God made the world and all the people in it. Pretending you don't see color means you can't discuss how amazingly and lovingly we were designed to be protected from the sun in Africa or to absorb more vitamin D in Scandinavia. Pretending you don't see color decreases the glory of a perfect bowl of pho or a perfectly melded salsa.  Pretending you don't see color denies history, both the good parts and the bad parts. Pretending you don't see color mitigates the experiences, sufferings, and triumphs of entire groups of your neighbors. Pretending you don't see color means there was no slavery in this country nor a civil rights movement. Pretending you don't see color is lying to your child.

Pretending you don't see color means that you cannot examine your own heart and root out the inherent racism that may still exist within it. Pretending you don't see color means you won't examine it, confess it, grieve it, unteach it, and murder it, before you pass down a malignant inheritance to your child. Your child, who will one day go to kindergarten, or university, with my child.
Pretending you don't see color may break my daughter's heart at best. Pretending you don't see color  may be deadly to my daughter at worst.

Pretending you don't see color will never teach your child to love, respect and honor other colors. 

Please talk about race with your child. Now. Right now. Before kindergarten, if possible.

Because your child was born a racist.

But you have been blessed with an amazing opportunity to redirect their heart.  

Further reading:

How to teach your kids about the nations
Help the children love the different people 
Resources for talking to your kids about race and racism
Celebrating diversity in our homes
How white parents should talk to their young about race

Saturday, June 11, 2016

A letter to my son

Your mom at 23. 

Dear Shepherd,

There's a big case in the news right now about a woman at Stanford, a prestigious university in California, who went to a party, drank way too much, passed out, and was raped by a 19 year old student. It's been all in the news.

And for the past few days I've been wondering how to discuss it with you.

You are 12 years old, not quite 13.  You are on this teeter-totter between manhood and childhood. Which,  just so you know, makes learning how to do the mom thing really tricky.  I'm never quite sure how much to tell you, especially when it comes to things like sex, and drugs, and drinking, and my own mistakes.

But you've recently told me lots of very personal things. And I can't tell you how happy and honored that makes me, that you've confided in me. So now I'm going to confide in you.

Back to the girl at Stanford.

Here's the lowdown on the case: a 23 year old girl, we don't know her name, but we know that she's very smart and funny and has a job and a serious boyfriend. She's very normal. She goes to a frat party at Stanford with her little sister. Imagine your sisters in 10-15 years: Eva and Maggie at a college party. Or Maggie and Bethie.

The girl drank way, way too much, as always happens at frat parties. It's stupid and reckless and dangerous but it happens. You asked me before if I ever got drunk in college and I think I changed the subject. Now you know. I got drunk lots and lots of times in college. Way too many times. It was just what we did - it honestly didn't occur to me that there was another option. Just so we're clear: there is. Repeat after me: Drinking is not mandatory in college. 

So. She's wasted, really wasted, can barely talk or walk.

Yes, your mom has been that drunk before. Not in 20 plus years, mind you. But yes.

It's hard to know whether or not to tell your kids this, by the way, because it seems like we're giving you permission to do the same thing. So let's be clear: I am not. Don't do that Shep. Don't ever do that. When you drink that much you *only* do stupid things. Trust me, you will not make one solitary wise decision when you are drunk. Every single thing you do when you're drunk will be stupid and dangerous. Say that out loud. Now. Say it. Out loud. Every single thing I do when I'm drunk will be stupid and dangerous. And some of those stupid things will change my life.  

So she's walking out of the frat house, she's wasted, she's in stupid and dangerous territory, and she's lost her sister, and this guy named Brock, at Stanford on a swimming scholarship, finds her. She passes out back in the parking lot behind a dumpster. When you pass out from drinking, you're, like, in a coma. No one can wake you up. First you have a 'blackout', where you are conscious, but you will remember none of it later. Then you just fall into a deep sleep. This is when some people never wake up - the alcohol poisons their system so much that it shuts down and they die. The scariest part is, with alcohol you cross this line very quickly and never realize it. Just one beer can be the difference between living and dying.

Yes, I've passed out before. Once in college. It was freaking scary.

So, she collapses, and this guy, only seven years older than you - you, in a few very short years - sees her lying on the ground, helpless. He has a choice to make now. 

If you were in this situation, what would you do? Think it through. If one of your sisters were in this situation, or I, or GG or Mimi, what would you want someone to do? 

The choice Brock makes is this: he rips off her clothes and violates her body with his. And he took some pictures of her when she was naked, and sent them to his buddies. But then some other guys, grad students from Sweden of all places, ride up on bicycles, see him, yell, he runs, they tackle him and call 911.

One of the Swedish guys? When the police got there, he was so upset by what he'd seen, that he was sobbing - a grown man sobbing. He could barely talk to the police.

So rapist dude goes to jail, and his trial was last week. And, he blamed her. He said she came on to him, that she totally was okay with what they were doing, that she even enjoyed it. He also said he'd never done drugs, but his text messages showed he was a liar (yes, the court can and will seize your phone and read all your texts. The internet is forever.) The jury didn't buy it and he was convicted of three felonies. The judge got to determine how long he would go to jail for.

His dad wrote this letter to the judge. Read it and tell me what you think of it.

So the judge only gave him six months in jail, and the whole country is freaking out over that. He also got kicked out of Stanford. He was a really good swimmer, he wanted to go to the Olympics, and now he's banned from competitive swimming forever. And he has to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. And the whole country hates him. His life as he knew it is over.

So my fear is that you're thinking now, whoa, that's really harsh! I mean, that's not nice what he did, but they were both really drunk...

This is why we're talking right now.

Now read another letter: this one is from the girl's boyfriend to the judge.

And I've been a little obsessed with this story, for lots of reasons, but here's one of them.

My senior year at UT, I took a Women's Studies class. Yes, that's a thing. And no, it was not full of leather clad lesbians - in fact there was only one. The rest were very cute sorority girls. And me, and two guys. One was a boyfriend of one of the girls. The other was named Chris C.

And one night, I was out on Sixth Street, and I drank too much beer, and I ran into Chris C.

I knew him okay, he was cute, but I didn't know him well enough. But I was drinking. See up there, the part about stupid dangerous decisions.

He drove me back to his apartment, and we kissed - I'm sorry, I know this is grossing you out.

Just kissed. No big deal. I still remember what his living room looked like. Which you know his amazing since I have the absolute worst memory. There was a fireplace. I was sitting on the arm of his sofa. It was brown suede. He was standing up.

He told me to go back to his bedroom. I said no. He said yes, a little more insistently. I got a little worried, and I said, "I'm not going back to your bedroom." And then he said, "You can go back to my bedroom or you can effing get out of my house." Only he didn't say effing.

So I grabbed my purse and effing got out of his house.

Problem was, he lived off campus - way off campus, down Mopac somewhere. I had no idea where I was. I think I was north of Zilker Park somewhere. Far from campus! It was deserted. No buildings, nothing. And Shep, I was walking up and down the freeway in the middle of the night, terrified, crying, all alone, having no clue where I was, and there was no one around. This was pre-cell phone days, okay? I was totally helpless. Your mom. That was your mom. So many ways this story could have ended.

So how did it end? God totally saved me. In the midst of my utter stupidity and drunkenness. a white pickup truck pulled over and this woman got out, ran toward me, and said "Do you need some help??" In the car, she called Chris C. a slew of cusswords as she drove me home. Then she told me that sometimes we get saved by angels, and she was mine. She probably wasn't. She was probably just an Austin woman in a white pickup truck. But she may have been a real, honest to God angel in a white pickup truck. I still wonder.

So, he certainly never raped me. All we did was kiss, then he was a total ass, and I left. Big deal, right?

Here's what you need to know honey - that experience destroyed me. .

I went from being a confident, happy, I-can-rule-the-world 22 year old to an insecure, depressed, fragile little girl. I didn't want to get out of bed. The UT campus where I'd spent four years, that I loved, that I knew so well, suddenly became scary and full of danger and formerly cute college guys who were now all threatening. I had to make appointments to tearfully and humiliatingly explain to my professors why I was missing so many classes and not turning in my work. And get this - I still had to go to class with Chris C! I had to listen to him raise his hand and give proper professor-pleasing Women's Study answers, the same answers that deluded me into trusting him and thinking he was a good guy. A safe guy. I wanted to kill him.

Because the kicking me out etc etc was bad. Total jerk move. But here's what really happened to me that night: in one instant, my world was completely, forever changed by the revelation that any man, at any time, can do any thing he wants to me, simply because I am a woman.

Shep, just thirteen years ago you were in my tummy, and now you're six inches taller than me, and still growing. You're a kid and you can overpower me. You can overpower almost any woman. You roam the earth every day with that reality, even if you don't realize it.

I knew that before, in my head, but after that experience, I knew it in my heart. And it was terrifying. To this day, I see every man as a potential predator and take precautions to that end. Which, sadly, is actually a healthy outlook, one that I teeter-totterly teach to your sisters.

So why am I telling you all this yucky information? Especially when, like you said, "I'm only 12, and I really don't plan on ever raping anyone."

Because I don't think that Brock's mom every thought he would ever rape anyone, either.

Because Brock's dad still thinks he is gentle.

Because Brock's friends and family say that he's a great guy, that he was a great student, got great grades, liked to eat great pretzels. They are all listing what he did prior to that night. But it's not what we do that matters - it's what is in our hearts. And when Brock saw an unconscious, helpless woman, it wasn't his grades or his swim times but his heart that saw her as a mere body for him to do with as he pleased.

Probably, one day you too will be presented with a similar situation. Maybe even while you'll still in middle school.

When Jesus sent out his apostles, he told them, "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves."  He meant that naivete was not an option when changing the world. They needed to know evil to combat evil, without actually practicing evil. It's a teeter-totter. 

This is how I feel sending you out into the world. 

This is why we're discussing this even though you're still 12 and don't really ever plan on raping anyone. 

It would be really easy for me to just say, be the hero, Shep! Be the Swedes on the bikes! Be the angel in the white truck!

But then it would all be about the things you do. And your dad and I have raised you and your siblings with more intent than that.

The girl wrote a long letter to the court too. It was amazing. Utterly amazing. I've debated about letting you read it because it's graphic. But I think you need to read it too, so that you can get to know her as a real person, not just a victim. Because I think it will sink into your heart.

And I hope my story will sink into your heart, which is why I told it to you, embarrassing as it is to me. I hope that talking about these things openly and honestly in the few years that I still have you will shape you into the man we know you can be.

We're doing our best to teach you that all people are image bearers of God, even when they are lying unconscious behind dumpsters. That all women are to be seen as your little sisters, or your mom, or your grandma, or your future wife, or your someday daughters. That women's beautiful bodies are inhabited by precious, unique souls that matter to God. That when you violate a woman's body, you violate her soul.

We named you Shepherd, after the Good Shepherd, defender and protector of the weak. Your dad and I have raised you to be a defender and protector of the weak.  You know that the only way that women are weaker than men is physical strength - but height and weight and muscle mass combined with a darkened, selfish heart is a stupid, dangerous, oh so dangerous thing.

My prayer for you, Shep, is that the strength of your body always pales in comparison to the strength of your heart. So that when, not if, but when you see a woman who is defenseless, the snake in you recognizes that she is in danger in order that the dove in you will protect her from evil.

Protect her, Shep. 

Love you so much,



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