“Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream came true,” agreed Mrs. Smith. “We ignore skin color and only see the children.”
In 1963, Dr. King proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I wondered how it was possible to see children, but not their skin color.
“We live at a time in history where all of us are the same and equal,” added Mr. Tucker.
All of us in the school administration graduate course taught in diverse schools. The Latino and Black teachers chose not to participate in the discussion.
“When did everyone become ‘the same and equal?'” I asked.
I felt frustrated. And angry.
“In 1954, the Supreme Court declared that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional,” explained Mr. Tucker.
“So, desegregation laws removed racial bias?” I countered. “There were no equal rights among students before 1954 and we’re not equal now.”
“Let’s take a ten minute break,” interrupted our professor.
One of the Black teachers in my class tapped me on the shoulder as I dropped quarters into a coffee machine.
“I never heard a White teacher acknowledge that there was inequality in our schools,” she said.
“That’s because there isn’t,” I replied, hoping I had not offended her.
“I know,” she added. Her eyes were filled with tears. “I just never heard a White person say it. Thank you.”
Jonathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools, insists that U.S. schools are as segregated now as they were before the U.S. Supreme Court’s desegregation decision. “Whether the issue is inequity alone or deepening resegregation or the labyrinthine intertwining of the two,” he insists, “it is well past the time for us to start the work that it will take to change this.”
Pivotal moments in our lives shape our attitudes. I attended a St. Louis parochial school during the 1960s. I vividly remember riots, protests, and violence on the evening news. I was more confused by racial slurs from adults who attended our neighborhood church and conflicting messages of “love one another” from Scripture.
One sweltering summer day when I was in third grade, I watched a man hammer nails into the side of a neighbor’s house. He was sweating; he looked exhausted. Jesus encouraged followers to “give drink to the thirsty” (Matt 25:35). I filled a pitcher with water and shared it with the Black man in my neighbor’s yard. I proudly shared my efforts to be a good Christian with my mother.
“You don’t know that man, Julie,” she warned. “He might have hurt you.” She worked during the day and expressed her concern about my safety. “If he wants another drink, do not answer the door.”
He knocked on our front door the following afternoon and greeted me with a large grin. He held up the plastic pitcher and asked for more water.
“I can’t give you water any more,” I explained. “I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”
The smile disappeared from his face and he walked away with the empty pitcher.
War raged within me as I considered my mother’s words and the command from the Gospel. I refilled another pitcher and raced to my neighbor’s home, but was he gone. I never saw him again. I had a responsibility to “give a man a drink” … and I didn’t.
But I can now.
We are surrounded with opportunities to engage in dialogue with one another across race and culture. Authentic conversations about equality are not possible until we fearlessly and honestly talk and listen to one another about our similarities and differences – including race, inequality, and bias. When we ignore skin color, we discount a part of our own unique identities. When we refuse to discuss issues about inequality, we discount the experiences of others.
Current events are springboards for discussion. Several years ago, Perry Beam invited a student from Taiwan to see a rodeo at the Missouri State Fair. One of the clowns wore a mask shaped in the likeness of Barack Obama.
“The announcer wanted to know if anyone would like to see Obama run down by a bull. The crowd went wild,” explained Beam in a Facebook post. “One of the clowns ran up and started bobbling the lips on the mask and the people went crazy.” The crowd laughed at the clown’s antics and shouted racial slurs.
Beam said the inquisitive boy asked no questions about the incident. “In a way, I’m glad,” added Beam. “I had no answers for him.”
The boy did not ask questions he thought might embarrass Beam and his wife. The adults felt too uncomfortable to engage in a discussion about what they saw and heard and experienced. The announcer at the rodeo was a school superintendent. School board members defended the behavior of the superintendent and clowns.
“There will always be those who ridicule the president,” argued a school board member. “The rodeo clowns were not poking fun at the president’s race.”
When Caucasians insist upon our present-day equality or discount evidence of racial bias, people of color often disengage from conversations, too angry to participate in the discussion or too discouraged to care. When White teachers insist to minority students how equal we are, we discount what the students already know: we’re not equal. Inclusivity begins with honesty and acknowledgement of issues.
Videos offer opportunities to explore diversity issues. Children are bombarded with messages that contribute to their understanding of race, inclusion, and stereotypes. These thought-provoking videos provide adults and children with opportunities to engage in meaningful conversations that promote greater understanding:
A Girl Like Me Kiri Davis was a 17 year-old student who recreated Dr. Kenneth Clark’s 1939 black/white “doll test” among African-American children with alarmingly similar results despite a 70+ year discrepancy.
The Doll Test Revisited CNN reenacted Clark’s “doll test” and revealed even young children absorb information about racial stereotypes. Though the child’s mother said, “We don’t talk like this at home,” this video shows that children receive information from many different sources.
Conversations about race force us into the middle of uncomfortable landmines that raise other issues such as poverty, immigration, and our judicial system. Courageous dialogue provides opportunities to explore equality that is our right, reject negative bias which is our adversary, and evolve as beacons of hope for the future.
Our differences are as important as our similarities because we are unique and united. Every discussion about race, religion, gender, age, and socioeconomic status invites new opportunities to build bridges. It’s about us. It’s about inclusion. It’s about justice.
What conversations are you willing to explore with your family?
Children and teens are talking. Using these tips to encourage dialogue and Hear the Voice of Our Youth.
Use these suggestions from How to Be a Good Role Model to pump up the example you want to inspire teens.
If you want to involve more young people in your organization, check out these tips from What You Must Do to Invite & Involve Youth (So They Want to Stay).
Young people are much more aware of what’s going on than they get credit for. Read Teens & Technology: Tuned In or Turned Off? to learn more.