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Teaching About Ferguson: Not "Optional" for White People

[Editor's Update, Nov. 18, 2014—As the nation awaits a Grand Jury decision on whether Office Darren Wilson will be indicted for shooting Michael Brown, many UUs are preparing to respond to the decision by "showing up" in a faithful way. The Ferguson Response Team of the UU New England districts offers wise thoughts and practical suggestions.]

I watched events unfold in Ferguson this summer and followed the discussion that was and was not happening around me. I saw—once again—how awkward and tongue-tied white people can get when the conversation turns to race. And I noticed—AGAIN—that while parents of children of color face heartbreaking conversations about personal safety, white parents of white children often content themselves with generalities about fairness and equality but do not talk among themselves or with their children about the hard stuff that is intrinsic to race in America.

How woefully unprepared most white people in the United States are for the deep and honest examination and dialogue necessary to come to terms with our own racial identity and with the racial injustice embedded in our social, political, and cultural systems.

What if talking about race was akin to talking about sexuality? Difficult, yes, but integral to good parenting? What if white people wanted their kids to be not just sexually healthy, but also racially healthy, able to meet, engage, and negotiate complex conversations, relationships, and situations by drawing on a well-formed racial identity based on good information, liberal religious values, and a strong sense of justice? What if white parents believed it was just as important for children to speak for racial justice as it is for them to believe in and speak for the integrity of their own body and sexuality?

For years, we have been telling parents in our congregations and communities that we must talk with our children and youth about sexuality. We argue that if our young people do not receive accurate, values-based information, from their parents, caregivers, and sexuality education programs, then they will “fill in the blanks,” satisfying their need to know by gathering information from whatever source they can find, no matter how unreliable, biased, or devoid of Unitarian Universalist values that source might be.

The same can be said about race: We—parents and teachers of all races—must talk with our children and youth about race, however difficult we may find that to be. We must tell them about race and racism in our country’s history, all the way up to the continuing oppressions of today. We must help them understand what our values teach about how to engage and respond—even if we first need to educate ourselves.

Our congregations and communities need to be partners in the effort, supporting parents and caregivers through faith development programming, worship, and social justice efforts particularly to educate white children we are raising together. We can’t just move into another congregational year without engaging our children in a conversation about race. We can’t. If we do, children will “fill in the blanks” about race by absorbing messages from peers, the media, and the dominant culture. The world we dream about will not be built on silence and avoidance. It’s long past time for white kids to learn about race!

Next Steps!

If you are in a UU congregation with a youth contingent, encourage and support your congregation to provide the core multiculturalism/anti-racism training, Be the Change! Developed by the UUA, the program uses six 90-minute workshops to give young people a starting place for discussions about race, identity, and justice.

See "Do's and Don'ts for Teaching about Ferguson" by Jenee Desmond-Haris in the online magazine The Root; the editors write, "Process it yourself first, ask students what they want to know and by all means, don’t make the lesson colorblind."

The nonprofit organization Teaching for Change collected lesson plans and activity suggestions related to the history of racism, police brutality, and civil rights protest in the U.S., in response to the killing of Michael Brown.

In his 2014 Fahs Lecture at the UUA General Assembly Rev. Mark-Morrison Reed presents a revealing look at the ways in which race has been depicted (and often ignored) in Unitarian Universalist curricula of the past.

About the Author

  • Gail Forsyth-Vail is a Credentialed Religious Educator, Master Level, who served congregations for twenty-two years before joining the UUA staff in 2008. She is the author of a number of faith development curricula and resources. She was the 2007 recipient of the Angus MacLean Award for Excellence in Religious...

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