But What if I Say The Wrong Thing?

By Natalie Briscoe

At General Assembly this past year in New Orleans, I was very honored to be asked by Dr. Mark A. Hicks, the Director of the Fahs Collaborative at Meadville Lombard Theological School to be a part of a their experiential workshop on Beloved Conversations. Several of us were asked to be small group leaders hosting table discussions about intersectional identities. The table to which I was assigned was, “Any Race Raising a Child of Color.” I had no idea what topic I would be assigned in advance, nor did I anticipate the impact of this conversation on my soul as a participant in the process.

At first I was nervous that my table would go unfilled. Other topics such as “Person of Color, Christian Spiritual Path” and “White, Raised in Poverty” were filling up quickly. After nearly 15 minutes, I was still the only person sitting at my table. I must admit that for myself, a person who identifies as both a Mother and a Person of Color, I started to feel a little isolated. Was I the only one in our entire General Assembly facing these issues?

Thankfully my fear turned out to be unfounded. My table soon filled up with 10 women. What struck me immediately was the diversity in our experiences. Some of the women, including myself, identified as bi-racial raising children of color. Some of the women identified as white and were partnered with people of color and were raising bi-racial children. Some of the women had transracially adopted children, and some were grandmothers in the primary care role of a bi-racial child. Listening to the stories about how we even arrived at this moment made me instantly grateful for the opportunity to engage this topic with other caregivers who had similar experiences to mine in a Unitarian Universalist community.

The major sense of relief and connection that I found within this conversation was the idea that, in such a multicultural world, we as caregivers who identify as either white or partially white don’t know what to say to our children of color. How do we respond to their questions? How do we help them deal with their feelings when they inevitably are the targets of racism. Often times, my response, and the response of many in our congregations, has been to say nothing to children regarding race and racism. Our common fear is a heavy burden to bear: “What if I say the wrong thing?”

For me, raising multicultural children in a multicultural community is fraught with land mines. It is especially perilous because I have one child who presents white and one child who presents more as a Pacific Islander. Even in our home and at the dinner table, my children notice differences. They claim to be “more Asian” than each other. They struggle with our relatives teaching a cultural heritage that they feel disconnected from in American society. And our whole family wrestles with how we fit into the landscape of Unitarian Universalism.

Multicultural families often struggle in Unitarian Universalist communities as well. Children of color often experience “othering” in their religious education classes, where they are either treated with exceptionalism (as if they are a precious and rare commodity), asked to explain their culture to the class (especially problematic for transracially adopted and bi-racial children), or equated with the “exotic” and out-dated mythology of the stories told in our curricula.

In a Unitarian Universalist congregational setting, we are all caregivers and teachers of our children. All of our children: the children who identify as white and the children of color. If we truly believe that it is our responsibility to build the just and loving community, we must show them a community in which they are loved and accepted for who they are – all of who they are – and that their culture is not “other” because of their heritage or how they look. We also must help our white children create the community that honors difference and accepts everyone.

So how do we get over our fear of saying the wrong thing? How do we talk to the children in our communities about race and racism? Well, I’m sorry to tell you that I don’t have all the answers. I do, however, have some good resources to get you and your congregation started.

  1. In this article from the magazine “Today’s Parent,” author Alex Mlynek discusses how to to talk to children about race in developmentally appropriate ways, beginning with infants and toddlers. According to Mlynek, it is never too early to talk to children about race.
  2. Raceconscious.org is a website about raising race conscious children. This site is full of resources for adults who want to have difficult and meaningful conversations with children and help them explore a justice-making framework.
  3. No list of resources would be complete without Teaching Tolerance, a mainstay of justice education. Check out Sarah Butler’s article, “It’s Never Too Early to Talk About Race," and a broader discussion and nearly endless resources on the Teaching Tolerance main page.

I hope that these resources are helpful to your congregation and your family as you seek to raise children who are prepared to shepherd the beloved community. I also hope that these stories help all of the multicultural families and communities know that they are not alone in this struggle as we all try to find paths to raising whole and healthy children who know that they are loved.