Tuesday, August 23, 2016

I'm racist too.

Anyone else think it's weird that the word is in the front here? It was probably a mistake,
 but I think this image speaks volumes... 

Hi, I'm Kirstin. And I'm racist.

That sentence is so hard for me to write. I want to soften it. I wanted to title this post "That time I was racist" and I want to say "I'm racist sometimes BUT it's always unintentional." I've been writing this for weeks, avoiding hitting "publish" because it's shameful and difficult to publicly admit my own racism. But after having some conversations with both white and Black people about... well, everything: the Olympics, double-standards, policing, our regular lives... I know I need to share this.

The truth is, I'm a product of many things: my background, my upbringing, the culture in which I currently live, the voices to which I choose to listen. And a lot of the water and sunshine that nourished me as a child were steeped in racism. This means I have some racist tendencies. It might not be my fault that they're there, but it is my responsibility to learn to see them and then do the work to disable them.

I was raised in a predominantly white town in New England. I was taught all the proper white New Englander attitudes about racism: confederate flags are bad, you never use the n-word, don't make racist jokes, and all people are equal (therefore you should politely not see someone's color). No one ever expressly told me these things, but it was "caught, not taught." Racism in the North is a little more subtle. I remember my grandmother telling me how very much she liked a Black friend of mine, and how very much she did NOT think I should be dating him. My mother, who heard the entire conversation, said nothing. I don't say this to slam them; talking productively about race was not something in their wheelhouse. White people are often woefully unequipped to talk productively about race. No one teaches us. And our culture rarely presents situations in which we have to learn. I have been able to remain largely unaware of my race for the the majority of my life. That's part of my white privilege...  it's virtually impossible for that to happen for people of color.

While I wholeheartedly believe that all people are equal, I have lived entirely in a world in which people of color are not treated as such. And that word? Racist? It's harsh, I know. You might be tempted to tell me that I'm not really racist, but let's consider what racism really is. I really love Ta-Nehisi Coates' definition: "Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others..."  Have I ever hated Black people? Nope. Never. Have I ever been scared or uncertain about someone because of the color of their skin? Yup.  Have I ever assumed that someone is poor or less-privileged than I am because of the color of their skin? Yup again. Have I ever dismissed the experience of a person of color because it didn't align with my own experience? Yes.  So... yeah... that's all racist.

My dear white friends and family, I hear where your hearts are: you don't want to be racist. You believe that all people are equal and this leads you to think that you simply can't be racist. I didn't think I was racist either. I have some bad news for us: we're racist. Merely believing all people are equal doesn't make us immune. We've been taught, conditioned, and exposed to it as children. We've been participating in and benefiting from systems of oppression that were established long before we came along but continue to thrive under our management as adults. It's okay. Well, no... it's NOT okay but I think it's important for us to be able to recognize our own racism. So I'm trying to make the admitting it part okay. We can't fight racism if we don't see it. We need to stop being so scared of being called racist that we miss the opportunity to actually stop being racist.

So that's the bad news. But there's good news too. Want to fight racism? We need to start with our own hearts. There are some great things we can do. All of them involve the same thing: we need to listen. We've lived our own lives; we have our own experiences that have shaped the way we think. But living in America as a white person is significantly different than living in America as a person of color. And there's simply no way for me to learn what that difference is without listening with an open heart. I need to set aside my opinions, my knee-jerk reactions, the things I think I know, and really listen. And I need to hear and believe that what I'm hearing is true and valid. And then I can take action against racism, preferably following a person of color or an organization lead by people of color.

Are you a reader? Read Ta-Nehisi Coates' book Between the World and Me and read the articles he writes for The Atlantic. Check out the recommendations on this article: Required Reading if you're trying to understand what it's like to be Black in America. (this is really a fabulous collection of articles). 

Are you a social media junkie? Check your FB and Twitter feeds. Are the voices you're hearing there predominantly white? Change that. These folks are some of my favorites to follow on Twitter - add them to your feed. And then when they re-tweet something, consider following that person too. The voices you start hearing will begin to show you a different perspective.

Austin Channing Brown @austinchanning
Andrea @ZRevolution7
Broderick Greer @BroderickGreer
Jesse Williams @iJesseWilliams
Muslim Girl @muslimgirl
Larry Wilmore @larrywilmore
Deray McKesson @deray
John Lewis @repjohnlewis
Awesomely Luvvie @Luvvie
Ta-Nehisi Coates @tanehisicoates

Marc Lamont Hill @marclamonthill

Not on Twitter? Start following Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) on Facebook and read the articles they post. That page is actually for white people who want to fight racism and oppression. Find The National Center for Race Amity. They post some great articles & videos. And look for those same folks from the above list on Facebook. I think most of them are there too. 

Franchesca "Chescaleigh" Ramsey's videos.

Are you a podcast listener? Check out Code Switch .

Most importantly: are you a human? Find a friend. I know this is ridiculously awkward. I don't mean find a token Black person to be in your life just because of the color of his/her skin. But find ways to include people of color in your life. Consider attending a church or a program at a church that is diverse or predominantly Black. Intentionally get to know the parents of the children of color in your kids' classes. Are there not many children of color in your child's school? Think about why that might be. Volunteer at a local social justice agency. I bet you'll meet either staff or other volunteers who are people of color. Get to know them. Don't live your life in a white bubble. I live in a very segregated place, so this takes a good bit of effort on my part. That effort is worth it.

I've been working really hard on this. We can't dismantle the systems of oppression if we don't believe they are there. And we can't hear the voices of Black people if our own racism has shut our ears and our hearts. And here's something white people sometimes miss: an integrated life is better for white people too. I'm not fighting for racial justice because it's good for my Black son. It's good for my white son and daughter too. It's good for me as a white person. My life is better because of the people of color who are in it. My community will be better for me and my family when white systems of oppression have been shut down, because in the long run, my white privileges are
 actually bad for me because they come at such a steep cost to humanity.

And while I've learned so much and I'm getting much better, I'm still racist sometimes. It showed just recently when I made a mistake. (see how much I want to soften my own racism??)  I posted a video to Facebook that I watched from my own white perspective. It was full of white saviorism and was demeaning to Black people. And when I realized that my Black friends were offended by it, I was so ashamed that I wanted to crawl in a hole. I cried and I wanted to disappear because I did something racist. And I felt like a big fraud. But thankfully, I've learned something else: apologies help, ownership of my actions helps. I had the opportunity to acknowledge what I'd done and apologize. And I said what I wish I'd done instead (listen first, remember what I've learned about racism so far). My friends were more gracious than I deserved.

Racism is bigger than you and me. It's not a Black issue.  It's not a white issue. This is a human issue. Racism is systemic - it's in our schools, in our justice system, in our economy... but how can we help dismantle that if we can't uproot our own racism? We have so much work to do... so let's get going. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

I didn’t know.

In case you don’t know me, I’m white. I was raised in a white family. I married a white man and had two white children. And then we adopted an Ethiopian child. And we did all the right things: we read the books, attended the trainings, watched the videos.  I knew life would be harder as a transracial family. I knew we were ready.

And at first, it was great. I felt righteous anger whenever I heard a racist remark and would spend the rest of the day feeling morally superior.  I got to participate in conversations with Black friends about hair and skin and culture and the importance of having good role models of color in his life. I learned so much.  I fielded compliments about the dazzle of my child’s smile and the awesomeness of his curly hair. His first week home, Black men stopped me out in public to tell me how beautiful my son was. That had never happened with my white babies.  I was thrilled.

But I didn’t know.

I didn’t know that I would watch videos of Black men being killed by police and it would feel like it happened to family members because they look like the boy I love so much.  I didn’t know that I would feel so traumatized and broken when I watched videos of young Black girls being thrown to the ground because they could be his sisters.

I didn’t know that I would fill with fear when I see my child playing with a toy gun at the pool. And how I know the parents around me are thinking about how I’m way too overprotective and strict when he’s in trouble for it because he knows our family rule is “no guns.” But I will NEVER let my precious boy play with a gun. Because in just a few short years he will be 12 like Tamir Rice was. And what if he has a toy gun on a playground and someone calls the police? Or what if he’s just looking to purchase a bb gun in Walmart like John Crawford when he’s a young man? Or what if he decides as an adult to own a real gun and is shot for having it in an open-carry state like Alva Braziel, Alton Sterling, or Philando Castile?

I didn’t know that I would tell people about my experiences with racism and they wouldn’t believe me. I didn’t know that I would talk about my fears for my child and I’d be dismissed and ignored.  And I didn’t know that talking about those fears would get me labeled as “anti-police” or “divisive.”

I didn’t know that people would tell me that they don’t see his color and think they were saying something nice, as if erasing part of him would make things better. I didn’t know people would tell me I’m wrong when I told them I want them to see his color – it’s part of who he is and we love that. We love his Blackness.

I didn’t know that I would have to start talking to my child at the age of four about how important it is that he be respectful and polite, not just to police officers, but especially to police officers. Not because I want well-mannered children (which I do) but because it might save his life one day or at least keep him from gaining the attention of adults should something go awry in his near vicinity and he be blamed.

I didn’t know that I would have to hold him after we told our children about yet another racially-motivated shooting as he looked at me, wide-eyed, and said, “I hope that doesn’t happen to me” while his brother and sister cried and hugged him. I didn’t know I’d have to try to empower his white siblings to know how to stand by him while also trying to help them manage their own fears for him.

I didn’t know. Because I hadn’t listened.  Black people have been telling us these things for decades. I didn’t think I was racist – I wanted to adopt a Black child, how could I be racist? My most shameful confession is that I didn’t care to know exactly how hard it is to be Black in America until it was my own child who faced it. I regret that with my whole being. You have no idea.

And this post shouldn’t even be about me. This isn’t about how hard it is for me, a white woman, to be raising a Black boy. Instead it’s a plea for my white friends and family to listen.  Listen to Black voices. Check your Facebook friend list, your Twitter feed, and, most importantly, your real-life friends. Do you have Black voices speaking into your life? If not, why is that? And when you do: please listen. Believe them. That fear is real. Racism is real. Believe them when they tell you that #alllivesmatter is more harmful than helpful. Believe them even if every single thing they tell you doesn’t line up with what you think. Their life experiences are just as real as yours. Before I was the parent of a Black child, racism was something I could fight against when it was convenient for me to do so. I could take a break from it when I wanted to. I’ve lost that privilege.  I regret every moment I didn’t spend listening.

My sweet boy is beautiful. He’s joyful, his eyes sparkle. He’s a pleaser and he always wants to make the right choice (even though he often doesn’t, bless his heart). He loves kisses and he loves to laugh. He’s silly and sweet and wonderful.  Everyone who meets him falls in love with him. He is, by far, my most personable child. But when he gets older, he’s going to look like those men you saw in those videos who were shot & killed. He’s going to look like 12 year old Tamir Rice on the playground. 

What’s going to happen to him when you no longer see him as cute and instead he’s menacing, a threat, a scary Black man?

I don’t want to know.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Why we are choosing a Title I school over a School of Excellence

My older two kids have attended a charter school in our city since Kindergarten. It really is a great school and the students achieve high test scores. It's a School of Excellence, with a 9/10 rating. And we've had an overall great four years there. My kids are happy, they are doing well academically, they have good buddies.

But next year, we're leaving. We're enrolling them in our neighborhood school. It's a Title I school; the majority of students are at or below the poverty level. The students don't typically get very high test scores. It's rating is 3/10.

Well that certainly sounds crazy, huh?

I've been doing a LOT of thinking lately. And I've realized that there are some things I say I believe and it's time for me to act upon them.
 I believe
  • there's no such thing as "other people's children."
  • following Jesus means working to break down barriers like race & class. 

I believe Jesus really meant it when he said "love your neighbor as yourself." I believe that means that all those good things I want for my family I should also want for my neighbors. All the things I want for my own children, all those things I'm willing to work hard for: food, clothing, a safe & loving place to live, a great school... I'm supposed to want and work for those things for "other people's children" too. Which means maybe there's really no such thing as "other people's children" at all. And the past four years, I haven't been able to stop thinking about all the kids at our local school who have been left behind as more and more families choose private and charter schools. I fear that maybe we're asking the wrong question when we ask "What's best for my family?" instead of "How can I be part of making my community better for all of us?"

Jesus came to love all of us, but he paid particular attention to the "outcasts" - the members of society who weren't highly esteemed. He broke barriers by valuing the poor, giving esteem to women and dignity to the "unclean"and the non-religious, he broke the rules by spending time with different people-groups or "races." To follow his lead means I need to be about breaking down those barriers too.

So for the remainder of our elementary school years, we are choosing to be part of a school where not all of the kids' parents are able to be as involved (for a multitude of reasons). We are leaving a school that is 78% white and choosing instead a school that's 46% white. I won't have to worry about my black child being one of only a few black children in his class. I can't tell you how much relief that brings me.  I've spent a lot of hours volunteering at my kids' current charter school where I am one of many many parents who are up there all the time. Going forward, I won't see a million other moms when I come in to volunteer. But my hope is that I'll be able to be a meaningful adult in the lives of some kids who might really need it. Not because my race or my socio-economic status is any better than theirs, but because I want to partner with Mamas from other races, from other socio-economic classes, to raise our children together. I want to be a part of breaking down barriers and helping a school that needs some families to help it become great. Because all kids deserve great schools. Because life's not fair but if I have a chance to make things more fair, I want to take it.

There's one more thing I have always said I believe: Test scores do not reflect teacher quality. And I've been thrilled as I've met with the principal and parents from our local school to hear about fabulous teachers, about great programs, about ways that students there are thriving.  I can honestly say that I truly regret not looking at this school earlier. I am sad that I let the "rating" scare me from choosing to be part of my local public school when doing so better reflects my own beliefs in what makes a great education.

And you know what? I'm scared. The challenges we'll face at school going forward will be different. Change is hard and even good change comes with loss. We are sad to leave our school and we really hope we can maintain the relationships we've built there (tears streaming as I type this). But I'm also ready and excited about our next adventure. And if there's anything I've learned, it's that following Jesus is hard, but worth every second.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Jesus and Bathrooms..

Okay, North Carolina. Let's play WWJD!

Just kidding. Well, sort of. (confession: I totally owned that bracelet in the 90s and wore it proudly)

In all seriousness, how should we as Christians respond to the whole transgender bathroom thing going on in our state? I mean, Jesus doesn't say ANYTHING about transgender people and I'm fairly certain he doesn't talk about bathrooms either.

But I think there's some Scripture that could help us out here anyway.

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.
Matthew 22:34-40 (ESV)

Jesus, when pressed to declare the MOST important commandment, says that we are to love God first with everything we have. And even though he was never asked what the second greatest commandment is, he quickly follows his proclamation up with "and the second it like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Love my neighbor as myself? Treat my neighbor as if he's my flesh and blood? That's no small deal. And living that way is just like loving God with everything I have? yikes.

When I think about the things I want for myself and my family, a few things come to mind: a safe place to live, healthy food to eat, safety, and a great education. So, according to Jesus, I am supposed to want all those things for my neighbors (and maybe even putting my own desire for these things second to making sure my neighbor gets them... but that's a blog post for another day).

Transgender people want to be able to use the right bathroom for them. They want to be safe, not harassed, not victimized or harmed. I want a safe bathroom for me and my children. Transgender people are my neighbors. As a Christian, I need to be worried about safety for my transgender neighbor as well as for me and my children.

So now's the time for Christians to look at real information, not spin from one side or another. Transgender people are significantly more likely to be unsafe in bathrooms: roughly 70% report being denied access, harassed, or physically assaulted when trying to use a public bathroom (link to UCLA School of Law study here).  Transgender people report having health problems like UTIs and kidney infections from not using the bathroom in public because they're too scared so they just hold it. There is very likely a correlation between the high rate of suicide among transgender people and the way they've been denied access to housing and bathrooms. (link to study here). The suicide rate among transgender people is 41%. The general population rate is 4.6%.(National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 2011). This is a HUGE discrepancy. Our neighbors need our love and support.

So let's talk about women & children in bathrooms. Could a predator take advantage of the law that allows transgender people to use the proper bathroom for their gender? Sure. That could happen. However, 90% of child sexual abuse cases are perpetrated by individuals known to the child. Not strangers hiding in bathrooms. And 75% of of sexual assault survivors know their assailant. Again, not strangers in bathrooms (US Dept of Justice, 2010).  And can we take a minute to note that before HB2, some transgender people were already using the bathroom that corresponds with their gender and we weren't having rampant cases of predators hiding in bathrooms.

So here's my take-away from this: we need to work to ensure that our  transgender neighbors have civil rights. Let's do what we need to do so that they can use the bathroom safely. And if we are serious about protecting women & children - let's work on the factors that lead to assault and abuse by those "known perpetrators." Let's fight against the rape culture that says "boys will be boys." Let's fight against the day someone is going to tell my daughter that the boy who touches her on the playground did so because her skirt was too short. Let's fight against the adults who tell young girls that the boys who hit them are doing so "because they like you." Let's focus on the rapes that are happening all across our college campuses. Let's be serious about protecting women and children.

So let's do those things. I'm in. I mean, Jesus told us to, right?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

In case my child is gay or transgender...

I've been thinking about my children lately and what I would say if one came to me and said he/she is gay or transgender. I've thought about this A LOT.  And here's what I've come up with so far:

"Sweet child of mine. I love you. It's okay. God made you to be this amazing, thoughtful, smart, kind kid. Whether you love boys or girls and whether you are a boy or a girl is is just part of that big ole package. I'm glad we have our lives together to figure out how to do this crazy thing called life.

But you know, some people might not be nice to you or to our family because of who you are or what we believe. I don't have all the answers for why that is. I wish I did and I wish I could protect you from every inch of it. The truth is, I can't. But I want you to know that your family loves you, your God loves you, and I don't want to change one single thing about you.

In fact, as your family, we are going to work to love each other so hard and so well that we have extra love to give to those people who don't like us or tell us that we're wrong or bad because of how our family looks. Our family believes in Jesus. We believe he died for everyone and loves us so much that he can fill us up with enough love even for people who don't love us back. But we promise to keep our home a safe place for you, for times when the hurt outside is just too much. We'll shout & fight for you when you need it and we'll whisper when you need that too.

My expectation for you as your mom is that you be kind and do your best. That's about it. I hope you fall in love with Jesus the way I have but that's a journey you'll have to embark upon on your own. So keep praying and find ways to be kind and make a difference for others.

Now go do your homework and then we'll go get ice cream."

And as I wrote this, I realized this is what I want to tell my kids anyway. So I just might write this out three times and make a delivery tonight. Win-win (plus that means we get to go get ice cream!)

This one's nine now. Excuse me while I cry into my ice cream.

Update: I read my letter to the kids this afternoon. Definitely a win!

Friday, April 1, 2016

America is not the Kingdom

I've been thinking a lot about the Kingdom of Heaven lately. I recently learned that Jesus actually talked about his Kingdom more than he talked about salvation. Jesus calls it "Kingdom of God" sometimes too. I also learned that as Jesus uses the Greek word for kingdom,"βασιλεία," he refers to a Kingdom that has already started. It's not something we have to wait for death to be a part of. The Kingdom of Heaven is here.

And this Kingdom Jesus talks about is one where dreams come true: the lowly are honored, the oppressed have a voice, no one is hungry, no one is sick, no one is harmed.  Protections are established to take care of widows and children (the most vulnerable & marginalized). But it doesn't happen magically: Jesus describes a people who intentionally put their own desires aside in order to take care of one another, especially those who are outcasts. It's a kingdom in which everyone belongs to each other, one where each individual is truly valued. In this Kingdom, the way to be "great" (just like Jesus is great) is to put yourself last.

Y'all, America is not God's Kingdom. Our government is not God's design. If it were, it would look entirely different. Our politicians are certainly not the embodiment of "putting oneself last in order to be great" and I don't see a lot of value placed in our culture on putting our own desires aside in order to take care of one another or establish protections for the most vulnerable. We are the land of individualism, of "raise yourself up by your bootstraps!" of "take care of me and mine first." America values obtaining & hoarding wealth and our politicians peddle the idea of opportunities to get rich.  I'm not saying it's all bad. It's just clearly NOT the Kingdom Jesus describes. Just look at how much money our candidates are willing to spend on themselves to gain power (and how much money people are willing to donate in order to protect their own interests). During our 2012 election, candidates spent $7 billion dollars trying to be elected. And Bloomberg  estimates that this year's election spending will top ten billion. TEN BILLION DOLLARS. And that's just presidential candidates. I'm guessing you could join me in making a list of better ways that money could have been spent, huh?

So here's the thing, Christians: We are invited to be part of this Kingdom Jesus said he started when he came. It's already going on, this Kingdom of Jesus's.  Maybe it's just in our hearts right now, but maybe we are supposed to be part of bringing this Kingdom to Earth. What if acting like we are members of that Kingdom is the best way to share the love of Jesus? It certainly seems to align with Jesus' posture during his life...

So maybe, in America, we do have a right to demand some things for ourselves. Maybe, if you don't believe God would bless a gay marriage, you have a right, using our system of government, to demand that you not have to participate in it, even to the point of not baking a cake or providing any kind of goods for a wedding.  Maybe I have every right as an American to amass wealth and privilege and hoard it for me and my family. Maybe within our governmental structure, it's not my responsibility to take care of the poor & powerless.  But here's the problem: our government isn't God's Kingdom. Jesus called us to be a Kingdom of people who put ourselves last in order to lift up others. What if our LGBTQ population is part of that group of most vulnerable people (the "widows & orphans") who need some protection?  What if we are supposed to use our energy getting to know people who are different from us like the poor and working poor instead of characterizing them as lazy & shiftless and undeserving of assistance?  What if we are supposed to be reaching out across racial lines and befriending people of different races instead of continuing the status quo?  I don't know about you, but I only have so much energy in a day. I'd rather use it on something that reflects the Kingdom of Jesus and shows people just how wide Jesus' love is. The gospel of Jesus can't be good news for only one group of people, can it?

My husband told me long ago that the best way to share Jesus with someone is to listen: people will tell me exactly what it is they need to know about Jesus if I just listen to their stories. Are we so busy focusing on our own agenda that we haven't stopped to listen?

If we are in the majority in this country (I'm talking about us, white Christians), we need to ask ourselves: am I working to support things for "me and mine"? Am I more fired up about gaining more protections for myself & my own group than I am for people who are vulnerable or unprotected? Is the gospel I'm peddling good news just for people who look & live like me or is it the gospel of Jesus: good news for the marginalized, for the downtrodden, for the forgotten,for everyone?

America isn't the Kingdom of Heaven and we can't force it to be. But we have opportunities within this crazy, flawed governmental structure to be a force for Jesus. It's up to use to take them.