Rest in the Middle of the Fight for Racial Justice? Yes, Even for You.

Rest in the Middle of the Fight for Racial Justice?  Yes, Even for You.

A couple of months ago one of my African American friends and readers unsubscribed from my list.  I immediately began to worry that it was because of a couple recent posts I’d written.  I worried that it was because in my attempt to challenge liberals (white liberals in particular) to “climb the empathy wall” and seek to understand (though not condone) the perspectives of white conservatives that I unintentionally communicated an acceptance of racism. 


I’m trying to learn how to talk/write out loud about race and gender oppression and injustice while holding all of it alongside the goodness of human beings and of this life we’re living here on Earth that is so often woven together with some really horrible evils.


Like slavery.


Like the school-to-prison pipeline. 


Like rape. 


Like separating children from their parents at the borders of one of the richest most powerful nations in the world. 


Like people getting killed for being gay.


And some more subtle, insidious evils. 


Like people of color having to deal with yet another white person telling them that they “don’t see color” or responding in a variety of creative, defensive ways when shown their own racial biases, or the racist practices and policies all around us.


Like women who are confident and assertive being labeled as “bitches” when men doing the same thing are viewed as great leadership material. 


Like the many ways that certain body types are set forth as the standard of beauty and others as unacceptable.


Like stereotypical versions of the traditional clothing of indigenous peoples being viewed as appropriate “costumes” for white folx.


After years of seeing mostly just the harm caused by white people, and not finding much room in myself to recognize that there could also be goodness (including in myself and my ancestors) I am trying to make space for the complexity of people. 


Because being stuck in shame doesn’t actually help to dismantle racist structures or bring about more justice and healing.  In fact, it keeps me focused on myself.  Aloof.  Distanced.



The reality of human life is that there are good people who participate in horrible things.  I am one of them.  So are you.  And the more privilege we have in our particular culture and context the more damage we’re likely to have participated in harm in one way or another, often without any conscious awareness of it. 


I don’t ever want to justify the harm – that’s the tricky part.  If I run over your foot with my car unintentionally, you still have a broken foot.  And I have a responsibility to address that harm. 




I am increasingly more convinced that compassion for other human beings (and ourselves) and acceptance of the fact that that we will do harm both intentionally and unintentionally, is the only path we can take towards healing our broken world. 


Especially for white folx in the U.S. who have grown up learning the many “scripts” of white supremacy — which means all of us, not just those who claim the title of white supremacist with pride.  I don’t want that to be true, but I can’t escape it.


I’m especially thankful for some people of color—like Amanda Kemp, Andréa Ranae, Ijumaa Jordan and my friend Nyeema Watson) who have offered me unearned compassion alongside challenges that expose my participation in the very messed up way of being that we’ve all grown up with in the U.S.  Their compassion toward me, along with truth-telling, is helping me to grown in my ability to offer compassion to others.  Including those with whom I strongly disagree. 


I’m thankful that among activists in many circles there is a growing movement to do big work in new ways that start with self-compassion and self-care.  Check out The Nap Ministry for a unique example – napping as resistance!  Or the Healing Justice podcast (the name is changing soon because the founders, who are white, were helped to see that they had appropriated a term created by BIPOC queer activists.


For people of color it’s very likely that your next step in the work of racial healing is NOT to talk to white people sometimes – or a lot of the time. I know for both my husband and my oldest son, working only with people of color for the past year and not having to deal much with white folx has been a much needed respite…

You May or May Not Have Heard of the Dakota 38…

You May or May Not Have Heard of the Dakota 38…

When I was about 15, a White, military kid (and a girl) living in Georgia, I came across the poem “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes.  I don’t remember how, but somehow that poem spoke to me.  Perhaps it was because I had recently, for the first time in my life, I entered a school and a classroom in which I was the racial minority.


And I noticed how uncomfortable I felt. 


And I was aware that it was a problem that I felt uncomfortable.  White people often say we “don’t see race” but it becomes quite evident that we do when we are in the minority.


And I was aware that it was a problem that there was a school that was full of mostly of Black kids and that the quality of education at that school was radically below par compared to the predominantly White high school I’d left in a suburb of Chicago. 


That moment and that poem didn’t immediately change my life. 


I didn’t suddenly become an activist for racial justice (though I’m getting there.)  I didn’t even decide at that point that I would become a teacher (though I am one.)  But the poem — as it asked questions about what it meant for a young Black man to be in a classroom with a White teacher, as it asked much bigger questions about the unjust contrasts between their two lives— somehow in infused my life and my spirit in a way that seems to have shaped it.  Or perhaps that poem just revealed something about what my work in the world was meant to be before I knew it. 


Poetry has re-entered my life lately and my impression is that it’s not just me – there’s a bit of a trend.  Or maybe I just wasn’t looking.  After all, a lot of the poets I’m reading now have won things like the Pulitzer Prize, so some people have been paying attention to them! 


There is something about poetry that speaks to…

Talking to Kids About Race in Emotionally Charged Times

Waking up at 5:30 am to prep for a 7:00 am radio show interview this week reminded me of my early years as a teacher, when I would wake up at 5:00 or 5:30 to try to get to my classroom by 6:30 or 7:00 am, before the kids came at 8:00.  Or when I was a director and had to wake up at 4:30 am to figure out whether to open the program or close for snow or ice (hands down my LEAST favorite part of that job.) 

I am not naturally a morning person, so in both the teaching and parenting worlds the early morning requirements are not my favorite!  (Maybe you can relate?)  We do it, though, because those kids matter and they need us.

Doing an early morning radio show this week was worth it to me because I got to talk with writer, blogger, and radio host Monique Ruffin about issues near and dear to both our hearts:  questions around race, racial justice, how we can move towards more health and healing.  

Like getting up early in the morning, conversations about race and racism can be uncomfortable, but as parents and teachers, we’re already used to doing hard stuff to make the world a better place for kids.  We can learn how to do this too.

In the interview, I talked about my own journey from:

  • protected, shy, White child discovering the story of Martin Luther King in my school library and getting odd comments from the librarian about my interest,
  • to “inner-city”-teacher-trying-to-save-the-world-and-(unconsciously)-assuage-my-white-guilt,
  • to burnt-out-“inner- city”-teacher-retreating-into-research-and, which also lead to a deep dive learning about self-compassion and self-care,
  • to being a White person (still!) who is finding new ways to engage as partner with People of Color in communities of mutual respect and as myself, a sensitive, mostly introverted, spiritual and reflective teacher/writer/historian/life coach.

If you’re interested in hearing some of my journey, you can listen to yesterday’s interview here – or you might want to read my very first blog post if you didn’t catch that one. 

For today, I want to share a few ideas I shared when I spoke with Monique a few months ago.  At that time (prior to the presidential election in the U.S.) we were talking specifically about how we, as adults, can talk with kids about racial bias and violence at a time when it is increasingly visible in schools and in the media.  

I don’t have all the answers, for sure.  But I have learned a few things on my journey that you might find useful as you seek to help the kids you care about become happy and healthy citizens of an amazing and diverse world.

1. Do your own work around your personal racial (and cultural/ethnic) identity/identities. This work is will be ongoing, complex, and different for People of Color and White people in many ways, but committing to take that journey and get whatever help we need along the way is an essential foundation for our work with kids

  • For White folks this process may involve starting with the realization that we have a culture and a racial identity.  We are not just “normal.”  And then learning how to face what that means in our history and how we can begin to move through shame to develop a positive racial identity.  It also involves doing this work without making People of Color do it with us or for us.
  • For People of Color, the identity journey often (almost always) involves working through anger, times of focus on one’s own racial/cultural group, and maybe also addressing some “internalized racism”—places where there’s been a rejection of self because of the ways Blackness or Brownness is devalued in the surrounding culture.   

2. When possible, process your emotions—whether those related to history, your current experiences or racialized incidents in the news—without involving the children in your care.   If we’re afraid, or angry, or defensive, or shocked, it is helpful if we can protect our children from the full force of that emotion (though not from all of it.)  To do that, we need to process our feelings with other adults or by journaling, meditation or prayer. 

3. At the same time, be authentic and honest – in developmentally appropriate ways.  A few examples:

  • Admit to your six-year-old that you’re scared, but tell what you are doing about it and how committed you are to keeping them safe.  Don’t say you’re not afraid when you are.  They’ll know.  
  • Don’t tell your eight-year-old  “all police officers are helpers” if you don’t believe that to be true.  Talk instead about how she can determine who is a helper and who isn’t, how to read cues in the behavior of adults to determine who is safe or not, where they are likely to find safe adults and some examples of safe adults they know and where they would find them. 
  • Teach your children about the ways that the world can be unsafe for them or their friends—just like you do when you tell toddlers that dangerous to run into a busy street and then teach them how they can determine when it’s safe to cross.  (Most parents and teachers of color are doing this already, but White adults usually need to learn how.) 
  • When a child brings up a racially charged incident, follow their lead.   Ask them questions to see what they know and how much you should say to address their need in that moment.  They will let you know what they're ready for.  If you aren’t sure what to say, it’s okay to let them know that too.  Tell them you’ll get back to them, and then do make sure you do it.

4. Lay a foundation of intentionally supporting a positive and realistic racial identity for your child or students (YES! This includes White children) and also support positive views of people who are different from them.  We don’t leave children on their own trying to figure out how to count.  We help them learn.  We correct them when they make mistakes.  Why would we leave them alone in trying to figure out this really confusing and hard part of life? Kids know and notice A LOT more than we think they do.  Even children as young as two are noticing racial differences and biases.  They may, for example, begin to think that all teachers are white or all housekeepers are Latina, if that’s what they see in their neighborhoods.  They may begin to think that brown skin is ugly or abnormal or scary if they never see brown-skinned characters in books or dolls.  But we can combat these stereotypes by seeking out toys and books and stories that challenge them, going to varied cultural events in other neighborhoods, talking directly about for where stereotypes show up in books or on T.V.

5. Be patient and compassionate with yourself.  This is hard stuff, that’s why we often avoid it if we can.  Give yourself time to learn.  Get support.  Don’t be afraid to let your kids/students know that you’re a work in process.

I’ve compiled a list of resources for those of you who are interested in learning more and finding greater support for yourself around these issues.  It includes websites, books, blogs and organizations for parents, teachers and kids.   (And please feel free to share with me what you’ve found to be helpful as well!)  Shoot me an email at debshine@thriving4equity.com and I'll add your ideas or leave a comment below.  

This is barely the tip of the iceberg, I know, but I hope it gives you a place to start.

Here’s to thriving!