This weekend our family was given a terrific gift from the Lafayette School Corporation: a three-day weekend for our hard-working little kindergartener. But the real gift wasn’t in the fact that she got to stay home from school on Monday (as great as that was). The real gift was in the reason behind it.
Anyone who has spent time around young kids knows their love for the question, “Why?” So not surprisingly, when we told our daughter that she would be having an extra day off school, she asked what any young, growing mind would ask: “Why?”
Now at first pass, that’s an easy question to answer. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I nailed it: “Oh, well you don’t have school because it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day.” A perfect 10 out of 10 from ol’ Dad.
But I found it much more difficult to answer the inevitable follow-up question: “Martin Luther King Jr. Day…what’s that?” Cue the stammering parents.
Prompted by these questions, my wife and I honestly tried our best on two separate occasions to explain to our kids who Martin Luther King Jr. was and why he’s important enough to name a day after him. On both occasions, I’m glad nobody was recording us. The conversations were awkward and difficult. And they ended abruptly with responses from our kids that demonstrated they really didn’t understand what we were trying to tell to them.
On the one hand, I find this incredibly encouraging. I’m delighted that my kids don’t understand the concept of racism. As they listened to their parents relay a brief history of black people in our country being mistreated and looked down upon by white people, they didn’t seem to get it. And I’m glad. Why should racial prejudice make sense to a child for whom the color of someone’s skin means little more than the color of someone’s shirt? As the old adage goes, nobody is born a racist.
But on the other hand, as I reflected on those conversations in our home, I was reminded of what it’s like to be in a position of privilege. And I was challenged by the responsibility it gives me.
For those who aren’t aware, I’m white, my wife is white, and my children are white. We live in a Midwestern town where roughly 75 percent of the residents are white. I pastor in a church that is increasingly diverse, but still predominantly white. So needless to say, as a family, whiteness is our reality.
And although I make no apologies for that (I believe God is sovereign, even over skin color), I do recognize that it affords my children certain luxuries that other children don’t have. Yes, my kids are still innocently naïve of racism (praise the Lord!). But they’re innocently naïve in large part because they can be. With their whiteness has come a level of comfort and security that has prevented them from having to think much (if at all) about their racial identity. I know this because I grew up enjoying the same thing.
Yet I recognize that in other homes around the country, this isn’t the case. Many parents are not at all stretched to explain the necessity of celebrating a civil rights leader. When their kids ask why they don’t have to go to school on Monday, they don’t start stammering and fumbling for words. Why? Because they represent minority races whose stories have been shaped by mistreatment and prejudice, and for them this is not a theoretical history lesson. Their children have already seen themselves as fundamentally different from the majority culture around them, and their parents have been forced to talk to them about that difference from an early age.
Whereas our MLK Day discussion was borne out of ignorance and privilege, many other families had MLK Day discussions that were rooted in personal experience, emotional attachment, family identity, and a whole host of other highly formative influences. For these families, it’s not hard to envision prejudice and mistreatment. They’ve lived it.
Do I feel guilty that my kids have the luxury of spending their formative years blissfully unaware of their own racial identity? Honestly, yeah. A little bit. But more than that, I feel a deep sense of responsibility. A responsibility to help them see the world through someone else’s eyes. A responsibility to help them think outside of their comfortable bubbles. A responsibility to help them steward their privilege. A responsibility to help them empathize with pain they may never have to experience. A responsibility to help them be intentionally self-aware by first and foremost being others-aware. And in all of this, the greatest responsibility I feel is the responsibility to teach them by example.
At the end of the day, I believe that we’ll never realize MLK’s dream of a racially unified and equal society so long as we ignore the privileges we’re born into. And insofar as we think we might be realizing that dream, we’ll likely only be putting a bandage on a gaping wound. As John Piper notes in his book Bloodlines:
The majority culture (which for a little while longer is still white) has the luxury of being oblivious to race (which would change in an instant, if we moved to Nigeria). But for minority peoples, race-related issues are a persistent part of consciousness. If these issues are silently ignored in our relationships, the resulting harmony will be shallow and fragile.
I don’t want shallow and fragile harmony. I want rock-solid, long-lasting, world-changing harmony. But I realize that this harmony takes a whole lot of uncomfortable effort on the part of those of us for whom our own race is not an experientially meaningfully category.
As a parent, this is why I want to cultivate a home where human differences are celebrated and explored. As a leader, this is why I want to challenge people’s limits and push their comfort zones to think about race when they might prefer not to. As a Christian, this is why I want to adorn the gospel of Jesus Christ with tangible acts of love in a society all too familiar with hate.
There is much work left to be done. But as I reflect on another MLK Day that has come and gone, I’m more ready than ever to get busy doing it.