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How to help your family approach the topic of race 

An interivew with Helen Lee and Michelle Reyes 

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June 16, 2022

There are few issues more difficult to discuss in recent years than those related to race and justice. For families especially, it can be difficult to know what is appropriate to mention to children and how to introduce the topic in a way that honors God and his vision of kingdom diversity and is also cognizant of the current points of conflict and concern. That is why Helen Lee and Michelle Reyes’ The Race-Wise Family: Ten Postures to Becoming Households of Healing and Hope is such a welcome addition to conversation. Lee and Reyes provide practical lessons as well as guidance on what it means to disciple our families in upholding the dignity of all individuals and seeking justice. They joined us recently to talk about their book and what this means for each of our households. 

Alex Ward: In reading your book, and looking at a lot of the conversations around race in the church, I was struck by the point you make that so often we don’t seem to have the same goal when we talk of racial reconciliation. How does that shape the way we approach these conversations, and what is a goal that you think should unify the church?

Helen Lee and Michelle Reyes: We have to understand that Black, Brown and white churches have fundamentally different starting points when it comes to the issue of race. For many white churches, conversations on race are more theoretical than personal. White leaders and parents aren’t often aware of their cultural identity, let alone how they live at the intersection of their faith and their culture, so race-related issues can feel like something relevant to other people and not themselves. Some white leaders feel they are guilty by default, just for being white, and that their only role in race conversations is to apologize. In addition, some in white churches fear that they or their children will upset someone of another ethnicity, i.e., by saying the wrong thing or making someone angry. These perspectives and concerns often lead white churches to avoid and disengage with race-related issues.

Conversely, for many Black and Brown churches, race is the reality in which we live. It is the very air we breathe because we are very aware of the color of our skin and the way people treat us accordingly. We feel unheard and even silenced at times by majority culture evangelicalism. In addition, our greatest fear is our children, our spouses, and our parents being racially assaulted, perhaps even killed. When our fears take hold, it leads to defensiveness and, even at times, hate. 

It is impossible to pursue healthy gospel-centered conversations on race as the big ‘C’ church if our approach is filled with either fear or defensiveness. When it comes to race, the goal of the church should be to have a joy-filled biblical engagement. Instead of simply creating a list of what not to do or what we want others to do, we should challenge ourselves to have a far more robust, Christ-centered lens that sees the topic of race as an opportunity to build the kingdom of God together. The more we can see each other—Black, Brown, and white—as fellow co-laborers, striving together for the gospel, healing, unity, and shalom, the more we will be able to unify in our efforts.

AW: In a similar way, the church isn’t the only place that has a story of what this should look like. So how can Christian parents be particularly attentive to the kinds of stories that their children are receiving and also take an active role in providing a kingdom framework for these issues? 

HL & MR: We can’t predict what racial incident is going to happen next. To some extent, we can’t control the kind of racial brokenness or pain that will rage through our communities, let alone how these events will affect our kids. What we can have agency in is to engage in current events together and develop a race-wise lens in age-appropriate ways. A race-wise family asks God for help in unpacking racial issues and seeks his direction to know how to identify and combat racism in all its overt and subtle forms. 

In our [Michelle’s family] home, we talk about what’s happening around the world with our kids (mine are currently ages 7 and 3). From the wars in Ukraine and Afghanistan to the Haitian migrants at the border, the murder of Black and Brown folk, and anti-Asian racism related to the pandemic, my husband and I tell our kids what’s happening in the world (if your kids are older, you could watch the news together) and then pray. We pray for wisdom in how to respond. We also pray for God to protect and provide for the hurting, and that he would draw people to himself during this difficult time. We tell our kids about police shootings too and ask them, “What do you think the Bible says about this?” 

Now, when my 7-year-old hears about a racial incident, his first response is, “we need to pray!” I know a day is coming when my kids will be all grown up and will leave our home to go out into the world. I can’t control what they will see or experience, but if their immediate heart posture is to see the racial brokenness in the world and then turn to pray and seek wisdom from God’s Word, I know they have a healthy biblical foundation to build on. 

AW: You talk about how one of the “postures” of a race-wise family is that of seeing color. What does it mean to “see color” but also not make that the defining or essential characteristic of their personhood?

HL & MR: The end of the civil rights era heralded the concept of colorblind as a new and healthier way forward for race relations. The term is borrowed from the last part of Dr. King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, where he says he wants people to judge his children for the content of their character, not the color of their skin. I think a lot of well meaning folks ran with that in the 60s and 70s and wanted to prove that they weren’t using skin color to treat people unequally. 

The unintended consequence, though, is that folks who strove to be colorblind also became blind to the lived experiences of ethnic minorities. In an attempt to treat us all the same, people’s racialized experiences of everything from racial profiling, police brutality, and more got swept under the rug. It’s easy for folks who say “I don’t see color” to also ignore laws, policies and zoning that creates gaps in education and wealth equality along racial lines. In other words, when you tell someone of color that “color doesn’t matter” or that you prefer to be “colorblind”, you are essentially saying that you don’t care about their story and their lived experiences of pain.

So what we’ve come to realize now, especially in the past decade, is that we need to see color because seeing color is the portal into people’s lived realities. I am more than the color of my skin, but I am no less than my pigmentation. God is El Roi, the God who sees (Gen. 16:13). He sees all of us; our skin color, our pains, the beauties of our culture. God created the world, including people, with glorious diversity. He declared that all that he had made in wondrous technicolor was “good.” God’s heart throughout Scripture is for a multiethnic, globally diverse people. If we want to see people like God does, we must see in color without sliding back into any form of segregation or disunity. 

AW: How can Christian parents approach the topic of inviting people of color into their lives proactively, in a way that allows people they know to share their stories, but that also doesn’t treat their pain as “just” an example from a history book? 

HL & MR: We need to value stories within the context of relationships. If a person only cares about an Asian woman’s story during AAPI Heritage month or after an anti-Asian hate crime, they are posturing at best. They are treating that Asian woman as a token—maybe even without realizing it—often using her story to feel a little better about themselves for having new knowledge and greater awareness about a reality in the world, but without proactively doing much in response. 

If you really care about breaking cycles of anti-Asian hate, for example, then first begin reaching out to your Asian American congregants, neighbors, and co-workers. Invite them over for a meal. Better yet, go to their home and eat food from their cuisine. Imitate the model of Jesus, who went to Zaccheus and said, “I’m coming to your house today!” (Luke 19:1-10). Start building a friendship by asking questions such as, “What’s your story?,” “What are your ethnic roots?,” and “How is your family doing?” 

Then, when a racial incident occurs, reach out, ask your friend how they’re doing, if you can bring a meal over, and what they need. Instead of being the outsider, peering into moments of racism from an impersonal stance, walk alongside those who are hurting. Live life together. Be in the trenches with your friends as best you can. Pray together. Show up when they need you to show up. This is how we proactively engage racial problems in ways that are honoring to the people around us. 

AW: So often, the question about race and ethnicity in America is filtered through a white/Black binary, understandably because of the history of slavery and segregation. However, that often overlooks the other ways that racism toward other minority groups is a reality. How should families think about racism as not just an issue for white and African Americans, but all racial groups?

HL & MR: There is a tendency in our country to prioritize Black-White relations when it comes to conversations on race. The problem with this approach is that it overlooks and even erases the experiences and livelihoods of Asian Americans, Latinos, and Mixed Race among other groups in the United States. 

For example, a 2021 survey conducted by LAAUNCH showed that 42% of Americans cannot even name a well-known Asian American. The next most popular choices after “I don’t know” were martial arts legends Jackie Chan (11%), who’s from Hong Kong, and Bruce Lee (9%), who died nearly a half century ago. These findings were disappointing, but not surprising for me. The inability to name a prominent Asian American reflects the invisibility of Asian Americans in U.S. society. Not only are Asian Americans victims of racism, but our experiences are overlooked. In fact, despite rises in anti-Asian racism throughout the pandemic, more than one-third of white Americans and nearly half of Republicans said they didn’t know anti-Asian violence was a problem. After the Atlanta shooting on March 16, 2021 in which six Asian women were murdered, many white Christians confessed to me that they hadn’t even heard of the incident.

Asian Americans have also been overlooked throughout U.S. American history. As former Japanese American politician, Norman Mineta, once said, “When one hears Americans tell of the immigrants who built the nation, one is often led to believe that all our forebears came from Europe. When one hears stories about the pioneers going West to shape the land, the Asian immigrant is rarely mentioned.” A lack of education on Asian American heroes, leaders, and theologians both within schools and the church have led to this erasure. Moreover, not “soaking in the presence of Asian Americans,” as Norman Chen says, means most folks have not sat under the teaching of Asian voices, and this includes Asian American Christian leaders in the church. 

If you don’t have books by Asian American Christians on your bookshelves, start investing in some. My first book, Becoming All Things, as well as Helen Lee and I’s The Race-Wise Family, are good places to start. Follow the Asian American Christian Collaborative and listen to the AACC Reclaim Podcast co-hosted by myself and Raymond Change, AACC President. The resources are out there. All it takes is a commitment and a little bit of effort to find them.

AW: Your book focuses on the need to develop both the prophetic and pastoral voice. How are these different, but also linked to one another? Why do we need to develop both?

HL & MR: The practices of calling out and calling in are what we refer to as the prophetic voice and the pastoral voice, respectively, in The Race-Wise Family

In our cultural moment, we all love exercising our prophetic voices. We love calling out sin, exposing toxicity, and shedding light on racism. Unfortunately, we’ve seen the ways that our prophetic voices have become damaging and even sinful as we engage in the world’s forms of cancel culture and shaming. So, even when we feel that holy righteousness to call out the sins of the world, we must do so with a certain degree of slowness, humility, and wisdom. We absolutely should stand up for those being racially insulted and maligned. We should step in and be an ally when someone is being bullied because of their ethnicity, skin color, or culture. 

In those moments, we should speak truth in love. We can let someone know that their words or actions were not honoring or kind in ways that honor the other person being made in God’s image. Our language must be humanizing and speak to the other person’s self-worth. I don’t know anyone who has been shamed in a conversation on race that then wants to turn around and make a change in their life. If our prophetic call out only shuts someone down instead of helping usher them into greater love, we’ve missed the mark. 

Our pastoral voice, conversely, is a way of calling people in. It is positive, biblical language on race that helps educate and offer alternatives to where people are right now. When we exercise our pastoral voice, we speak God’s own affirmations over people. We speak aloud his promises, his love for all people, and the beauty in their individual cultures. For example, we tell our kids often that God created other cultures, and he calls them “good” (Gen. 1). The more that we can see and name the beauty in each other’s cultures, the more we can move forward on the path of racial healing. Proverbs 12:18 tells us that “thoughtless words can wound as deeply as any sword, but wisely spoken words heal.” As we writein  The Race-Wise Family, “the more we speak kind, loving words to others, the more our words will generate kind, loving relationships” (70). 

AW: As a parent of a young daughter, I think about how to raise her in a way that you describe in your book. But I am also keenly aware of just how difficult that is and how I am myself still growing in the way that I understand the beauty of God’s multiethnic vision. I’m sure that I will get some of this wrong. How would you counsel parents to respond when they stumble and mess up in this process? 

HL & MR: I think some of the most powerful phrases we can have in our toolkit within conversations on race are, “I’m sorry,” “I don’t know,” and “What can I do?” We need to normalize making mistakes. In fact, it’s only through putting ourselves out there and being willing to make mistakes that we will learn and grow in issues related to race. If we choose to never engage out of fear of saying the wrong thing, we deny ourselves the opportunity of being used by God as a force for good and racial healing in his kingdom. 

So, instead, as a parent, be open and honest when you don’t have an answer to your kid’s questions about race. Tell them, “That’s a good question! I don’t know the answer. Perhaps we can investigate this together.” Then reach out to a friend or read a book or a news article together, discuss, and explore. When you say the wrong thing, when you realize that your response was selfishly-driven or perhaps was well-intentioned but still missed the mark, challenge yourself to apologize. Admit when you were wrong. Process those moments with your family and your children so that they can be spiritually formed by your honesty and willingness to learn and grow. The goal isn’t perfection. No matter how hard we try, we will make mistakes. But if we can commit to a posture of heart to grow in greater love, knowledge, and kindness each day, we can acknowledge our mistakes without becoming paralyzed by them.

Alex Ward

Alex Ward serves as Lead Researcher for the ERLC. He assists with the oversight of the Research Institute under the leadership of the Director of Research. Additionally, he serves as an Associate Editor for the organization. Alex is currently pursuing a PhD in History at the University of Mississippi studying … Read More