Responding to Racism as a Family
by Josh Noem
We are in a moment of national upheaval. Finally, as an American culture, we’ve grown tired and angry enough of racism to stand up and call for it to be dismantled.
Part of our family’s white privilege, however, is to be able to engage this cultural moment at our own discretion and desire. It’s on the news, but we don’t have to pay attention because, as a white family, our lives are not negatively impacted by racism. We have not suffered from the abuse of power. Our neighborhood isn’t a protest site. No one in our family has been harmed or directly impacted as a victim of racism, nor as a police officer, nor as a business owner worried about vandalism or looting.
But we do have black and brown friends, colleagues, students, and extended family members. And we are members of the human race. So I can see that we have not paid enough attention to the state of society — we have not taken on racism personally enough.
And we should because we are part of a system that is leaving people behind. Even though we didn’t ask for it, this is a system that works for us as a white family — but it doesn’t work for everyone:
- For every dollar a white American earns, a black American earns just 62 cents.
- Black people suffer from a poverty rate twice that of white people.
- Black people are more likely to have their mortgage applications denied than applicants of any other race.
- Black people make up 12% of the population in this country, but comprise 33% of the population in prison; black men are imprisoned at five times the rate of white men.
Our family enjoys certain privileges that others do not. We see these inequalities most clearly expressed in the current coronavirus pandemic: the rate of black fatalities is more than the rate for white people. The virus doesn’t care about your skin color — that’s the effect of racism.
There’s a lot at stake in this moment. Racism and privilege are not easy for me, as a white person, to understand and appropriate because it’s uncomfortable and there aren’t obvious actions to take. To grapple with racism is to invite awkward conversations where there are few clear answers and no promise that we’ll walk away feeling any better. But that’s the only way to bring light into this darkness. As unappealing as it is to talk about things that are ugly and embarrassing, the status-quo alternative is worse. So we have to do this, especially if it makes us uncomfortable.
It’s not enough for people of color to fight for their rights — those of us with privilege need to stand with them in that fight. In fact, it’s not until we share our privilege that change will happen. It’s not until we share our privilege that we find our own true freedom and dignity.
So how do we, as a white family, go about these conversations? What can we do to dismantle racism and examine our privilege? How do we involve our kids in this struggle for justice?
Our eldest is away for a summer job, so day-to-day, it’s Stacey and me with our two middle-schoolers in the home. We’ve been grappling with these questions in a new way this past month. We don’t have the perfect answer, or all the answers, but we’re trying, and it’s a start.
The first thing I needed to do, personally — before working with the kids — was to give myself some space to process what is happening. In consuming the news, I realized I was feeling upset that people of color are still struggling with racism in this country, and embarrassed at the traces of racism I notice within myself in my own perceptions and assumptions.
I was overcome by many emotions this week, which proved to be a poor way to lead this conversation with the family. I found myself being too forceful or heavy-handed, which then inspired defensiveness — the opposite of what I wanted.
When I gave myself some time to literally sit in a corner and think and pray, I was quickly able to see that I was having what my kids call “the feels.” Stacey and I talked. I wrote. I began to feel more grounded.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m still angry and embarrassed, but I’m self-aware of those feelings now, and have something to do with them instead of being unconsciously driven by them.
The second thing was to not avoid what was going on. We watched the video of George Floyd’s arrest and killing together (if your kids are too young for the scene, you can explain the situation to them in appropriate terms). Sharing that story has grounded our response and rooted our family’s imagination in what happened to a specific person. It’s been essential to talk about how this killing is just one (extreme) example of the kind of mistreatment that people of color face nearly every day, and that the protests are expressions of anger about that unjust reality.
It has been a good point of dialogue to ask our kids how they feel about what they are seeing on the news, too. We’re dealing with teenagers, so often we get monosyllabic responses, but just asking the question opens a door within them to validate the fact that they may be having an emotional response, as well.
Finally, it’s been helpful for us to do something in response. Our community held a prayer service for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the many others who have been killed unjustly. We attended as a family — we prayed and we walked. It felt good to be part of a crowd, to see that we’re not alone in showing up for this work.
Another action we’re taking is to seek out uncomfortable stories. Part of breaking down stereotypes that lead to prejudices and racism is “the danger of a single story” — if we don’t consciously pursue stories from different cultures, the more likely it is that we’ll have a simplified understanding of those perspectives. To have a more complete view of the world, we all need more than one story in our minds.
We enjoy movies as a family, for sure, and the pandemic has only increased that mode of entertainment for us. We are starting to seek out more stories from the black community, especially those that give expression to racial injustice. These movies shape our imaginations and help us see the humanity behind the issue. And they can open up avenues for conversation — it’s hard to talk about racism in the abstract, but it’s easier to share our reactions to Bryan Stevenson’s work to free wrongly-convicted Walter McMillian from death row. (Those are the characters in Just Mercy, which, by the way, is free to stream during the month of June.)
This summer, we’ll also be reading together the book Stamped, the juvenile adaptation of the history of racism in America, Stamped From the Beginning, by Ibram X. Kendi. (Buy it from a black-owned bookstore here.) These stories give us common vocabulary and categories of thought to use in conversation.
This is a starting line, not a finish line — no matter what action we take, we can’t congratulate ourselves on defeating racism in ourselves or our community. But doing something involves our bodies and minds and wills — it’s a commitment — and that’s a good start.
We have a long road ahead of us and a lot of difficult work to do. But we can’t be afraid of making a mistake, and we can’t become impatient with starting small by doing some self-reflection and initiating this conversation with our family. Those one-to-one conversations are often the only place where real change happens.