When Children Repeat our Hate Speech

The world crashed down before I even had my first cup of coffee, before actually I had even turned the coffee maker on. We had only donned slippers and robes moments before, just out of bed, I’m not sure I have even visited the bathroom yet, surely I must have or I would have lost control of that function right there on the steps as my grandson uttered hate speech. Of course he didn’t know the meaning of the words he used, merely repeating something in the manner of growing his vocabulary. Of course I delight as he uses ever larger words and deeper concepts that he picks up from listening and exploring his world, I have always delighted, until this one morning. My heart broke before it even had time to fully wake. Spreading the reputation of my Plum far and wide as a joy bringer maybe has brought more pressure than this 6 year old can bear. As he nears his next birthday, I too am getting closer to admitting that he doesn’t always bring the smiles and lighten my heart, he is reflecting the world sometimes to me and it isn’t pretty.  I much prefer when he shows me God.

The old show, “Kids say the Darnedest Things” takes a lighter view of the utterances of children, when they repeat the curse words mommy said or describe how daddy put the moves on mama. We laugh when we hear adult talk emerge from little mouths, highlighting the absurdity of our concerns and our proclamations. Yet what of the times that they repeat hate speech? What does that say about the world they are exposed to, how do we control what they know and hear and say without limiting their growth? In a society that allows white supremacists to march freely without the need for hoods, there should be no surprise that this ugly talk has filtered down to my first-grade grandson. Apparently it began on his bus, when he was being bullied by older kids who eventually were sent to see the principal and he was moved to the seat right behind the bus driver. Yet no one bothered to address the language used against him, to explain why it was wrong. He only knew it felt hurtful to have the older kids taunting him. Other kids ran to tell Mama as he got off the bus and sat down in tears, unable to make it even the block to his door, such was his shame. So when our very large white Labrador blocked his path on the steps, it seemed the perfect time to use his new words. Frustrated and annoyed, he blurted out, “Move it you white cracker!”

My first instinct of horror and shock ruled my own words: No Plum we never ever ever say that, that is ugly horrible talk. Then I got some coffee and invited him to sit with me as we dug into the why. We talked about slavery and the idea that some people are worth less than others, something he thought was outrageous and my heart began to mend. We talked about another ugly word, one I never ever want him to use and why. We explored how angry people are right now because they are being treated as less than still and he is white skinned and he is expected by many to be better just because. We talked about a war within our country fought by those who wanted slavery to continue and those who didn’t and how grateful we are that the North won. We also talked about bullies and hurtful words and how the things those folks say are probably things we don’t want to allow to come out of our mouths. He apologized to our dog who was none the worse for it all but my Plum was learning that words matter.

A deeper fear was lurking within me though, one that screamed that I must stamp out this hate speech before it can grow any roots. Somehow I missed some moments with my own son, in spite of all the posters and quotes and books and moments to address his innocent utterances as well. He was one person, an addict but not a racist, before he went to prison. When the gates opened, he was clean and sober but covered in swastikas and runes and subtle references to white supremacy organizations. His experiences inside had exposed him to a race war that our war on drugs has elevated, he became an enlisted soldier in an army that was bringing its fight outside the cells and into the streets. Mama and I feared what he would plant in this sweet child’s head, how would we continue to nurture a child who loves everyone if his father was telling him to hate some? Yet Arrow has chosen to separate from his son, to disappear and begin a new family outside the influence of our ideologies. While his son is white, he has become less than worthy in my son’s construct, a heart-breaking possibility when we measure people by what they can do for us and not by virtue of their existence. Still, everyday I worry about this man who was once my little boy learning that words matter and love was better than hate. He is engaged in a war that has already been lost, on many fronts. My soul aches for this lost boy.

So we try again, with this child, to eradicate hate speech before it can destroy a little boy’s loving heart. Every day that he leaves our homes, when he climbs aboard a bus or hits the playground, he is exposed to a world that is struggling with racism and sexism. For now, he knows that God made us all, that we look alike on the inside, where it matters most and that we are all important to God. He told me today that he is a follower of God, not bullies. My joy bringer reflects God to me, and I have to be strong enough and honest enough to reflect God right back, especially during the hard talks, even before coffee. I have to be brave enough to tell him words that he cannot use, even against our dog, who truthfully, is quite annoying. We are meant to be light and grace during these turbulent times, our children are watching and listening, and in spite of us all, repeating our embarrassing words. His “shits” and “damns” don’t seem all that bad any more.  Neither does home-schooling.

How Much is Our Share?

I buckled his seat belt, I kissed his check then the sweet spot on the back of his neck and told him I love him. He said he loves me too while distractedly drawing on his new pad of paper with a green gel pen, I was not his focus. Onto the other side of the car to kiss Sweetness goodbye, usually I do this first, he gets the last kiss but today was just out of order, I didn’t give it a second thought as I walked away from the car. Almost there, I heard Mama’s call, “Come Back, Plum is crying!” He was sobbing, wailing, so quickly things had turned. Rushing back I found a very jealous child, one who no longer remembered our “goodbye exchange,” who no longer remembered all the times I told him he is my favorite, including earlier that morning, a child who thought this new baby had taken his place in my heart. His heart was the color of the gel pen, his eyes could only see green.

More kisses, tender listening to all of his fears, a reminder that he will always be my favorite best big boy. Like the cracker crumbs from snacks eaten while he rides, my words and affection mostly all fell on the seat around him, mostly never reaching inside of him for nourishment, to fill his hunger. The damage was done.  Too tired, too emotional to hear what I tried to explain to him, that God makes our hearts expand when we add in more people to our lives, we don’t have to share limited space, he could only accept more kisses and strike out in his hurt.  He is sure that this new baby sister has taken what was his for 6 years and he is wondering what is left. As adults we can smile knowingly, shaking our heads and assure each other that he will grow out of this phase, but I wonder. I wonder if any of us ever really do. Maybe we grow to understand that our siblings are not our enemies, but do we ever fully grasp that the same equation that allows the hearts of our parents to expand is the same for our God?

The meat of it all is the jealousy, the insecurity that we feel when we think someone has more than us, has a better pathway in than us, got the last kiss, that is what troubles us and causes the flailing about, the striking out, the competition for attention. Yet if we were sure that our kiss even if it was the one that came about way before the door closed was meant just for us, held all of the love and joy and power of our God, would it really matter what anyone else received?  If we rested in the glory of the sunrise and knew that was our God telling us we are His favorite, wouldn’t that be enough? Would we have the need to fight over blocks and Lego and new cars and territory if we understood that we can sit secure in the expansive love of our Father, we do not have to compete?

We teach children to share by modeling sharing: here honey, I have an apple that I am cutting into 4 pieces, one for you, one of me, one for you, one for me. That is a wonderful exercise but only works when we begin with the willingness to share the apple. What if we begin with a piece of chocolate cake? Umm… maybe you should get your own, right, this looks really tasty and I actually would like to have it all. Maybe I can be generous enough to give a taste but there will be no splitting this delicacy into 4 pieces. So modeling sharing works in controlled circumstances but do we actually model it without such exaggerated awareness? Most mom’s are bad at this, we don’t share. We give the kids the whole apple, the last apple.  I remember one conversation with Arrow when he hit his late tweens, early teens and began to see me as more than a mom. He asked if I really like only the toast edges that he and his sister left behind, if I truly prefer just the burnt pieces of popcorn. Of course I didn’t always want those, what I came to prefer when my children came along is that they have the best pieces and parts and choices and I would always accept the scraps, if there were any. Thus I missed that opportunity to model sharing with me, that I was worthy of a piece of the apple as well. A mother who will sacrifice all for her children is easily sacrificed, I have learned. I taught them I was less than them. They have graduate degrees in this philosophy now. But I digress.

Do our rights as Christians mean we have to protect our turf? Are we obligated to ensure that the pews never get too full, that we always get the last kiss and don’t allow someone who is not in our family to join in and displace us? This fear of others is our insecurity about whether or not God can love us all, that His love is so big and can get bigger to include more and more and we will not feel less. Maybe Mom didn’t provide for us, Dad never said the actual words, we didn’t feel that love in our homes of origin, we just keep grabbing onto more and more than is our share, trying to make up the lack, taking extra portions and never getting full. We can’t get filled when we feed off of other’s portions, we spread hurt. Insecure adults who say no you can’t worship here, you can’t live here, you can’t go to school here, I need this space.

In truth, God’s orchard is limitless, He never runs out of apple slices. If we understand the idea of an expanding heart rather than a dividing one, oh the rest, the peace! No longer competing, rather we savor the kiss we got and notice not the one that came before us to our neighbor or the one that came after to our new baby sister or the LGBTQ teenager who is loving differently than us.  Love everywhere, big bigger expansive. Soon our apples look like too much for us to eat alone, we notice the juice is sweeter when we see it running down the chin of a hungry child. So what does it take to become so secure in our Father’s love, to trust completely in His expansive heart that our insecurity vanishes? I think the key is to no longer look back to what was, to not spend time in what we want for the future. This moment, this apple, right now. We have a choice to know and to seek out whether we are enough, we have enough, right now. Absolutely in this very moment, was this kiss meant for me? Staying with that one, hearing God whisper that I am His favorite, this can fill me up, millions of granules of sand pouring into all the cracks and broken places, filling me with God’s wholeness.

Becoming whole in God’s love is the ultimate healing of the broken love we inflict on each other, erases the worry about toast edges teaching the wrong lessons and who to kiss goodbye last. Knowing we are going to mess up and hurt each other and others are going to miss that we wanted an apple slice also, we have to turn to the only source of complete love. Poof, just for a moment, calm restored. The next moment is coming though, what will we do with that? Can we allow room for others, can we accept the second to last kiss? I pray we stay right is this place, where the apples are sweet and juicy and God is serving us all. Getting there and staying there are hard work, certainly not any more difficult than battling over who can pray with us. Let’s just share our apples, friends, and our pews and our hearts.  Let the only green we see be that of the orchard. And of course, gel pens. Green gel pens are our favorites.

Can We Be Trusted?

I just finished a book study at church, weeks of being stretched and pulled and pushed into uncomfortable places. This was no ordinary study, no “let’s explore our faith and dig a bit deeper”study. We were led by a member of our staff who has a heart for social justice and was on her 3rd round of teaching the book as we read “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander. What began with a group who was often skeptical ended with a call to arms, a search for ways to become active. This book made a difference, these words changed us all.  A church consisting of almost exclusively white, upper middle-class, highly educated people who love Jesus and had little understanding of white privilege, who knew nothing of the systemic, intentional devastation on the black community that the War on Drugs has created, we gathered each Sunday evening to explore what we had read and challenge what we have been taught. Jesus surely is nodding, saying, “Yes, children, yes. This, see all of my children.”

The premise of the book is that the War on Drugs has targeted black and brown people, criminalizing addiction, creating a profitable industry of prisons, rewarding local police  with federal dollars for every increasing arrests, dismantling 4th Amendment rights, and most of all, selling it all to the American people by creating the image of the black criminal. I won’t debate any of this with you, read the book, Michelle Alexander does an excellent job of backing up her assertions with facts, real facts, not the alternative ones we are being fed these days. I understand if you are skeptical, any of us were at first as well. Incredulous, even. We are educated, remember. How could we have fallen for this? How did we miss this? We are aware, many of us are liberal leaning, we think we are open to seeing racial injustice. We still missed it. We got sucked in and got complacent. We thought having a black president meant things were better. Better is not an indicator, better is relative. Like between contractions, you might feel better but the big ones are coming, it is going to hurt like hell. America, we need to hurt to fix this mess.

As a fifty plus woman, I have been taught to say we don’t see color, that we are striving to be colorblind. Is this familiar? We aren’t supposed to talk about race, that makes us racist. Michelle Alexander says this: “The colorblindness ideal is premised on the notion that we, as society, can never be trusted to see race and treat each other daily fairly or with genuine compassion.” As followers of Jesus, does that not strike a blow? I can’t stop reading that line. We can’t be trusted to SEE each other. I write constantly about my own brokenness and search for grace, about taking off the mask and allowing God to meet me in my vulnerable places. I ask to be seen as a child of God, but I have subscribed to a philosophy that teaches me not to SEE black and brown people.  I am convicted by this line. She goes on to say:”A commitment to color consciousness, by contrast, places FAITH in our capacity as humans to show care and concern for others, even as we are fully cognizant of race and possible racial differences.”  Yes, faith, trust, belief, that we are taught each week in church to see everyone as a child of God, and to behave accordingly. By pretending we don’t see color, we are pretending we don’t see what happens to people of color also. I never would have imagined admitting to my own racism, but I have found that my search for the holy grail of colorblindness has led me to a wicked chalice of racial indifference. This is a horrible admission. I can do nothing but begin today to correct the path and acknowledge that I was wrong.

Ultimately, as a Jesus follower, I am called, we all are called to keep seeking truth, to push away the lies and distortions and help our neighbors get what we have and then share some more. Who is my neighbor though? We have been able to insulate ourselves in our safe suburbs where we find mirror images of ourselves, so easy to love our neighbors. I think Jesus meant something else, was casting a wider net. I know He is asking more of me and I am listening, yes, I am listening. The battles over immigration occurring right now surely are not pleasing our Jesus, are the next wave of prisoners to fill the costly buildings being emptied a bit by softer laws on marijuana use. I can’t unsee what is being sold to me as a safety issue, as a threat to my security. I know now how this goes down, who loses and who wins big. Our Jesus was brown. Would you let Him in to our country, would you fear Him today? Ask yourself why and question where the information is coming from and who stands to gain from teaching us to fear people of color.

This book is not an easy read, is best done in a group with someone to hold you accountable and listen as you struggle. But if you don’t have a group, read it anyway. If you think I am crazy, really read it to prove me wrong. If you are scared to read it because you think I may be right, read it anyway. If you want to make America great again, read this and tell me when it was great for ALL Americans. We have some work to do and it is going to hurt like hell. As it should. People of color have been feeling the pain for far too long. Do you dare join me and the others who have read this book and found a new path towards Jesus that includes dealing with our own leper colonies, our own outcasts, that shows we are held captive, we all are imprisoned by racism? I want to be trusted to see all people and treat them fairly and with genuine compassion. That is my Holy Grail. Will you join me? You have to know up front it is going to hurt.