This past MLK Day, my wife happened to take the day to go up with my two young daughters to the Art “Institvte” of Chicago. This is a place so high-tone that misspelling words means they are fancy. I suppose if you’re one of the best art mvsevms in the world, you can get away with that kind of thing, and lift your pinkies while drinking kopi luwak covfefe while yov’re abovt it.
Anyway, making their way around some event tables in the main atrium, they passed by a small photography exhibit. My older daughter was the first to see the large photo of a naked black man hung in a lynching from the mid-20th century. She had a few moments to try to figure out what she was seeing before mom moved her back toward another area and simultaneously kept our younger daughter away.
Maybe the museum could have posted some kind of warning sign, but the ugly surprise is a lesson by itself. Honest American history has a way of sneaking up on unaware individualists who believe they can escape the consequences of the past simply because they weren’t alive then. And it is part of my privilege to be able, usually, to choose when I explain racism to my children, as if certain evils can be kept at arm’s length until I decide I’m ready to pop my children’s bubble. Were we an African-American family, or were my daughters adopted from a place of darker skin tones, there would have been certain conversations already, without which my daughters wouldn’t be able to stay safe. So we as parents tried to be less concerned about containing what our child saw than telling her enough of the truth. Later that night, we sat with her to try to talk about what she’d seen.
“What were those men doing to the other man?” She brought her hands up around her neck.
“They’re hurting him… they’re killing him.”
“Why? Why did they take his clothes?”
“Because they are mean people. They think they are better than he is because they have lighter skin, and so they think they can treat him like that, like he’s not a human being.”
“And that’s why they’re doing that?”
“Partly. That’s an idea that has made people do all kinds of bad things, even murder, which is against God’s law. But we don’t really know what happened before the picture.”
“Oh… Why did they do that with the rope in the tree?”
“That’s something that happened in our country for hundreds of years.”
“Like back when we had slaves?”
“Yes, then, but also up into the time when your grandparents lived.”
“But when was it that there were different restaurants and some people could take other people’s seats on the bus?”
“That was about up to 50 years ago, but then the government made new laws.”
“So then it was better?”
“No, it is taking a long time to get better. The big problem is the idea that some people are better than others because of how they look. That lie is still part of our country today, and, really, it is all over the world, in every country. But the Bible says every human being is made in God’s image, right?”
“Yeah. Like Adam and Eve… Did they do that rope thing to kids, too?”
The parents pause.
“Even after slavery?”
“Yes. One young man we know about was Emmett Till.”
So around and around we went. Some dark-skinned people being the ancestors of people from Africa. The middle passage, mass kidnapping, sold at market (“Kids, too?” “Yes, and a seven-year-old could be sold to one city, but their mom to a different city, and they would never see each other again.”). The underground railroad, Canada or being sent back, the civil war, the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln, Booth in the theater. King, non-violence, fighting with words, the motel in Memphis.
After she finally got to bed, we wondered if she’d wake up with nightmares. Some of us adults haven’t woken up enough to the nightmare. We wondered if we’d said enough, but not too much. Was she traumatized by what she saw in the museum? By what we ended up talking about? The problem with trying to protect people from such trauma is that true horrors cannot be explained in ways that make them digestible. Even historical traumas retain the ability to scar a later heart.
The trauma of racism cannot be avoided. Even if we never have this kind of conversation with our young ones, the forces of habit and lifestyle and culture and history and evil will find them. Do we want them to be prepared to meet the challenge and to engage it as part of serving Jesus in a broken world? I suppose there are some time-tested ways to protect the next generation from the truth, if we really want to, but if we keep our children’s lives in a bubble, what happens when a less-friendly or less-redemptive presence pops that bubble? Bubbles create vulnerability to trauma, and, in the case of racism, actually feed the evil. Meanwhile, what if that bubble-popping experience creates its own form of trauma?
My wife and I had the conversation we did because we believe honesty with tact is protective. It’s a kind of inoculation against later shocks. The disease of racism is pervasive, but a vaccine program is available, if you tell the truth in measured doses and in ways that yet point to God’s Kingdom being different. Someday, we’ll tell her that even what we said and when was affected by the fact that she’s white. Someday, when our daughters realize their own unwitting part in the broken story of their country, if we have taught them well, they will understand how to practice claiming their citizenship in a better country while honestly facing reality with redemptive courage. That would mean they don’t get stuck in trauma or denial, but are ready to act with wisdom and love.
For now, I’ll try to explain it like she’s seven.
 A southeast Asian selection in which the coffee beans are collected from the fecal matter of the Asian palm civet, which eats coffee fruits. Of course, you’d want beans collected from the wild, not from the industrial civet farms.
 For example, “P.I.T.S.” – perpetration-induced trauma syndrome. Researcher Rachel MacNair has found PTSD-like symptoms in those who perpetrate crimes, not just the victims of crimes or violence. Interestingly, the shock and denial responses of white culture to structural racism in this country are similar to people experiencing “PITS.” Such responses are predictable based on the deep psychological need not to face something devastating.