Talking with young people about Ferguson, we can’t keep ignoring it

Earlier this summer I shared a TED photo essay of images illustrating inequality. Sadly, this genre of images has become a lot more readily available on the news over the past days as events in Ferguson have exploded.

It’s been more than two weeks now since Michael Brown’s death just after noon on Saturday August 9th. The four hours his body lay in the open street uncovered have been well-documented. That scene has been called the spark behind a “combustible worldwide story of police tactics and race in America,” and it’s still playing out in both violent and peaceful ways in Ferguson and far beyond.

To be sure, this is an open-ended story, one that’s tied up in generations of injustice as much as it is the local uprising of a St. Louis suburb. But I bet students wherever you live are processing not only the actions of the police or protestors, but also the ongoing and haunting updates flowing from news outlets and social media.

This week I was especially moved by a piece that covered kids—children and teenagers—at the frontlines of protest. Many of them are there with their parents, who “have lived these scenes over and over — and they are doing everything they can to change it for their kids.” One parent interviewed about bringing her kids to the protest said she “wanted them to see the unrest firsthand in order to better understand why it was happening and that it was OK to be angry — and even more acceptable to talk about it.”

But what are we saying in our ministries and homes about what’s going on in Ferguson?

A couple of years ago, my neighborhood made national news following the shooting of an unarmed 19-year-old black man by a white police officer. While the days and weeks following that event were comparatively tame in light of Ferguson, in reflecting on how to help youth workers process race-related events like this, I shared a few quotes that I’ll share again here from our work with the Deep Justice in a Broken World project a few years back, both from interviews with nonwhite leaders. First, Efrem Smith:

To say you don’t see skin color is unhealthy, but to attribute everything to skin color is just as unhealthy. I think multiple ethnicities, cultures, and languages are opportunities to see the creative power of our loving God. At the same time, if everything is attributed to race or ethnicity, then we build stereotypes by believing, “All White people think like this,” or “All Black people are like this.” Those stereotypes begin to fuel prejudice.

And Lina Thompson:

I think that the degree to which we have meaningful relationships with people who are different ethnically and culturally is the degree to which meaningful conversations about race can take place. I cannot limit myself to people just like me.

As we hold the tension between the extremes of either ignoring race or making everything about race, somewhere in between we find that dialogue can be a source of growth and healing. But that requires us to not limit ourselves to those who are “just like me.” With that in mind, here are a few ideas for talking with your students about what’s going on in response to Ferguson.

1. Encourage young people to listen to voices that are not like them.

We most especially need to listen to voices of different races, and if you’re white like me, this means listening to black friends, along with the voices who’ve had the courage to speak up thoughtfully online. Here’s one from Bryan Loritts of Fellowship Memphis, one of our Sticky Faith Cohort churches. Bryan writes, “We will never experience true Christian unity when one ethnicity demands of another that we keep silent about our pain and travails. The way forward is not an appeal to the facts as a first resort, but the attempt to get inside each others skin as best as we can to feel what they feel, and understand it.”

2. Talk with young people about systemic issues of injustice.

We’d often rather not acknowledge the reality of power, privilege, and the differences in perception on race in our country, the latter of which continue to grow wider and wider gaps between racial groups. But only some of us can afford to go about our lives refusing to acknowledge these truths.

According to more than one sociologist, we carry something like an invisible backpack of privileges and/or limitations based on our race (the same is true of gender). For those who are white Americans, this pack is filled with opportunities that we usually don’t ever think about or realize.

Peggy McIntosh’s work on White Privilege is telling. In her classic “daily effects of white privilege” list, she highlights fifty points that, in general, apply to most white Americans. (Note that permission is required for use of the full list). Here are just a few of her observations:

  • I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
  • If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
  • I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
  • I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  • I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

More than twenty years later, this list (all 50) mostly still holds up. Simply becoming aware of this reality can open a whole new window of understanding for those who have worn unnoticed backpacks of privilege every day of their lives.

3. Caution teenagers that hashtag activism only goes so far.

Similar to the ALS “ice bucket challenge” craze that is sweeping up many kids who have no idea what ALS even is (or why they may or may not want to invest in the cause), it’s easy to get on a social media bandwagon in support of causes we know little about. Even when we do understand, sometimes sharing a post, quote, or using a hashtag in support can be an inoculation to actually caring or helping in tangible ways (and I say this as someone who has actively participated in this kind of self-inoculation). Nor does it drive us to seek Jesus on our knees. In a piece this week on both the importance and limits of hashtag activism, Ebony Adedayo writes,

[H]ashtag activism can’t foster the change alone. #MikeBrown raises awareness but it doesn’t change systems. #IfTheyGunnedMeDown provokes critical thinking, but it doesn’t shift worldviews. Change isn’t going to happen just through these essential tools but through Jesus.

4. Lament together with young people in your community in solidarity with those in Ferguson and all who live on the margins of power.

Last week Rachel Held Evans shared a few responses on the Sojourners blog encouraging us as we watch from a distance that we’re “Not as helpless as we think: Three ways to stand in solidarity with Ferguson.” I am so glad that one of her primary encouragements is to lament, because that’s just what scripture calls us to do in the face of hard questions, unspeakable traumas, societal injustice, and our own sin. How long, oh Lord? is one of the most-repeated phrases in scripture for good reason, and we can read, pray, and sing it together from scripture and from our own deep wells of confusion about what’s going on in Ferguson and beyond. The good news is that God can handle our questions and fears, and isn’t surprised by them.

And at the end of the day, we and the residents of Ferguson have the hope of Jesus and the resurrection to cling to. One day all things will be made new, and every tribe, tongue, and nation will come before the One who created and loves them all deeply, having made them in his own image. Come, Lord Jesus.

What are you doing to help students talk, pray, and respond to events in Ferguson?