On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I have been doing some reflecting. As a teacher, a mom, a writer, and a white woman there are things I’ve had to come to grips with over the past few years. In my reading and conversations about race, there are a few things I try to do. Remember, I’m also the student here. This is something, as I reflect, we’ll never stop learning. One of the things I’m about to say is don’t generalize. And I’m not suggesting for a moment that all my readers are white moms, but know that I’m processing these things as a white mom. So, if it feels like I’m talking to others who are like me that’s my design. I’m speaking from my experience, so know that that’s my window. I hope these thoughts are helpful for you. At the end of this post, I have a few book recommendations. These are books that have shaped my understanding of the topic of race today in the US.
1. Have conversations not just opinions
It’s easy to sit back and have opinions. That’s what social media does best. It gives people a place to post their opinions. No matter how uninformed or hateful they are, we express them. But what we fail to do is have conversations. As a white female, I need to have more conversations with people of color. I need to do a lot more listening and a lot less talking. I’ll never completely know the experience of someone who isn’t like me, but conversations will hopefully give me compassion and respect for others. My opinions don’t really matter. But my willingness to listen can help others feel heard and hopefully break down walls.
2. Don’t generalize peoples’ experience
In the writing world, we talk about sensitivity readers -these are people who screen your manuscript to make sure your characters sound like real people. They’re really important if we have characters with different backgrounds than ours. But it’s really easy to generalize. If I have a black character who was raised in an urban setting, it’s ludicrous to ask a black friend who went to school in a predominantly white suburban setting to be my sensitivity reader. They wouldn't have the same experience. But don’t we do that? We assume that the black person in the room can speak for all black people -for all of their experiences. That would be like saying, “You’re white. What’s it like living in Sweden?”
We all have our points of view that are limited because of our experience. Again in writing terms, we aren’t omniscient narrators who can hear the thoughts and intentions of others. However, we behave as if we can. Sometimes all we need to do is come to terms with the fact that our experience is limited. That fact has a way of opening our minds and hearts to the struggles of others.
3. Don’t look for ways to exempt yourself from the conversation
We often use phrases that disqualify ourselves from responsibility. Statements like, “I have a lot of black friends,” or “I went to a protest in 2020.” Those things are fine, but it’s not a one and done fix. Know that I’m just as gulty of this as anyone else. I’ll feel an urge to puff up my chest and say, “I wrote a blog post on that” and feel like I’ve done all I can for equality. But that’s not how it works. We must confront our experience and our biases every time we see something ugly on the news. It’s too easy to say, “I was really mad about that once but now I’ve moved on because it really doesn’t affect my daily life.”
4. Read books that make you uncomfortable
This is a practical one. I enjoy reading for pleasure. I’ve learned to stay away from media that is sad just for the sake of being sad. I don’t really have the time or emotional energy for shows like This is Us or books by Kristin Hannah anymore. (I imagine I’m going to get some pushback for that, but I don’t mind.) What I shouldn’t shy away from though, are books that confront the ugliness in my heart just because it makes me uncomfortable. Below are some books I’ve read that were helpful for me and as conversation starters with my kids. Don’t allow this discussion to only get one day in your home. Instead, use today as a starting point for talking about what freedom and equality really mean and how you can help be a part of the solution.
I think we read so much about MLK, but it’s great to hear from him. This is a collection of some of his sermons, speeches, and letters. Of course the famous “I Have a Dream” speech in included in this book, but also sermons on love and faith, nonviolent resistance, and the consequences of war. When I taught English, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was required reading. Unlike some of the things that were inexplicably on that list, this letter was transformative for my classes. It always sparked a much needed discussion for my students. And with Dr. King’s loving but truthful tone, it was natural for that discussion to be kind. The kids approached it with open hearts and minds. Don’t be turned off by the title of this book. It’s not just for students. Well, I guess we’re all students when it comes to matters of race, so sure, it’s for students. After each passage, there are discussion questions. I found them helpful for review.
In this book, Austin Channing Brown writes honestly about her experience working in a number of settings where she is a minority. It challenged my preconceived notions because her experience in the workplace (which is at times unbelievable) didn’t occur in corporate America, but in churches. Of course, I’m not suggesting that I didn’t think racism comes from Christians. I know that, as a group, we are known and have long been known for racism. I just didn’t expect it coming from church staff. This book was an eye-opener for me.
This book was just as convicting as it was important. If you read this book when it was all the rage in the summer of 2020, it’s probably time to re-read it. If we’re not careful, we can become complacent and therefore complicit. I think everyone should read this book. Period.
Nonfiction books for kids:
This picture book opens with this quote from Dr. King: “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.” The book goes on to tell readers what it means to “be a King”. It’s taking a stand for injustice. It’s serving your community. It’s making your voice heard.
I love this series of biographies (Ordinary people who changed the world) because they’re engaging for young readers without going over their heads. We have a number of biographies in this series and the message is clear: when faced with certain decisions, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. chose to do the more difficult thing in order to fight for freedom. The reading level on this book is grades 1-3.
Another biography, this one is geared toward readers ages 8-12. My kids absolutely love the Who Was/Is or What Was/Is series. They simply devour these books that tend to be around 100 pages. I’ve read some of these books too and I love how many facts are packed into a quick read. If your kids have graduated past the picture book above, pick up this biography. Also, they’re a great price (around $5) so pick up a few more in subjects they’re interesting in.
If you talked to me in 2020, I probably recommended this book to you. I can’t talk enough about how much I loved this book. It’s about two school districts -one upperclass and high achieving and one poor and underperforming. A law is passed that students in the failing district have the right to opt into a better district and some women a lot like me (white moms) have to come to grips with prejudices they didn’t realize they had. The characters in this book are so real and even in their struggles, you see yourself in them. It’s wonderful.
This was a book club read for me. The story is about two light-skinned twins. One separates from her family in the 60’s and passes herself off as white. The experiences of these identical women is obviously very different.
This novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2020. It’s based on a Florida school for boys that just recently shut their doors. Something that looked so good to the community (rehabilitating troubled boys) is so ugly inside the walls of the school. This was a great story and the writing is obviously exquisite since they don’t just had out Pulitzers to everyone.
This YA novel highlights the injustice people of color face every day. I recommend reading this book with your teen if you have one. It will spark important discussions that may lead to real change if you allow it to. I was so moved by this story.
Reading books are not a substitute for having conversations with people who don’t look like you, but they are helpful. The nonfiction books on this list will confront your thinking and the fiction books will put things into context.
Race in America isn’t a problem we’re going to solve over night. There isn’t a huge band-aid we can slap on and cover hundreds of years of inequality and abuse. But I was at a Christian conference last weekend and the speaker kept saying, “The wave always starts in the student section.” His point was that kids and teens have so much influence in this world. I’m too old to be considered a student, but I want to help my kids believe and know the right things so they can go out into the world and make it better. I believe they can “be a King”, but it starts at home in discussions and behaviors we model for them.
In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I’m choosing to be a King. I will stand up for injustice. I will serve others. I won’t stay silent anymore.