I want to tell you a story. It is a story about racism. It is a story about social media. It is a story about how children learn. It is a true story of how church educators stood up to a large publishing company to stop perpetuating racism through lessons taught to our children.
In the early spring of this year, practically every church educator I know was busy providing Lenten programming for their congregations, getting ready for Easter followed by the close of the Sunday School year, while at the same time planning for and reviewing curriculum materials to order for Vacation Bible School. While the ability to download sample lessons online provides an easy and economical way to preview curriculum materials, it does not allow the option to review everything that will be purchased.
Thus, it came as a surprise to many congregations that this year’s popular “Roar” VBS materials, offered by Group Publishing, included racist activities and teaching points. While Group Publishing stated that the (white) writers of these materials did not intend for any of their lessons to promote racism, an activity that invites the children to dramatize slavery, for instance, will have a lasting impact on the susceptible minds of young children.
A simple blogpost lifted up the slavery activity alongside another activity where the children are invited to add clicking sounds to their names to imitate the indigenous Khosian language of Southern Africa. It was quickly picked up by Facebook and received widespread attention. Even the Huffington Post reported on the story and the reactions to these curriculum materials. By this time, Group had issued a pseudo-apology which defended their writing and encouraged users to just change the wording they didn’t like. This received even more backlash and within a few days, Group issued a .PDF with appropriate changes made to the offensive lessons. Yet a Christian publisher’s focus on Africa, with many of its countries having been colonized by Christians, still remains problematic.
Our own Rachel Hackenberg, Managing Editor at Pilgrim Press, tweeted, “Dear white folx, white churches, white orgs: when it's shared with you that your action or expression perpetuates racist assumptions & racialized violence, the appropriate response is never, literally never, ‘We're right.’ It doesn't actually matter if you are… you're not.”
For me, the main issue is about what we’re teaching our children. While children learn well through pretending activities, play-acting slavery will not be received by young children as just pretending. Preschoolers and early elementary children do not have the filters needed to evaluate the reality of slavery, especially when they are encouraged to engage in this behavior by adults. This type of activity is dangerous for a child's development, much like what many white children who grew up in the 1950's experienced by observing the adults around them. What they saw and heard began forming racist behaviors in them that were very difficult to erase as they become adults themselves, thus perpetuating racist attitudes and behaviors.
I encourage you to seek out a racial justice training to attend. Encourage your church leaders to attend. And especially invite the leaders who work with your children and youth to attend. For what is learned in early childhood has a powerful impact on choices made in adulthood. Therefore, I am convinced that the most effective way to eradicate racism is to raise children who only know acceptance and openness to differences.
The mom in the first blogpost I read on this story quoted Ruby Bridges, who says it beautifully: “Racism is a grown-up disease, and we must stop using our children to spread it.”
Debbie Gline Allen serves as the Associate for Faith Formation and Youth Ministries in the historic Massachusetts Conference.
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