Talking To Your Kids About Racial Bias And The Little Mermaid
I grew up in the age of “colorblindness” in America. We weren’t supposed to notice race, let alone talk about it. Everyone was supposed to be equal, and we were all just supposed to act like that was true, even though I could sense that people’s actions weren’t matching up with their supposed beliefs.
My faith was always something that was important to me, but when I went to college at a Catholic institution I was able to explore it academically and spiritually for the first time. I learned about the Catholic Church’s rich tradition of liberation theologies, and felt my heart come alive reading the works of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Maryknoll Sister Ita Ford, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, Gustavo Gutiérrez, and others whose work for justice was rooted in their experience of God as Liberator.
Imagine my surprise when, as a sociology major, I began to learn about bias in some of my classes. Here I was, thinking that I had it all down, that I was going to change the world, only to realize that I, like most people, was inherently biased about so many things. In fact, we are all full of all sorts of preconceived, baseless, and unreasonable thoughts, feelings, and opinions. I began to learn that bias, especially racial bias, is part of the air we breath and the water we drink; that it’s part of our American and colonial history.
Thankfully, I also learned that bias is not something to be afraid of. It’s natural to take on the values and beliefs of our families and culture, even if they’re morally wrong. The gift of recognizing we are all biased is that it gives us the opportunity to do something about our biases.
To use race as an example, there is a difference between being “not racist” and being “anti-racist.” When someone says they’re “not racist,” they mean that they don’t think they have ill will towards Black, Indigineous, or People of Color (BIPOC). When someone says that they seek to be “anti-racist,” they mean they are actively exploring their racial bias by educating themselves— they are reading, listening to podcasts, following educators and activists, and they are seeking to act in a way that shows that they are anti-racist.
Being “not racist” is passive, where as being “anti-racist” is active. Being an anti-racist means that through exploring your own bias, you are seeking to be an ally in the work of liberation with BIPOC leaders throughout the world.
Kids learn from our example. I hope that my children will be more comfortable talking about how race affects our world, but the only way that they will be comfortable is if I do the work myself so that I can facilitate these conversations. Therefore, I will not be raising my children to be “colorblind.” In addition to reading books and watching media that centers black, indigineous, and people of color, I plan to address topics of bias in the news as they arise. A good example of a controversy to discuss with kids in terms of race is the outrage that some expressed when it was announced that African American actress Halle Bailey will be playing the lead in Disney’s live-action version of The Little Mermaid.
Part of being actively anti-racist includes naming racism when you see it. There is no justifiable reason why the Little Mermaid needs to be white. White is not default. White has nothing to do with the plot of the movie. White is just what most people are used to and comfortable seeing.
If you felt uncomfortable that a black actress will be playing the Little Mermaid, that’s okay. It doesn’t mean that you’re a “bad” person who has ill will towards others, it simply means that you have work to do—as we all do. You might consider exploring your own assumptions about whiteness. Instead of getting mad or defensive, get curious. Starting reading books and articles written by people who are different from you. Follow accounts on social media that offer a different perspective and education about how you can explore your racial bias. Educate yourself.
In the words of pioneering Latin American liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, “God is present where God’s life-giving plan takes flesh.” When we choose act kindly, walk justly, and love humbly, we invite God into our lives and into the lives of others. The God of Love and Liberation cannot exist side by side inside a heart that is also full of unexamined, harmful biases towards others. In short, though bias is there for all of us, you can choose what to do with yours. Our kids are depending on us to choose love. Will you join me?
Sarah Fontaine-Lipke is a life-long resident of Western Massachusetts who attended the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA where she majored in sociology and the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry where she earned her Masters in Divinity. In addition to her work as a middle school teacher through AmeriCorps , Sarah has also worked as a campus minister at Stonehill College and the College of the Holy Cross. Today, Sarah spends much of her time writing but continues to work at the College of the Holy Cross, where she provides spiritual direction and designs and facilitates retreats. Sarah is also a stay-at-home mom of two. She is passionate about social justice, feminism, and Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ. She loves to read and believes that God loves each of us beyond measure; that God is too busy staring at us in adoration to ever be disappointed or upset. You can read more of her work at her site.