[Editor’s Update, Nov. 18, 2014—As the nation awaits a Grand Jury decision on whether Office Darren Wilson will be indicted for shooting Michael Brown, many UUs are preparing to respond to the decision by “showing up” in a faithful way. The Ferguson Response Team of the UU New England districts offers wise thoughts and practical suggestions.]

I watched events unfold in Ferguson this summer and followed the discussion that was and was not happening around me. I saw—once again—how awkward and tongue-tied white people can get when the conversation turns to race. And I noticed—AGAIN—that while parents of children of color face heartbreaking conversations about personal safety, white parents of white children often content themselves with generalities about fairness and equality but do not talk among themselves or with their children about the hard stuff that is intrinsic to race in America.

Photo: woodleywonderworks via Creative Commons/Flickr; from www.commondreams.org

How woefully unprepared most white people in the United States are for the deep and honest examination and dialogue necessary to come to terms with our own racial identity and with the racial injustice embedded in our social, political, and cultural systems.

What if talking about race was akin to talking about sexuality? Difficult, yes, but integral to good parenting? What if white people wanted their kids to be not just sexually healthy, but also racially healthy, able to meet, engage, and negotiate complex conversations, relationships, and situations by drawing on a well-formed racial identity based on good information, liberal religious values, and a strong sense of justice? What if white parents believed it was just as important for children to speak for racial justice as it is for them to believe in and speak for the integrity of their own body and sexuality?

For years, we have been telling parents in our congregations and communities that we must talk with our children and youth about sexuality. We argue that if our young people do not receive accurate, values-based information, from their parents, caregivers, and sexuality education programs, then they will “fill in the blanks,” satisfying their need to know by gathering information from whatever source they can find, no matter how unreliable, biased, or devoid of Unitarian Universalist values that source might be.

The same can be said about race: We—parents and teachers of all races—must talk with our children and youth about race, however difficult we may find that to be. We must tell them about race and racism in our country’s history, all the way up to the continuing oppressions of today. We must help them understand what our values teach about how to engage and respond—even if we first need to educate ourselves.

Our congregations and communities need to be partners in the effort, supporting parents and caregivers through faith development programming, worship, and social justice efforts particularly to educate white children we are raising together. We can’t just move into another congregational year without engaging our children in a conversation about race. We can’t. If we do, children will “fill in the blanks” about race by absorbing messages from peers, the media, and the dominant culture. The world we dream about will not be built on silence and avoidance. It’s long past time for white kids to learn about race!

Next Steps!

If you are in a UU congregation with a youth contingent, encourage and support your congregation to provide the core multiculturalism/anti-racism training, Be the Change! Developed by the UUA, the program uses six 90-minute workshops to give young people a starting place for discussions about race, identity, and justice.

See “Do’s and Don’ts for Teaching about Ferguson” by Jenee Desmond-Haris in the online magazine The Root; the editors write, “Process it yourself first, ask students what they want to know and by all means, don’t make the lesson colorblind.”

The nonprofit organization Teaching for Change collected lesson plans and activity suggestions related to the history of racism, police brutality, and civil rights protest in the U.S., in response to the killing of Michael Brown.

In his 2014 Fahs Lecture at the UUA General Assembly Rev. Mark-Morrison Reed presents a revealing look at the ways in which race has been depicted (and often ignored) in Unitarian Universalist curricula of the past.



About the Author
Gail Forsyth-Vail
Gail Forsyth-Vail is the Adult Programs Director in the UUA Faith Development Office. She is a Credentialed Religious Educator, Master’s Level, who served congregations for 22 years before coming to the UUA in 2008. The 2007 recipient of the Angus MacLean Award for Excellence in Religious Education, she has written or developed many religious education resources for UUs of all ages. She and her spouse, P. Stephen Vail, are proud and happy parents of three young adult Unitarian Universalists.


  1. Dale Wenninger

    Hi Gail,
    I know that you aren’t but your comments struck me as a little raciest. Why have you focused on “White” kids needing to be taught? When Kris and Nate were working in grad school, they lived in an apartment building where they were the only white residents. A small child saw Kris walking down the stairs and she told her mother “Look at the colored woman” We need a truthful effort to educate everyone. No one that I am associated with is “raciest” with regard to a persons race, there is often concern about cultural issues and the attempt by some to divert serious discussions and efforts for solutions by having as their first thought that any differences in behavior, social or economic status must be because of race. We have to do better than that.

  2. Gail Forsyth-Vail

    Hi Dale,
    Thanks for commenting and asking the question you did. I focused on white kids because parents of children of color already have conversations about race, about how to be physically, emotionally, and spiritually safe when people are afraid of you because they hold unconscious bias or think of you as “other”. White parents have told me they feel awkward about race conversations, and I have observed that awkwardness. I’ve also had white young adults come back from college and tell me that they had felt unprepared for conversations about race that were happening at college among students. My point is that we all must have those conversations- but I addressed it to white parents because, unlike parents of children of color, white parents don’t perceive this conversation to be critical to their child or youth’s physical, emotional, and spiritual being. And I believe that it is.

  3. James B Kenley

    Our UU churched children of the sixties, learned positive opinions concerning race from their UU friends and during the Richmond integration, they had friends of several races. Parental example is certainly influential but it is modified by personal and associate influence.

    • Gail Forsyth-Vail

      Agreed- and how do we delve even more deeply? How do we move to a place where we are comfortable talking across races about identity, about challenge, about oppression, and about the stories and experiences that form and infomr us? (And I’m sorry for the late reply).

  4. Jesse Ford

    Thank you for raising this important issue, and especially for your provocative title that led me to this good discussion. I teach an undergraduate social justice course at a large state university that prides itself on leadership regarding natural resources (i.e., it’s a land-, sea-, sun-, and space-grant institution). I try to connect the dots between social justice and environmental sanity in an evidence-based way. I am quoting sections of this blog post in this week’s summative comments in the online version of my course.

  5. Bob Bemister

    What do you do when you are labeled as racist because you feel he was wrong for beating the cop? Blacks talk to their kids about race? Only if you agree with them are you not racist.

    • Gail Forsyth-Vail

      Bob, My point in this piece is that we need to raise racially healthy kids, able to navigate conversations where perspectives and experiences are different. Those conversations are often difficult for white parents in a different way than they are difficult for parents of children of color. I think a first step for white parents is to begin to listen to the stories of those different from themselves, not to judge or dismiss, but to really listen and hear.

  6. Jen Higley-Chapman

    Thank you for this article! As a white-identified, anti-racist UU, I have felt this was true and in spite of our fledgling programs for racial justice, we had little to offer our youth. I am excited to start working toward using this curriculum in our Sunday school. In addition, my community group of white ‘allies’ is looking to tailor our previous workshops for white adults to offer a workshop for teens, and i think this will be helpful! :)


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