Well over 100,000 people and counting have read a blog post called “Nothing But the Truth: A Word to White America After the Recent Unpleasantness in Washington DC” that I wrote. Going on 400 commenters have weighed in on my website. I have not been able to keep up with replying to all the comments, but I have read them all. And a few cluster around the topic of childhood innocence and the role of adults in nurturing/protecting/informing children around the realities of things like racism, sexism, and the ugly layers of American history.
This exploration of the nature of childhood and our culture’s role in nurturing what we value about childhood calls out for feminist reflection. So, I put this out to the FAR community of conversation for discussion.
Some of the comments that interest me the most are those who gave the young men from Covington Catholic a pass because they are “just kids.” And they felt media and others were being too hard on them to expect them to understand what was going on in front of the Lincoln Memorial when competing narratives about our country converged.
I am the mother of two teenagers. My son is 18 and my daughter is 14. I think I first read them books about race and justice and Jesus’ radical love when they were in utero. It never occurred to me that they needed to be protected from these layers of human experience. I wanted them, especially as white children, to be color-conscious and to develop their understanding of what it means to be white, America, and a person who seeks equity in our world.
They have grown up knowing their god-brother, a man of color whose life experiences were immediate windows into many of the injustices and complexities of race and poverty in America. Their god-brother is a great teacher for them. And they love him and his family fiercely, just like my husband and I do.
I have never doubted my children’s ability to be resilient in the face of difficult realities. And I have never doubted the importance of my children growing up with awareness of race and power and the need to dismantle white supremacy culture. What I’ve noticed as my children have grown up is how much they and their peers are able to engage these realities in a much more fluid and responsive way than older generations. My children are not reactive to identity questions, and pretty much take the way people self identify at face value.
I am curious about the way white supremacy culture and patriarchy have helped to create a mythology of childhood innocence for all kinds of white-skinned people (liberal, conservative, progressive, religious, non-religious, etc). I don’t have to strain to see many double standards that obviously indicate the right to childhood innocence doesn’t apply to all children. When someone says, “my children shouldn’t have to see homeless people in the streets.” It strikes me that they are also saying, “someone else’s child should deal with this painful part of our economic system, but my child should not.” Someone’s neighborhood is going to have people who are not housed visible in the streets; but this statement indicates certain children should not have to be aware of reality.
The mythology of childhood innocence is classed, raced, and maybe even gendered, too. I am curious about what folks would have felt about a bunch of Catholic girls chanting and one taking her shirt off and flexing her muscles in response to Native American protesters and the Black Israelite street preachers. Would the reaction have elicited a different kind of shaming and blaming from those who use childhood innocence as the shield for criticizing the boys? Judging from how female victims and survivors of rape and sexual assault are shamed and blamed, my guess is that girls vocalizing and embodying such behavior would have drawn a swift rebuke.
On the other end of the continuum, most people who commented on my website who were critical of the young men from Covington Catholic seemed to attribute a lot of willful aggression to them. While some of the ways they embodied their masculinity were troubling to me, I am mostly troubled by their apparent obliviousness and the apparent obliviousness of their chaperones, parents and teachers.
These young men were not in Washington D.C. to visit the Smithsonian Museum. They were there as activist supporters of and participants in the March for Life. Apparently Covington Catholic students make this trip every year so it is not foreign territory. The school is deploying its students into the public arena of political discourse. It’s not so much a field trip as a political statement. Any school training up their students to be politically engaged in such an embodied way has the responsibility of preparing them for this kind of setting.
When I have taken my kids to marches and political events we always do a lot of talking before about people we might encounter and processing after about what we noticed. My daughter, for instance, was troubled by the things Pro-Life demonstrators were yelling at us during the Women’s March in Asheville, NC in 2017. They were shouting strong and hurtful accusations.
My daughter wanted to yell something back because she wanted them to know she wasn’t what those protestors were saying we were. I told her they had a right to be there. And that marching in the streets for an issue that we believe in will always include those who believe in something very different than us. And we have to learn how to sit with that tension if we are going to put our bodies out into the streets to protest and make a statement. It was hard and confusing for her twelve-year old self, but she practiced forbearance that day. And I trust it will help her use that skill in the future in the ways her moral conscience calls her to use it.
The bigger question emerging for me from the dialogue on my website is how to apply an equity lens to my mothering beyond just giving my kids information. How do I mother their capacity to dismantle white supremacy and patriarchy in the very ways they take up space in the world? And how can I support their ability to do that especially in contested spaces?
So, what do you say, FAR community? What do feminist voices have to say about childhood innocence and healthy practices for kids engaged in social action?
Marcia Mount Shoop is an author, theologian, and minister. She is the Pastor/Head of Staff at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, Asheville, NC. Her newest book, released from Cascade Books in October 2015, is A Body Broken, A Body Betrayed: Race, Memory, and Eucharist in White-Dominant Churches, co-authored with Mary McClintock Fulkerson. Marcia is also the author of Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ (WJKP, 2010) and Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports (Cascade, 2014). Find out more at www.marciamountshoop.com