The Race-ing of Innocence: Calling All Feminists to Converse by Marcia Mount Shoop


mms headshot 2015Well 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.

march in asheville 2017

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



Categories: Activism, Childhood, Children, General, Motherhood, Social Justice

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

12 replies

  1. Thank you so much for this and your earlier blog Marcia. As I said on a fb post the only thing that can be said in favor of this kid is that he was “carefully taught to hate and fear. It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear.” And who were his teachers, his family I assume and the teachers at his Roman Catholic high school. Let us be clear, he was sent by his Roman Catholic Christian high school to protest against a woman’s right to choose. This means to me that he was being taught sexism. He and his friends were wearing “Make America Great Again” hats. This to me means that he had been taught to hate and fear anyone who is not white and male. I was touched by your question as to whether girls doing exactly the same thing would have been give a “get out of jail free” pass. Certainly not. Siggghhhh. . And no it is not enough for the RC church to distance itself from kids wearing MAGA hats. And let us note that the church is for busing male kids to protest against women’s fundamental rights!!!!!

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thank you, Carol. These are all important things to notice. Going to be a part of the March for Life is not an a-political act. And neither is wearing MAGA hats. When you jump into the fray with those commitments and values (and with any commitments and values for that matter), you have to be ready for a reaction. It is interesting how quickly so many people gave the boys a pass for not having any way of understanding political issues and social/cultural conflict. Whether they actually live in that tight of a bubble is almost beside the point. The important this is that the defense of their community is this innocence of the impact of their own values. That defense is morally tenuous enough to be a profound concern for our society!
      Peace,
      Marcia

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Excellent, thoughtful post, Marcia. There are lots of places in this essay where one can pause and reflect. I paused here: “The mythology of childhood innocence is classed, raced, and maybe even gendered, too.” On the one hand, I was brought up with the “truth” that nobody is innocent due to our having been born with original sin and therefore nothing good comes from us without first understanding how, and then applying, the blood of Christ to our lives to set us straight and free. On the other hand, there was much shielding done to protect my presumed childhood “innocence.” So, death, evidences of extreme poverty, LGBTQ communities as well as subjects considered too difficult for “young minds” to absorb and deal with (torture, sexuality, hate crimes, etc.) were kept at bay. I think this “protection” still happens. I see it with some college students when we talk about and see film about the abuse of animals within the factory farming system. Some excuse themselves because they cannot handle the cruelty of it all. I also see it when we talk about genocide (specifically, the Holocaust) as one student I remember said she could not come to class to face the horror of it all. Of course, it’s never easy for most of us to look in the face of horror, but how do we ever change the horrific reality without seeing it first (the earlier the better, in my opinion) and then engaging in conversation and political action? Just some thoughts…..

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you, Esther, for sharing these thoughts and examples. I read a study a few years ago about rates of depression and anxiety going up for kids who have “helicopter parents.” The study pointed out that these children don’t have space to learn about their own resilience and ability to process grief, conflict, and disappointment. These seem deeply related to the situations you describe. We all need to know that we have the strength to face what’s true. You are absolutely correct, that we can’t heal what we can’t see.
      Peace,
      Marcia

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you so much for both posts, Marcia. I have been troubled when I search for news on google of what happened that day in Washington. So much focuses on Nathan Philips with the intent of discrediting him as a witness, his criminal record in the 1970s, his alleged falsifying of his military service (he was in fact a Vietnam era vet, and I don’t believe he claimed otherwise). The questions of how do we raise our kids, how do we prepare them for activism (of whatever stripe) and for encountering people whose experience, appearance, and convictions are outside their ken do not seem to be addressed in the mainstream media.

    Thank you for writing about the way you have spoken to your kids, prepared them, and accompanied them into the public arena. My children are now in their thirties and forties. I believe there was always ample discussion of the world at the dinner table. One grandmother was Venezuelan and ran a school for children with dyslexia and other learning and emotional challenges; one grandfather had marched with Martin Luther King and continued his activism in the realm of affordable housing. They were lucky to be surrounded by such people.

    When they became teenagers they faced the prejudice of their peers and of our culture as they came out as gay long before, in some settings, it was acceptable to be curious or to explore sexual and gender identity. They both chose to go to colleges in cities where diversity was part of everyday life.

    Parents of young children today have so much their children cannot be shielded from. My children and the children to come have challenges beyond those of any previous generation with so many people on the move because of climate and political chaos, and so much more–like the availability of clean water, air, and soil. I wish all generations courage, generosity, curiosity, and wisdom.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Amen, Elizabeth. The generation coming of age now has many painful and hard truths they will have to deal with and figure out how to address. They need to know they have the courage and moral fortitude to face it. We need them to know that about themselves! I am grateful for parents like you!
      Peace,
      Marcia

      Liked by 2 people

  4. You write, “The mythology of childhood innocence is classed, raced, and maybe even gendered, too.” Brava! That’s for sure. And Carol’s quotation from Oscar Hammerstein’s “Your Got to Be Taught”–brava! I had one of those white childhoods in Ferguson, Missouri. It was also Calvinistic. But I went to college and escaped. How many of our children have a way during these days of Official Abuse in Washington, D.C. (and, obviously, elsewhere) to escape? It’s sadder and sadder.

    Whom do we ask for help? Yes, we ask feminists. Marcia, thanks for stimulating thought and conversation. I hope both thought and conversation are productive.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Barbara. The feminist hermeneutic of suspicion around abuses of power is an asset to this discussion. And the deep commitment to a hard look at the systems that form us is another one. I am heartened by the discussions I hear my kids having with many of their peers. My 18 year old son identifies as a feminist. That gives me hope!
      Peace,
      Marcia

      Liked by 3 people

  5. Looking at the picture of that young man, I felt just like my (German) mother acted when I was a teen: “Wipe that look off your face or I’ll do it for you”. And she meant it, no doubt about that. But never had to use it because her tone and eyes warned us off.

    But I was most angered by the “Catholic – non Christian” school that was teaching and encouraging behaviour of oppression and hate, sexism and racism. They could have been teaching about compassion and justice and the things Jesus values. They could have been using examples like Sr. Simone Campbell or Archbishop Romero or the Sisters fighting for equality of rights or standing with the refugees at the border. Lord knows, there are much better examples of Christian living than Trump and his ilk.
    I know my feelings are not wise, and I would not act on them, but when I see that picture I just want to smack that kid, grab him by the back of his collar, and march him off for some correction. Now, how would I feel if my skin was a colour instead of white, if I was younger, less “hefty”, shorter, not so dominant?
    Lots to ponder.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks, Marcia, for both of your posts. You ask questions that I hope will move us towards a more loving, caring, egalitarian world. I especially liked your 1st and 5th points in the first essay: 1) KNOW THE HISTORY YOU CARRY AND THE WAY YOUR HISTORY HAS IMPACTED OTHERS, and 5) BEING A “GOOD PERSON” WHO FINDS OUT YOUR VERY PRESENCE IS A TRIGGER TO SOME PEOPLE DOES NOT MAKE YOU A VICTIM. However, these understandings are the starting point, not the end point, because they allow us to do the hard work of being allies.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. “The mythology of childhood innocence is classed, raced, and maybe even gendered, too.” This one sentence stood out for me…. We have to start seeing that this is truth. Nothing will change until we can face what is…. and Nancy if I had known that my presence was a trigger to some people I would not have suffered the way I did…Thanks everyone for these thoughtful insights and responses. The bottom line for me is that we must be taught to hate., just as we must be taught how to love…

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Fascinating question – how to engage in social activism with kids. The thing I find most troubling about the left is when it becomes fundamentalist and shuts down conversations, such as in current conversations about lesbians feeling pressured to have sex with trans women, for example. I think those conversations need to happen in constructive, compassionate ways. I think the way to do that is to help kids (and adults) find their self-worth, their value, as individuals or in virtues rather than in group identities. When we get our self-worth from our affiliations, then we will become very loyal to those groups- more than they deserve – and try to demonstrate our loyalty through virtue signaling by repeating the accepted talking points without much critical thinking or room for nuance. Of course conservatives do this constantly, but progressives like to believe we do not do this, so I think we should work harder not to do it. IMO the way to do that is to see each and every so-called “opponent” as a human being, as precious and worthy of love as we are and everyone else is. We are all culpable for making choices that harm others. That coffee I just drank – if I had sent the money to Yemen, it would have saved a starving child. Just because there is a long causal chain between my coffee and that child does not change the consequences of my choice. So I try to help my children not to demonize anyone, and to see people as hurting rather than as bad. That doesn’t mean not protecting ourselves from their violence, just… not demonizing them, not othering them. Not sure if this is the sort of pondering you were looking for, but you raised some very thought provoking questions, and I appreciated your ideas. I’ve been meaning to write this up on FAR anyway, so you’ve given me a chance to think it through in relation to your post. Great post, thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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