I need to begin with context. Our ministry is a multi-site urban youth ministry. We work with a mix of “churched,” “unchurched,” “dechurched” and “overchurched” students. Our students are primarily African-American. My family and I have chosen to live in a neighborhood with some of the families that are a part of our ministry. That particular area happens to be a multi-ethnic community whose residents are primarily living under the poverty level. To be blunt we are known as the “white family” on the block.
At one of our small groups a couple of weeks ago we happened into a discussion that has left me thinking. One of my students made this statement:
“All white people are rich.”
I almost choked when 15 other High School students nodded their heads in unified agreement. I thought of the struggle to pay bills weekly in our own home, the one car we drive, and the “stuff” we don’t own. However, I also knew that many of these students didn’t have a car at all, and food in their cupboards is sometimes dwindling. My mind wandered to where this perception had been perpetuated.
“ALL is a strong word,” I said, “You do know we live three blocks from here?” (Intimating we live in the same neighborhoods they do, and they did not believe themselves to be rich.)
“Yeah, so,” was her response. I could see from the wheels turning that she knew we choose to live there. Even more so, it was her belief that at any point we could make a move to any other location, while she may never.
“ALL,” I pointed out once again is a strong word.
“When we start using that word we fail to see individuals.” We talked about struggles, racism, and those who have fought for each student in that room to be able to truly be “anything” God has called them to be. I asked how many people in the room had cable or a flat screened television. All hands went up. I said, “We don’t, and this is a choice based on finances. As a matter of fact our television is 30 years old, and we have to use a pencil to turn it on.” There was an audible gasp let out across the room, followed by perplexed looks. “Now don’t get me wrong,” I went on, “Our needs are met, however, we are far from rich. My kids don’t get everything they want, and neither do we.” We then talked honestly about barriers they might face that I might never know. I also let them know that Jesus came to overcome all of this. Their road might be difficult, however, this can’t be an excuse to give up now.
We talked about what a “stereotype” is. It is a negative over-exaggeration based on some common traits. In short, it takes the bad habits of “some” of a group of people and labels them “ALL.” There are movies and television shows that perpetuate certain “stereotypes” based on our background and the color of our skin. There are others that are attached to our gender, size, hair color, or geographic upbringing. Some of them make us laugh. Some of them we latch onto. However, I was struck with just how dangerous stereotypes can be.
For these students were using that statement as an excuse. They had already come to believe their lives were on track to be the same as most of those they knew. They would never attend college. They would exist day to day. They would struggle and be called “poor.” Most of all they would be “stuck” in a life they hate, living in a place they despise and they would never have a way out.
“We can never know “ALL” people are any one thing,” I told them.” They were shocked at the number of African Americans I am friends with who are married, living in suburbs and not struggling to put food on the table. I finished with letting them know it is about the willingness to get to know people and never looking at only the surface.
I got to thinking about when I was their age. I had made some connections and carried my own stereotypes:
“People in certain denominations weren’t really saved.”
“Kids from that side of town were “those” type of kids.”
“People from the north were ALL cold and indifferent, people from the south were ALL shallow.”
I too used them as an excuse to not believe Christ can change everything. I used them as a reason to never see or talk to certain people. I used them as a reason to stay “stuck” existing in a box that couldn’t see the rest of the world.
Chew on this today. What are the stereotypes your students carry?
What are those we carry?
What will we do to stop using the word “ALL?”
Tomorrow, I would like to cover ways we can start a discussion to help students look at the stereotypes they carry and what we can do to help.