A fresh entry from my antiracism journal: Jesus Loves the Little Children. Right?
The first thing I learned reading Ibram Kendi’s remarkable book, How To Be An Antiracist, is just how ubiquitous racism is. It has infected every aspect of American life and is present in all of our institutions.
The second thing I learned is that racism is often not overt, or about hate. Even things we white folks believe to be well-intentioned, or to contain positive messages, can be racist.
Let me give you an easy example of what this looks like, and an embarrassing example of how I came to learn it.
Take the song, Jesus Loves the Little Children. It’s one of the most beloved children’s songs we sing in church, right? “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” It’s a lovely message, on its surface.
And yet Ibram Kendi would say that by singling out people groups by their color, this beloved song is racist.
But wait, you say! Jesus Loves the Little Children can’t be racist! It’s sweet! I learned it when I was six, and I still sing it sometimes, and it always makes me think of how much Jesus loves the little children of the world, in all their beautiful diversity.
I learned the song early and I still sing it often (or I did, until recently), and, yes, it has always made me think of how much Jesus loves the little children of the world, in all their beautiful diversity.
I have sung this song, to our children, during worship. I once preached a sermon to our adults with the words “Red and Yellow, Black and White” in the title.
And it’s racist.
But wait, there’s more! For people who look like me (a white male), it also implicitly affirms my deeply held sense of white privilege.
Here’s how I know this. All I have to do is ask myself how any of the Native American people I know would feel if I called them “red”.
Same with, say, a Vietnamese American, or Chinese American. How would they feel if I called them “yellow”?
See what I mean?
So, what to do? Well, the first thing we do is stop singing this song ourselves, and stop teaching it to our children.
And then we keep our eyes, ears, hearts and minds open to other areas of church life, or of our personal life, that might be infected with racism in ways that are not obvious or explicit.
According to Ibram Kendi, it’s also important for white folks — and for all people, really — to stop looking at different populations through the lens of skin color, so that instead, we might see all of God’s children — in all their beautiful diversity — through the clear, simple lens of our shared humanity. Of course Dr. King first urged us to do this forty years ago.
In the meantime, in case the loss of this much-loved children’s song makes you sad, here’s an alternative. This is just my halting attempt to recast its well-intentioned message in non-racist language.
I suspect you can do much better. So try! That alone might make you feel better.
Jesus Loves the Little Children (a new version)