I’m writing this from the back of a second-grade classroom, where I was called in as an emergency substitute to be the legally certificated adult in the room while a student teacher oversees the class. I sit here at the teacher desk and quietly type away on my overdue Three-Fifths column, peeking over my laptop every once in a while to watch as the aspiring young teacher manages the group of chatty seven- and eight-year-olds.
Together, the student teacher and her little charges navigate their Wednesday morning. At their desks, the students draw numbers on their individual white boards, sometimes accidentally dropping their markers on the floor. When it’s storytime, they jostle for position on the carpet. At recess, they toss rubber balls to one another. At snacktime, they share animal crackers. Over and over, the teacher asks for attention, waiting for every eye to swivel her direction and every mouth to stop talking before she proceeds with directions for the next step.
What I don’t see is every bit as important as what I do: there is no visible racial animosity here among the second graders. I can’t see everything, of course. I’m only here for a few hours. I can’t overhear every stray comment. I can’t see into every developing heart. But what I can see is a boisterous group of diverse young human beings all chatting and laughing and smiling at one another. There is no segregation, prejudice, or division in sight.
Here in this public school in a working-class suburb of Portland, Oregon, the majority of students appear to be White, but certainly not all of them. This community has been gradually racially and ethnically diversifying in the eight years since my family first made our home here. I can’t say exactly how each child in this room would self-identify just by looking at them, but at least one-third of the children in the room present as Hispanic, Indigenous, Black, or Asian. The student teacher appears to be Hispanic. The instructional assistant is Black. I am White. And everyone in the room is busy working together to form a community of learners. When the teacher tells the students to “turn and talk” to a partner, a Black boy eagerly turns to a Hispanic boy next to him, while an Asian girl and a White boy strike up a conversation. Wiggles and grins abound.
How do things change? How do we get from the scene in this classroom to something like the conversation that was secretly recorded among Los Angeles City Council members in 2021, with council members crudely dividing up the city’s electoral map into racialized divisions of “ours” and “theirs,” with every group assumed to be looking out only for their own? How do we get from childlike generosity to adult strife? And how do we get back again?
I don’t want to idealize children too much, because they can be every bit as cruel as their elders. But the truism is, well, true: no one is born with racial prejudice. It must be learned.
The question is, can it be unlearned?
There is no school for anti-racism, of course. Adults don’t gather on the carpet, waiting to be told how to erase prejudice from their hearts like children learning how to subtract. Prophetic figures and hard-working community leaders arise, but there’s no teacher who has been given clear authority over all the grown-ups. No one is in charge of getting all our attention and making sure we’re all on the same page.
No, the work of unlearning racial strife will not happen, for adults, in a classroom. Our years of animal crackers and rubber balls have come and gone. We depend, now, on the teaching ministry of the Spirit of God, who blows in and out of hearts with a mysterious and unpredictable power.
When Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be “born again,” the old rabbi responded with astonishment. “How can this be?” Sometimes I feel a similar skepticism when I wonder if it’s possible for our world to turn back the clock on hundreds of years of racialized hate. “How can someone be born when they are old?” asks Nicodemus. How can world-weary adults return to the pure love of children, I wonder. Some days, even imagining a world in which adults learn to love past our racialized divisions feels impossibly naive.
But Jesus says that with God, all things are possible. So I leave the classroom of second graders and step back out into the big world of grown-up problems and grown-up fears. I’m watching for the Spirit of God to blow.
By Sarah L. Sanderson