I write this not as an anthropologist, a sociologist, a philosopher or a politician. I write this as a white father to a black teenage girl.
My middle daughter came to our home when she was just 3 months old. Her biological mother made a difficult but brave decision, the end result of which was a new addition to our family in the form of the most beautiful, expressive and delightful baby girl you could ever imagine. Her stay with us was originally supposed to be short term, but as Providence would have it, when she was about 18 months old we were offered the chance to adopt her and we eagerly applied. With some financial help from a dear family in our congregation, we were able to complete the process and gain full legal custody around the time of her 4th birthday.
My daughter was initially unaware and gloriously unconcerned with the obvious differences between her and us in terms of her race and ethnicity. When she was about 4 years old, she came up to me and put her hand between my hands and said, “Daddy, what colour are your hands?”
“My hands are light brown,” I replied.
“What colour are mommy’s hands?” she asked.
“Mommy’s hands are very white!” I replied.
“And what colour are my hands?” she asked.
“Your hands are dark brown – and very, very beautiful” I said.
That seemed to satisfy her entirely and to put her little heart at rest.
When she was 6 years old we explained to her that she was adopted, but she didn’t seem very interested in what that meant. We explained that God gives a family a new baby in several different ways. Sometimes the baby grows inside the tummy of the mommy in the family and then the doctor takes the baby out at a certain time. In other families, the baby will grow inside a different mommy’s tummy and then for one reason or another, the baby will be given to her forever family at a different time. Baby’s often have the same colour of skin and hair as the person whose tummy they started out in. The main thing is that God puts us in the family that he thinks is best for us and he puts love inside our hearts for one another.
I rehearsed that speech for several days before delivering it and I recall that it made very little impression upon my baby girl. I delivered my lines with what felt like a bowling ball inside my stomach and then I asked her if she understood and she said, “Yes”. I asked her if she had any questions and she said, “Can I have more fries? I need more fries to finish dipping in my sauce.”
We gave her more fries and breathed a massive sigh of relief that this information had apparently not been upsetting or destabilizing to her in any way.
It was several years before the issue of race, ethnicity and cultural identity was raised again in our family. My daughter was in her early teen years at the time of the George Floyd riots. She had been seeing things on TV and the internet that upset her so we went for a walk to talk things out.
I explained that, in the United States, there was still a lot of hurt between black people and white people. At one point in the history of that country many white people had owned black people as property. They bought them at markets, from ship captains who had purchased them from slave traders on the western shores of Africa. Many of them died on the way over and the ones that survived were treated shamefully. Many slaves ran away and were helped by a lot of good people of both colours to make their way to Canada.
When slavery was finally made illegal in the USA, the slaves were set free, but most of them didn’t know how to read and they had been separated from their families and their communities so they didn’t have much of a chance to succeed. Many have been poor and unhappy ever since and things are starting to boil over in that culture. I told her that I was sorry that she was seeing that, but it was a part of the history of people of African descent and it was important for her to know about it and I would be happy to help, direct her to resources, or just to listen, if ever she wanted to process this matter any further.
She said that she didn’t really want to talk about it anymore at that time.
As a dad, I felt utterly helpless to help her through this painful awakening.
I wished that I could make it all go away – I wished that I could close her eyes to the brutality and inhumanity of history, but I can’t. Those things really happened and it was important for her to know, no matter how much I wished that she didn’t have to.
Our next conversation about race happened in the worst way imaginable. I received a call at work asking me to come down to the High School where my daughter was a student. I was told that there had been a racial incident and that my daughter was safe, but very upset and the police had been notified.
I drove over immediately and was met by the tallest human being I have ever encountered in person. The police officer assigned to the High School in our town is almost 7 feet tall and looks like a character out of a Bible story. I felt an immediate urge to behave. Despite his massive size, he was very gentle toward my daughter and he was very careful and circumspect in his narration of the day’s events. Apparently there had been an assembly and an older student, with a history of mental health issues, had called my daughter the “N” word and struck her across the face.
I was absolutely devastated.
I felt guilty for bringing my daughter to a mostly white town.
I felt as though I should have done more to educate her on these matters so that she could protect herself.
Then I felt angry.
I wanted to find the student and administer “justice”.
I wanted to press charges.
The officer explained to us that we could press charges – and he said that maybe we should – and he outlined what that process would entail and what the likely outcomes would be. He also, very gently, helped us understand the situation of the student involved. It was not clear that this individual understood what they were doing. It was not clear that punishment and a criminal record would improve their disposition or behavior. In the end, the officer left it up to my daughter and she said that she would not like to press charges. She would like there to be some education and some assurances that the incident would not be repeated.
The officer and the principal assured us that such measures would be put in place immediately.
I tried to debrief the incident further with my daughter over the next several days but she didn’t want to talk about it. I think she was waking up to the fact that the problem of race wasn’t just something that Americans were dealing with, it was something that we were dealing with up here in Canada as well and it was something that she would be dealing with personally, in all likelihood, for the rest of her life.
We had another reminder of this the following spring.
Three of my daughters were in a dance recital at the local theatre and my middle daughter, the daughter under discussion here, offered to take her younger sister to the bathroom during a break in the performance. She was stopped and questioned by a security guard who didn’t believe that they were truly sisters because they weren’t the same colour.
She was understandably devastated.
Why would this security guard think she was trying to abduct her own sister?
Why would someone think she was a human trafficker just because of the colour of her skin?
These are the questions she was asking me, through tears and between sobs, on what should have been one of the most magical nights of her High School career.
Can you sympathize with that?
I’m not looking for a change in the law, I’m not looking for you to feel guilty, I’m not interested in rewriting history – I just want you to understand that things are difficult and complicated in our culture for people of colour. I want you to stop protecting your privilege long enough to appreciate that you have had it very good, in all likelihood, whereas some other people have had to press through certain things that you will never have to.
That’s what I’m after here.
But sadly, a lot of white people – and even white Christian people – seem unwilling to listen or to make the effort required.
There is a collective defensiveness that seems to get in the way.
“I’m not a racist! Just because a few people act like idiots doesn’t make all of us guilty!”
No one said that.
But it cannot be denied that my daughter WILL have to deal with a significantly higher number of idiots over the course of her life than will your daughter. She will have racist employers, racist co-workers and racist neighbours and that will create challenges and difficulties that your daughter will never even know exist.
Can you empathize with that?
Can you be concerned about that?
Would you pray with me about that?
That would go a long way toward making these challenges more bearable.
I have no interest in punishing your daughter – I have 3 white daughters of my own – I just want you to empathize with my black daughter. I want you to understand. I want to appreciate why she might be a little more cautious around the police than you think is entirely necessary. I want you to be gracious to her when she points out injustices that you may believe are being overstated. I want you to listen carefully when she reminds you that privilege is a real thing; that most majority culture people don’t even realize how fortunate they are to have been spared generational trauma on a continental scale. I don’t want you to feel guilty for sins committed 200 years ago – I just want you to understand that the impact of those sins is being experienced by hundreds and thousands and millions of people all around the world down to this day.
If that makes you humble, if that makes you grateful, if that makes you gentle and if that causes you to extend empathy to my daughter – then I’ll consider that a win and be thankful.
What I don’t want is for you to exaggerate the significance of race with respect to her identity as a person. Some people are trying to help – and I appreciate that – but by making race the defining aspect of a person’s identity, they actually undermine the things that all human beings have in common. They undermine the foundational truth that all people – men and women, black, white and every shade in between – are made in the image and likeness of Almighty God. All people – irrespective of their race and ethnicity – are categorically different and above every other form of life on planet earth. We human beings are wonderfully and fearfully made! What unites us as image bearers is far more significant than what divides us as members of various tribes, tongues, cultures and nations.
And for those of us who have been baptized into Christ, we share an even more intimate bond – a bond that surpasses even the bonds of biology and family. Jesus made it clear, that as much as he loved his mother Mary, and as much as he loved his brother James, his ultimate family was made up of the circle of his followers and disciples. He said:
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:48–50 ESV)
Our identity as brothers and sisters in Christ is the most foundational aspect of who we are as human beings. The Apostle Paul said:
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27–28 ESV)
My daughter has been baptized into Christ. She is a child of God through faith. She is a sister and joint-heir with Jesus. That is the most significant and determinative aspect of her personal identity. So don’t try to help her by making her biological race or ethnicity the primary lens for her self-understanding. Don’t tell her that she is black before she is anything else. Don’t tell her that she will never fit in with a white family or that she will never fit in with a majority white culture or a majority white church.
That’s not true!
And that’s not helpful.
The blood of the cross tells us who we are. The blood of the cross marks us and gives us our identity. It doesn’t wipe away all other distinctives but it does relativize them in terms of their importance.
My daughter is a sister to Jesus Christ. She is a child of the King and a member of his family. And also, by his Sovereign disposition, a member of mine. She has other ties and associations as well that I may not be a part of and she may need time and opportunity to explore those things and I will support her gladly in so doing. But no matter what she finds there it won’t change for a second who she is to me; and as long as she understands that, I will be content. And if you could give her the space to do that and extend her some empathy as she does, I know that her Father would be eternally grateful.
Thanks for listening,
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. To access the entire library of available episodes see here. You can find his personal blog, Semper Reformanda, by clicking here.
 I will use those terms interchangeably throughout this article, though I understand that they are presently disputed and somewhat in flux.