As a black child growing up in the south, I became very accustomed to the importance of celebrating Black History Month. I remember being a little girl who was fascinated with the stories and timelines of how “we” (blacks) really got here. I looked forward to the month of February every year with anticipation, wondering who I would get to play in the school programs and community events. The excitement of learning about the journeys of these African American heroes, their sacrifice, their commitment, their work and even some of their deaths would send chills down my spine and tears down my face.
As I researched and read more about their lives and their contributions to creating history for blacks, I became even more proud to celebrate Black History Month.
I grew up in Georgia, in the deep south, country parts of Georgia. Georgia, where the grass was green and rich and the roads were dirty, muddy and full of clay. Georgia, where the peaches grew plump and sweet. Georgia, where they take football very seriously. Georgia, where the large oak trees cover you and provide much needed shade in the hot summers. Georgia, where the population is predominantly white. Georgia, where I had my first experience of being treating unfairly and judged simply because of the color of my skin.
In August of 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood before thousands from diverse backgrounds, different races, ethnicities and even religions to give his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s amazing to me that nearly thirty years later, I would experience such harsh racism, prejudice, and bias in the 90s — all because I was a little brown girl in the deep south, in a school that was predominantly white.
My parents divorced when I was very young. To have the support of family and friends with four little ones, my mother relocated us from the city to the “country,” a more rural area where family were more available. I remember crying and almost hating the fact that I had to change schools and make new friends, but I had no choice; I had to accept reality and my new normal. Ironically, to my surprise, I ended up making friends very quickly in the new neighborhood.
Before my first day at the new school, we visited and I met my teacher. I remember — she was a very tall, slender white lady with long, brown, straight hair. I distinctly recall how nice she was, warm and inviting as she reassured me that I would be fine. I found out that the new friend I had made in my neighborhood was in my class as well. I immediately felt a sense of relief, almost like a weight lifted.
I was excited about my first day, and then it happened.
As I waited anxiously at the bus stop with my new friends, I was ready to grab a seat of my choice and view the beautiful countryside on my way to school. The bus finally came, and I enthusiastically jumped on with my friends, stating “Good Morning” to the bus driver. I come from a very hospitable family, so greetings were always big for us.
I will never forget the dryness in her voice and the staleness in her face as she stared me up down with her blonde hair and brown droopy eyes. Then the bus driver said, “You must be new; stand over here,” as she pointed behind her seat. While the other children went to take their seats, I observed all the black children heading to the back of the bus.
My heart began to beat super fast.
I remember thinking, What is going on and why are they passing all these seats up to go to the back? Once everyone from our stop was on, the driver turned to me and said, “You can go find a seat in the back. But don’t sit with those two, your friends. I don’t need any more trouble.”
Any more trouble, what did that mean? I thought to myself as I began looking for a seat.
Why are we sitting in the back? My mind began to race uncontrollably.
As I walked what felt like the walk of shame, several of the white children slid to the edge of their seats to let me know I could not sit there. I finally found a seat near my friend and turned to smile at her. Then I happened to look up to the front, and the bus driver was staring at me in the mirror. She said, “Yes, I’m watching you.”
Watching me, why? I’m a good kid. I’m new; I haven’t done anything, I thought.
In that moment I felt I had been prejudged before I was even given the opportunity for her to know me.
How often do we do prejudge individuals before we get to know them? How often do we prejudge individuals and label them because of the color of their skin? How often are we biased in our approach as it relates to certain demographics or statuses of people? More often than we want to admit. It’s especially heartbreaking to see prejudgment made to and amongst children.
I’m a Case Manager for the Foster Care Ministry here at WinShape Homes. I have had the privilege and honor of working within this ministry for more than 3 years now, and I’ve worked for more than 10 years collectively in child welfare. In my current role, I manage the cases of our foster parents and children by providing guidance and support, serving as a liaison between them and DFCS, as well as engaging and building connecting relationships for the child in care.
In my role as Case Manager, I have seen many stories of family reunification and redemption, but I have also seen stories of judgment and labeling. Many times, I have sat in court room settings that were not diverse and been “the only one.” I have watched the eyes of individuals as they stared me up and down, read my name badge and immediately began putting stories and assumptions together in their heads before even saying hello. I have watched judges favor and fight more for certain groups of individuals because the color of their skin was lighter than mine. I have seen potential placements reduced to no placement at all because of the color of skin.
Working with a diverse population from different backgrounds, upbringings, ethnicities and even cultures, it is very imperative that we are aware of and acknowledge any personal biases we may have that could easily interfere with the work we are called to do. In the Book of Mark, the Bible talks about Jesus’s love for children.
Mark 9:36-37 says, “He [Jesus] took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.’”
That verse alone speaks volumes about setting aside biases, prejudices, judgment and labels to accept each person as a child of God. God celebrates the beautiful colors of our skin; He made each of His children intentionally and uniquely as they are — to bear His image and glory. But more than that, God wants our affections; He looks past the outer appearance and goes directly for the heart.
In Hebrews 12:1, the Bible says, “… let us lay aside every weight, and sin which easily separates us.” For me, all of these things are weights that keep us from living out God’s calling in our lives.
Bias is a weight that you don’t need to carry; judgment is a weight, racism, prejudice, labeling. They’re all weights that we should not want and we were never created to carry. These are the weights that keep us from being effective and loving our neighbors the way Christ calls us to. They even prevent us from building important relationships that could change our lives for the better.
In order to keep creating experiences that transform, we have to first transform our thinking by renewing our minds with God’s Word. As I hear the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have Dream” speech ring in my ear,
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today,”
I’m encouraged to be a person of good character. One who is not defined by her skin color but embraces her history, heritage, legacy and future.
““I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
— Sharita Austin
— WinShape Foster Care
— Case Manger