As a justice advocate, I thought I understood racism and sexism. But it wasn’t until I became a youth pastor to a multiracial group of teens that I realized just how deeply racial and gender injustice is woven into our society.
Prejudice is subtle. This became frighteningly clear when I observed how the kids in my youth group were treated by others because of their race and/or gender.
I quickly recognized their experiences as unjust, but the kids didn’t seem to see it. After a while, I realized why. They were used to being treated that way. They had already been exposed to injustices because of their gender and/or skin color, so much so, that they were normative.
That realization shook me. I realized that other Christians might also be relatively ignorant of the prejudice women and people of color face in the US and in the church. In that vein, I’d like to share five lessons I’ve learned about racism and sexism through working with my youth group kids.
1. Racism is not always blatant.
As a white woman, I have not experienced racism personally. No one discriminates against me because of the color of my skin. Until I became a pastor to a multiracial youth group, I was ignorant of the racism people of color face every day.
My understanding of racism has changed drastically because of time spent with my youth group kids. At fundraisers, I have seen people suddenly become uncomfortable around them. The color of their skin can instantly become more important than the event they are hosting.
Racial slurs and jokes have been shouted at them during car wash and yard sale fundraisers. Often, people are surprised to learn that we are a church group, indicating an internal bias against kids of color. Racial bias can be subtle and hard to spot, but it is just as damaging as “explicit” racism.
2. Gender stereotypes are destructive to both males and females.
Both the males and the females in our group have been negatively impacted by the gender stereotypes in complementarian theology. For example, during a bake sale fundraiser for camp, a passing man singled out a boy in our group. The man asked, “Did you bake these?”
When the boy responded with a proud “yes,” the man who initially questioned him laughed, shook his head, and told him that only women should do such a thing.
Because of a gender stereotype, a teen who has struggled with self-confidence was made to feel as though his masculinity was compromised. His manhood was suddenly on the line because of the way he chose to serve the church. Gender stereotypes discourage teens from serving in ways that break the mold and affirm the unhealthy notion that they should adhere to strict, non-scriptural gender roles.
3. Christians can elevate or damage a teen’s perspective of God.
When someone is degraded, silenced, or marginalized because of their skin color or gender in a Christian setting, they often project the discrimination they experience onto their image of God. They may believe that if Christians accept and perpetuate value distinctions based on race or gender, then so must God.
Racism and sexism-charged interactions with Christians have made many teens question if Christ is worth pursuing. But when Christians celebrate men and women of all races as equally valuable—and the structure, leadership, and behavior of the church reflect that conviction—teenagers will begin to realize that God already sees them as worthy of love.
4. Both words and actions matter.
It’s not only our words that matter to teens. They notice prejudice, even subtle bias. Teenagers recognize when students of a certain people group have been treated better than them. They hear when adults change their vocabulary around them. Whether we intentionally do these things or not is irrelevant. Even “subtle” bias or preference alienates female students and/or students of color.
As church leaders, we must always be aware of how we are treating young people. We are in a position to model Christ. We should take note of our bias and closely monitor how that bias has influenced our words and actions.
5. Young people need egalitarian leaders to encourage them to be who they are.
The teenagers in my youth group receive so many negative messages, both implicit and explicit, about their gender and race. Egalitarian leaders should be asking: Do students of color have access to the same resources that white students enjoy, including mentoring opportunities? Does the church take a strong stance on racial justice? Do women feel excluded from the decision-making table? Are girls’ gifts celebrated and utilized to the same degree that boys’ gifts are? Are there subtle ways that racial or gender prejudice have infiltrated the church? Are we seeking to be humble and learn about these issues?
Egalitarian leaders should be the first to demonstrate through word and action that all people are equally valued in their congregations. We must be the first to set aside privilege. And yet, many egalitarian leaders still struggle to live out what they believe in theory.
It is our responsibility as egalitarian leaders to intentionally model gender and racial equality in our churches. Pastors must stand against these injustices. In doing so, they will communicate that God shows no preference based on race or gender. The church should model the gospel message of love and liberation for all people. When pastors live out that message, young people will look for ways to participate in it.