Cover Image: How to Fight Racism Young Reader's Edition

How to Fight Racism Young Reader's Edition

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Member Reviews

“God’s plan has always been diversity. Every tribe, tongue, and nation are part of his family and the Bible does not differentiate people based on race.”

This is a simplified version of his book— How to Fight Racism— that was released January 2021 and is written for children ages 8-12. 

I have not read the adult edition of this book but I have read Tisby’s book The Color of Compromise. 

Because I haven’t read the adult version, it’s possible some of the comments or questions I have regarding this edition may have been better explained in the adult edition. However, I found Neil Shenvi’s review of that book quite similar to the perceptions and notes I had for this edition, and was helpful as I processed what I read. 

Providing a guide for young readers about racism is a worthwhile venture. To this end, he gives a comprehensive historical summary of race in America, and I believe he did a good job charging readers to treat people with respect and stand up for justice. I thought his emphasis on all people being created in the image of God— where our worth and rights find their basis— was strong. His ‘ARC’ acronym integrating Awareness, Relationships, and Commitment is a helpful model to think about in terms of fighting injustices. 

The downside for me was similar to my impressions about his book The Color of Compromise— he seems to predicate the material of this book from the assumption that racism is everywhere if we just look hard enough, uses some ambiguous terminology, makes some unsupported claims, downplays the gospel, and communicates in a way that could perpetuate a self-fulfilling prophecy of hopelessness. 

This is a hard book for me to offer a recommendation on. 

I can break it down a little more and let you be the judge of whether you feel this would be a good book for your child to read. 

Geared Towards a Young Audience 

The topic of racism is an increasingly complicated sphere so I commend his efforts in producing a book geared toward younger students and understand the difficulties of that. There’s only so much context and background you can provide and still keep the book short and simple enough. 

One way he meets the needs of his younger audience is by pulling out the big words into ‘glossary boxes’ in the margins. A full glossary is also included at the end. 

To keep the readers engaged in the material and remember the main points of each chapter/section, he includes a few questions at the end. I thought this was a good idea to break up the material and keep the kids involved with it. 

He tries to include student-relatable experiences when describing certain terms, situations, or feelings.

 I loved his reminders for readers to stand up for their classmates who are being mistreated and to speak up when kids say inappropriate ‘jokes.’ 

He also gives some good activities for them to do— a little like homework: research a historical event to learn more, interview a person of another race to hear their experiences, be involved with student government or attend school board meetings where policies and decisions are made, start a book club with people of all races to discuss topics and hear different perspectives, visit cultural fairs and events, etc. 

I felt like most of his suggestions were easy enough for any kid to carry out if they wanted to. 

The Strength

The strength of this book is two-fold: educating the kids on the history of racism and things that happened that they might not know about (though I would guess it’s more likely to be taught in schools now) and the emphasis of diversity being God’s design from the beginning. 

He says, 

“The goal for everyone is to have a positive view of their racial or ethnic identity, one that does not require them to fit in with or reject the dominant culture or experiences, and one that values the diversity of other people.”

I like that he is teaching the kids to feel good about how God created them and that we treat others with love because we are all God’s creation. I am pro-positive-view. I am pro-diversity. I also like that that he said people shouldn’t be required to fit in with the dominant culture OR reject the dominant culture. That message isn’t heard as often. 

I remember reading The Color of Compromise and hearing some of the historical events and stories for the first time and it is a shocking and uncomfortable feeling— hearing that many Christians believed the Bible supported slavery and the acts they committed in its name are atrocious. 

Tisby didn’t include the most graphic stories but he didn’t sugarcoat it either and it will be shocking and uncomfortable for some students to read some of the things that happened to people in our past. I think some of this is a good thing. Might be too much for 8 year olds, but 10-12 year olds would probably handle it better.

I think he gives the kids a lot of good things to think about— to imagine what other people are experiencing or feeling. To consider even little things like band-aids being made to blend in with only lighter color skin or Kodak cameras’ settings being formatted for people with lighter skin and causing darker skin to wash out in the exposure. 

There’s some more discussion to be had before jumping from certain privileges to declaring everything in America systematically created to benefit white people over everyone else, but there are definitely privileges that we as white people don’t realize we have that people of other races don’t experience and it is always a good thing to be sensitive to other peoples’ feelings. 

Racial Identity

“Some white people can go their whole lives without ever having an encounter that causes them to think about race. This leads to a shallow relationship with an aspect of who they are.”

Tisby writes a chapter called ‘The Science of Race’ where he points out that ‘race’ is not a scientific term but a social one. Race is just varying melanin levels in the skin as people groups adapted to the sunlight in their geographic location. 

“Although race is something imagined (or constructed),” he says, “its effects are real. From lifespan to salary to where you live, race has a measurable impact on a person’s quality of life.”

It felt like he contradicted himself on this point throughout the book. He wants people to recognize that God created people differently and that diversity should be celebrated, that race is an arbitrary exhibiting of melanin in our skin not a depiction of differing worth, but then proceeds to encourage people to research their race and attach significant meaning to that result as part of their identity. 

It felt like he is telling his black readership— if you don’t know and “feel in your bones” the history of racism based on the color of your skin, you need to go research it until you do. It’s like he is telling his white readership— if you don’t understand how terrible white people were to black people in history, you need to go research it until you recognize your own part in this tragedy and work to make amends.

If race is not an aspect of who you claim yourself to be, he suggests this is evidence of the harmful practice of “colorblindness” where we fail to celebrate God’s created diversity. But this emphasis on a racial identity seems to be elevated over our identity in Christ where our sinful depravity levels the playing field of transgressions and the power of Christ’s mercy and grace saves, transforms, and unifies us. 

Children between the ages of 8-12 are doing a lot of work on figuring out who they are and I have concerns about Tisby’s emphasis of a racial identity and attaching historical burdens to kids and telling them it should shape how they view themselves rather than offering spiritual freedoms to define them.

The Questionable

The thing about writing a book for kids ages 8-12 is that they are still developing critical thinking skills. They still view all adults as people of authority and tend to accept everything they say at face value. This gives adults a lot of power to influence the thinking of children and can become a dangerous tool that is wielded. 

I feel Jemar Tisby presented some things definitively as common fact or in a more simplistic way that does not account for all the information. He makes certain statements and claims that I think students won’t think to question. 

“No matter their level of achievement, people of African descent in the United States, especially those with darker skin, are always placed in the outermost ring of American social circles.”

“Racism today comes in the forms of mass incarceration and police brutality towards people of color. You can find it in the ongoing and widening racial wealth gap…”

“Since white people are in charge of how society is organized, they have a way of making the rules so they always get the best options and opportunities. Maybe this isn’t always intentional, but the results are usually the same.”

“Though Christianity is supposed to bring people together in love, we live in a world where black Christians who stand against police brutality under the banner of #blacklivesmatter are dismissed as radicals by white Christians who justify such police tactics as necessary to keeping the police.”

Though he doesn’t use these exact words, he seems to support Ibram X. Kendi’s words: “When I see disparities, I see discrimination.” He seems to support Robin DiAngelo’s telling people to ask the question ‘How is this racism?’ rather than ‘Is this racism?’ 

He commemorates every black person who has died at the other end of a police officer’s gun without providing adequate context for each occurrence. Police brutality happens, but I wouldn’t say it’s the ‘norm’ or characteristic of police and it’s helpful to research the statistics on this. We should be wary of making some interactions definitive of all interactions.

He does not provide the statistics that while white people may have greater wealth than black people, white people actually rank 16th in median household income by selected ancestry groups. 

One of the major dangers of his emphasis on presenting the notion that America is an elaborate system rigged against black people, where white people will always prevail over them, where black people don’t have the tools they need to succeed, where their future is one of lesser pay, worse jobs, and discrimination, is that it’s likely to cause people to stop trying. After all, what’s the point? 

While we always fight injustice, Tisby’s tone and presentation seems likely to perpetuate a self-fulfilling prophecy where black people do not see the value or hope in trying. Tisby ignores the psychology that- You tell a child they are kind, they are smart, they are hard-working, that they can try hard things and they will live up to the picture of them you present— they will be kind and more confident academically. If you tell them they are lacking something, disadvantaged, and their country is actively against them, they will believe it and act accordingly. 

I must advocate for two really good, relevant, must-read books here:

The Coddling of the American Mind looks at how this concept of social justice plays out at a university level and how the good intentions of seeking justice and fairness show to instead be causing problems, and looks at what happens when we seek to find racism.

Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth is the best book I’ve read so far on social justice and gives us 12 important questions to ask about our concept of social justice, including considering that ‘unequal’ outcomes can have many causes and can’t be assumed to be racial discrimination. Could your version of social justice be promoting more racial strife?

I think these two books are essential to considering Tisby’s presentation of his ambiguously defined term ‘racial justice.’

Orienting Our Lives to Racial Justice

One of his chapters is titled ‘Orienting Your Life to Racial Justice.’

He advocates that fighting for racial justice is an ongoing battle and true commitment will focus on it daily:

“One of the most important racial justice practices is to keep race at the top of your mind even when you have the option of not doing so.”

My concern with this charge is that he’s dangerously close to making racial justice a bigger priority than the gospel. We don’t orient our lives to anything other than the Lord. 

Living out of the gospel should spur us to seek justice, but racial justice is not the gospel. The gospel is the Good News that Jesus has died for the sins of the world (of which racism is one) and defeated death and our bondage to our sin so we could experience true life and freedom in him. We do not earn this gift by accomplishing racial justice. If we get this wrong, we have lost the gospel of grace. 

The importance and power of the gospel is highly lacking in this book. 

Monique Duson shares part of her story in Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth and says this:

“According to historic Christianity, salvation is the good news of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection so sinners of all colors can be saved by a free act of divine grace. [Critical Race Theory] had pulled me away from that good news into a social justice gospel in which the finished work of Jesus wasn’t enough. Activism to end “oppression” as redefined by CRT became a gospel essential. Scripture consistently defines us as brothers and sisters. CRT splits us into intersectional tribes. In God’s eyes, humanity’s  fundamental problem is that we are all sinners in need of grace. According to CRT, humanity’s fundamental problems are whiteness and oppression. The beliefs of CRT weren’t ‘part of the gospel;’ they formed a different gospel altogether.”

To be clear: Tisby does not explicitly advocate or even mention critical race theory, nor does he explicitly say racial justice is a gospel issue. But this idea is worth thinking about because Tisby’s book hints at this belief. He seems to downplay the power of the gospel in seeing true change in the world and promotes activism more heavily.

Another example of how Tisby states things in a misleading ‘factual’ way is this discussion question he included at the end of a section where he talked about Quaker Oats’ Aunt Jemima logo:

“What are some ways white people have sought to make less of black people through images and advertising?”

He states this as if advertisers are overtly seeking to hurt black people and asking kids to look for examples. There may be some examples we can prove the motivations of a company in the content they put out, but we have to be very careful when we judge motives. The phrasing of this question is problematic to me.

Tisby also stated that we need to look at impact not intent when considering evidence of racism. This is a very harmful practice to encourage. Both impact AND intent are important if we want to care about people and if we ignore either one the results will be damaging. (The Coddling of the American Mind discusses this phrase of impact vs intent)

Black vs White Culture

Tisby mentioned several times how the dominant culture is white and that black people have often been forced to change their culture to assimilate into the dominant culture. 

This idea of ‘black culture’ and ‘white culture’ is not something I deny exists, but it’s something I was struggling to picture. I wish he would have been more descriptive on what ‘black culture’ is and what ‘white culture’ is. A quick look of google search results is just more ambiguity. 

What aspects of black culture are being rejected, looked down on, or demeaned? 

He did give the example of hairstyles— that black students are being suspended at schools because their hairstyles didn’t align with the school’s dress codes or ideas of what ‘normal’ or appropriate is. I was shocked to hear this would happen but I can confirm situations in both Texas and Florida where this occurred. Rightly, many states are passing laws that keep schools from using disciplinary actions because of hairstyles. 

This is one example, but I think it would be beneficial for everyone to have more clarity on what he means here. I tried to think through how I would define white culture and came up empty. To think about what black culture is, ‘rap culture’ comes to mind but I know that’s not a complete or accurate description. 

If he wants black culture to stop being suppressed then help us understand how to identify it and how to allow multiple cultures to coexist respectfully.

Tisby’s Solutions

“The bridge between a desire and a destination is a plan.”

“White people are in power because the system has been set up to favor them and something must be done to set historic injustices right.”

“Many people, particularly those in the racial majority, come at the issue of race like it’s something to understand mentally. They think solutions come from good ideas and that people can fix things just by thinking about them more deeply. They don’t realize that race is something other people feel in the bones.”

Based on Shenvi’s review linked above, I think he must use the term reparations in the adult version. He doesn’t refer to that in this book but he likens racism in America to a broken part of a used car you purchased from someone else. It may not be a problem you caused, but you are still responsible to fix it. 

We do, as followers of Christ, have the responsibility to pursue justice, to treat others well, and to be generous. 

Tisby offers some practical relational and school-related ideas for the students to do to work towards justice, but he still alludes to the bigger picture of correcting the systems that are rigged against black people and doesn’t give many specifics on what those are or how to repair them. 

The historic redlining that pushed black people into specific neighborhoods did a lot of economic damage to be sure. School district lines can distribute financial resources unequally between school districts. Criminal sentencing for drug charges for white vs black people shows real disparity. 

These are concrete things that I can see at work that disadvantage minorities compared to white people. Sentencing laws seem straightforward to correct. Changing neighborhoods and school funding is a bit more complicated to think of a sustainable, long-lasting correction. 

Besides those things to think about, I didn’t feel like Tisby provided very many details on what systems he specifically wants to see changed or solutions to do it. That’s probably out of the scope and purpose of this book, but something I thought would have been helpful.

Bonus Comments and Questions

Here are some random quotes that didn’t fit elsewhere in my review.

“White people should be careful not to appropriate Juneteenth from black people. This happens when white people erase the suffering and brutality of slavery in favor of a celebratory message of ongoing progress. It also happens when white people fail to remember their historic role in racial injustice and celebrate as if they had nothing to do with the conditions that made black emancipation necessary in the first place.”

This is a confusing statement for me. Juneteenth commemorates the day the slaves in Texas finally heard the news that they were free. My two thoughts on this are 1) we can’t celebrate ongoing progress? Or we can as long as we are simultaneously acknowledging the prior suffering? and 2) ‘as if they had nothing to do with it’… this makes me feel like he expects me to accept the blame of what white people did historically when I personally had nothing to do with it. I don’t deny white people’s general role, but that role is not part of who I am and I won’t say I had something to do with it. Juneteenth is now a holiday that I feel unsure on how to celebrate appropriately.

“Overly simple stories that pit champions of progress against backward-thinking and morally questionable opponents usually hide more than they reveal… Search for the histories that honor the complexity of the human experience.”

To be honest, it kinda feels like he presents history (or even current events) in this way. He seems to pit groups against each other and assign motivations and responsibilities simplistically. 

He informs readers about the n-word being offensive for white people to say. He explains that black people use it for each other as a way to “reclaim power” over the demeaning name. I struggle to understand this concept. I’m not sure how this redefines the word because for white people, it will always be an offensive word we shouldn’t say and we will associate it with the negative past. How are white people supposed to react or understand when we hear this word being spoken? How does it reclaim power over the word if the hearer only thinks negative thoughts? Maybe this is just one of those things that a white person won’t ever understand? 

“The other thing that helps interracial friendships succeed is when kids, even before spending any time together, have a positive attitude about other racial groups… Maybe they’ve heard family members say bad statements about certain races…”

I agree with this, but again, it seems like in this book he somewhat presents white people in a negative light. He wants everyone to feel good about their race and ethnicity, but because he doesn’t offer many descriptions of white or black culture, he doesn’t describe many (or any) positive aspects of being white. He even goes as far to capitalize ‘Black’ throughout the book but not ‘white’— which in itself sends a message of difference in attitude. It’s possible this book may inadvertently do what he is advocating against.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

“Whatever your reason for reading, my hope is that you’ll come away with a better understanding of where we’ve been as a nation, a deeper knowledge of who you are as a person, a vibrant connection to people of all backgrounds, and a stronger sense of purpose to fix what needs to be fixed in our broken world.”

This is somewhat his thesis. The first and third in the list are the strengths of this book and the second and fourth are the discussion points. 

We all can agree that racism is sinful and should be treated as such. Injustices are wrong and should be fought against. Racism and injustices exist in the world (and in America specifically) and we need to see that the effects and damages of sin are widespread and long-lasting. 

I agree with Jemar Tisby on the basis of our equality as humanity, our worth as image bearers, and God’s design of diversity not uniformity. We worship God when we love his creation and exhibit the fruits of the Spirit to our neighbors.  

But my hangups occur when I think about his perception of systemic racism, racial minorities not having the tools they need to succeed, the emphasis on racial identity, and sparse gospel-as-a-world-changer statements. It makes this an inadequate book for me to present to my child. 

And maybe it’s less of a ‘don’t read this book’ recommendation and more of a ‘you could probably read this book, but please supplement with some other viewpoints’ type of situation! 

I’ve read several books about racism and the Christian’s interaction with racial reconciliation and social justice and will continue to read more. It’s definitely a worthy endeavor to understand, learn, and listen to the experiences and suffering of our neighbors. 

But we must keep asking questions to seek the truth in all areas so that our solutions are 1) gospel-oriented and 2) trying to fix the right problem. 

Tisby offers his suggestions and his life experience, but there are others to consider. 

Use your own judgment and critical thinking. Take the journey and put in the work.
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This is a topic that should be on everyones radar, and everyone and anyone could be doing more to fight racism. I am trying to read up this issue as much as I can so I can be better. 
This book states that it's for young readers however the book has so much content,and it's pretty dense so could be difficult to read for younger readers. 
I also expected the book to have photographs/illustrations but there weren't any. I think they're missing a trick with this as it could help to illustrate the key points. 

One thing I did really like though, were the questions at the end of each section. I think this is useful to focus and question your own thoughts on the topics and ideas brought up.

Overall I think this book is needed, and I did find it informative - however I don't think it's great for its target audience.
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