Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Children are Listening

James Woody
Every child I know wants pretty much the same things – to learn new skills, to impress the adults in their lives, to be recognized and appreciated for their uniqueness, to feel safe, to become more independent, to be loved, and to know that they “belong.”

At the Bishop Walker School, we regularly remind our students that they are created in God’s image and that, as such, they have a responsibility to respect others and themselves. We introduce and nurture the principle that good choices generally lead to good outcomes. We lead them to believe that they are capable of effecting change and that their voices matter. We encourage them to dream big and to work hard to achieve those dreams. Despite the daily affirmation, it can still be tough for an eight-year-old to navigate the obstacles that sometimes conspire to dash their hopes or derail their plans.

I’m concerned that, before the seeds of confidence and competence we’re planting can fully take root, weeds of doubt may overtake our boys’ fragile psyches. Comments attributed to Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball franchise, which denigrate African Americans and show disdain for men simply because of the color of their skin, are just one example of these dangerous dream killers.

It’s hurtful and discouraging to be so publicly reminded that there are still elements in our society that cling to the archaic and backward notion that people of African descent are somehow “less than.” It’s one thing to hear that message as an adult who has experienced enough counterbalancing reality to recognize the lie for what it is. It’s something completely different to be confronted with that narrative as an impressionable young child whose perceptions are still being shaped by substantial uncertainty and genuine self-doubt. 

One of the joys of boyhood is to root for your favorite team as they pursue their sport’s ultimate prize. For so many African American boys, professional basketball is viewed as the perfect form of athletic expression. Characterized by speed, power, scintillating athleticism and the promise of unimaginable wealth, the sport often carries outsized importance in a child’s imagination.

Sadly, the stellar on-the-court performances that have marked this year’s NBA playoff season are being overshadowed by allegations of racism on the part of a team owner whose reputation makes it hard to be surprised by his latest inane comments.

In a nation that is often consumed with athletic competition, we must remember that sportsmanship is the ethical and moral dimension of athletics. This latest controversy is important, not because skittish corporate sponsors threaten the bottom-line of the National Basketball Association, but because the words of powerful men threaten the futures of vulnerable children.

Bigotry brought to light affords people of faith a priceless opportunity to exercise our responsibility to confront the unrighteousness of racism and injustice of all kinds. Our children are listening. They need to hear from someone they trust that they do matter, that their voices count, that they do belong. Our children are listening. What will we tell them?

James Woody is Executive Director of Bishop John T. Walker School for Boys.