Safe Friends

Safety meetings are held frequently in this house. Some would say that is the case for all parents. Others would say that is the case for an over-protective, teensy tinsy bit control-freakish parent. Specifically, we’ve been discussing safety in the context of relationships as they start playing more independently in friend groups, on playgrounds, and soon go off to school. We want them to recognize unsafe behaviors and be courageous to stand up for themselves and talk to us if someone behaves poorly towards them. We want them to choose safe friends. While we aren’t aspiring to raise kids who live in a bubble lined with cashmere, I think all parents could agree that in relationships, safety is vital, no matter how daring and adventurous ones antics may be.   When talking about safe families, friends, and people around us, we usually hit on these points: • safe people speak the truth and avoid lying or gossip. • Safe people respect and care about our hearts and bodies and don’t want us to get hurt, on the outside or on the inside. • Safe people make us laugh and feel happy, but don’t laugh at us or make us feel embarrassed. • When someone makes us feel unsafe, we can respectfully step back from the relationship, but we do not have the right to be unsafe back. • We should carefully choose people who make us feel safe to be our closest friends. (We have more things we discuss in the context of safety from perpetrators, but I’m sticking to everyday encounters here.) And this is maybe the most crucial element of the conversation: • We are all the unsafe one sometimes. We’ve lied, laughed rudely, said words that hurt, or talked when we should be listening. There is no one getting it all right. No, not one. And the person who says something that makes you feel unsafe, but comes later and says, “I shouldn’t have said it, I didn’t mean to hurt you. I care about your feelings. I want to use better words.” And then you see them caring, trying their best at making more respectful choices? Those people? Those people are brave. And they just might end up to be the safest friends of all.

  As is often the case, I find myself wrapping up these sermons and stepping down from my parental pulpit deeply stirred by my own message. (Certainly more moved than my audience.) These child-level conversations start replaying in my head, in adult contexts. I need safety; I want it in my marriage, my friendships, my society. And I am painfully aware that I have been the unsafe person so many times; reactive, quick to judge, angry, defensive, and gossiping. I need the courage to step up and apologize, to listen and learn and use better words.

  What if we made it our global mission to be a safe person? Beyond our close circles, what if we intently set our hearts towards being brave, being kind, being safe, to every human brother and sister we met? To assume that everyone, whatever color or language or class or issue or attitude they presented, was carrying a heavy burden? To assume that everyone could benefit from love? What if we stopped with the judgments and the labels, the assumptions and the indifferences? What if, as white people, and even more so as Christians, we owned our abysmal track record, and said it’s time to turn the tides? We’ve been indifferent and inattentive to our brothers and sisters for too long, but no more.

  What if we committed to the safe friend rules? I think these can apply to every relationship we have. I know I need to put more of them to use in my marriage, towards my girls, in some of my friendships, and to certain individuals in society that I am frankly not too keen on. It all sounds good until we think of that one person, huh? The one Wal-Mart clerk. The one rush hour driver. The one classmate with a unique lifestyle choice. The one west-side apartment complex. But here’s what I know I want people to do for me, and in turn, I owe to others: 1. Discuss someone else’s life with that individual, not to others. It doesn’t feel good to discover you’re the topic of conversation, even if the content wasn’t mean. Gossip doesn’t have to be nasty to be unsafe. 2. Refuse to laugh, respond, or repost jokes and comments that target someone or some group. That someone is some mother’s precious child. That group is someone’s identity they are living every day. I don’t care if they are doing their best or doing their worst at life; criticism, judgment, and mockery are nowhere in our human job description (unless there’s a revised version I haven’t received). 3. Less talking, more listening. If someone has been hurt by a system, a slur, a societal bias, or whatever their source of pain, our job isn’t to explain, correct, or point out their flaws. A safe friend is simply present in the pain. 4. Less talking is good. Silence is not. Speaking from my own, simple story, I have been hurt by gossip and words, but I have been hurt by silence more. On a bigger scale, consider how our silence translates to a populous of people aching under days upon years of complex disadvantages, discriminations, and living on the under belly of white privilege. Our voice may be stuck on silent simply because we’re unsure or removed from a situation. I know mine has been. But inactive silence translates to the wounded as passivity, indifference, and even compliance. It does not rescue the abused, bind up wounds, light up the darkness, or bring good news. As Martin Luther King Jr. says, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” We don’t have to come up with answers or solutions. Start with “Tell me your story. I want to understand. I care about your pain. How can I be a better friend?”

5. If you have small people under your watch, teach them that differences in humans exist, equip them with respectful terms for our differences, and impress on their minds that differences are beautiful, identities are tender, and jokes and rude terms make insides bleed. Labels, stereotypes, an “us and them” mentality, are all taught. “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Nelson Mandela


You guys, can you imagine what could happen if we started living like this? If we shut up on gossip and spoke up on behalf of love? If we turned off the assumptions and theories and instead put our ear to the ground, even amidst riots and media outbursts and attitudes that went against our grain, to listen for the pain pounding in every human heart, and simply said, “your story is safe here”? I can imagine it. I think it could change the world.


What do you think? Tell me about your experiences in having or being a safe friend, or share what you've learned from an unsafe relationship.

Part 2-Hard Conversations

Ready or not, our family is entering into hard conversations. My 7 year old heard her first “black person” joke a few weeks ago. I don’t know how to explain what it does to the insides of a mother, watching her child’s face when they have the first hint of realization that their beautiful skin, the skin that they have thus far been comfortable in and proud of, may be the subject of teasing, and worse.   A few weeks ago, after I’d kissed my girls and tucked them safely into bed, I sat down to unwind, but ended up sobbing myself to sleep after watching videos of offensive violence from misbehaving officers. In every video, every story, every church that’s been burned, every shooting and riot, I see my daughters. Oblivious today in their make-believe princess land, but vulnerable and exposed to the tumult in a few short tomorrows. As I teach them about the safety that police officers provide, the fairness of the law, (and I do indeed both believe and teach this), I also realize I will have to discuss and prepare them for possible scenarios that my mom never had to mention, my young mind never had to grapple with.

  I know we often think of racism as expressed hatred; slandering, mistreating, and even killing someone due to their ethnicity or color of skin. But racism is a sly little devil. It creeps in through the jokes we laugh at, the questions we ask, the assumptions we make about how safe our purse is in a certain grocery store, or the way we mock the speech of someone. And maybe even more unsuspecting, the way we try to live colorblind.

photo credit: numbers via photopin (license)

photo credit: numbers via photopin (license)

Colorblindness has become a way of trying to express seeing all people as the same, to say that race is no longer an “issue” in our society. It’s an umbrella many of us have perhaps found ourselves under, determined that racism is behind us, and wanting no more thought given to the differences. Reality however, is that we do see in color, and the color of skin has a major impact on every single American’s life story, whether they realize it or not. I, for one, had not the foggiest awareness of its impact on my life for my first 20 years. This is because I happened to grow up in an unearned status of white privilege. And if you are not of a minority people group, so did you.

  White privilege does not mean we all had it peachy and every opportunity was handed to us on a silver platter, while every person of color had to fight tooth and nail to survive. But it does mean we’ve not had to fear or experience our skin, hair, accent, name, etc. affecting our job position, pay rate, customer service, educational opportunities, medical treatment, rough police frisking, incarceration, etc.

  These topics are complex, multi-faceted, filled with differing experiences and opinions, and extremely sensitive; they delve right down to our very identities. I prefer cut and dried answers, defined solutions. I like to avoid conflict. I like to protect my children from pain. I really like to keep myself away from it too. I’d rather shut off the news, close the blog posts, and walk away when the pain and complexity overwhelms me. And to be able to do so is a luxury. “… The problem isn’t that I hate black people. I don’t. The problem is that being white in America means I get to be oblivious. I get to be ignorant. I get to be “colorblind” when it suits me, and that luxury is exactly what keeps me and so many other well-intentioned white people from doing more to confront, repent of, and combat white supremacy and racial injustice in America.”-Repenting of Colorblindness, Rachel Held Evans. (Please check out the entire writing, she tackles a tough subject head on, and says it well.)

  Maybe you’re wondering, as I have been, how we can create a new story for our children’s generation. What if we started by pushing back against the surprisingly numerous racially charged statements that still fly? Stopped to consider the way we would feel if it were our family and our identity being judged or ridiculed? Here are some examples: They are lazy, they’re druggies, they are all so cocky, they’re trashy, they need to go back to their government housing, they probably all have absent dads, they need to speak better English, someone in their neighborhood is always shooting or getting shot, they’re dangerous, they are thieves… and the list of jokes, and assumptions goes on. What if we stopped to consider the “they” in these conversations? Unless “they” are mice we’re speaking of (in which case, carry on with all slander), the statements are lies. There is no “they” people group that is stupid, dirty, or bad. Well except one. The human race. They are one messed up group. The deal is, the capacity for any bad behavior is present in every human heart. If there is an issue that is statistically higher in a certain group, it is a direct result of an oppressive force they have experienced (poverty, discrimination, violence, etc.). If we aren’t willing to acknowledge the human race as being the one with problems, ourselves 100% included, and recognize the connections between oppression and reactive survival behaviors, I can only think of one remaining conclusion: “THEY” (whatever different colored/speaking group being targeted) are more poorly behaved than “US” (white, middle class, Americans) because they are less developed, inferior, and thus unequal to our superior group. This is indeed a world view that has, and still does exist. But it is completely void of God the Creator, who breathed His life into every person in the human race, called His masterpiece very good, and delights in every single individual, flawed as we are, without a trace of partiality.

  What are your thoughts? How have you experienced the color of your skin affecting your life? What suggestions do you have for how we can tend to the wounds of racism and raise a generation that respects and values all humans equally?

Part 3-thoughts on being a safe friend, coming soon.