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Ronnie Farmer Jr. on Positively Addressing Racial Difference

Some Christians think that even talking about racial differences is racist. But the church has a crucial opportunity to promote honest cross-cultural conversations that help people recognize the image of God in every person.

Ronnie Farmer Jr. is a visual artist who provides pastoral care for staff and children at I Have a Dream Academy (IHAD), which he helped found. IHAD, a ministry of REAL Community Covenant Church, is the only Spanish-immersion preschool in Marion, Indiana. Farmer, an ordained pastor in the nondenominational church, is the director of Indiana Wesleyan University’s Strengthening Ministry with Children Coordination Program. In this edited conversation, he gives honest, helpful advice for talking about race. 

How would you describe your church context in Marion, Indiana? 

Marion is in rural Grant County, which is about 88% white and has the highest poverty rate of Indiana’s ninety-two counties. Marion has a stain on its reputation because its citizens lynched two young Black men on August 6, 1930. Thousands of people, including children, gathered for the lynching. Lawrence Beitler’s photo of that event was made into celebratory postcards. It became the most iconic photo of a lynching in the U.S. Abel Meerepol responded to that photo by writing “Strange Fruit,” a protest anthem popularized by singer Billie Holiday. 

Real Community Covenant Church is a multiethnic and multiclass congregation. People in Marion don’t often like to talk about local racial history. Our church prompted conversations by participating in Equal Justice Initiative’s community soil collection for its National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Along with our pastor, Andrew Morrell, some church members collected soil from Marion’s 1930 lynching site. We did it to lament and bring attention to racial injustices. 

How else has your church promoted honest conversations about race?  

Most adults don’t think children are able to process race till at least age five, so they don’t talk about racial differences. Yet research shows that even infants notice racial differences and preschoolers may start forming racial biases. Research also shows that learning another language helps young children develop more empathy for others.  

So, REAL Community Covenant Church founded I Had a Dream Academy, a Spanish-immersion preschool academy. The Evangelical Covenant Church’s Love Mercy, Do Justice program provided support. IHAD embodies biblical reconciliation with a diverse team so students can see adults who look like them in leadership and also develop positive images and views of themselves. All the teachers are Latina native Spanish speakers, and some are immigrants. The staff includes Black and white leaders. IHAD has a baby room because children’s brains are most open to language learning from birth to three years old. Even our one-year-old classroom is oriented towards learning because the teachers are always providing instruction through play.  

Can you share a story about preschoolers noticing racial differences? 

Our daughter Acacia attended IHAD. At age four, she was eating breakfast at school with a white friend. The friend pointed to Disney’s Frozen characters on the yogurt case and said, “You can never be Elsa or Anna.” Acacia came home and said, “I want my hair to die!” She wanted different hair so she could be like Elsa and Anna. We started redesigning IHAD’s interior play space so children could see that being brown is a beautiful thing. Now the space has images of leaders of color, such as doctors, chefs, and superheroes from diverse ethnic backgrounds.  

Is it racist simply to talk about racial differences? 

Many white Christians say, “I don’t see color.” They think explicitly talking about color is racist and that being color-blind or color-silent will prevent their kids from becoming prejudiced. But everyone notices color. What’s important is humanizing and attaching positive associations to other-colored people. Frequently interacting with individuals and leaders from other races helps children not to lump all out-group members together. This in turn reduces children’s racial bias toward one another—a result that lasts into their adulthood. 

Frequently interacting with people and leaders of other races also helps reduce adult biases. For example, Latina teachers at IHAD have told me that their proximity to me has helped them reorient their views of African American men.  

How else does IHAD promote positive images and associations among races? 

Research shows that art projects can be excellent ways to develop children’s awareness of skin color, humanize differences, and shift children’s emotional reactions to shades of brown. Instead of centering whiteness, we celebrate how God has made us in different shades of brown. Some of us have lots of brown. Others of us have only a little bit of brown.  

Children create papier-mâché people that duplicate their skin colors. I can use my own body as a teaching resource within the classroom. I’ve had preschool boys say to me, “Hey, Pastor Ronnie, I have brown in my skin too!” And, of course, all this cross-cultural proximity promotes cross-cultural friendships among staff, students, and families. 

Does “decentering whiteness” appeal to all Christians? 

Some people may perceive “decentering whiteness” as political or unbiblical. That’s why it’s important to give a theological understanding about biblical reconciliation. For example, Jesus calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. In the Gospel of Luke, the command to love one’s neighbor is coupled with the parable of the Good Samaritan, which specifically highlights deep compassion and empathy for those who are ethnically different from us. In John 17, Jesus prays that all who believe in him will be one, as he and the Father are one.  

Do you have tips for talking with children about racism and enslavement without traumatizing or shaming them? 

Beverly Daniel Tatum offers a helpful framework in Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, her classic book on the psychology of racism. When she talked with her preschool son about the history of enslavement, she began from a place of dignity, power, and agency. She shared stories of Black people thriving in West Africa. In ancient and medieval African kingdoms and empires, kings and queens became rich by trading gold, ivory, and salt. Some had impressive libraries on agriculture, astronomy, mathematics, and medicine.  

Tatum explained to her son that European Americans needed help building roads and farms, “so they went to Africa to get the strongest, smartest workers they could find. Unfortunately they didn’t want to pay them. So they kidnapped them and brought them here as slaves. They made them work and didn’t pay them. And that was really unfair.” She also recommends talking about the strength and resilience of enslaved people who jumped ship, escaped to freedom, started rebellions, or simply survived. 

White parents sometimes fear that their children will be made to feel guilty in conversations about racial injustices. 

Tatum says it’s important to give white children a positive place in these stories. We can celebrate white allies and advocates throughout history. At IHAD we celebrate Harriet Tubman. She identified with ancestors from the courageous Ashanti nation in West Africa. As an Underground Railroad conductor, Tubman made many trips to guide enslaved people to freedom. One established Underground Railroad route ran through Grant County and the Marion area, and white abolitionist Quakers built and renovated their homes to hide people escaping enslavement. 

Why is it important for congregations and Christian schools to positively address racial differences? 

With the current racial tensions that continue to divide our country, it’s important that the church models a unity that transcends racial boundaries. As the world continues to lament the inequities and deaths of unarmed people of color, it’s imperative for the church and Christian institutions to boldly proclaim God’s love for justice and reconciliation. We can be a light and a hope by approaching conversations about race and injustice with courage and grace. 

What first steps can congregations take to promote racial reconciliation? 

Predominantly white congregations often want to jump in by reading books about race. That is valuable, but research shows that establishing cross-racial friendships is at the epicenter of helping us see the image of God in others. Leaders must be deeply enriched by relationships built across class and racial lines. 

I’ve realized that in a lot of conversations about race, our white brothers and sisters often jump in without much awareness about history. But they need to know how race has divided our nation and churches. Black and brown people are often very aware of the whole of history and how it has affected their homes, workplaces, and churches. Mount Olive United Methodist Church, a predominantly white congregation with a preschool, reached out to our church. A facilitator led conversations for several weeks among both sets of church leaders. We talked about relational gaps and decided to work on a joint project with our preschools. 


Children begin to form racial bias years before their parents think it’s appropriate to talk about racial differences. Visit the museum and memorial of Equal Justice Initiative, which was founded by public-interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson.