In the spring of 2018, members of the Black Student Union at our local high school posted videos on the internet of students describing experiences of racial discrimination and microaggressions. Shortly following this, a group of parents came together to ask how they could best support these students and how they could work for change throughout the school district to foster a sense of belonging and value to all students. I sat in on that initial conversation and left prompted to ask my children’s elementary school if we could form a discussion group around race. The school said they would be happy to form such a group during the following school year.
Through no further effort of my own but through the collective effort of those already involved in this work, last month my children’s elementary school hosted an event called “Courageous Conversations”. A flyer invitation to the school community and family members asked us to consider how race and culture affect us. It also asked us to consider how we talk to our kids about these topics.
On the evening of the event my husband and I filed into the classroom arranged for the event. We were invited to partake in a buffet dinner and mingle with the school staff, teachers, parents and other community members in attendance. I was a bit nervous because I knew I’d likely need to share something from my own experience. At least I knew enough now not to hide behind the “but I don’t really have a race or culture” assumption that I held for much of my youth. My book club’s reading and discussion of Debby Irving’s Waking Up White helped a lot with my own awakening and awareness of the culture I both live in and create with my actions. Still, I didn’t know what would be worthwhile to share in this setting.
I pushed my fears to the side as I chatted with the parents around me, meeting some new faces and reconnecting with some I had met several years back at community playgroups. I realized then that I knew many more people and had made more connections in the City of Cambridge than I ever had in the sleep bedroom community where I was raised. Age and intentionality had a lot to do with that, I suppose, and it made me feel good to know I was surrounded by such a supportive, diverse, and friendly group of people.
The facilitators did a beautiful job introducing a sensitive topic with a smile and encouraged those in the room to get to know each other through a few different small group discussions, beginning first by sharing a personal goal for the evening. Did we want to meet someone new? Ask for advice? Not feel alone?
Meet someone new! That sounded like a safe goal. I had already done that in fact. It was in the bag. But as I rose like an obedient school child to find a couple of faces to sit with, I wanted to be a little more open with them. Earlier that week my five-year-old and seven-year-old kids and I had discussed race and history in relation to Martin Luther King, Jr., whom my kids had learned about in school. I had that conversation foremost in my mind.
Knowing we didn’t have much time in our small groups, I quickly shared my concerns about how to talk to my kids about race. I shared that I often didn’t know where to start. I know they have questions, and I wondered if I could learn from other parents techniques for approaching discussions.
There. I exhaled. There was a start.
And then I listened to other parents share concerns that their children sometimes felt different or treated differently because of their race. I listened as they shared that they wondered if they were alone in those feelings.
I froze. And realized that I think I could say that my kids haven’t ever felt like they were treated differently because of their race.
The moment passed and we reassembled as a large group. We were next asked to grab three pipe cleaners each and bend them into shapes that define parts of our identity. Then we were supposed to interweave the three parts. Once finished we sought out new faces once again, and we shared core parts of ourselves. I had made a house with a book and a cross connected to it to symbolize my identity as a housewife, a reader and a Christian.
Once back in a large group formation several people shared their creations with the greater group. Some people had depicted hobbies but others had representations of their race or culture. We laughed about our lack of artistic ability and we applauded other people’s creativity.
But the mood changed when a facilitator asked anyone with a red pipe cleaner to please hand over that part of his or her identity. She circled the room with a bucket to receive the red pipe cleaners and asked each person to name the part they had to give up. The bucket came closer to where I was at the bottom of the horseshoe of chairs. I held my pipe cleaners in plain sight to honestly show that I didn’t have a red pipe cleaner, but I held my breath anyway, a little worried she might still take something from me. The bucket passed me by, and when the collection was completed she placed the bucket outside the classroom in the hallway and closed the door. She then calmly explained how every day children are asked to leave pieces of themselves outside of the classroom.
The classroom was now silent but the emotion was palpable.
“How does that make you feel?” our facilitator asked.
And we noticed some of us were crying. Some of us were angry. And I felt both guilty about the relief I’d felt when I was spared and helpless to assist those who were affected.
We transitioned to watching a two-minute video about the importance of talking to our kids early and often about race, and it was in yet another small group discussion following that when I identified and named many of my struggles with talking about race and culture. First, I shared my hesitation to name the color of a person’s skin. Do I use the term black or African American? Do I talk about skin color as dark or light? Or in terms of colors from the crayon box? Peach? Brown? I didn’t voice it then but I also realized that I usually had conversations about race in segregated groups. I felt unpracticed and on the spot discussing these things in an integrated group.
But I shared a bit more -- because somehow as fate would have it my kids and I had had several conversations about race that week already, beginning with a discussion about how a child’s skin color can differ from his or her parents’. We can’t assume that kids are adopted. But how can I acknowledge naturally that white women can bear brown skinned children? And how do I describe the parents? Do I call a couple a mixed race couple? Or an interracial couple? I shared my hesitation over which language to use and how I always second guess myself after I do describe someone.
I shared my burning question to know how to talk to kids about race. I was searching for the right words, the right amount of history to dole out at a time in a way that would be developmentally appropriate.
Another parent pointed out that I perhaps shift my focus slightly. She thanked the woman leading our group for her constant smile as an example of how to approach this topic naturally. She noted the importance of relaxed body language and how that invites our children to ask questions -- questions we might not have the answer to but should encourage discussion of anyway. I silently acknowledged that I have an easier time discussing hard things with my kids while we’re in the car and they can’t see my face or body. The car conversation leaves room for silence. It leaves room for me to say, “I don’t know, but that was a good question.” Perhaps the how is more in the way you speak, I realized, and not solely in the choice of words.
As we returned to the large group one last time the facilitator encouraged us to talk to our kids early and often about race. She noted a study that found that black children come to a racial awareness around age 3 whereas whites come to a racial awareness around age 38. There was a collective gasp in the room, and I somewhat sheepishly cheered for myself since I beat the average by a few years (I read Debby Irving’s book when I was 35).
She suggested we can change that if we are intentional and natural about our children’s education of racial awareness. She recommended books for our reading -- Raising White Kids by Jennifer Harvey for adults, and Jacqueline Woodson’s The Day You Begin to read with our kids.
A perfect ending, I thought to myself. I would order those books from the library. We could do this. Books are a great way to begin.
I also remembered that we had other materials in the house that could spark conversation. Borrowing an idea I read about in Banaji’s Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People which I wrote about here, we gave our kids a memory game called “I never forget a face” depicting faces from all over the world. The idea is to put in sight pictures of people you might not run into every day. One of Banaji’s examples remains stuck in my mind: that of a construction worker wearing a hard hat nursing her baby.
At home over the next few weeks I wondered if we were already beginning to change the culture. My five-year-old is especially full of questions about race, and I have to hope that immersing ourselves in an integrated community is a great place to start. And when we read The Day You Begin and another picture book by Jacqueline Woodson called The Other Side, I tried to point out the themes and silently noted the similarities between The Day You Begin and Woodson’s memoir Brown Girl Dreaming which my book club read earlier this fall. The Day You Begin features a main character who at first feels too different and uninteresting to speak. By the end though, she discovers she has a story to share with the world. She also learns that in sharing it she makes unexpected friends.
A couple of years ago one of my pastors and his wife were speaking about how to talk to our children about God. They encouraged us to just make it part of our regular conversation -- to be natural in spiritual things and spiritual in natural things, to always be on the lookout for a conversation.
I now think it might be the same with racial education -- to be natural about it we need to be looking for opportunities. And wouldn’t you know, not two days later I found one while my children and I were reading Brownie Groundhog and the February Fox by Susan Blackaby. This children’s book centers around two animals who begin as enemies but learn to find common ground and embrace differences. Embedded in a story about nature and seasons and learning to cope with change and waiting are beautiful metaphors for the work we can do in our own lives to the benefit of our own communities. If we would just have the courage to begin the conversation.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.