Director of Diversity and Inclusion Brendon Jobs shares five tips for talking with kids about race and helping them develop racial literacy. This piece originally appeared as an op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Growing up, I remember how disconnected home and school seemed to be when it came to discussions about race. My parents, both Trinidadian immigrants, often talked about race to help me and my siblings understand what school rarely acknowledged in the 1990s and early 2000s: that racially stressful moments occurred frequently, and had significant impact. When not met with silence, denial, or avoidance, such moments were often handled with disciplinary consequences as a means of setting the boundaries for civil discourse. We didn’t talk about it because we were scared to make it real.
Home and school often have different methods for engaging the social reality of racism in America. Imagine if home and school partnered in a way that encouraged more consistent practice for how to talk about race without the omnipresent threat of social ostracism or silencing. Remaking in-the-moment interactions that we have across lines of difference in schools also holds profound possibilities for remaking the future of cross-racial interactions in society at-large. Practicing talking about race with a common language can heal social dislocations.
Remaking in-the-moment interactions that we have across lines of difference in schools also holds profound possibilities for remaking the future of cross-racial interactions in society at-large. Practicing talking about race with a common language can heal social dislocations.
Historically and socially, race – like politics or religion – has not been a polite or comfortable topic of conversation, yet there is a need for kids to develop a sense of competence and confidence in both navigating racially stressful situations and in interpreting the realities of the world around them. In the 2014 article in the National Association of Independent Schools magazine, “What White Children Need to Know About Race,” Ali Michael and Eleonora Bartoli describe how the silence about race throughout our childhoods, which was intended to teach us that race shouldn’t matter, instead implicitly teaches us just how much it does matter.
Here are suggestions for how parents can support their kids in developing racial literacy: the ability to read, recast, and resolve racially stressful encounters in ways that promote healing over replicating patterns of silence, hurt, and harm.
- Be vulnerable. Engage kids in a more dynamic dialogue by allowing them to see that racial encounters can be difficult for you to navigate as well. Resist avoidance or denial of your own emotional response; instead, model by sharing your own experiences. Be honest when you feel hurt, confused, or stressed. Allow kids to ask what comes naturally. Don’t yield to the pressure of carrying all of the wisdom we are told that age and experience provides. It limits our children’s growth in encountering and navigating racial moments.
- Practice stress management. Racial stress is a product of in-the-moment racial encounters or conflict. Often unacknowledged, such stress creates mental and bodily responses, that when accumulated over time, results in negative health effects. Talk about racial stress when conflicts arise to help minimize cumulative impact.
- Develop awareness. Develop cultural and historical awareness across lines of difference. Seek out opportunities in your own neighborhood or take advantage of our proximity to the rich heritage and events in Philadelphia. For instance, the African American Museum and the Jewish History Museum are among many sites that offer regular programming and present an opportunity to talk about the lived experiences of heritage communities. Modern conversations about these experiences and this history are created every day.
- Have a “Both/And” perspective. Binaries can promote and prolong conflict by suggesting a “right and wrong,” where social realities actually prove to be more complex. Fluidity in social negotiation, or adopting a “Both/And” perspective over the traditional “Either/Or,” for reading racial encounters equips kids to imagine that many possibilities can exist at once – without denying their lived experience. Unresolved conflicts, or the worsening of conflicts, happen when we are unable to imagine the perspective of the “other.” This challenges us to get better at naming our own perspectives while also fully allowing for other realities to exist.
- Be kind to yourself. Allow yourself to make mistakes and learn how to reflect on your own experience and social impact. Making space to engage directly (attending events) or indirectly (listening to podcasts/reading) with heritage communities is great practice. Beware of making your goal the elimination of implicit bias or racism. Instead, imagine these challenges as realities to manage rather than problems to solve.
Talking about race is not easy – and can even be a painful experience, but not talking about it leaves our kids to learn how to manage challenging experiences on their own. Dialogue is support. You can develop a more skillful ability to engage your kids in meaningful ways when they notice or talk about racial encounters. Silence only suppresses the natural curiosity that they have around what makes it such a complex societal issue. These conversations should continue to shape a tomorrow that is driven by meaningful, inclusive relationships.