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The princiPALS are back in the office to revisit one of today’s most essential topics: how to talk to kids about race. Join Jij de Jesus and Emma Wellman as they discuss how to teach children to have thoughtful conversations about race and racial differences, as well as share tips on how to model antiracist behaviors for children.
Conor Bentley (00:02):
From Rowland Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah...
Jij de Jesus (00:04):
I'm Jij de Jesus.
Emma Wellman (00:06):
And I'm Emma Wellman.
And they're the princiPALS.
I'm Conor Bentley, and on today's episode of princiPALS, we'll be revisiting the topic of talking with kids about race.
On The PrinciPALS Podcast, we tackle big questions and share big ideas about how to raise excellent humans.
Emma and Jij, it's so good to see you again in the virtual princiPALS' office. We've had some really exciting news about the podcast since we last recorded, which is that we are now an award-winning podcast.
Congratulations to us.
Way to go, team.
We are very excited about this. We got the InspireEd Brilliance Award. We won silver for single podcast episode in an international competition against independent schools from all over the world. And we won it for our podcast "How to Talk to Kids about Race." And we are revisiting that topic again today because it's a very rich topic. But I really am excited about the fact that we are now an award-winning podcast. We can put that on our business cards and on our LinkedIn profiles.
Oh, it's already there for me.
So, last February we did that episode and now we are revisiting that. But there's a reason why we're revisiting it. It's not just because we won the award.
Yeah. Well, it's crazy to think back, you know, last February we did this, we recorded this episode that won an award, and then shortly after that, obviously, the world changed because of COVID. Right?
Yep. And it wasn't only COVID. Last summer, the world changed again in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and others. And the resulting demonstrations and discussions about racial inequity in this country initiated a massive shift in the conversations about race and racism here in the United States.
So with that in mind, our driving question for this episode is: now that race and racism, and a relatively new concept of being antiracist, are at the front of people's minds and the center of the national conversation, how can parents and caregivers talk about race, racism, and antiracism with their kids? And so we will begin with some terminology definitions, as we always do, because, as Jij and Emma like to say, we want to have the same vocabulary that we're working with.
Yep. Educators often like to start with definitions because it's a good launching place. So let's just take a quick minute and talk about what does antiracist mean, this term? So the idea as it's currently floating around is in large part thanks to Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, who said, "I define an antiracist as someone who's expressing an antiracist idea or supporting an antiracist policy with their actions. And I define an antiracist idea as any idea that says that the racial groups are equal." And in his now very famous book, which some of our listeners have perhaps read, which is called How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi writes, "To be an antiracist is to think nothing is behaviorally wrong or right, inferior or superior, with any of the racial groups. Whenever the antiracist sees individuals behaving positively or negatively, the antiracist sees exactly that: individuals behaving positively or negatively, not representatives of whole races. Behavior is something humans do, not races do." So this is, I think, I hope, pretty clear, but there's also a powerful metaphor that Kendi uses based on his own lived experience, which is that he talks about racism as being akin to a cancer in that it metastasizes, it spreads if it goes unchecked, and that it's something that will not go away by not talking about it. And so for him, that's why this notion of antiracism is so important.
Yeah. And, you know, when Kendi uses this metaphor, you know, he really speaks to the idea that you can't fix a thing without doing something about it. You can't address cancer without treating it. Right? And so when we think about racism and being an antiracist, we have to be able to talk about the problem. And, you know, that's where there's this idea of leaning in to discomfort or leaning into something that's challenging. It's really easy to not talk about things that are problematic and it's not going to help, right? So it's kind of like, if we always do what we've always done, we'll always get what we've always gotten, right? And we need to do things differently to combat and dismantle racism because racism harms people, harms communities, and it requires our attention.
So this idea of antiracism and a lot of the stuff that Kendi talks about seems pretty high level for children. I mean, it's all, it's well and good for adults to, you know, read these books and things, but I don't think a lot of, you know, five-year-olds are probably going to be reading, you know, How to Be an Antiracist. So what is the, you know, what is the appropriate kind of level to bring these ideas up with younger people?
Yeah. You know, I think you're right, Conor, that this notion of antiracism perhaps isn't developmentally appropriate when we consider young children, right? And part of that is because it puts the problem, puts racism, at the center, when we know that kids actually benefit from not putting the negative thing at the center, but actually putting the positive thing at the center. So while we as grown-ups, or older children or older students, can handle a concept like antiracism, because they can make sense of all of the complexity that comes with that concept and all of the underlying histories and other underlying concepts that lead to this big idea of racism, really the hope is that our younger children, you know, if we do our job, that they can actually grow up and be less racist, if that makes sense.
Oh, yeah. I think that is, I find that to be really compelling, the idea that we can help kids grow up and be less racist than we have grown up to be, you know, inadvertently, for most of us. When I think about this notion of antiracism with respect to young children, it reminds me of what my spouse, who's a fitness, nutrition, and life coach, would call an avoid goal. And so avoid goals are the sort which are defined by running away from something, by avoiding a negative outcome. But good coaches know it's much more productive to identify an approach goal. So that's one which, you know, of course is focused on obtaining the positive outcome. So from my point of view, this notion of antiracism is kind of the avoid goal, again, more appropriate for older folks, but we gotta think about the approach goal, the analogous approach goal, for younger children.
Yeah. And if it's helpful, you know, this is work that we often do in classrooms with young children, right? When a child is struggling, let's say with, you know, consistently paying attention in the classroom or staying on task in the classroom, you know, when we talk with that child, we don't just call out all of the problems, all the things they're doing wrong. That actually doesn't work with kids all that well, right? Instead, we identify the positive behavior that we want to see in them. We identify the thing we're, the hopeful goal that we're reaching for, right? So that might be, you know, for a first grader, we're going to work on being a first-time listener, or for a third grader it might be, you know, we're going to stay on task in the classroom. And, you know, again, when we frame it in a positive light, then we know what we're aiming for and we know what we're aspiring toward.
So positive reinforcement versus negative reinforcement, for the psychology people out there. It makes total sense and I totally get what you're saying. And so what does it mean then? What is an approach goal for younger children?
Yep. So I think what we want is for them to have, to develop positive racial identities for themselves. We want them to have a solid racial awareness—that is, knowledge that there are races in the world. And then we want them to have the skills and the vocabulary to talk about race and racial differences pretty comfortably.
This really comes down to—it's interesting, a moment ago I said, like, you know, we want kids to be less racist. And the idea is like, oh, does that mean that kids are racist? And you know, when we talk about that, we're not talking about overt, you know, these sort of cartoons of what a racist may look like in our heads, right? Really, we're talking about having the attitudes and capacities and skills to navigate a diverse and dynamic world around them, right? So I feel like there are times where we talk about being an antiracist and it can feel political. And in my mind, when we're thinking about young children, this is not political. Right? We're not suggesting that we're teaching four-year-olds or six-year-olds about critical race theory. You know, really, it's acknowledging that, okay, race exists, racism exists. It's part of the, you know, the communities that we are a part of, and if we don't give kids the skills and capacities and vocabulary to understand race and understand differences, then, you know, racism is going to continue in its current construction.
Yep. You know, there's this kind of maybe cheesy line at the top of our podcast episodes about how one of our objectives is to raise excellent humans together in partnership with teachers and parents and caregivers. And if that's our goal, they're going to need certain skills that are related to race and racism to successfully navigate the world around them as it exists and to have a positive impact on it. Another thing that we sometimes say at Rowland Hall is that we want to help raise kids who are going to make a difference. And I think one of the ways that they can make a difference is by being different themselves, but also by celebrating differences and being more comfortable talking about differences, and kind of not sweeping that under the rug. I think that will make a difference.
Yeah. You know, I want to share this anecdote that, as we were preparing for this podcast, it popped up in my mind, a diversity, equity, and inclusion professional development experience recently at school. And I was in a conversation with a colleague and the question was raised, you know: when is the first time you remember thinking about and talking about race? Right? And my colleague, who is a white person, you know, it was kind of a turn and talk, and this white colleague said, "You know, I think the first time I remember thinking about and talking about race was in college; it was during this class." And, you know, and then it was my turn to share. And, you know, I shared, "The first time I thought about race was when I was four or five." And I remember a kid at my school called me Chinese and did like this, the eye thing where they pulled their, you know, the sides of their, the corners of their eyes back with their fingers, right? And, you know, my colleague kind of was like, "Oh," and both of us kind of recognized there was a huge missed opportunity for my white colleague that they hadn't talked about race until college, right? And, you know, and I had, from an early age, had an awareness of race and how it impacted my experience. And so there's this fluency that I want to ensure that all kids have in understanding the world around them, right? And not, you know, we talked about this in our podcast last year, that kids are noticing differences around race at very early ages and if we're not giving them the opportunities to understand those differences, talk about those differences, then, you know, there's a huge miss there. Does that make sense?
Yeah, it does, and it makes me think about, you know, that question of: when did that, you know, when did you talk about race? And I feel like I was very fortunate that, you know, I went to Rowland Hall, and even a long time ago when I was a young child at Rowland Hall, we had lots of opportunities where, you know—and it wasn't necessarily around race, but it was around different cultures and the way different cultures were talked about and celebrated and recognized—and we talked about them in Chapel. You know, Chapel was a great forum at Rowland Hall for talking about different holidays in different countries and how different cultures celebrate. I just remember thinking like, "Oh, that's really neat." And, you know, we had people of color that were students at Rowland Hall and I had friends that were people of color, and a lot of the traditions that we talked about in Chapel were traditions that my friends celebrated in their culture. And so I think that Rowland Hall is able to address these issues and celebrate them in a way that, you know, you're not saying, "Oh, we don't see race." No, we do see race and we celebrate it and we celebrate different cultures.
And I'll add, you know, because of the events of the summer, because of recent events that, you know, are particularly impactful for me as an Asian American, the need for this work and the need to have these conversations with each other and with young children is even more urgent and impactful. So, you know, I love hearing that schools and that Rowland Hall has been doing this sort of work for a long time, even when you were at school. And this continues forward with a heightened sense of awareness and urgency.
So I am, like, thinking now, on behalf of some of our listeners who are parents or guardians, and they must be wondering, okay, great, what do I actually do? Like, this all sounds awesome, and like, what do I actually do? Tell me what to do. So we're going to spend a little bit of time now talking about: what does it mean to be antiracist as a parent or a caregiver? And I want to just say we're still exploring what it means to be antiracist as a school here at Rowland Hall. And recently some of our listeners may have read this really compelling article that came out in The Atlantic Monthly, which has been shared around our school, and I think other independent schools across the country, and is provoking important conversations about privilege, in addition to ones about race and the overlapping issues of race and privilege that are inherent to independent schools. And so, you know, I agree with Jij, like, it's so wonderful to hear about Conor's positive experience and we are definitely on this journey. Like, there is no checking of the box for us here, or for any of us really, right? This is just kind of an ongoing process of awareness and skill building.
Well, and I should say, too, as a cis, straight, white man, that my experience of seeing, you know, different cultures in Chapel might have been great and cool for me, but maybe it left someone else feel out, right? Left someone else out, because their culture was never talked about. So I just want to acknowledge my privilege with regard to what I just said.
Look at you being antiracist.
There it is.
Way to go, look at that.
Gold star. I must've gone to a good school.
Well, and you know, Emma, I think, yeah, the what does it mean to be antiracist as a parent, right? And I think we can provide some helpful tips. One thing is you can go back to our first podcast about talking with children about race that won an award—again, I don't know if you remember that—and it won an award for a reason. Okay, now I'm just being silly. But I will say, seriously, that there are great ideas in that podcast. And those ideas, while when we recorded last February weren't under the umbrella of antiracist, definitely fit under that umbrella now, right?
I also think, you know, since the summer, it's helpful to share how we've been talking about, you know, what this may look like with young children with our teachers. You know, when we think about what this looks like for teachers who work with young children, we start with, like—well, we teach, right? We teach young children and we provide, specifically, we provide windows and mirrors. And by that I mean windows into other lived experiences and mirrors that reflect lived experiences of our children, right? So kind of relates to this notion that there's this increased representation. And if you look at, you know, movies and TV shows that are available, there are lots of different kinds of people that are represented as main characters. And that's a shift. And so exposing young children to positive representations of lots of different kinds of people helps children see that all those different kinds of people are to be respected and celebrated.
Also, think about some teacher moves that we encourage in the classroom with young children that I think are helpful for parents of young children to consider. So things like scaffolding, right? We don't start with the most complex concept. We build up. Things like modeling, so modeling what we want to see in our children. So if we want to see children be open to differences around race and ethnicity, then we show them what that looks like. Also, we talk a lot about giving kids lots of practice, lots of reps, with new skills and new capacities. We also, you know, when we think about teaching, and good teaching—teaching is not talking. So this is important for families to consider, you know: just telling your kids about race or telling your kids about racism, these are important things. It's important to talk about race and racism, and, you know, sharing stories, engaging your children in activities, this idea of experiential learning, these are important too. Right? So making sure that, well, you're engaging in the best practices of learning that we see in the classroom. They're relevant at home too.
And then I think one other thing to consider is, you know, young children have these innate characteristics that are, I would say, innately antiracist. Right? Children are curious. So let's leverage that curiosity. And children have this really strong sense of right and strong sense of fairness. And these are things that we want to make sure we support, and continue, and help them to apply when it comes to differences around race.
So it wouldn't be a princiPALS podcast, and we wouldn't be winning awards, if we weren't giving people takeaways, right? So, the homework will be very, very helpful, I think, in executing on some of these items that we've talked about. And let's talk about what homework we have for our listeners.
Yep. So it's everybody's lucky day because you get double homework. The first homework is: repeating the homework from the last podcast episode because that is still really important work for all of us, me too, everybody, to be doing. So those, just as a reminder, are: do your own work as a grown-up. That is to say, you gotta do the work to develop your own racial identity. Not all of us, and I include myself in this, grew up talking openly about our race. I wasn't raised to talk about the fact that I was a white person, so I have had to practice and learn about that as I've developed a more accurate and nuanced understanding of how race works. So that's important work for all of us to do as grown-ups. The other thing that's really important is to look for opportunities to talk about race with your kids. We had some concrete strategies for this in the last episode, but, you know, I think Jij just mentioned some, too, that are really valuable and easily, like, it's easy to access opportunities to talk about race these days, I think even more than last year when we were talking about this. Similarly, creating opportunities, and this goes back to that experiential learning piece that's so important. So, attending events, virtually if you need to, reading books, creating friendships intentionally, watching particular movies and cartoons—all those kinds of things so that your children are getting that practice and that exposure to different kinds of people being great. I think it's really important.
So then you get, also, some new homework, following up. This is like, maybe 2.0. I think if you do the first three things, that's gold star all around. And if you feel like you're ready to try some more things, I'm going to add these few. And I've pulled these ideas from a resource called Raising Race-Conscious [Children], which will be among the set that we share in the show notes for sure. But the first one is to speak honestly with your children about images or comments that make you uncomfortable. And this is a tricky one; I'm just going to name it. It can be hard to talk with your children openly about your discomfort, but it's such good modeling. So I'll give you just a super easy, concrete example: you're reading a book that you loved as a child, you're looking through the pictures and you come upon a picture and you have this, like, flip in your stomach that happens because you're like, "Ooh, I don't feel great about this. There's something about the portrayal of this person of color or this woman that makes me feel yucky in a way that didn't used to be there for me. I'm noticing it now." That is a great opportunity to say to your child, "You know, I'm not sure that I feel good about this picture, and let me tell you why." And then you move on to the next page. That's important feedback for the kids to have as they're experiencing things alongside you.
Another thing you can do is to challenge stereotypes. And I have a good story about this one too. So, when I was coming to visit Rowland Hall as a candidate for my current position, I got to spend time in one of the lovely kindergarten classes. And there were some children at an art table and they were doing some drawings, and one child drew a person who had short hair and labeled that person as being a girl. And another child at the table said, "That can't be a girl because they have short hair." And the kindergarten teacher, like never missing a beat, like noticing this teaching opportunity, comes, leans into the table, and points to her own hair and says, "What do you notice about my hair?" And she happened to have a short haircut and be a woman. And the children's eyes grew three times bigger as they pieced together the fact that in their very own kindergarten classroom was a counterexample to the stereotypical rule that they had, very understandably, developed by living in the world. They had learned this rule that boys have short hair and girls have long hair. And this provoked a really great conversation, and it was pretty easy for that teacher to do in that moment.
And then the last piece of homework is, and Jij alluded to this a moment ago, is to talk about fairness and unfairness, which children, in my experience, are dying to do anyway. So it's really making sure that you are fostering that sense of justice and sort of righteousness in the ways that they emerge for young children most commonly, which is, like, this deep-seated sense that people ought to be treated right, and that everybody ought to have a say. This is just how young children are built. And so building on that, and talking about it more, and letting them know that you care about that because you're talking about it with them, is a really effective strategy too.
Thinking about the breadth and the depth of racism can feel overwhelming. And I think committing to being antiracist can be daunting. So, you know, I want to encourage us to think about this notion that small choices made daily, or every other day, in our circles of control and our circles of influence, and with our young children in this context, those small choices can add up to make a big impact. So, this leads me to this story that I often share with Lower School students about small choices and big impact. So, one day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a child picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the child, he asked, "What are you doing?" And this little person replies, "I'm throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up, the tide is going out. If I don't throw them back, they'll die." And the man says, "Don't you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can't possibly make a difference." After listening politely, this child bends down, picks up another starfish and throws it back into the surf, and, you know, smiles up, and the child says to the man, "I made a difference for that one." So, again, small choices can add up to make a big impact.
That story gets me every time. And I think another way to think about this that helps diminish that initial overwhelm, and we use this a lot in our school community, we talk about this quote from Arthur Ash: "Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can."
That is very sensible. It does make it seem a lot easier to digest, because you're right, it does seem very daunting. But when you break it down into these small, easily doable things, it actually really doesn't seem that daunting anymore. So, should we quickly just review the homework because we did give double homework, so we should just maybe give a quick little review. Obviously, we just talked about how it can feel daunting, and then we want to make it seem accessible.
Yeah, I'll do the review part, right? So it's: do your own work and develop your racial identity and understanding of race; look for opportunities to talk about race; and create opportunities through experiences, events, media.
And then the new ones are: speak honestly about images or comments that make you uncomfortable; take opportunities to challenge stereotypes when they emerge, especially from your own children; and then talk about fairness and unfairness as something that's important to you.
Additional resources will be available in the show notes on our website.
So until next time, I'm Conor Bentley.
I'm Jij de Jesus.
And I'm Emma Wellman.
And they're the princiPALS.
About Jij de Jesus
Jij de Jesus is the Lower School principal at Rowland Hall, an independent private school in Salt Lake City, Utah. Prior to Rowland Hall, Jij worked at Town School for Boys in San Francisco, where he held a number of leadership positions, most notably as director of the Exploration of New Ideas program, and was a fourth-grade teacher. He began his career in experiential education by leading wilderness trips. Jij holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from Northwestern University and a master’s of education in private school leadership from the University of Hawaii.
About Emma Wellman
Emma Wellman is the Beginning School principal at Rowland Hall. Emma joined Rowland Hall in July 2018 after working as a teacher and administrator at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Emma has also been an adjunct instructor at the City Colleges of Chicago and the owner of a childcare business, Banana Mashers. She holds a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the University of Michigan and a master’s in child development from the Erikson Institute.
About Conor Bentley ’01
Conor Bentley is a graduate of Rowland Hall’s class of 2001. He holds a master’s degree in education, works in higher education, and has produced several podcasts, including the public-radio parody Consider Our Knowledge.