Talking About Race—Don’t We All Do It?

By Sue Choi, Current Green Acres Parent
Introduction by Neal M. Brown, Ed.D., Head of School

Central to our school’s mission is helping to cultivate and nourish in each student a genuine respect and compassion for all people. We work to do this in “big” pre-planned ways, such as our recent Middle School Day of Action and First Grade India Assembly. We also do this in “small,” daily ways, through interactions between adults and students that address issues of kindness, civility, and respect for differences. 

One real challenge that we face in combating unconscious racial bias is that we remain a white-majority institution. For this reason, we have to work hard to help all of our children talk about racial differences in ways that build understanding, self-esteem, and respect. How these conversations look for white families versus families of color came up at a recent parent coffee. 

Parent Sue Choi shared that she had recently read two powerful articles about this topic, one written by a white author and one written by an African-American author. The similarities and differences in how each approached the topic resonated for her and for the group of parents at the coffee—so much so that we asked Sue to write a follow-up piece for our community. Her article beautifully captures these continuing challenges for parents and educators committed to talking with our children about race and about differences in ways that empower and dignify all. 

Jennifer Harvey’s recent article “Are We Raising Racists?” (New York Times, March 17, 2017) made me think about when and how parents talk about race with their children. I assumed that all parents regularly talk to their children about race just like all parents talk to their children about what they are learning in school, who their friends are, how the soccer game went, etc.—the normal everyday conversations of childhood.

As an Asian-American parent, I am constantly talking with my children about race.  We have talked a lot about being half Asian and half white/Jewish but we usually talk about race generally, such as how white and non-white people are treated differently, why African Americans may not trust the police, why two Indian engineers were attacked in a Kansas bar, and why our painter is having a hard time getting jobs started and completed because many of his employees are too afraid to work.

Reading the article made me wonder whether white parents were having the same types of conversations with their kids—and it made me think about why I have these conversations with mine. I’d like to think it’s because of some noble sense of social responsibility but what it really comes down to is the sense of being different—a sense that is ingrained in you from childhood when you are a minority in a majority white country.

I remember the anxiety I felt as a first grader at lunch period hoping and praying that my mother had packed me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich rather than the container of rice that always made my classmates giggle, or how desperately I wanted to be blonde haired and blue-eyed like my two best friends in elementary school, or how I avoided walking down a particular street on my way home from school because there was a boy that yelled incomprehensible gibberish—which I suppose he meant to be Chinese—at me when I passed by his house. Non-white parents have faced some form of racism in our lives and so we constantly talk to our children about race and racism, maybe to prepare them for their own encounter with racism, maybe to soften the hurt when it happens, maybe to give them the courage to stand up to it. Whatever the reason, we talk about it, because it’s unavoidable—we are different.

In today’s political and social environment where being different can make you a target for hate groups and a scapegoat for politicians, it is even more important that all parents talk about what makes people different—race, religion, sexual orientation, economic status—whatever it is—and how those differences can lead to different treatment.

It is especially important for white parents who may have never felt different to have these conversations with their children. Today’s seething tension of “us-versus them” driven fear, hate and anger is nothing new to non-white parents. It has always been a part of our everyday experience. What is perhaps new are the boundless opportunities for white parents to engage in conversations with their children about these things. These conversations have to happen and have to happen constantly because all children lose when some children feel afraid, embarrassed, angry, or confused because of who they are.

Suggested Resources for Parents

  • Join Parent SEED or the Inclusion & Diversity Committee at Green Acres | Parent SEED seminars engage Green Acres parents in thought-provoking discussions about a breadth of life topics, including diversity topics. The seminars are designed to provide meaningful time for self-reflection and for making connections with others on topics and issues we encounter daily at school and in our communities. The Inclusion & Diversity Committee supports Green Acres events and activities that explore the rich tapestry of individuals and families who make up our community.
  • PBS: How to Teach Kids About Race
  • Huffington Post: Resources for Talking to Kids About Race and Racism
  • NAIS Independent School Magazine article: What White Children Need to Know About Race

One thought on “Talking About Race—Don’t We All Do It?

  1. Thank you for your article, Sue. The more we understand where each other is coming from, and what challenges each of us face, the more we realize we have in common, and that we all want to belong in our own unique way. Understanding fosters connection. As a community, the topic of race and religion come up most often, then perhaps gender and sexual orientation, but very infrequently does the topic of adoption come up, yet adoption is a widespread and persistent practice throughout the world. Perhaps this is because the number of adopted persons is smaller than any other group. Imagine adding to the feelings of insecurity some children feel about being “different” the question of whether or why one’s parents may not have “wanted me”? Was I a “bad” baby, did I do something wrong, am I worthless? Well meaning questions from friends can be very hurtful to the adopted child, for instance the often-heard question: “Who are your real parents?” This question can be very confusing for the adopted child who may only have memories of the adoptive parents. While talking about different demographics, I’d like to add adoption to this list for others’ awareness. Some of our community’s children experience all of these biases: race, religion, gender, orientation, and the challenge of understanding adoption. The psychology of adoption can run so deep, it can be so difficult to imagine or connect to, that it never gets mentioned. For this reason, I’d like to bring it the community. Thank you.

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