6 Things Anti-Racist Educators Want Grown-ups to Know about Teaching and Raising Kids

 (Yobro10/iStock)

For most of Karyn Parsons’ life, race was considered an impolite conversation topic. But as America reckons with racial injustice following the police killing of George Floyd, that view is changing. Parsons, who is best known for her role as Will Smith’s self-absorbed cousin Hilary Banks on “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” is glad. “I’m seeing so many people, so many white people, for the first time taking a hard look at things and asking questions,” she said. Currently a children’s author and founder of a media organization that celebrates little-known achievements by African Americans, Parsons was one of several panelists in a recent town hall on “How to Raise and Teach Anti-Racist Kids,” hosted by the International Literacy Association. During the event, educators and equity activists addressed questions related to when and how to talk about race with young people and how to challenge systemic racism in schools.

1. Learn and Reflect

It’s impossible for adults to engage kids in learning about race and racism without understanding these topics themselves, panelists said. “You can’t teach what you don’t know,” said Cornelius Minor, author of “We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be.” Noni Thomas López, head of school at the Gordon School in Rhode Island, said that studying how Black people have been excluded from equal legal, economic and educational opportunities throughout U.S. history is “an important first step in anti-racist work.” Alongside those hard history topics, adults should also read and learn about Black joy, resilience and love, and be able to share that with children, Thomas López said.

While studying history, panelists encouraged parents and teachers to interrogate themselves about their biases and how those affect their interactions. “A lot of people are feeling secure in themselves and they’re not asking hard questions,” said Parsons. “Children are sponges, we know that. They’re going to pick this up and they’re going to feel bias, so they’re going to feel when adults haven’t done this work themselves.” As an example, author and literacy advocate Pam Allyn, suggested that educators rethink how they talk about children, such as terms like “struggling readers.” Allyn said she would like to start literacy conversations by recognizing all the skills children use to communicate, including across languages. “Children are brilliant, and I think that we have made this whole way of thinking about teaching, truthfully, we’ve made it into a pathology.”

Although the panelists emphasized studying history and self-reflection as first steps, they are not tasks that can ever really be marked as completed. “You don’t get to the end of the journey and you’re suddenly anti-racist,” said Thomas López.  

2. Talk About Race Early and Often

No child is too young to learn about systemic racism in developmentally appropriate ways, according to author and educator Tiffany Jewell. In explaining the police killing of George Floyd to her own kids, for instance, she told them that “one (police officer) hurt him so much that he died, and three of them stood around and let it happen.” Jewell said it’s important for her children “to know you can’t hurt somebody else’s body and you can’t stand by and watch it happen, too.”

Sponsored

Grown-ups often get uncomfortable when kids point out skin color, but that’s a natural part of processing the world, said Thomas López. But the problems emerge when those differences convey negative associations. Racist perceptions are prevalent enough that kids will absorb implicit bias, whether or not the adults in their lives express racist attitudes, she said. “They’re breathing those things in, so if you’re not actively countering those messages, then they’re going to stick.” 

Books and other media can help start conversations about race with kids. Jewell emphasized telling kids the truth and encouraging them to ask questions. The speakers also made clear that these conversations are not one-and-done events. Black families, by necessity, have multiple versions of “the talk” about racism as their kids age, “to make sure their kid doesn’t become the next Michael Brown,” said Minor. Non-Black families must do the same.

3. Be Willing to be Uncomfortable

For adults accustomed to the false paradigm of “not seeing color,” starting to address systemic racism will be uncomfortable. By sitting with that discomfort, teachers and parents demonstrate the importance of these issues and model a willingness to make mistakes. Allyn said she finds strength in being able to say, “I’m messy, I’m not sure I know how to do this, but I want to keep doing this. I want to work on this for the rest of my life, the best I can.”

The speakers also noted how heavily the work of raising and teaching anti-racist kids weighs on educators of color. Minor said he entered college with the goal of becoming the best reading teacher in New York City, but fighting systemic racism in schools takes time and energy from that pursuit. “My great stress comes from having been robbed of my dreams by racism.”

4. Teaching Kindness is Not Enough

Minor said that many people think that racism means being mean to Black people. That limited definition makes it harder to see the connections between individual actions and systemic issues, such as disproportionate disciplinary rates for Black students. Jewell defines racism as both personal prejudice and “the misuse and abuse of power.” She said that’s a definition that people of any age can understand. “It also allows us to see that being nice isn’t going to end racism. It allows us to understand that we need to more than just unpack our own biases but we have to move it into institutions … and look at the policies and procedures and laws.”

5. Be Radically Pro-Kid

During the question and answer period, a teacher from a rural, predominantly white school asked how to respond to colleagues who might push back against anti-racist initiatives and proclaim that “all lives matter.” Minor’s advice was to be “radically pro-kid.” It is an educator's job to create opportunities for children and to teach kids to create opportunities for themselves, he said. “As such, anything that stands in the way of opportunity for a child is my enemy. So, police shooting brown children — you can’t read if you’re dead. Kids being malnourished because they live in food deserts — you can’t write powerful poetry if you don’t have all your vitamins.” Minor said he considers it his responsibility to make things uncomfortable for educators who do not see kids being shot by police or not having enough to eat as problems worth addressing in school. “So when people say things like ‘all lives matter,’ it’s really important to note that, yes, we do understand that all lives matter, but until Black lives matter in a demonstrably clear way, through law enforcement, through education, through access to food and medical care, until Black lives matter, all lives cannot matter.”

6. Teachers Have Power

Jewell said she felt she had more power as a classroom teacher than she did as an administrator because she worked directly with students and parents every day. Teachers should use that proximity to relay what families are experiencing to school leaders and to ask challenging questions, she said. “Don’t be afraid. Just go forth and do it, because if you’re not going to, somebody else might not.”

Kwame Alexander, the bestselling author and poet who organized the town hall, closed the event with a moment of silence. During that time, the black screen filled up, one by one, with the names of hundreds of individuals killed by racist violence. “We have the capacity to make that page blank,” Alexander said.

Sponsored