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. But we often didn’t feel comfortable bringing up these issues at school, where our concerns were often met with silence, denial, or even in some cases discipline.
Parents and educators often have different methods for engaging the social reality of racism in America. But imagine if home and school partnered to encourage open discussion. Reimagining in-the-moment interactions that we experience across social differences also holds profound potential for reimagining cross-racial interactions in society at-large. School can be a starting point to help heal social divides.
Kids need to develop a sense of competence and confidence in both navigating racially stressful situations and in interpreting the realities of the world that confronts them. In a 2014 article for the National Association of Independent Schools magazine, Ali Michael and Eleonora Bartoli describe how silence on race throughout our childhoods, intended to teach us that race shouldn’t matter, instead inaccurately teaches that race doesn’t have an impact in people’s lives.
These talks can be hard work, and they take practice — but they’re achievable. Here are five ways parents and educators can support kids in developing racial literacy: the ability to read, recast, and resolve racially stressful encounters in ways that promote healing rather than 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. 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. Instead, be honest when you feel hurt, confused, or stressed.
Practice stress management. Racial stress is a product of in-the-moment 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 minimize the 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 resources in Philadelphia, such as the African American and American Jewish History museums.
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. To do justice to those realities, we should adopt a “both/and” perspective. For instance, in the history classroom, we discuss human nature as not only stemming from the individual or community, but instead as a messy combination of both. Another way to think about it is the reality that someone can exist as both a son and brother, or as a daughter and sister.
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 for you to solve.
Silence only suppresses the natural curiosity children have around what makes race such a complex societal issue. We need these conversations to shape a tomorrow that is driven by meaningful, inclusive dialogue and relationships.
Brendon Jobs is the director of diversity and inclusion at the Haverford School, where he teaches Modern World History and Modern Black Lives in the Upper School. Jobs also teaches history methods at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education (GSE) in the Independent School Residency Program.