I have a million stories about race and racism and culture. A million. I could tell them to you all day long but they're still my stories and it won't do you any good except to maybe think of things from my perspective. It's not all that unique, but my responses to it sometimes are. When it slaps me in the face I don't always respond well. When I can see it sneaking up on me I feel better prepared and can use it as a teachable moment. Whichever the case, they go into the vault of stories about race I have.
Race and parents
Something happened just recently that wasn't an AHA! moment, nor was it out of the ordinary. In fact, this has occurred repeatedly in my life so it's not much of a surprise. While talking on the phone to a parent for my job she paused after a few minutes of talking and asked if she could ask me a question without offending me. I actually like it when people do that because I'm prepared to respond appropriately. When it's abrupt, I end up stammering, shaking my head, and then finding a way to get back on track.
"Sure," I said. "What do you want to know?"
"I was wondering, are you black?"
I laughed. It occurred to me that, while on the phone with a black parent, I must have code-switched and given myself away. Quickly, I searched my brain for whatever phrase I said or word I used or tone my voice took.
"Yes," I told her. "I know how to code-switch."
She laughed at that presumably because she's familiar with that phrase or maybe because I broke the tension she felt at asking me. Either way, it helped our conversation because, by the end, she trusted me a little more than in the beginning. It broke the ice for a parent I'm not very familiar with yet. We have a small school and, by the time I've had a family in our building for all three years, I know them all. Sometimes, though, I never get to meet a parent face-to-face and our sole communication tools are the phone or email. That's not a judgment on the interest of parents. I'm not quick to judge someone just because they don't volunteer for the PTA or bring in treats for a culminating project or sign up to take reading groups in the 6th grade Literature Circles. But, I know plenty of people in education do that.
Let me take a quick detour about that and dispel a long-standing mythological narrative in the education world: all parents care about their children's education. All of them. They show it differently. Maybe being a "good mom" or "good dad" in their home means that there's no tv before homework. Maybe they designate a place for homework and keep it sacred. Maybe it's just the expectation that their child will work hard, do their best, and come home with good grades. Or (and this is the parent who gets the most credit) maybe they volunteer, attend meetings and parent/teacher conferences, and make their presence felt in a school. All of those parents care about their children.
That wasn't so much a detour as it was a subcategory of talking about race and here's why: I've met my share of families of color who don't want to set foot in a school building because of their own background. One of my former bosses used to tell the story of a mom who told her she'd never come into the school because she went there and when she did it was awful and she felt discriminated against. Her words that still haunt me to this day were: "I feel ill when I even drive by that school. I can't believe I have to send my daughter there."
I was a teacher at the time and it broke my heart that a person's experience was SO bad that it made her physically ill years later after she was a mom and had a family of her own. The only good ending to that story was that the principal of that school agreed to meet her at coffee shops and bookstores until the mom was comfortable enough to finally step foot into the school. To this day, that principal remains one of my friends and heroines in education because of the lengths she went to work on engaging a family and winning them over for education.
In a small way, I did that with the parent who caught me code-switching on her. We began to build a relationship that will, with nurturing, grow. And I recognize that race has been a part of that for her.
Race and students
During our lunch shifts at school I am required to spend the hour and a half monitoring and supervising students. Sometimes I just plop down at their tables and start chatting with them because (and I'm giving myself away here, students) that's when they're most honest and vulnerable in sharing their lives. It's not really spying but I know that there are times when students will let you into their worlds and it has to be on their terms or in non-academic settings. Also? I am fluent in kid-speak. It's another way I code-switch.
This week I plopped down at a table full of girls and asked them about race and what they're comfortable talking about (it was a diverse group and that's why it was easy to pick them). Maybe this is news to adults out there, but kids are fine talking about race. They are aware of racism in the world but not of the systemic damage that's been done or why we're still living with the results of that.
Systemic racism is the worst kind that leads to other forms, but the easiest to talk to children about.
They very clearly explained things their parents believe by what they've taught them and, in kid-speak, I told them that they should prepare themselves to come to a point in their lives when their differences on issues of race would be pivotal. I recounted stories of my own friends who have shared their experiences with me about how it's divided their families.
Here's the other thing I get out of them in those non-threatening moments: they identify racial disparities in the classroom. They can tell you when race comes into play and they can also tell you how frustrating it is to feel helpless. If you ask them, they will tell you all about it and they are opinionated. Some of them can even pick up on the covert racist attitudes of the people in their families. You are so very wrong if you think they don't. One girl told me once it irritates her that her dad asks if the black boy at her bus stop ever "talks to her" or "bothers her". She gets it, she sees it.
Some Helpful Phrases for Talking About It
For parents, you can ask the following:
What kind of instances of racism have you identified?
Where is racism happening in the world around you?
How can you help call it out and change the world in which you live?
For kids, they can use these phrases:
What has changed in your lifetime with race and culture? What is still a problem we have?
How can I identify it when it happens?
What can we agree on with changing views on race?
This isn't exhaustive, but after talking to my students over the past 20 years I can tell you that they're ready to have these conversations. The onus is on us to pursue having them. If you have children, I hope you're talking about it with them. If you're not, you're missing a great opportunity to help change the world.