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.