Families for Racial Justice and Collective Liberation

As a parent I'm not sure what to do with one more message about what I SHOULD be doing - my brain is all ready too full of those to be helpful!  But the more I dig into conversations with friends and teachers and other parents and learn about the ways that race and class, specifically gentrification in Portland and education reform across the country, are dividing us, literally into different schools within the same neighborhoods, and even within the same schools, how entrenched racism creates vastly different experiences for white kids and children of color, the more I want to know what I CAN do.

Our children, all of them, need us to stay present and respond.  As I personally walk this tricky terrain of parenting decisions, I believe that there is not one correct path for all of our families.  But as an organizer, I know that we have to work to build understanding and relationships across the potential divisions of race and class, to not allow our relative privilege to isolate us from the struggles of all families, and that if we can do that work together, we will be stronger and able to make the world more just and affirming of our full humanity and collective liberation.  And that really is, I believe, the world we all want for our kids. 

5 Things to Know about Talking to Children about Race

Summarized on March 10th, 2014 from Katie Kissinger, educator and author of All the Colors We Are: The Story of How We Got Our Skin Color

1. The time to talk is earlier than you think. For most kids by 4th or 5th grade, they've pretty much figured out what they believe in terms of identity (race, gender/sexual orientation, class/socio-economic status, and ability). Stereotypes and slurs relating to these identities are rampant in our world, media, and schools, and so unless kids are consistently presented an alternative, or have a significant event later in their lives, they are already set on a path that is not likely to get interrupted. They will believe that some people are better than others and they will internalize those messages about themselves as well. These messages are as impossible to avoid as the air we breathe, so if we want to eliminate these systems of oppression, we all need to learn skills for resisting these messages.

By 2 years old, kids are interested and noticing differences. From this time forwards we want to help children feel positive about themselves and people who look differently than themselves. Unless kids feels OK about themselves, they won't be able to feel good about others. Bullies and teens and adults who choose hate, are hurting and especially need tools to feel better about themselves, and who they are, not better than others.

3 years old is a peak time when kids are trying to sort their world into clear categories, so it can be a prime time for imitating and engaging with, and also to for adults to be there to challenge, stereotypes. By 4 and 5 years old, kids are ready for the “critical thinking” goal of anti-bias curriculum – gaining tools to question their world and empowering them with tools of action.

2. Kids are not colorblind. They notice everything, so of course they notice skin color, people in wheel chairs, and languages other than the ones they speak. The cost of perpetuating the myth that kids are colorblind is that we enforce the systems of domination and oppression that make one identity the “norm” and everything is “different” and by extension “wrong”. These one-up and one-down systems are known as white supremacy (race), patriarchy (gender and sexual orientation) and capitalism (class and socio-economic status). This myth and these systems of oppression hurt not only people targeted by them, but also those who receive benefits or privilege from them because they separate us all from our shared humanity.

3. No mistake you could make when talking to your kids about race and skin color, is as damaging as silence has been. Silence sends the message that difference is wrong. Noticing difference is part of noticing our world. The only reason we have different skin color is to protect us from the sun. Difference is not the problem. The problem is that in our society we've valued certain differences over others. And in the case of race, that darker skin color was first used to justify slavery and then to continue to oppress different groups of people.

Sometimes when our kids notice difference and say something about it, as adults we feel uncomfortable and unsure what to say. We need to get over that and appreciate these moments as gifts and opportunities to have the conversations we want to have. Young kids are the least defensive and most curious people to have these conversations with. Collectively we are failing kids in this area. Kids really need adults to stay present and respond. You don't have to start with a history or politics lesson though, just affirming that differences exist and that people have darker and lighter skin, and come in all sizes, have different abilities, etc. gets kids on the path to appreciating a full range of “normal” human expressions.

4. If we're going to teach kids to recognize how the world is unfair, which is an important part of developing their own critical thinking around fairness, we've also got to teach them to speak up for themselves and others to make the world fair. We owe this to them. And we owe them the benefit of hope in change, not our cynicism at how tough making this change really can be.

Kids are also masters at calling out unfairness. From about 3 and a half years onward, you can begin to talk with kids along these lines in relationship to people. For example, you could ask, “Did you know that some people are treated differently because of the color of their skin?” Following up the conversation with your belief that that's not OK and sharing ideas of what we could do to change that. You could also ask of a certain situation, “What's unfair here?” for example, if there is access to a building that excludes wheelchairs. This recognition of unfairness helps to build a foundation of empathy in your child.

5. When people feel connected across differences with a shared goal of ending oppression, whether you win or not, you realize your capacity for genuine human experience. It gives us hope and creates opportunities to see how the world could be.

For preschool and elementary school age kids and on up, activism projects as a family and with other kids and families or as a school group, are a great way to take on a project to collectively try to address an unfairness that is important to your children. Whether you succeed or not, taking action together to make the world more fair for everyone sends a powerful message to kids that they can be part of making change.


Unpacking our Kids' Backpacks...of White Privilege

How do you talk to children about race and skin color?

What role do parents have in supporting their kids to become allies instead of bullies?

How can we bust the myth that kids are colorblind?

How do we create a world that celebrates and respects our differences instead of letting ourselves be divided by them?

I sometimes feel at a loss for how to support my white kids to become allies for racial justice.  I'd like to believe that their innate goodness will be enough but of course they live in this culture and cannot help but soak up these messages of racial superiority and inferiority, just like my daughter will one day question whether she is beautiful and thin enough, and my son will wonder if it's okay to cry or hold hands with a boy. 

As a white woman and aspiring organizer back in 2001, I was made aware of my white privilege through a training that challenged anyone working for social justice to understand that if we wanted to be successful in building grassroots power to make social change, we needed to centralize the experiences and leadership of people most marginalized from that power, namely communities of color, immigrants, queer and trans people, poor people and women, and folks who can claim all of the above in their identity.  And to do that, as white people, we needed to deal with our own white privilege - recognize it, keep it in check in our personal relationships, and most importantly, work to dismantle the systems that perpetuate white privilege while targeting and oppressing everyone else.  Clearly that is important and ongoing work.  

Living in Portland, Oregon, and working for seven years with the Rural Organizing Project throughout rural Oregon, I have learned about Oregon's history of racial exclusion, the desire of far right hate groups to create a white homeland ("no people of color, no race problem") and the discriminatory policies of the state into recent years, that literally forbid people of color from living in or owning property in Oregon upon penalty of public beatings.  There are many painful, hateful reasons from the past and today that answer the question of why there aren't more people of color in Oregon, why it can be such a hard place for people of color to live, why so many friends and organizers of color have left the state.  Despite this history, there is a strong and growing population of color in Oregon that has resisted, survived, and made a home here.  As a recent article put it, if Iowa is becoming more racially diverse, so will Portland; it just might take a little longer.

One of the things I learned about, and experience, is that once your eyes are opened to your own privilege, you feel horrified, embarrassed, guilty - and you are reminded that those emotions are not actually helpful to advancing racial justice.  We need to work those through in order to take action as an allies and organizers in our shared struggle towards collective liberation.  But despite that wisdom, you still don't want to screw up, and you cringe when other white folk do, as we all will at some time.  It is hard but important to fight the urge to distance ourselves from the "bad white people" and instead see ourselves as in it together, supporting our white friends and neighbors, and yes ourselves, to deal together with the ignorance and pain that our white privilege causes, opposing, transforming, and ending the systems that perpetuate white privilege (namely white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy), rather than keeping us divided and trying to one up one another.  That includes being in it with our children.    

When I read many of the articles (and comments) making sense of Portland as "the country's whitest city" I know it is absolutely my responsibility to give my kids the tools to understand their own privilege and start now, in preschool, to call out unfairness and injustice where they see it.  I have a huge roll in whether they will say "F*ck that - let's organize to make the world better for us all!" or stand aside or even be part of hurting other kids.  I had a hunch it wouldn't be by reading them that seminal article for white folks, Peggy McIntosh's "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" but I still wasn't quite sure where to start.  Until about three months ago, when I met Oregon educator Katie Kissinger.  Katie has worked for decades advancing anti-bias curriculum in early childhood education as an author, activist, educator for social justice, and an early childhood education college instructor.  She is also founder and a board member of Threads of Justice Collective, an informal group of educators who work together to promote social and cultural justice for all children and families.

This past March 10th, 2014 Katie facilitated a two hour workshop sponsored by creating democracy and Hawthorne Family Playschool for parents, educators, and organizers who want to begin this conversation of how we engage with our children, white kids and children of color, in a positive and empowering understanding of race and skin color.  Obviously two hours was just be enough to really hunger for more, but it provided an important introduction to a framework and some concrete ideas and activities for ways to begin with young children to bust the myth that kids are color blind and help set the stage for our beloved children to become allies and activists who are able to speak up for fairness now and throughout their lives.  

Action Kit for Talking Race with Your School

Over the course of this school year, Creating Democracy wants to support families to engage in conversations about race with your schools.  Children are not colorblind and they need positive opportunities to name race as a foundation for noticing and understanding differences and taking action when people are treated unfairly based on those differences - in skin color, ethnicity, gender and gender expression, class, and ability.  

Back to School conferences and one-on-one meetings with your Principal offer a great opportunity to learn more about how your school engages kids in talking about race, and for your family to voice and offer your support for this work.

Check out our handy Action Kit for Talking Race at your School that walks through some steps for deciding how to have this conversation at your school, preschool, or faith community - who to talk with, what you might say, recommended book lists and school curriculum to share, and simple ways to offer support.  And if you would like to gather with other families to share strategies and support one another, please contact Amy at creatingdemocracy.org.    

Parenting, and organizing for a better world, are all better with a community at your back! 

Talking About Black Lives Matter to White Children

by Amy Dudley, Guest Blogger, Originally published in Raising Race Conscious Children June 5, 2015

This past Martin Luther King Jr. Day my five-year-old daughter and I attended a day long Freedom Camp organized by some long-time educators, a passionate, intergenerational, multiracial group that included pioneers in anti-bias education, and veterans of the civil rights movement. The organizers were highlighting the 50th anniversary of Selma and were also interested in making connections with the current Black Lives Matter movement.

I suggested we add the song “I Can’t Breathe” to the songs the children would be singing from the freedom songs of the 60’s. At home, our family had watched two versions of this song on YouTube, one with a mother and her daughter singing it, and another version that interspersed images from protests in NYC. After watching a few times, our five-year-old and three-year-old clapped and hummed along. It’s a catchy tune with simple lyrics and ends with a call of solidarity and action.

At the event, the organizers showed a clip from Bloody Sunday in Selma, and then the successful arrival of the marches in Montgomery with police escorts, and then turned to me to introduce the song and lead the group of 30-40 children and youth, a multi-racial group spanning kindergarten through high school.  I paused, looking around the room at these sweet, upturned faces. I wasn’t sure how or what to put into words for this audience about the horror and injustice of Eric Garner’s murder by police.

And then I thought of his family, of all the families of color who face police harassment, violence, and murder, and how not talking about this ugly truth doesn’t protect them. I thought about the African American mothers who have to talk to their young sons and daughters about how to act in front of the police so they aren’t shot. I thought of a Black friend whose young son broke the toy gun from his Halloween army guy costume so he wouldn’t be shot like Tamir Rice.  I thought about the way my daughter was learning about Martin Luther King Jr. at school as someone who just “wanted everyone to get along.”

I turned to the sea of young faces and shared:

“Eric Garner was a father and grandfather who was hurt and killed by the police. He was one of too many Black men that the police have hurt and killed. His last words were ‘I can’t breathe.’ That is why people all over the country, including in Portland, Oregon, are remembering him by singing those words. By saying ‘I can’t breathe,’ we are saying that it was wrong that Eric Garner was hurt and we are standing up for justice for him and his family. We are telling the police it is not OK to hurt people, and we will keep working together until everyone, especially people of color, are treated fairly, with respect and dignity.”

That night my White daughter had nightmares of the police coming and taking her dad and I away. And I know she wasn’t the only child in that room who became upset as they processed this racist violence. Racism really sucks. Introducing our children to the pain of White supremacy makes me really sad. It made me wonder if I had really screwed up. And I might have.

But here’s what I know.

The pain, fear, anger, and confusion that my daughter felt was absolutely how she should feel, how we should all feel, when we are confronted with the injustice and violence of White supremacy and police brutality. It should rock our worlds. It is important to give our children, and ourselves, space to feel those emotions and work through them towards actions that affirm Black Lives Matter. If we are committed to supporting our children to recognize unfairness and teaching them to act for justice, we can’t be afraid of their deep and real emotions. In fact, the United States needs more people to feel just how wrong White supremacy is in order to end it.

As a White woman and mother, I came to recognize my White privilege in my 20’s, and I had a lot of feelings about it, namely shame and guilt. Many of us White folks get stuck in those emotions which are ultimately not helpful, though they are understandable, and if we can’t move past them into action for racial justice, valuable allies are lost.

My young White children don’t have any emotional attachment to their White privilege. Yet. My hope is that by talking about race, racial injustice, and the unfair benefits we get as White-skinned people, I will support my children to understand their world as White people and as allies to people of color. Without this understanding, they will not be prepared to take action in solidarity with people of color to make the world more fair for people of color, and ultimately, a better world for all of us.

For more articles and tools to support engaging with children on race, check out the excellent resources at Raising Race Conscious Children.


Summary Notes from All the Colors We Are: Anti-Bias Workshop and Book Signing

Led by Katie Kissinger, educator and author of All the Colors We Are:

The Story of How We Got Out Skin Color, now celebrating its 20th anniversary edition

Organized by creating democracy and Hawthorne Family Playschool

March 10th, 2014


Below is a summary of our March 10th event led by Katie Kissinger, educator and author of All the Colors We Are: The Story of How We Got Our Skin Color.  There's a brief intro to the 4 core goals of anti-bias education, followed by a summary of Katie's talk called 5 Things to Know about Talking to Children about Race. Lastly there is a short section of Tips, Tools, and Resources that we can all continue to build.


Please email or post to the creating democracy facebook page with your own comments, resources, tips, etc. so that we can continue to build and support one another across race and class, and across our various locations in schools, as parents, educators, and organizers.  We'll continue to compile and post these at www.creatingdemocracy.org

Thanks again to the nearly 40 attendees who packed the room for this event earlier this month, and made for an inspiring and thought provoking evening.  And many thanks again to our event co-sponsor Hawthorne Family Playschool, and to Katie Kissinger for advancing anti-bias education for more than two decades. 

Reasons People Came...

  • Seeking language and tools to talk to little ones about race – getting over being uncomfortable

    • Understanding that we need to do this early, not waiting until high school

  • Challenging our own biases, understanding what our families passed on to us and not wanting to do the same to our children

  • As parents and teachers, wanting to translate our values as politically active, socially conscious people to the kids in our lives in developmentally appropriate ways

  • Being particularly aware of the racism in Portland, the proportionately high number of white people relative to people of color, the ways that racism and people of color are made invisible through white privilege in our state, and wanting to counter that as parents of color, white parents of white kids, white parents of kids of color, including biracial children, and educators


What are the Goals of Anti-Bias Curriculum?

Goal 1: Each child will demonstrate self-awareness, confidence, family pride, and positive social identities.

Goal 2: Each child will express comfort and joy with human diversity; accurate language for human difference; and deep, caring human connections.

Goal 3: Each child will increasingly recognize unfairness, have language to describe unfairness, and understand that unfairness hurts.

Goal 4: Each child will demonstrate empowerment and the skills to act, with others or alone, against prejudice and/or discriminatory actions.

Tools, Resources, and Tips on Talking Race

A few more tips from Katie Kissinger...

  • You can't expose your kids to too many images of people and families who look and act the same and differently than themselves. Show many different pictures of people of color doing all kinds of activitites, not only one book – not all African Americans are Michael Jordan or Martin Luther King Jr. Include images where the people look like actual people, not just cartoons which can tend to distort features or use stereotypical characteristics, or “UNICEF” images that only show people of color dressed in “traditional costumes.”

  • Include kids who look like your children, including images of white kids and people, in stories of resistance and struggles for justice. This is important so that all kids can literally see themselves as part of the solution, part of the people who are taking action for fairness.

  • If kids don't bring up skin color differences themselves when noticing differences in books or photos, ask the question of them, “Do you notice that some skin color is darker and some skin color is lighter?” “Do you think they are friends?” “What do you think they play together” This line of conversation allows your child to imagine scenarios where people of color and white people are friends. And if they can't imagine it for themselves, ask them “Why?” which allows you to explore their thinking and then present an alternative where children of color and white kids are friends.


Tools to explore...

  • Activities in Katie Kissinger's All the Colors We Are: The Story of How We Got Our Skin Color including:

    • Tracing hands on different color paper

    • Matching pain swatches from paint stores to your skin color – for older kids or adults, write a poem about the name of your paint color

    • Making mosaic faces with different color paper squares

    • Mix paint to match your skin color and paint a self portrait

    • Noticing differences in photos of kids and adults with different skin colors


Recommended resources to peruse...