Action Kit for Talking Race at 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.
Over the past year since my daughter started Kindergarten I have learned about how varied the state of race consciousness is across our schools. It depends on the teacher, the principal or director, the policies of the school board, and state and federal requirements and limits. There are many steps we can and should take, but a good, concrete first one is asking your school's leadership how they are supporting kids to engage with race, and finding allies to support who want to move this work forward in your school community.
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.
Let us know if you will commit to converse alongside other families in Oregon and beyond, and share how your interactions go so we can build and learn together. If you are already having these conversations or supporting work for racial justice within your school community, and 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!
Step 1: Decide who you want to speak with - look for allies and include the Principal. Begin by assessing what is already happening and who potential allies might be. Maybe it is the librarian who is displaying a diverse selection of books that feature characters of color, people of differing abilities, and holidays from around the world. Maybe it is the school counselor who heads up anti-bullying efforts. Maybe it is your child’s own teacher who is obviously making an effort to be more inclusive in their classroom curriculum.
If you don’t see anything active already going on, start with your school principal or director. It might be that school staff don’t have the skills, comfort level, or awareness to lead multicultural lessons or conversations, or it might be that they do, but are concerned about going out on a limb without their administration’s support. Either way, engaging school leadership is a great place to start. Set a meeting or include this conversation into existing school conferences if they are already in the works.
Step 2: Decide what you want to say. This is what I have in mind:
I value that my daughter is in a school where there are multiple first languages spoken, including sign language, kids are coming from different cultures, and the student body is over half children of color. I believe it is important for children have a positive sense of their own identity and to engage with the identities and experiences of people who are different than them. Not only is it supportive of children’s’ natural joy and curiosity about the world around them, but it also helps my (white) children to build multicultural competencies in an increasingly diverse world.
- What are the ways that students are engaged in a positive understanding of race and skin color?
- How are conversations about differences in race, gender and gender expression, and ability encouraged and supported in the classroom?
- How can I be helpful as a family at this school to support this?
Note: If you are not in a racially diverse school, you would want to ditch the first sentence. Writing from the Pacific NW as a white woman, I understand that engaging my white children in an understanding of race and multicultural education that affirms communities of color in a sustained way is just as important, maybe even more so, because of their relative racial isolation. The same is true for children of color in predominantly white schools where a lack of conversation or engagement with race enforces internalized messages of racism.
Step 3: Share any resources that you’d like. Print off a good book list, or thoughtful article to share, or send an introductory or follow up email that includes links. Here are a few of my favorites geared towards young children:
Raising Race Conscious Children - A thoughtful blog that does a great job modeling how people are talking with children about race. They also offer webinars that teachers and parents can join to learn more about how to name race, including two coming up Oct 25 and Oct 27.
I am also excited to learn more about the new Teaching Tolerance Anti-Bias Curriculum called Perspectives for a Diverse America that is intentionally compatible with Common Core to make it more accessible to teachers. It includes lesson plans and more. There is also a direct link to the “central text anthology” - all the books, videos, etc. that are included in lesson plans from K - 12 sorted by race and ethnicity, gender, LGBT, immigration, class, ability, and community. A great resources for home schoolers as well!
Here is a link to what I am sharing with my daughter's principal, teacher, and librarian. There is an overview of why kids need characters of color, strong women and girls, and queer and gender independent characters in their literature excerpted from the article, Picture Imperfect, from Teaching Tolerance, and a graphic illustrating the lack of diverse characters in children’s books from Lee & Low Books shared on Colorlines. I am also including the K-2 book list from the Perspectives for a Diverse America central text anthology.
Step 4: Thank your teacher! We love teachers! Remember that they are balancing a lot (children, parents, administrators, testing schedules). As families we can be allies who support and encourage our schools to do right by all the kids in our community. Surely most teachers and administrators share this desire and ultimately would want more parents talking about it.
Maybe your teacher will appreciate what you are offering, especially if this is something they are already prioritizing. And maybe they’ll be defensive or feel criticized, especially if they are white, which the majority of teachers are. Many of us white people get our hackles up because we are uncomfortable and inexperienced talking about race and we are afraid of being called racists.
This doesn’t mean we should be silent ourselves, but we should be thoughtful about how we broach the topic if we want people to stay engaged. We want our teachers and administrators to hear that families in their classroom and school want more anti-racist education. That is an important message for us to send at a time when schools are increasingly emphasizing standardized testing at the expense of social and emotional learning.
A gentle introduction to this topic with your classroom teacher could be sharing something along these lines:
I recently read an article that talked about how few children’s books feature character of color and I started looking myself and found this to be true. I know we want all kids to see themselves and their families represented in the books they read. I have some great book lists that I wanted to pull from and donate to the classroom. I wondered if you would be open to having books donated to your classroom?
Bonus! Donate a book to your classroom or library. Who doesn’t like gifts? My favorite recent read with my 6 year old is Rad American Women A - Z. It is beautiful, super intentional about telling stories of movement leaders, athletes, musicians, pioneers in everything from science to gender identity over the last decades, including many women of color and queer women, in an accessible way that is not watered down. I’m planning to bring a copy as a gift to my daughters classroom as a thank you and also as a way to keep a reminder - and resource - handy for engaging our kids in conversations about race, gender, class, and ways that women throughout history have been leaders and organizers changing the world.
Better yet...Invite fellow families to organize a book drive with you or through your PTA or other groups to get great books with characters that represent all children into your school together.
Extra credit: Here is a simple bookmark that you can leave behind as a friendly reminder of your conversation along with your contact information and offer to support them as a teacher in this work. Just download, print onto card stock, and sign.
Homework: It's important to start simple, but as you find teachers, parents and administrators engaging with you, look for opportunities to deepen their understanding and take the work further. Once they wrap their mind around the importance of naming race and being color brave not color blind, you can introduce the idea of implicit bias - start by telling a story of your own. Suggest organizing a Raising Race Conscious Children webinar at your school.
Think about how to graduate to looking at systemic equity (where can we design our systems so that they create racial justice). Reach out and learn about organizations of color in your community and ask about ways you can support their campaigns as a group, school community, through fundraising, or other ways that they suggest.
Some policy areas to look at with a race lens are implicit bias/cultural competency trainings, suspension rates, restorative practices, ethnic studies, Trans friendly spaces, supporting public schools, and integrating schools and public programs (often related to separate funding streams).
Compiled by Creating Democracy’s Families for Racial Justice and Collective Liberation. For more information, contact Amy Dudley at amy at creatingdemocracy.org.
Thanks to the thoughtful contributions and generous encouragement from these inspiring parents, educators, and organizers: Lizzie Fussell, Katie Kissinger, Laura Czarniecki, Liz Gustafson, Julie Roberts-Phung, Sachi Feris, and Kevin Wood.