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Review: ‘How to Talk to Kids About Race’

How can I talk to my child about race without it seeming I’m being racist? How can I discuss traumatic events without creating more trauma? How can I teach my white child to be an upstander against racial slurs? These questions and more are addressed in a talk by clinical psychologist Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, “How to Talk to Kids About Race,” now available from the Discovery Museum of Acton. (See link at the end of this review.)

Earlier this month, Hildreth Elementary School and Arm in Arm co-sponsored a screening and subsequent discussion of Dr. Tatum’s talk. The talk, which was moderated by Tiziana Dearing of Radio Boston, was originally part of Acton Discovery Museum’s speaker series. Dr. Tatum, who was speaking from Atlanta, is president emerita of Spelman College, mother of two boys, and the author of several books on race, among them “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” The talk was presented in two segments, with discussion after each one led by HES Associate Principal Dori Pulizzi, who had already hosted a screening of the talk for HES parents.

Dearing began by asking Dr. Tatum what she would suggest to help people learn and listen better to the upcoming conversation. Tatum suggested we think of our own early experiences with racism or some race-related incident and ask ourselves how we felt. Chances are, she said, it was an uncomfortable feeling and most of us didn’t talk about it, maybe sensing we weren’t supposed to ask. The memory reminds us that young children do notice and have questions, she said. It’s likely children are feeling the same way we felt, and they also don’t know how to talk about it. But, she said, and this was a point she stressed throughout her talk, we can’t create equity without talking about inequities. “The history is painful, and that history is still playing out,” and if we want our kids to interrupt the cycle of racism, we need to have the hard conversations, she said. The challenge is how to talk to kids about race in age-appropriate, honest, and constructive ways and to have the courage to say, “I don’t know, let’s explore that.”

Although adults can be reluctant to talk about race, kids are often the ones who raise questions, and adults can listen for them. Kids are not colorblind; they notice and are curious, Tatum said, and it’s best not to “freak out” but to encourage their questions and answer them as concretely as possible.

Her young son, noticing a family of mixed race, asked her why they didn’t “match,” which gave her the opportunity to talk about the many different ways in which it’s OK not to match. Her 3-year-old son was the only Black child in his preschool class, and a classmate noticed he was drinking chocolate milk and told him that was why his skin was brown. When her son asked her if this was true, Tatum acknowledged the other child’s curiosity and answered the question by talking to her son about how different skin tones are caused by melanin. When she told her son he had the most melanin in his class, he was proud. She hoped the white mother would have a similar, unemotionally laden, discussion if her son asked if he could turn brown by drinking chocolate milk.

Discussing slavery

When a question necessitates some discussion of slavery, Tatum said it is important to give some historical context and to point out that there were people opposed to slavery. The truth is, she said, that slaves had some agency; they were capable and sometimes educated; some escaped. For a young Black child, reassurance that slavery happened a long time ago needs to be part of the conversation. When the subject comes up in a predominantly white school and there is a Black student in the class, attention turns automatically to that student. A sensitive teacher can acknowledge this response, she said, but reframe the discussion in broader terms by asking what the white people were doing at that time. Who were the upstanders?

One of Tatum’s many anecdotes was about a young Black boy on a plane with his mom, when he told her he saw a man that looked like his daddy. Then he asked his mom, “Is that man going to rob the plane?” She asked him why he asked that and he replied that robbers look like that. She asked him if he thought daddy would rob a plane. When this registered with him, she said she wondered where he got the idea that Black men are robbers. He said he wasn’t sure. It was an example of how kids internalize stereotypes and cultural negative messages. Instead of an emotional response to situations like this, adults can ask a child why they asked the question and then talk about why their source isn’t true. They can offer counterexamples.

Sometimes a question is an opportunity to talk about the big picture. When her child, after observation, asked why so many homeless people are Black, it was a chance to talk about what’s wrong with a society that allows people to be homeless and how the unfairness of the past is still continuing today. It’s important to underscore the possibility of change, Tatum said, to talk about what people can do to make things better.

Of course the questions get harder the older kids get. But, said Tatum, it’s important for adults to listen to those questions and stories and to have thought ahead about how to have the difficult conversations, perhaps by consulting many of the available resources. The police killing of George Floyd gave rise to all sorts of questions. A younger Black child who has heard about the incident might ask if something like that could happen to his father or to him someday. It is important to reassure the child that he is safe, Tatum said, and it’s possible to talk about racial trauma without creating trauma, to talk about sadness and unfairness but not necessarily talk about violence.

Acknowledging realities of violence

But it’s also critical at some point to acknowledge the realities of possible violence against Black people. She said when her sons were about to get driver’s licenses, she talked to them about how they needed to behave if they were ever stopped by police, a conversation her white friends didn’t have to have with their teenagers. If older kids ask why Black people are targets, it would be appropriate to talk about the history of policing. Police and Black people have an unpleasant history, she said, because originally law enforcement officers were slave catchers. Another hard conversation is the difference in treatment of Black people and white people over drugs. For white people, opioid addiction is a disease, for Black people it’s a crime.

Tatum said there are many resources for parents and teachers to help them talk with kids about human diversity. For white children, books about Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges offer windows into the lives of children different from them. There are other suggestions at social justicebooks.org. Curriculum resources such as Facing History and Ourselves and Teaching Tolerance are readily available. She encouraged parents to expand their child’s world by going to places and joining organizations where there are kids unlike them. The ability to talk effectively with people different from them is necessary for kids to be effective in the world, she said. Those who can’t will be “social dinosaurs.”

Tatum ended her talk by citing Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 book “Where Do We Go From Here?” in which he talks about the country’s pattern of racial progress and pushback and asks of people in 1968 whether they will choose chaos or community. Tatum sees that question as the critical one to ask of this moment as well. Most recently, the protest marches after Floyd’s death were a step forward; the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol and its relative lack of police presence were pushback. It showed the increasing visibility and recognition of white supremacy; it showed us what chaos looks like, Tatum said. We are at a moment where we have to make a choice, she said. If we don’t choose chaos, how do we build community? We need to talk about racism to get past it and move on to community.

The conversation with Tatum raised societal issues and offered practical advice. In the Zoom discussion that followed the screening of her talk, participants were admiring of Tatum’s calm and honest approach, and the way in which she answered so many false assumptions a child might have about race with, “Here’s how it’s not true.” Attendees also talked about the importance, but challenges, in raising their white children to be upstanders.

To view a recording of Tatum’s talk, go to www.discoveryacton.org/event/virtual-event-talking-kids-about-race-and-racism-conversation-dr-beverly-daniel-tatum.

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