Affirming children’s questions and comments about race: a simple but powerful tool
More than ten years ago, I was teaching at a progressive, independent school and my best pal/colleague, a White woman named Sara, approached me quietly, saying:
“Something just happened that I need your feedback on.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“I was sitting at lunch with my class and all of a sudden George (a White boy) looked up and said, ‘Sara, I just noticed that all of the people who work in the cafeteria are Black!”
“And what did you say?
“All I could think of was, ‘You’re right, George, that’s a good observation.’ That’s all I said,” Sara lamented.
“That’s not ‘all’ you said,” I affirmed. “You acknowledged George’s observation and you made it clear that is ‘OK’ to notice racial differences and talk about them.”
Sara remained unconvinced so I put it another way: “Imagine a classroom in a traditional school, let’s say in the 1950’s. Imagine a 70-year-old White teacher with a bun in her hair. Now imagine the same scenario but the teacher responds with a loud ‘Shhhhhh!’ Just think about how different a message that would have sent!”
Feeling buoyed by my alternative scenario, Sara and I began to brainstorm ways to extend this conversation into her class’ study of the school community. As a result, Sara ended up involving the cafeteria staff through interviews in a much deeper way than she had in the past.
Since the telling of this story, I have re-told it dozens of times in teacher and parent trainings to illustrate how easy it is to take the first step to affirm and acknowledge a young child’s questions or observations about racial differences. While this is just Step One of the conversation, a message of affirmation positively support a child’s thoughts and attitudes about what they are allowed or encouraged to talk about.
In this way, adults can support young people to understand that it is OK to talk about race. As a parent, I want my daughter to know that I welcome her questions.
For additional simple and proactive strategies for talking about race with young children, consider registering for a Raising Race Conscious Children Webinar.
Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and small group workshop series on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn.