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“When should I start talking to my kid about racism?”
As a dual-language teacher of color, I have been asked that question by parents and fellow teachers many times. On one hand, we feel the need to protect children from the cruel realities and injustices in our society. We fear that it might be too much for them, that it will affect their social-emotional well-being.
On the other hand, they deserve to know that our country’s history is far from a fairy tale. They need to learn that they are the main characters in this story and have the power to rewrite it.
Systemic oppression in our country is nothing new. The difference now is that we have greater access to the technology that can expose these inequities. Our children have grown up with social media as a pillar of their everyday life. We will never be able to control everything they read and watch, but we can support them in developing critical thinking skills and taking action against injustice.
Develop their critical consciousness
Critical consciousness is the ability to recognize and analyze inequality and the potential to take action against it. We need to support our children in developing these skills. It can be simple, but meaningful. The Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, refers to this as the ability to read the world and act on its creation.
We can develop critical consciousness by presenting problems to young children and allowing them to draw their own conclusions. In my classroom, I start this process through identity work. I introduce the concept of individual identity and belonging through literature, and a perfect book to do it is The Day You Begin, by Jacqueline Woodson. We talk about the main character, Angelina, and how she felt like she did not belong since there was no one like her in the classroom. We talk about identity intersectionality, and how it affects our access to services and lived experiences. And we talk about our own identities. “I am a Mexican immigrant, and I identify as a woman,” I tell them. I am open in this way because I want them to understand the importance of knowing yourself before you help others.
Next, it is their turn. I ask what defines them—what it is about them that makes them experience the world in a certain way? They talk about being a student, a brother, an immigrant, a person of color, and more. It is imperative to listen to their perspective without prying for answers. In The Day You Begin, Angelina and her classmate from Venezuela, Rigoberto, listen to one another and discover that they share similar experiences.
Lead culturally responsive conversations through literacy
Books, books, books! Children need to read books where they see themselves represented on a deeper level. I am not talking about books with traditional clothing or celebrations, but books that present real-life social issues. Multicultural and social justice books must be essential to every classroom library.
In my classroom, we ask questions beyond who the characters are and the story’s setting. “Who appears in this story?” “Who does not?” “How would you rewrite the story?” Students need to think about how this would look in a different place or community. Sociocultural competence goes far beyond knowing a popular song or traditional dance. It is about helping children navigate through multiple perspectives.
An important part of teaching is to think about how we are decolonizing the content we teach. We need to ask ourselves if we are showing only one side of history. I provide my students with multiple sources of information and allow them to form their opinion on it. We discuss how important the voice that tells the story is. Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie warns us in her TEDtalk that if we hear just a single story about another person or place, we risk misinterpretation.
Hold space for open discussions and help them find their voice.
Building a strong community in and outside the classroom is vital. As adults, we tend to underestimate children’s opinions. This cannot continue. Restorative justice is a philosophy of building healthy communities and relationships as a foundation for working through conflict and helping community members find solutions to problems. Children deserve spaces where they can address their emotions and share ideas without the fear of judgment.
In my classroom, we set a daily time for our sharing circles. We start with a mindfulness practice, and then the students ask questions and share their perspectives using a talking stick. We openly talk about empathy and how to listen to others. In my opinion, this is one of the most critical components. Discussions with our children need to be balanced – allow them to lead conversations by asking questions. Our children, like us, are growing up in this world, and they often share our concerns.
During these times, we must pay more attention to elevating Black student voices. They have been historically marginalized, and even when Black students have access to advanced placement courses, they are vastly underrepresented in the content taught. We need to recognize the value of their contributions. We can do this by inviting children and their families to share their experiences and cultures. They are experts in their communities, and their voices matter.
We should start talking to our kids about racism today. There are many great resources available for educators and parents, like Teaching Tolerance, lists of culturally responsive books, and even a Sesame Street Town Hall for Kids and Families. But the heart of it all: children need to know that they can have tough conversations with people they know and trust.
One of my students’ favorite books is Say Something! by Peter H. Reynolds. It teaches us that children’s voices are different and unique, and we cannot force their expression by aligning it to our own beliefs or priorities. Students can speak up through art, community-building, or even by connecting with nature. They need to share their stories in a way that feels right, not to us, but to them.
They can rewrite the story.
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