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A woman hugs her daughter while attending a rally with hundreds of demonstrators to protest the death of George Floyd in Riverside, California, on June 4.
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How to talk to kids about racism, explained by a psychologist

“You’re always communicating about race, whether you talk about it or not.”

Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

America’s kids are watching.

They’ve seen the killing of George Floyd and other scenes of police violence against black people play across their TV screens again and again, as Kelly Glass reports at Vox. They see the thousands of people in the streets every day protesting that violence — sometimes, the kids are part of the protests.

And they see how their parents address racism in their own lives — or how they don’t at all. As Howard Stevenson, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, told Vox, “you’re always communicating about race, whether you talk about it or not.”

Stevenson has spent 30 years studying racial socialization, or the way that parents raise their kids to think about race. And he works with kids of all races on how they respond to “racially stressful encounters,” which he defines as “any moment in which someone is stressed and overwhelmed thinking about it, facing it, or thinking about it in the past.” That could mean a moment when a child is called a racial slur, makes a racist comment but then regrets it, or witnesses someone else say something racist and fails to speak up about it.

For Stevenson, there’s a clear strategy that can help kids navigate those moments and speak their mind — whether it’s to call out racism or apologize for saying something bigoted. A father himself, he acknowledges that black kids and other kids of color shouldn’t have to be trained to respond to racism — he’s said to his kids, “it’s a shame that Daddy even has to tell you about this.”

But, he told Vox, research shows that kids are treated differently based on skin color as young as preschool. For many black parents, teaching kids about those differences is a way of protecting them. But too often, white parents are afraid to bring up the subject, sometimes because they’re not comfortable with it themselves.

Today, Stevenson says, the lessons about racism in American society couldn’t be clearer — just turn on the TV. He spoke with Vox, in a conversation that’s been condensed and edited, about how parents can teach those lessons to their children, and themselves. After all, Stevenson points out, when navigating a racist world, it’s not enough to simply be a good person. You have to actually understand how racism works and how to fight it. And teaching that, he says, “is the role of parenting.”

Anna North

What are the kinds of techniques that you’ve studied in terms of teaching racial literacy to kids and how to respond to moments of racism and injustice?

Howard Stevenson

People, children and adults, sometimes see a racial moment as threatening. If the young person or an adult sees the racial moment as threatening, they’re more likely to overreact in a particular way. And so one of the strategies is around noticing — if you notice that you’re actually overreacting or having certain expressions in your body, thoughts, and feelings, you can manage it.

We teach kids especially how to use a mindfulness approach we call calculate, locate, communicate, breathe, and exhale. Calculate what feelings are you having, and then on a scale of one to ten, how intense are they? So somebody could be called a slur or say something they regret, and they feel scared at the level of nine. And they’re also angry at themselves at the level of six. But they’re also sad because the person they said it to might have been somebody that they like and care about. All those feelings are important.

Locate is: To what degree can you locate those feelings in your body? And because the body kind of keeps the score of your emotions, if you can figure that out, you’re more likely to be able to relax that part of your body, which will keep you from more anxiety.

Communicate is: What self-talk are you noticing? Are you saying anything to yourself? “Man, that was an idiot thing to say. Oh, my gosh, they’re gonna think I’m a racist.” Or what images come to your mind — do you see any pictures of people or situations while you’re going through the encounter? We can teach people those strategies followed by breathing and exhaling. And we know that it helps many people bring their brain from sort of locking down to being much more open to seeing around themselves, to hearing better, to listening better, and that’s where the healthy decision-making comes in.

The opposite of that is that people are overwhelmed so much that they try to avoid a racial moment. And if they are able to avoid it, the stress will go down, but they’re not any more competent for the next time they need to speak up or have a conversation.

Anna North

It sounds like these techniques are applicable both if someone experiences racism and if someone perpetrates racism or says something that might be racist. Is that right?

Howard Stevenson

Yes. As well as somebody who is watching and freezes and doesn’t know what to do.

Anna North

So how do parents and educators start teaching kids these steps? And at what age do you recommend starting?

Howard Stevenson

I’ve always recommended starting very early. Many families believe, “I don’t want to burden my kids with racial stuff because it’s so heavy. It might damage their childhood.” But we do share things with our kids early that are troublesome, perhaps scary, but it doesn’t throw off their childhood or lead them to nightmares.

And so what we’ve figured out mostly is that parents are more the issue than the children. In families of color, parents having had very negative racial experiences of discrimination in childhood could prompt them to hesitate to talk about these issues. Whereas white families who may not have had experience with race or racism at all are more fearful of being thought of as racist, or their children thought of as racist.

But you’re always communicating about race, whether you talk about it or not. Children at young ages are pretty adept at reading your nonverbal language, and being afraid to talk about race is quite observable. Children, over time, see it over and over and over again. And so they’re learning about what their parents won’t do in many respects more than what to do, if you’re not talking about it.

So one good recommendation is, if you’re going to have a conversation about race, talk about what’s going on with you, as a parent. What feelings do you have, including the fear of talking about it? And what is that fear coming from?

Anna North

How do you recommend that parents bring up the kinds of racial moments that you were talking about? How do you define that for kids?

Howard Stevenson

There are times when children will have feelings of what happens to them or other friends where they feel it was wrong or an injustice. That sense of injustice, kids can feel that something’s not right. That actually is a great place to start. The parents could say, did you ever have a situation where something was done to you or someone that you felt was wrong? How do you feel about it? Is there something you wanted to say when it happened, but you didn’t because you were afraid?

But we know children are treated differently by race in the larger world as early as preschool. We know that children very early on can understand the differences in categories around skin color. And in the way that you can socialize kids that skin color difference is a scary thing to talk about, you can also socialize kids that it is a wonderful area to talk about by how explicit you can be in sharing.

Anna North

Can you talk me through an example of the kind of racial moment that you train kids to respond to?

Howard Stevenson

Well, students have told me many times, young people, as young as fifth grade, that they can feel hurt and somebody uses a racial slur or gendered slur. And they’re put in a bind in that moment, especially if it happens in front of other students, and just like adults will walk away, if they haven’t said anything or done anything, to protect themselves, to carry that burden with them. And with that comes a host of, you know, “What is it about me that could have brought this about?”

So calculating your feelings is a way to sort of say, “Well, I’m feeling hurt and ashamed. But I’m incredibly mad.” We’re asking what do you notice in your body and your thoughts and feelings. Students can be able to say, “Wow, this is larger than just what the person said to me and larger than me not speaking back up.” And then we can go through a set of rituals like, “What would you have wanted to say?” Say nobody’s going to arrest you, nobody’s going to kick you out of class. If you said you were angry at a nine, what would you want to say that matches that anger?

And so we can practice with them several options of things they really want to say that match that feeling, even if it seems rude, to eventually come up with something that wouldn’t get them in trouble that they could say the next time — that would also mean they wouldn’t be quiet, because that swallowing is something that haunts them. They’re tired of being perceived as weak, and tired of other people thinking that they can pick on them.

Anna North

Talk to me a little bit about the benefits of these strategies for kids. You mentioned that there’s a harm that kids carry with them if they are quiet when they want to speak up — how do these strategies help?

Howard Stevenson

If you’re mad that you didn’t speak up in a situation — let’s say it happens in the classroom — sometimes that classroom becomes a trigger for you. You’re less likely to focus in the classroom. It might affect your persistence in performance and grades.

[And] we know these kinds of microaggressions can affect your health, including your sleep. And so another benefit is you’re going to be less likely to hold in and keep grudges because of unresolved moments.

Anna North

How do the strategies you teach differ for black kids and other kids of color versus for white kids who don’t experience racism but who might be perpetrating or being a bystander to racism?

Howard Stevenson

There’s a dance to racism in our society, a dance in learning about the politics of race. So many people ask me, what do you do for white people who don’t know about race because they haven’t been exposed? I say, if you take an astronomy class and you find out about black holes, you may be surprised — “I didn’t know that, now I do.” That’s not knowing. But if you grew up in a culture where race has been around everywhere, like if you have a telephone, or a TV, or you watch cartoons, or any imagery in American society, you’re exposed to race and racism. So the real question is, how is it that you were trained to not know or trained to not see?

And that’s the place where you can begin. How do I stop that dance that I usually do around not seeing or not wanting to see?

When studies have interviewed white parents about race, they are much more likely to be grateful that their children don’t talk about it out of fear that talking about it could either hurt their kids or other people in some way. So it’s a protective notion. Whereas families of color are more likely to see bringing up race as healthier, and protective.

Anna North

This is a hard question, or maybe it’s just hard for me to articulate. But you’ve outlined clear benefits for kids of color if they get training in how to respond in the kinds of racial moments you identify. But how do you think about the fact that they shouldn’t have to experience these moments at all? It seems like it’s a problem that they have to be trained for this, you know?

Howard Stevenson

I’ve had to say to my kids, “It’s a shame that Daddy even has to tell you about this, that you live in a world that doesn’t see you as as human as other people. And I do it out of your protection. But I don’t want you for a second to believe that there’s something wrong with you. It’s just the way other people see your humanity. That’s not how Daddy sees it.”

If there wasn’t so much historical evidence of that dehumanization that gets repeated and retriggered all the time, then you could make the argument that maybe I don’t have to have this conversation. But if you do, then you must say, I’m sorry that we even have to.

But [parents can tell kids] it’s not about you. It’s about [other people’s] lens and their narrow narrative about you. And you can lead to a lot from there about white supremacy and what that means.

Anna North

How should parents and educators be thinking about this particular moment in history? And how should they be talking to kids about what’s going on now?

Howard Stevenson

You can watch any bit of television, just watch the news and say, what’s not cool about this picture? I don’t know if there’s ever been a time when these lessons on racism and discrimination have been so stark, in the last 20 years, as we’ve seen in the last four. So the lessons should be easier to pull off.

For me, these are issues of morality — but I think morality is not the best way to go these days. I don’t think morality makes us competent necessarily in how to see these issues or how to deal with them. If you say, “We have an opening for an algebra teacher at our school,” and I say, “I have a friend who’s morally of high caliber and standing — they have trouble with math, however,” most people wouldn’t entertain their CV. But we think that way when it comes to racial issues.

As a parent, I would say, I don’t want somebody who’s good but incompetent in the world doing their work. What if my child were seen as somebody moral but incompetent at navigating racial moments?

Parents of color know, “I want my child to be prepared for these racial encounters that are stressful because it could affect their well-being and their health and their self-esteem.” But white parents might say, “I want my child to be skilled at navigating racial encounters too. Why would I want a child who avoids these issues and then in some respects is incapacitated? How can I help my child speak up on behalf of his friend? If his friend of color goes through stuff that affects my child, that’s still important.”

I think it’s hilarious that so many politicians have gone back into their college careers and found that they dressed up in blackface. Some people are really good people, and they’re really ashamed of having done it. But you could argue that they never got a lesson about how you see people different than them. That is the role of parenting.

[Parents can say], “the reason why I wouldn’t ever want you to do this — and I want to show you the governor who did this — not just because it’s going to be embarrassing to me, and not just because it’s going to be embarrassing for you, but because it goes against your values for the kids that you’ve spent time playing with. It goes against the values of the people you’re going to eventually represent if you become a congressman. It’s dehumanizing.”

And that starts early.

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