Category Archives: Talking with Children

Central Kitsap Students: Doing What’s Right When Others Around You Are Doing Wrong

Olympic High Students 2017

I woke up this morning filled with gratitude for the opportunity to speak with students at Olympic and CK High in the Central Kitsap School District on Tuesday. I’m always more nervous speaking with students than with adults. I guess because I have more experience with the latter, though I also think it’s because as students pile into the auditorium they are less likely to engage me, less likely to send a smile my way and more likely to walk in with all the awkwardness that being an adolescent brings, triggering in me some of my own feelings of inadequacy.

There is a recent rise in overt bullying behavior in our nation’s schools particularly as it relates to race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. Regardless of our level of comfort with these and other diversity related topics, it is imperative that we engage students in these types of courageous conversations and help them to develop the very skills we were not taught growing up. As many adults are becoming emboldened to speak their truth at the expense of others, so too are our children.

In the 45-minute keynote I briefly taught about microaggressions and shared a message about treating one another with humanity, dignity and respect. I solicited their ideas and shared some of my own when dealing with bullying behavior, particularly related to diversity. If you’ve ever heard me speak you know it included lots of storytelling. I’m not sure if I was more like Beyoncé with my head mic or Ellen DeGeneres as I ran up and down the gymnasium bleachers handing the microphone to students. I was probably truer to myself, out of breath, thinkin’ I’m passing for cool with the students, trying to walk around with a bit of swag, dressed in my combat boots and army fatigue colored jacket.

I opened with my Where I’m From poem and a story about having to move to Myrtle Creek Oregon during my 5 th grade school year for a couple of months. Every morning as my younger sister and I walked onto the school grounds, we would become surrounded by several older boys who shouted the N word at us. Teachers pretended they didn’t hear and the relatives we were living with told us to ignore it. No matter how much I tried to adhere to the sticks and stones will break your bones verbiage, it hurt deeply. My older sister Kelly had just passed away, we had to leave our grandmother’s home because she had a stroke and couldn’t take care of us, and my mom was away working in Alaska. It was a tough time for me and my younger sister. I wanted the students I spoke to, to consider what might be going on in a peer’s life. I also wanted students to know that I understood what it is like to be bullied because of my difference.

But the next part of the story was the most important in my mind. One day, my sister and I walked onto the playground and a group of older girls started protecting us. Each morning they would surround us, encourage us to keep walking and told those boys to leave us alone. I talked with Central Kitsap students about the courage it took these girls who we did not know, to stand up for what was just. Following are 5 questions I asked students and key points that were made about talking with young people about doing the right thing when others are doing wrong.

1) What are some things you can say to the person who is committing the microassault?
These are things people do and say that are not okay, they know it’s wrong, so they tend to do it in private or hope that when they target someone they won’t get caught. I talked with students about how attacking that person will only make things worse and is more likely to land them, the person responding, in trouble. This is the Two wrongs don’t make a right adage. Lots of great ideas were generated: Stop that! That’s not funny. It’s not okay to say hurtful things like that, if you continue I’m going to report it to a teacher. I encouraged them to come up with anchors they can say that doesn’t involve them trying to educate the person doing the harm, but rather an approach that sets boundaries and conveys the message that they don’t condone the behavior. Even if what they say has no effect on the bullying behavior, it is far better than silence, which sends a message that you agree with them. I shared with them that silence is a form of action.

2) How do you think the person who is being bullied because of a difference feels?
Some of their responses hurt my heart as they weaved their own experiences into their responses. Some pretended as if they were speaking about someone else, while others openly shared personal stories. I thought they were being very brave, and reminded the audience as students spoke they were showing courage by taking risk. One girl stated, “I used to cut when people teased me, but I haven’t done that for four years.” Another student stood up and stated a matter of fact, “There are a group of boys who are teasing me, and I don’t like it.” Other feelings were named like depressed, sad, lonely, isolated, worthless, frustrated, and suicidal. Big heavy sigh. So much our young people are enduring.

3) If you know that bullying makes people feel this way, and you know that this is happening at your school, what can you do to mitigate the impact?
I prefaced this with the fact that they can’t solely rely on their teachers and administration to create a culture of inclusion. There are more of them than there are staff and there is power in peer to peer interactions. The students again generated great ideas and I shared some of my own. These included, sit next to that person, give them a compliment, just be with them, invite them to join you and your friends. I ended this with, We just came up with great ideas about what we can do to make someone who is being targeted feel better, but the real question is what will you do?

4) Impact vs. Intent: Micro-Insults:
My last main point was how we sometimes do harm without meaning to. This type of microaggression can still have a powerful negative impact even when we have good intentions. I used examples of phrases like That’s retarded, That’s so Gay and the use of the N word. I made the point that even by putting an “a” at the end of the the N word, it still has a negative impact; the N word is still the N word no matter how you package it.

I closed with a story about a kid I went to elementary and high school with named Dennis. Dennis was a skinny White kid who in those days was picked on for being a “nerd”. During our 10-year high school reunion Dennis came up to me and thanked me for not being one of the kids who was mean to him. I looked for Dennis during our 20-year reunion only to learn that he had died. As I shared this story with the students, I told them no matter how many years pass, hurtful and hateful behavior stays with the victim for a lifetime. While I was glad that I was not one of the kids who picked on Dennis, my regret was that I didn’t stand up on his behalf and do what’s right when others were doing wrong.

My final comment was, What will your peers remember or say about you 10 years from now?

I’ll admit it was exhausting doing two repeat keynote addresses at each of these schools. But by the end of the day I was reenergized by the connections made with the youth. Many students came up to me afterwards, some with tears in their eyes, other asking deeper questions and making connections, and some who wanted to take a picture with me (Thank you Olympic H.S. students for letting me share this photo. From left to right: Mavenna Hoffman, Tyzaih Williams, Amiya Jameson, You J, Aaliyah Williams, Taylor Unger, Cyrus Alejandro, Ella Rathmann, Brittani Christensen).

Thank you JD Sweet, teacher at CK High who started planting seeds in his classroom long before I ever got there. You made my job easier. I appreciate Central Kitsap administrators and staff for giving me the opportunity to engage their students and for their willingness to embark on this difficult journey to create welcoming and inclusive spaces for all their students.

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Early, Often, and With Increasing Depth: Talking with Children about Racism and White Privilege

blacklivesLast December I was participating in a peaceful protest led by young people of color at West Lake Center in solidarity with Ferguson to call attention to the fact that Black Lives Matter. I saw many families with young children reacting in different ways to us protestors. Some were clearly annoyed. Others looked frightened and were quickly pulling their children away from us. Still others were engaged in conversations with their children, and, although I couldn’t hear them, looked to be explaining what we were doing and why.

Whether talking directly or sending messages through body-language, all of these parents were communicating something to their children not just about protests, but about race in the United States. With the Black Lives Matter movement emerging after Michael Brown was shot by a police officer to the recent murder of Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor, and Susie Jackson in church by a white supremacist, the time is now to develop more skills in talking with children about racism.

For many parents of color, conversations about racism begin very early as a way to help young children develop the armor they’ll need when faced with bias. Children are equipped to realize racial discrimination is not because there’s something wrong with them, but something wrong with the person doing the discriminating. And, on a more fundamental level, the talk about what to do when you see a police officer can be a life or death matter.

However, conversations about racism are far less common in white families. Many parents want to believe children don’t notice race or are afraid that by calling attention to race, they’ll make the problem worse. When, in fact, the best way to ensure white children don’t develop a sense of inherent racial superiority is to talk openly about systemic barriers facing people of color.

Here are two tips for talking with children about racism, white privilege, and white supremacy.

1. Practice.
We often avoid having these conversations with children because of our own discomfort. Practice talking with your friends about racism you’re seeing in news stories (note: this doesn’t mean post an article on social media). Recognize you don’t need to know everything and practice asking good questions. Pro tip: Start with friends you know agree with your perspective, then move into more challenging conversations with those who don’t.

2. Avoid Making it About Good vs. Bad.
Children are taught from a young age to see the world as full of good guys and bad guys. I remember overhearing a conversation between a six and an eight year old where the older child was saying she’d heard about a really, really bad guy named Hitler. The younger responded, “You mean, he turned to the Dark Side?” Although I laughed at this exchange, it illustrates how racialized good/bad is in media, as white and light are often associated with the protagonist.

Oversimplifying conversations about white supremacy to a good/bad dichotomy may feel like the easiest way to explain this to a child, but it actually makes things more complicated.

There have been many widely publicized cases of police officers killing unarmed Black people and many less discussed, but equally important, cases with Native people such as John T. Williams in Seattle. This is a pattern that results from institutional racism in policies and practices that Michelle Alexander does a great job of illustrating in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

This also happens in the context of a wide-spread culture in the United States that continues to treat Black people as less valuable, less intelligent, more dangerous, etc. than white people. It is easy for anyone of us to list the multiple stereotypes of Black people. And given that it is so easy, we must accept the likelihood that we’ve internalized these stereotypes (to test your own implicit bias, go to Project Implicit). Therefore, individual police officers, especially in stressful situations, may be more likely to see a Black man as dangerous, even if they think they’re not prejudiced.

If we just tell children that the officers who killed Freddie Gray were bad people, they might start wondering how all of these “bad guys” got a job in law enforcement. If we just tell children that Dylan Roof was a bad person, we miss the bigger picture of a pattern of white supremacy that persists and influences decisions and attitudes in this country beyond a few extremists.

Finally, good/bad framing leaves no room for change. When I’m doing workshops, people will often respond defensively to the idea that they could have said or done something racist. They talk instead about their good intentions, essentially saying, “I’m a good person.” But, it is impossible to live in the United States and not collude in some way with institutional racism. I want our children to grow into adults who understand that good, well-intentioned people can make mistakes because of their racial biases. I want them to be able to acknowledge, apologize, and learn from their mistakes. I also want them to see the potential for growth and change in others. That is much easier when we don’t see ourselves as “bad guys” when our biases inevitably show up.

So how do you talk with a child outside of a good/bad binary? Start early, revisit the conversation often, and add increasing depth. For example:

  • Point out stereotypes on TV shows, in movies, and in books. “What did you notice about the race or clothing colors of the “good guys” and “bad guys”?”
  • “There are a lot of laws that make our criminal justice system (or simplify to policing) unfair to Black and Brown people.”
  • “All of us have stereotypes and we have to try hard to be fair to each other. When a person is in a position of power, such as a police officer, they have to be extra careful in life and death situations to not let their stereotypes effect their decisions.”
  • “Throughout the history of the United States, Black people have faced violence from white supremacy in the laws, culture and some groups of people. Black people are very resilient and have fought hard for equal treatment. It is up to all of us to put an end to racism. One thing I’m doing to support justice for all is…”

By practicing these conversations we’ll become more comfortable with the discomfort. This will help us raise children of color who have a healthy, positive sense of their own racial identity and white children who don’t feel superior to others. As we stumble through these talks, we also learn better how we can address racism and white privilege and put an end to these tragedies in our lifetime.

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