Breaking Down "Structural" and "Systemic" Racism for Our Children
Appreciating diversity - of skins colors, hair textures, foods, and music. Embracing friendships across racial lines. Understanding that every racial and ethnic group includes people who believe different things and behave in different ways, that there is as much diversity within racial groups as across them.
At EmbraceRace, we subscribe to all these elements of what we call "the diversity vision" and support parents, educators and other caregivers to do the same in your work with children. We also know that the diversity vision is not enough. If, together, we are to raise a color-brave generation of children who can help fuel a thriving multiracial democracy, we must help children understand the "structural" and "systemic" roots of the persistent racial divides, inequities, and power imbalances that characterize US society.
Watch this conversation about structural and systemic racism with Dr. Kimberly Narain and Michael Lawrence-Riddell, both of whom have thought a lot about how to communicate about it with children. We discuss - what do we mean by those terms? Why do they matter? How do we break them down for - make them accessible to - even elementary school-aged children? What can we support our children to do about them?
EmbraceRace: So, EmbraceRace is a community, most of you know, of support for people who want to raise kids who are informed, thoughtful and brave about race. And we chose those words very deliberately, and part of being informed and thoughtful and being able to ultimately be anti-racist, work against things and systems that discriminate by race, you need to know about systemic racism and structural racism. We're using those terms interchangeably. We're going to dig in today to what those mean, why it's important for us to talk to kids about them and then how to talk to kids about them, how young, how to do it at the youngest through the ages.
We have two guests who have tried to do this work very thoughtfully.
Our first guest is Kimberly Narain, MD, PhD, MPH. Motivated by her own battle with chronic disease, Dr. Kimberly Narain has devoted her career to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to be healthy. She's a wife, a mother, an internal medicine physician, and a researcher focused on improving the health of underserved and under-resourced populations. Her primary research involves examining the health equity implications of social, economic and health interventions among racial and ethnic minorities and individuals with low socioeconomic status. Kim, welcome, and thank you for doing that work.
Dr. Kim Narain: Thank you for having me.
EmbraceRace: And Michael Lawrence-Riddell is an award winning public school educator with 20 years of classroom experience. Michael founded Self-Evident Education (formerly Self-Evident Media) in September of 2019 because he wasn't finding teaching materials that addressed the urgent need for our society to honestly and rigorously engage in work to understand the histories and legacies of race and institutional racism. Michael's foundation as an African-American Studies major at Wesleyan University and as a teacher of American History also shapes his work.
What is it about your personal and/or professional backgrounds that helps explain your investment in how to educate children about structural and systemic racism?
Dr. Kim Narain: I started delving into this issue honestly to help myself. When everything happened over the summer with George Floyd and all the social unrest that followed, I had this feeling that there was just no way to avoid addressing the issue with my seven-year-old daughter, but I didn't really know how to do it. I knew I wanted to not make the conversation about bad people doing bad things. In my professional life, I spend the majority of my time thinking about the way that policies and laws impact people's ability to be healthy, and I focus on these things because I know that's what has the biggest outcome or the biggest impact on behaviors and outcomes.
So I started thinking to myself, "Could this way of thinking be useful for my daughter in terms of having an ability to interpret what had happened with George Floyd? But not only with George Floyd, but with the additional events that we know unfortunately will come in the future?" And that's what got me thinking about if there are resources to try to help me have this discussion with my daughter. So I started going to our personal library. I started going online, and then I really just came to the conclusion that there was not much in the way of helping discuss these issues with children. And then I started thinking I might have to create something myself.
EmbraceRace: Thank you for doing that. Michael, what's your investment in this work?
Michael Lawrence-Riddell: I'm going to rewind way back, and I think there's a danger when we go to origin stories, because at their worst they can be reductive. But at their best, they can be really powerful metaphors for how people or things came to be what they were. And so I'm an educator through and through. I knew from a really early age that I wanted to be an educator. And when I was young, when I was five years old, I was in kindergarten and I was invited to a friend of mine's birthday party. And I knew exactly what I wanted to get him for his birthday party, the Dukes of Hazzard General Lee car. I was going to bring it to him for his birthday and I knew he would love it.
And my dad said, "Michael, you cannot bring that into your Black friend's house." And I was shocked, taken aback. "Why not? We watched this show, we play it, it's on TV every week in our house." And my father had a really open and honest conversation with me as a five-year-old. I don't remember all of the things that he said, but I really clearly remember him telling me that that car had a flag that represented an army that fought a war to enslave people who looked like my friend. And so, the honesty with which a person who loved me spoke to me with love about that moment, I think, in looking back and reflecting, I think it's been really impactful on how I've lived my life.
And then fast forward to when I was in eighth grade in Amherst, Massachusetts, and one of my best friends was assaulted because of the color of his skin. He had his knee cap dislocated, was called the N-word, told to go the *** back to Africa. And I witnessed this. I think I had naïvely grown up thinking that racism happened "back then and down there," and seeing it happen right in front of me was this really crystallizing moment for me. And so I decided to become a teacher to serve as a powerful lever, the way that it had served me to try to understand the way that racism functions in this country, and to bring that into the classroom and to use the classroom or any educative space as a place where we can really understand the histories of what has brought us to today.
Because if we don't understand the past, we can't understand today and we can't even envision a just future, much less build it if we don't understand our past. So, I think that's it for me, the power that education has played in my own life, and I really just wanted to distill that and bring that to other people.
EmbraceRace: Michael, when you were five and you were going to your friend's house and bringing this car, clearly your father felt a need to intervene in that moment. Did those conversations continue?
Michael Lawrence-Riddell: Yeah, definitely. I mean, growing up, my dad was an Economics Professor at Smith College. He was at Bucknell first when I was born and then at Smith College. And he was a radical socialist, economist. He brought us to the, must have been the 25th anniversary of the March for Jobs and Justice in Washington. We marched. He founded an organization called the Center for Popular Economics that was housed at Hampshire College in Amherst, and it was an organization that was established to help social organizers understand economic systems in their fight for social justice. So yeah, I definitely was raised by parents who made this part of their central mission, to have these kinds of conversations with me and my brothers.
EmbraceRace: We're trying to do the same. I didn't know you grew up in Amherst as well.
"Structural racism." "Systemic racism." You each use different terms in your work. Can you explain which term you prefer and an explanation of what it means?
Dr. Kim Narain: When I say "structural racism," what I'm thinking about is the laws, the policies, the practices that lead to differential access to advantages and disadvantages. And when I'm speaking about advantages and disadvantages, I'm thinking about things like labor. So who has access to a high-quality job? Who has access to start a business? I'm thinking about material goods. I'm thinking about who has access to safe and healthy environments. I'm also thinking about symbolic social good. So I'm thinking about things like who has access to justice and democracy, and how that breaks down by racial lines.
And I use this definition for a few different reasons. One, because structural racism is the most important type of racism for impacting outcomes that we see today. This is opposed to something like interpersonal racism, which is differential treatment from one individual to another, as a consequence of their race. I also use it because it's the most difficult to detect. So you think about something like zoning, that might be totally innocuous on its face. We don't want more multiunit dwellings in our neighborhood. But it's not obviously clear even how the support or the opposition of that now breaks down. It may be along racial lines, it may not. But yet and still, the impact that these laws have is essentially keeping in place those differences in access to the neighborhood that go back to segregation.
And then I'll say the last reason why I focus on structural racism is because understanding the way in which racism is so pervasive throughout all of American lives, darker-skinned people have a sense of the type of solutions that would have to be implemented in order to actually increase the quality of opportunity across racial groups. So if you don't understand the far-reaching cross-sector implications of racism, you might actually come to the opinion that something that's trying to actually redress inequity, something like affirmative action, you might actually think that's a racist policy. So it's important that we have this broader understanding of the way that racism operates.
EmbraceRace: Kim, do you use "systemic racism" and "structural racism" interchangeably?
Dr. Kim Narain: Yeah. I see a lot of people in the literature I read using them interchangeably.
EmbraceRace: Michael, do you have a different definition or something to add?
Michael Lawrence-Riddell: No. I mean, I think similar to Kim, I see the words used and I use the words interchangeably, but I think it really is about the systems and the structures. And for me, it goes back as a teacher and a student of history, I'm always looking for those narratives, those stories that we can find that help to illustrate the ways that race and racism has been systematized and created structures within our society.
There's a brilliant podcast called Seeing White - Scene on Radio. One of the co-hosts Chenjerai Kumanyika, he talks really brilliantly, and many others do as well, about the ways that we currently exist within a culture where racist and oppressive outcomes exist without necessarily the need for individual racists, that they're so embedded within the structures and the outcomes.
And I think Ibram Kendi does such a great job in his books in so many ways of showing how the racist ideas have come out of racist policies and not the other way around. I think that's oftentimes the cultural story that we get told. We get told this story that the ideas of difference existed, and then the policies followed these ideas. When in actuality, what Kendi shows so brilliantly in the past and in the present, is the ways that the outcomes of the policies are what's important. And so if we can look at demographic information like Kimberly brought up, we look at infant mortality rates and we look at life expectancy and income equality or inequality and incarceration rates, and there are varied outcomes that can be predicted based on racial categories, then we have racist policies in effect. And there need to be a discrete anti-racist systemic policies to undo that.
And so one story, I think, from our history, which really helps to illustrate this is the ways that laws about race were formed in the colony of Virginia. The colony of Virginia, the House of Burgesses is the first representative governmental body in what become the American colonies, and so the laws that they establish about race then become instrumental in the laws that get established about race in the other colonies. And so if want to undo that, we've got to do it in a systemic way.
And so right now, the state of Virginia has rewritten their Social Studies curriculum guidelines. One of the interns for Self-Evident is in the room today, Cambria Weaver, and she did this brilliant job going through their Social Studies frameworks and aligning them with the work that we're doing in Self-Evident Education. And they have a standard where they name that exact thing. They say, "The ideas and laws about race that became central to American beliefs about race came out of the colony of Virginia." And so the state of Virginia is acknowledging the fact that their ancestry, that one of the legacies of the founding of Virginia, has been the ways that racist ideas have been embedded in all of our systems and structures. And so I think there are some positive and hopeful ways that systems thinking is being used to undo the ways that racial disparities and inequities have been systematized in this country. It's going to take a long time to do it, but it has to be done systemically.
EmbraceRace: So, for each of you, Kim, with respect to your seven-year-old daughter, and Michael, with respect to your students, you have an audience of young people. Kim, you were writing your book, The Cycle of a Dream, to meet a need that wasn't matching the materials you could find, and Michael, you were doing something very similar.
How did you think about how to communicate this idea of systemic and structural racism to young people? What were some of the difficulties?
Kim, what were your fears in teaching your daughter about this?
Dr. Kim Narain: It was tough. I have to be honest again. I had some of those same fears. So it was not a slam dunk on deciding to put this book together. I was very worried about doing harm. For me, I was exposed to a lot of this material in college, so when I started to think about structural racism, it was very empowering for me, it was motivating for me, it changed my life and it has a lot to do with the career path that I chose for today. But, of course I was 18 and not eight, so I was wondering, could this really undermine her own agency? Could this has negative implications for her self-esteem? Could it hurt her ability to have cross-racial friendships?
So it actually wasn't until I started reaching out to some of the people that I know that work with children and deal with some of these issues that I even felt comfortable moving forward. One of the people I reached out to was a mentor of mine, her name is Joan Reede, and she's actually Dean of Diversity and Community Partnerships at Harvard. And she's also a child psychiatrist and a pediatrician. And I reached out to a couple of other friends of mine with pediatric backgrounds and another friend of mine who was a middle school history teacher and let them know what I was thinking. And once they signed off on my approach, I knew I could move forward.
And then once I decided to move forward, I was able to put on my research hat. And the main question I was asking was, what does the evidence show in terms of laws and policies, what does it show about what has been most impactful for the circumstances that we find ourselves in today? And what I did once I figured that out, I thought, "Okay, I want to do a little bit different from what I had seen." So of course you have to address something like slavery, but what I did that I hadn't seen done was really draw out that economic motivation for slavery and then tie that economic exploitation directly to the wealth gap that we see across racial lines today.
The other thing that I wanted to do is show the way that the little subtle dehumanizations really laid the foundation where something like slavery could continue. And then how does that "little d" dehumanization track to the police brutality that we see today? And I took that same approach of really looking historically and tracing a line directly to the present with other issues like voting rights, issues like segregation. Other things that I wanted to do was definitely show the agency of people of color. So I highlighted a couple of different movements, a couple of different key figures that you don't tend to see in the second grade social studies textbooks. Then the other thing that I wanted to do was really show how people have worked across racial lines, both in the past and the present, in order to combat racial injustice and improve in equity.
So I was very cognizant of paying attention to the way that illustrations looked and how they represented diversity across these movements. And once I had that foundation, what I find is an ability to take events from today and harken back to that. So I can say to my daughter, "Remember that part in the book where we talked about voting and how voting was made more difficult?" And she's like, "Oh, yeah, the poll attacks and stuff like that." And then I can say, "Oh, well, we're passing some laws like that now in different states." So I'm able to really reiterate over and over with different examples from everyday life. So it becomes much more concrete to her and not something that's specifically relegated to the past, but then something that is manifesting today, and then something that she also has agency to address today.
What I did [in my book] that I hadn't seen done was really draw out that economic motivation for slavery and then tie that economic exploitation directly to the wealth gap that we see across racial lines today... So it becomes much more concrete to her [my seven-year-old daughter] and not something that's specifically relegated to the past, but then something that is manifesting today, and then something that she also has agency to address today.
Dr. Kim Narain
EmbraceRace: The name of your book Kim, The Cycle of a Dream: A Kid's Introduction to Structural Racism in America, and you've told us some of the choices you made. I'm wondering, as you said in the beginning you reached out to your mentor, you reached out to others. It wasn't obvious how you were going to do this work. We have a lot of questions from folks are wondering, how do they speak to their own children of varying ages?
Along the way of writing the book and thinking through how are you going to communicate to your daughter and to other kids, were there paths you decided not to take, pitfalls that appear to you and that you avoided? Or possibly since the book's publication, have you come up with some things that you would warn people against?
Dr. Kim Narain: Definitely something that I tried to stray away from was being too graphic. I was really of the mind to try to get the point across without necessarily having to frighten children. My daughter is extremely sensitive, so if I show someone getting lynched or somebody getting beat, it would have been extremely traumatic for her. So, that was one thing that I was very cognizant of, how do I actually illustrate these qualities in a way that rings true, but does not inflict unnecessary trauma on kids.
Another issue that I referred to beforehand is how do you now take these historical events and bring them into the present so kids can recognize them in their everyday life. So now how do I tie a line from lunch counter sit-ins to the Black Lives Matter protest? So really trying to bring these things into the present. So I think those were some of the things that I really wanted to focus on.
One of the things I did do is actually borrowed a lot of the template from her social studies books. So I really try to mimic that, so it was not so jarring in its presentation, and I just really wanted to make sure that I just gave a little bit more context. So it's not things that they have no touchpoint for being exposed to, but I add a little bit more context to slavery. Why did that happen? How did racialization, so to speak, play a role in the ability of Americans to enslave people? So I just draw out some of these things, I keep a similar template and then I move things from the past up to today. So those were some of my key strategies.
EmbraceRace: I just want to thank you, Kim, so much for underlining that point, and of course the four of us talked about it before as well, of drawing that connection and talking about contemporary, today dynamics. You made a loose allusion to the voting rights and voting regime changes in Georgia, for example, and Texas. As we know, it's very, very tempting for a lot of people in acknowledging an ugly racial history of this country, to insist that, "The '60s were a tipping point. Before the '60s, we had bad things, the '60s happened and there's some magical things going on and now we're all good, and that any residue from the past is just that; it's just residual. It happened then, it continues to trickle out a little bit, and next thing you know, we'll be all good." Instead of acknowledging the live, active perpetuation of inequities that we're dealing with.
Michael, what difficulties have you had in trying to present this material? What are some of your lessons learned that might help the guardians, parents, teachers, others out there?
Michael Lawrence-Riddell: I think part of it for me, it's been a very intentional route to the materials that we've built. I have an advisory board and now board of directors for Self-Evident Education, and it's a group of folks who I've been working with on and off for the past 30 years. One of my close collaborators is a multimedia visual artist by the name of Bayeté Ross Smith, who's a professor at NYU Tisch [School of the Arts], just a brilliant, brilliant person. And so for me, part of what happened in the process was I was in the classroom. I had been an English teacher for most of my career, teaching with the soul of a social studies teacher, and I had an opportunity to teach social studies, but was told with about a week left in the summer that I was going to be teaching American History I. And I thought, "I can do this." I was an African-American studies major in college, I became a teacher because I wanted to use it as a space to dismantle systemic racism and white supremacy, so I knew the lens that I wanted to teach through. I wanted to teach in a way that would engage my students, through story and through multimedia narratives. That's king within the students that I was working with.
And so I came to Bayeté with the idea, I explained, "Here's what I'm trying to find and I can't find it. Can we do something to make this material that doesn't exist in the classroom?" And he was very clear very early on that if we wanted to do this, we needed to make sure that the materials that we were creating were universally applicable across a wide variety of contexts. He was like, "We can't just make documentary films that are built for the classroom and that's the only space. We need to make these in a way that will engage people in conversation in all different levels and types of places."
So right now Bayeté is doing a program called The Art of Justice, where he's teaming with law schools and district attorney's offices, and he's presenting art that creates conversations around social justice issues, because the idea is so many of our future policymakers, like Kim talked about, the policies that we need to go after, those policy makers come out of those spaces, the law schools and the district attorney's offices. So he was very clear from the beginning. "We need to make this really high quality material." And I was just like, "Well, look at the stuff that's out there. It's not going to be that hard to make something that's better than that." And he was really, really, really pushing on making sure that we put this together in a really accessible and engaging way.
I think the other piece that's been really interesting, and it just comes out of the work that I've done in my life, so, the work that I have done in understanding the way that race has functioned in America as it relates to Whiteness and anti-Blackness. And that's been the focus of my scholarship, and it's the expertise of the team that I have surrounded myself with. And I think that's so much of the way that race has and does function in our society, comes back to the ways that it was built on these ideas of Whiteness and anti-Blackness. But that was a choice early, that those were the stories that we were going to focus on, hoping to eventually expand and bring more people onto the team and really get into some of the ways that race intersects in a whole bunch of different ways.
I think, also, I'm constantly aware, I've been asked so many different times some version of, "But you're a White guy. Why do you do this work?" And generally my answer would be some form of my origin story, but I think over years and years of doing this work, I've realized that I think the calculus on that question is slightly backwards. And so what I really wish people were asking me is, "But you're a White guy. Why don't more people like you do this work?" And I'm reminded of a response that Octavia Butler gave in a brilliant fashion. She was asked why there weren't more Black science fiction writers. And her response was, "Because there aren't more Black science fiction writers." We do what we see others doing. And she said, "Fortunately, I didn't have the sense to not do it."
And so for me, I think this has to be an issue that White people in this society are an active part of fixing, because it's been a system that has been built up supposedly in our name, and so we need to be an active part of solving that.
And so for me, I think this has to be an issue that White people in this society are an active part of fixing, because it's been a system that has been built up supposedly in our name, and so we need to be an active part of solving that.
EmbraceRace: So often when we talk about being adults in the lives of children and supporting them to negotiate or understand something, it's very easy for we, the adults, to act as if we all get it! In fact, these are terms that are really very mystifying for a lot of people, including adults. A lot of adults will acknowledge that they don't know exactly what this means, and a lot of the people who would say, "Yes, I understand what it means," actually mean quite different things by it.
Are there some starting points to beginning to understand systemic racism? Are there resources that you would lift up that really helped enhance your understanding?
Dr. Kim Narain: I'm going to say the 1619 podcast by the New York Times. I love that podcast, it's a great introduction to the way that structural racism operates in a number of facets. Really, really accessible. So it's six episodes ranging in about 29 to 41 minutes apiece, and you can get a really firm foundation in less than a week, if you're so inclined. I know we're all starting to drive again, so that's a great way to get introduced to this topic.
Then another thing I want to highlight, just because she takes a little bit of a different take on it, I want to highlight a book by Heather McGhee. It was recently released and it's called The Sum of Us: The Cost of Racism and How We Can All Prosper Together. And what she really does is trace these policies and laws that were meant to target Black people but that have ultimately ended up compromising the quality of life of all Americans. So I think that's a great way to think about how our present, our past and our future are linked, and how it's all in our best interest to try to dismantle structural racism.
EmbraceRace: I remember when I was in graduate school, an amazing literature started which continues around the historical and contemporary sources of racial wealth inequality. Brandeis University actually has a center focusing on wealth and racial wealth discrepancies, and, again, their sources, and especially their consequences. We tend to think of income, what you get in your paycheck and wealth accumulation, the value of your house or stocks, if you have them, those sorts of things, as, "Gosh, isn't that kinda same?" It's really not the same!
Michael, do you want to just toss out a couple manageable and useful resources in the space of structural racism?
Michael Lawrence-Riddell: Yeah. I mean, I would say anything by Audre Lorde or bell hooks. I think for me, Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire is not necessarily a book about American racism, but it talks a lot about the ways that oppressive structures get reproduced within the systems that exist in oppressive systems. And so, for me working in the education space, I've got to understand it is an institution within an institutionally racist system, and so the education system is going to be by default a racist space that we need to undo.
I would recommend anything that James Baldwin wrote or spoke. I often think he must have gone through life feeling like Cassandra from Greek mythology. He was cursed with prophetic vision that no one was going to listen to. The things that Baldwin was saying during his lifetime are so true to now. He wrote this gut wrenching short story called Going to Meet the Man, which I think shows some of the ways in which when poisonous soil is sewn, it reaps poisoned souls. And so, if we don't get to the radical root of the soil problem, we're going to keep producing poisoned souls. And I think that Baldwin said that brilliantly in so many different ways.
The last one, Seeing White, the podcast from Scene on Radio, I think particularly for White people who are new to the process of thinking about where they fit in this work and this equation, I think that Seeing White does a really good job of breaking that down. And the host, John Biewen is really great at being honest and transparent about his own work. I mean, I know it's 582 pages, but, people, for real, read this book, Stamped from the Beginning. Read it.
EmbraceRace: I recommend listening to it.
EmbraceRace: Just on Baldwin, he did a couple high profile debates which you can find, actually, on YouTube, one with William F. Buckley, and one with a Yale professor whose name I'm forgetting. His brilliance is just staggering, so I highly recommend those.
EmbraceRace: I remember, Andrew, you writing about structural racism in your work in academic circles many years ago and saying, "People use this term all the time and they don't know what they mean. You know what? I'm going to try to figure out." So this is continually and it's slippery, because that's why systemic racism is allowed to stand, because it's sneaky.
There's no substitute for understanding more and continuing your learning in every way about race, because it's very complicated, it doesn't totally make sense, it shifts. And these are messages we can also give our kids, but we have to understand and be learners ourselves. But it does seem that both of you talked about using examples that were very immediate in the lives of the kids in your lives. Michael, that was a great example of your father doing that around the Dukes of Hazzard car. There can be no substitute for that.
I think with little kids, unfair rules and fair/unfair are great simple ways to break down understandings of structures and procedures, but I'd love to hear your takes.
At every age level, do you talk to kids about structural racism, and how do you do it? What are some examples that you have for speaking about this to the youngest set, let's say, preschool through middle school children? Are there things you think of that are great terms or language?
Dr. Kim Narain: Yeah. I mean, I think you guys are raising a lot of important points. The younger you are, the more concrete you are, the less abstract. So a lot of their questions are going to just be pertaining to more obvious physical differences. So just being upfront about those sorts of things, something as simple as why somebody has darker skin, tracing that to differences in melanin, but not anything reflective of any innate differences in terms of humanity. So tying some of those basic things that those kids are going to be interested in.
And I was reviewing a couple of studies where they start to broach the issues of structural racism with kids as young as six, and of course they do it in some simple ways, but they have found that kids can get it, they are receptive to it, and they actually are appreciative of it. One specific study took some biographies of some famous people in historical African-American life, so somebody, say for instance, like Jackie Robinson and what they did is they presented all the positive information about him and everything that he did and contributed to one group of six-year-olds. But in a different group of six-year-olds, not only did they add all that positive information, they actually put some information in about the discrimination that he faced, about him not being able to play baseball because of his skin, and the kids actually were more responsive to the version of the biography that actually included that information with respect to his discrimination.
the other interesting thing to think about, that a lot of people have a lot of
misconceptions about, is the fact that kids are picking up on these racialized
differences in their environment and coming to their own conclusions anyway. So
they're acting out some of these structural racism dynamics by the time they're
four or five anyway. So, what you do when you don't have the discussions with
them, is you lose the ability to actually shape the narrative. And you leave
them to come to conclusions on their own, and nine times out of 10, what they
come to is the idea that one group, whether it be race, whether it be gender,
is inferior to another, so we have an opportunity to intervene.
The younger you are, the more concrete you are, the less abstract. So a lot of their questions are going to just be pertaining to more obvious physical differences. So just being upfront about those sorts of things, something as simple as why somebody has darker skin, tracing that to differences in melanin, but not anything reflective of any innate differences in terms of humanity... When you don't have the discussions with them, you lose the ability to actually shape the narrative.
Dr. Kim Narain
EmbraceRace: And, Kim, one thing I hear you saying I want to build on just a little bit, we're talking about building blocks, right? So I think it isn't necessarily the case that you're trying to talk about structural racism per se, even using other language with your two-year-old. But with your two-year-old is, as with other things, is building on some basic core bits of information. So you talk about skin color, but phenotype, so now we're getting into what race is and what it isn't.
And another piece of that is this idea of "deservingess." Are people circumstances a reflection of their character? The answer is not necessarily, very often not. So we have a colleague, a professor at NYU, does research. She found that those children, four-year-old children who understood that the person in the rich house, the large, lavish house, we couldn't infer that that person was smarter than anybody else, harder working than anybody else, et cetera. And the person in the house that didn't look nearly as lavish, that looked like a poor house, wasn't necessarily deserving of that. So, this idea that, well, there's a lot that intervenes between the person and their circumstances.
Children who said, "Look, no, I don't know anything about the person in that house, what kind of a person he/she is simply because she or he lives in that house." And that's something we're teaching from a very early age and becomes a building block for explaining things like structural racism a bit later. Michael, what's your thinking?
Michael Lawrence-Riddell: I wish my wife were here in the room with me. She's a first grade teacher, and she's always telling me about the brilliant things that she does with her students. I don't unfortunately have a bunch of books off the top of my head, but what I can say is how important it is the work that you all are doing.
I'm in a program at Mount Holyoke, there's a teacher there who's a preschool teacher. And one of the things that she is working on as her capstone is trying to develop professional development resources for preschool teachers that specifically look at social inequity, racial inequity, social justice, in a way that fits in this preschool mode, because what she says is every time the district brings in professional development around social justice in the classroom, it's always pitched second grade and higher, and there's no one coming to talk to them about how do you have these conversations with young children?
And I think there's a piece too, if we can be more intentional about the ways that we educate our youngest children, then we don't have to undo the harm that's been done at a later age. And so, I wish I had a list of 50 books that I could get. I'll get them from my wife later and I'll email them all to you. I think that the other thing I will say, I saw some talk in the chat earlier about, "I just saw a Sesame Workshop." I think Makeda Mays Green who's the President of the Self-Evident Education Board is in the room now. Brilliant, brilliant lady doing a bunch of work with folks at Nickelodeon and Sesame Workshop and all of these places to get these conversations happening so it's every day. It's not a thing where you're like, "Oh, we're going to talk about this now." And it's scary. It's a, "This is a thing that we've all been talking about from when we were little." And again, you don't have to then undo it. You don't have to undo the myths and the lies that have been told.
So, I mean, just hats off, Andrew and Melissa, to the work that you do. I love what you're doing, I love the idea behind it, and bringing all these people together, I mean, look at this. There's 800 plus people in this room right now. To me, that is incredibly hopeful, and just this is energizing and exciting. Thanks for letting me be part of it.
EmbraceRace: We have plenty of book lists for young kids, and to be honest, so books are hugely important. Obviously they're hugely important to the lives of many families, working with children in different ways, literacy, et cetera. And sometimes we feel mixed feelings about books, because of course they're relatively safe. You can get the book from the library, you can buy the book, you can bring it into your home, read the book, and perhaps thinking about all the work you need to do. This question speaks to that.
"Do you think that for [White] children and teens, that getting to know people of color personally may have more effect than words and concepts? I'm thinking of speakers at schools, storytelling, or reading at kindergarten and nursery schools."
What do you think about having access to the resources the two of you have provided and engaging real people? How do we do that?
Dr. Kim Narain: I think she's hitting on a very important point. There is no substitute for developing genuine cross-racial friendships. That is really the gold standard for developing empathy. So that's what we're talking about here, people not having the opportunity to develop empathy, and what we're offering. Unfortunately, this country is structured such that many, many people will never have that opportunity. So, what these books do is they serve essentially as a way of starting to build that empathy by proxy, if you will, by giving people a window into the lives of other people's experiences, in a way, in the event that they don't have the opportunity to get that genuine contact. But if you do, if you have an opportunity to seek out diverse spaces, genuinely connect with diverse individuals, that will always be something of the highest priority for facilitating what we're trying to achieve here.
EmbraceRace: Yeah. I mean, if we could eliminate systemic racism, just with the wave of a wand, we'd do that, if we had a choice between that and the interpersonal stuff, because it would really take care of a lot of things. But we like to say that that structures impinge on us and we create structures. So to create better structures, we need to create more thoughtful agents. And so that, I feel like, is what you all are doing as well, that we also need to teach kids and teach ourselves to see things we've learned not to see, and to be on the right side of good change and good trouble.
"How do you balance personal stories or experiences, which might be easier for kids of all ages to understand and serve as helpful examples, with truly systemic conversations?"
Michael Lawrence-Riddell: Yeah. I think that's a great question. I mean, one of the things that we talked about a lot internally when we started the work at Self-Evident was the power of stories to bring people into conversations that they might not think they're ready to have, or they might be more resistant to if you come at it in a different way. And so really looking for those narratives that connect people to a story. Humans, we love narratives, we love a good story, and it helps us bring meaning to the world around us.
But when you can do that in a way that helps you see the ways that those individual stories were influenced by the structures of the society within which they live. We're developing a story right now about an enslaved woman who was brought to Massachusetts in 1845 by the people who claimed to own her in Savannah, Georgia. And she comes with them to Northampton. And telling the story of this one individual woman allows us to then zoom out and look at all of the ways that the systems are involved in influencing her agency and her decision-making. There's this industry happening that we see where people are traveling to the north from the south during the summer months and they're bringing their enslaved people with them. And essentially slavery is existing in the north, just under a different name and different systems and structures. But it's this one story of this woman, Catherine Linda, that's been written about in maybe one line in a history book ever. And you can really dig into this story. You tell this story, and then you Jedi mind trick people into really considering how that one individual's story relates to bigger and broader structures.
And, I mean, going back just really quickly to the question about interpersonal relationships. I mean, I will forever discount anybody who tries to draw the line. "I have friends of blank," whatever culture it is, "I can't be racist." But having friends from diverse groups and colleagues from diverse groups makes you so much more likely to be anti-racist, to be actively anti-racist, to be able to see the truth in the lived experiences of those people who you see as your family. You believe the experience as opposed to discounting those experiences, because you don't see the humanity of those people.
EmbraceRace: We've touched on this certainly more than once, for example when you talked about talking to your daughter without squashing her sense of agency, essentially without making people despair, because when we talk about structural racism, that's daunting, that's formidable. And of course the history that you're both telling in your work is daunting, hard history.
Do you have thoughts for how do we engage students, perhaps especially students of color, students whose people are getting the short end, to say the least, in so much of this telling. How do you engage them? How do you keep them relatively safe while dealing in a meaningful way with the stories that have to be told?
Michael Lawrence-Riddell: I think number one, and I don't know if Nathaniel Swanson is in the room, but one of my interns, Nathaniel, said it very brilliantly. "You start with joy." You look for the places where there is joy in the face of concerted efforts to dehumanize. So you find that joy in response to dehumanization. I think, additionally, in any of the stories, particularly again, as a historian, looking at stories of history that we're telling, we're looking for the humanity of the individuals within those stories, particularly the humanity of people who are from groups that have been systemically and historically dehumanized by the structures in this culture.
And then, in the face of historical oppression, there has always been an equal and opposite resistance to that oppression. And so really grounding the stories in the ways that people resisted the oppressive systems, I think, are some of the ways to keep that space safe. I think we've got public school educators are 80% White identified, many of them females, so a lot of female identified people. And so a lot of students who are our Black and Brown students are being taught by White educators.
so one of the things that I would say, Malcolm X said, "You've got to
educate your home community, bring it back to your own community." And so,
to my home community, which is educators, mostly White, I say you need to be
open and you need to be honest and you need to be transparent and you need to
let those students know that you are yourself a product of a system that has
intentionally hidden this history and this analysis from people in order to
separate and dehumanize. And it dehumanizes all of us. So, we together, me as a
White educator and whoever my students are, are in this work together in a
partnership to reclaim our humanity. And so, I think if you recognize that and
you're transparent that you're there to learn with them, by doing that, you can
create some of that safety in the work that you're doing.
To my home community, which is educators, mostly White, I say you need to be open and you need to be honest and you need to be transparent and you need to let those students know that you are yourself a product of a system that has intentionally hidden this history and this analysis from people in order to separate and dehumanize. And it dehumanizes all of us. So, we together, me as a White educator and whoever my students are, are in this work together in a partnership to reclaim our humanity.
Dr. Kim Narain:
I will echo everything that Michael said, but I would just add to that it's
really, really important that you allow kids to exercise their agency to make
change. And this can be in small ways, large ways. It's something like
attending a protest, if it's something like volunteering for an organization. A
lot of the studies have shown when you couple this information with these
messages of resilience in this ability to exercise agency, that kids' self-image,
particularly kids of color, their self-image actually increases. Where if you
don't do that, if you just give them this information about these structural impediments
and convey mistrust without conveying their ability, that's where you start to
see the depression develop. That's where you start to see the acting out
develop. So, what were we doing this weekend in my family? We were actually at
a Stop Asian Hate rally. I think it's important, not only for my kids to
exercise their agency, but to stand in solidarity with other marginalized
groups and start to find their communities there as well.
A lot of the studies have shown when you couple this information [about systemic racism] with these messages of resilience in this ability to exercise agency, that kids' self-image, particularly kids of color, their self-image actually increases. Where if you don't do that, if you just give them this information about these structural impediments and convey mistrust without conveying their ability, that's where you start to see the depression develop.
Dr. Kim Narain
EmbraceRace: Beautiful words, beautiful insights: resistance, resilience, joy, agency. We can act. Thank you for your action, huge, important, thank you so much for your insights and information today, and thank you to the many, many people who tuned in. Thank you, everyone.
Resources from this conversation
- Addressing Structural Racism with Children by Kimberly Narain, MD, PhD, MPH
- Self-Evident Media - Michael Lawrence-Riddell's non-profit working to create "multimedia tools that educators, students, and communities can use to engage in a critical history of race and racism in America." Visit their site to register for their free upcoming Anti-racist History for Educators webinar.
Books for Kids
- Cycle of a Dream: A Kids' Introduction to Structural Racism in America by Kimberly Narain, MD, PhD, MPH - Dr. Narain created this to help her speak about structural racism with her 7 year old daughter. Written for kids 8 and up.
- Stamped by Jason Reynolds- "Remix" of Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped from the Beginning for middle grades and middle school kids; and a third book, Stamped for Kids, adapted from the previous two by Sonja Cherry-Paul, is aimed at 6 to 10 year olds and coming out soon.
- Our Skin written by Megan Madison and Jessica Ralli, illustrated by Isabel Rokas - Book for preschoolers that provides perfect building blocks for conversations about race.
- Looking for Excellent “Diverse” Books for Children? Start Here!
Books for Adults
- The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee
- Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi
- Going to Meet the Man short story by James Baldwin
- Scene on Radio: “Seeing White” podcast
- The 1619 Podcast - from the New York Times, part of a larger project led by Nikole Hannah-Jones
- The Buckley-Baldwin debates
Resources Shared in the Chat
- Why America Has Always Been Great, TED Video, Bayeté Ross Smith
- Talking to White Kids About Race & Racism, SafeSpace Radio
Books for adults
- The Talk: Conversations about Race, Love & Truth edited by Wade Hudson & Cheryl Willis Hudson
- The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein
- Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong
- An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
- What If All the Kids Are White? Anti-Bias Multicultural Education with Young Children and Families by Louise Derman-Sparks and Patricia G. Ramsey
- Caste by Isabel Wilkerson
Books for kids
- I Celebrate My Skin by Nonku Kunene Adumetey - for preschool and primary school
- Ron's Big Mission written by Rose Blue & Corinne Naden, illustrated by Don Tate. For preschool and early primary. Says Sarae: "Great opportunity for children to consider what to do when rules are unfair, that it’s ok to break them."