EmbraceRace

Nurturing Excellence In Schools: A Racial Identity-Based Approach

a young boy colors using multicolored crayons which are in focus in the foreground

I​n this hour-long episode of Talking Race & Kids (recorded on June 26, 2018), Melissa Giraud and Andrew Grant-Thomas of EmbraceRace are joined by Dr. Daren Graves of Simmons College. His research lies at the intersection of critical race theory, racial identity development, and teacher education. We'll draw on his experience and insights to look at how race plays out in our schools and talk about what parents and teachers can do to push back against school push out - and all children of color succeed at school.

An edited transcript follows, starting with the framing conversation, and then to community Q&A further down the page. 

EmbraceRace: Let's start by asking you what’s happening in schools. If we want to talk about nurturing excellence in school in part by attending to the racial identities of students, we need to talk about how people of different racial identities are being supported or not in school. So let’s start with who's getting pushed out of school?

Daren: Unfortunately, we have sort of a continuation of sort of a historical pattern of folks who have been denied either access to education altogether or access to high quality education. So we really are seeing Black students, Latino students, Native American students, and certain groups of Asian students getting either pushed out of schools or are sort of systematically, over time, "underperforming in schools." Often times you can get Asian folk being, doing well in terms of the achievement gaps relative to other students of color. But when you start to disaggregate the diverse group of folks that we put under Asian, it is actually groups of Asian students. Like I live in the Boston area, for example, and for most of the Vietnamese Cambodian students there, their experiences more mirror what we see with our Black and Latino students then with our Chinese students, for example. So sometimes it makes sense to disaggregate a little bit.

But for the most part, Black students, Native American students are usually consistently at the bottom of the statistics, at least around achievement and persistence. There's some gendered references we find when we find when we disaggregate by genders. Where Black men, you know, seem to be not doing as well as Black women, although Black women are also struggling. So I don't want to paint an inaccurate picture – it’s complicated – but generally it’s our students of color, especially Black, Native, Latinos who are struggling, or I would argue are being underserved. But we'll get to that, I guess.

EmbraceRace: So let's start getting to that now, even. So Native students, Black students, brown students, poor students, some Asian Americans. How do we explain, at the highest level, that pattern of underserving?

Daren: Yeah that's a good question. Looking at the historical perspective, this is not something new in a lot of ways. These outcomes are a function of something that's been going on for a very long time. And so I think the answer to the question simply put is the concept of race, right? Race is this social construct and sometimes people think, "Oh, it’s a social construct. It means that it doesn't exist." And on some levels that's true. But I think more importantly a social construct means that it's made up but it's actually a powerful set of ideas that create a “common sense” about who people are and what they deserve or not. And each race has its own specific construction -  its own specific set of powerful ideas that we layer on top of people. And so it's not a surprise that folks who have been constructed as, for example, Black folks as being anti-intellectual, Latinos as being folks who are lazy, you know, who don't want to work hard. Native Americans that people who are not fit to be or shouldn't be amongst them, we can't be part of that "we". Therefore, we have to like either get rid of them. And we actually talk about them as if they are already gone, right? These powerful ideas are things that, when you're not reflective about them, individually or collectively, produce the outcomes that we see when we were pretty explicit about how he felt about these folks, right?

And so I think what's tricky is that the idea, the powerful ideas that we layer on top of folks of color and white folks you know in that regard have been around for a while. Before it was pretty explicit. Now it's not, but we haven't really done the work of reconciliation of these stereotypes and these powerful ideas that we layer on top of people. And so we can just pretend like they're not there. But if you're not super reflective about them. I mean that's all of us. If we're not super reflective about them, then we just produce the outcomes that would come from the common sense derived about what it means to be Black, or to be Latinx, or to be Native, or to be Muslim or Arab, right?

Think about, you know, in a day like today, we have the Supreme Court upholding the Muslim ban. Like that helps to create a construction of Muslims as people that we need to be, who are terrorists or people who are threats to homeland security, right? And so we all go to the airport, right? And we all take off our shoes and go through the little machines and do that. But like Muslim people and Arab folks who are perceived to be Arab and Southeast Asian like actually the levels of that security apparatus on a daily basis that most of us never see, right? And we let that happen. We all just go the airport, right, without any huge brouhaha about it but it's because the commonsense idea around these people are they need to be, we need to make sure that they're ok. We let it happen. So I think that's how it happens in schools and otherwise.

EmbraceRace: Let me, let me follow up there Daren. And we are talking a bit before we started here, and you know that I'm going to this conference on K 12, or Pre-K 12 integration and segregation issues right. And there will be a lot of people there who are super supportive and commit to the idea of integration as a good among any number of dimensions. And I'm aware that there are quite a few people who aren't. And it seems to me that some of the reasons that some people including people of color you know certainly some African-Americans and others is I think, taps into a thing that you're saying. So I want to ask you about it, right.? So what I heard you say, at least in part is, that the construction of race for a number of groups of color. You know race is their racial identity, right? What it means to be Black, to be Muslim, to be whatever it is. In fact to be anything at all, right, comes with some stereotypes, some expectations. With some groups those expectations are actually positive or elevated, right? In America it's the model minority. Not that we want to embrace that or celebrate that. But you can imagine that that’s a very different stereotype than the one that says "You're not good at math," or "You're not smart." "You're not going to excel in school," as a result of that and the low expectations that have been heaped on some groups. You have for example some African-Americans saying, "You know what. That's why we need to give up our whole integration thing. What we need really is our own schools,” right? With African-American teachers who are less likely to hold these negative stereotypes and lower expectations and then, then we can be excellent. Though racially isolated, we can be excellent precisely because we're more able to control sort of institutional expectations and so on. What do you think of that?

Daren: Yeah I think I mean we've seen different iterations of that, of this notion of "we're going to teach our own" throughout history. For Black folks, for African-Americans, we had to teach our own because no one else was going to do that.

We definitely need a more diverse teaching force and there's just no doubt about that. It's predominantly white, predominantly white women way disproportionate relative to students, especially in communities of color where they're teaching, like it's not representative of the community. And I think we need to do way better on that. Part of what I need to argue about that regard is actually that we just need to do a better job actually (?) in school for kids of color. Because if school was a horrible place for kids of color, why would they ever want to become a teacher? So that's just another aside.

But we also have teachers who are Black. We also have principals of color who preside over schools that do a horrible job teaching kids of color. ok. And we also have schools where there are white teachers or white principals who do good work, right? And so I don't want to throw away the first argument which is that we need more diversity in the teaching force. But I think we also really need more intentionality around how to navigate the issues of the students coupled with, when talking about schools, cutting edge teaching skills, right? I don't want to lose that point. too. I think sometimes we talk about cultural relevance as if just being culturally relevant is going to solve everything. It's like it still requires being a good teacher, right? Knowing how to do the cutting edge teaching. Yes we need more diversity in the teaching force. That's going to take a long time. We need to also figure out how to do this right with the teaching force that we do have. And I think that can be done to the extent that people are interested in being intentional about it.

Well, I know some people are thinking well look, if you're a white person, teaching a bunch of black students or kids of color, how can you do a better job than a person of color doing that? I would say that, especially if you're concerned that that white teacher doesn't know enough about those kids lived experiences. So my suggestion would be that you have to, as a teacher, to take more of a reciprocal teaching approach. In other words, realize that you have something to learn from your students about their lives so you can better teach them what you need to teach them. So rather coming in as the authority figure saying, "I'm going to deposit information into your head," right. You know, that's not going to work. If you're going to say, “What's going on in your life, what's going on in your communities, and what ways are you guys already doing math right in ways that may not be called math? Or geometry? That I can leverage and then teach you from there. I think that that can be done by any teacher. In a lot of ways. Again, I don't want to lose the point that I think that we do need more folks of color teaching. But I don't think that just having a person of color in front of the classroom is going to solve the problem. I've seen plenty of schools and classrooms where those teachers are the problem. And it's because they don't have the right orientation towards their students.

EmbraceRace: So essentially, teachers who are the same identity, say Black or brown identity as their students can still reproduce these inequities.

Daren: Right. And the other thing that can also happen too, and this happens to me a lot. People have this assumption that, "Well you're a Black male. You guys have this automatic connection," to Black boys. But there's a lot of diversity amongst Black boys. I identify as an African-American. A lot of the Black kids in Boston, where I live, identify as Cape Verdean or Haitian or Ghanaian or Dominican. And so there's been a lot of times I've been working with Black boys where just because we were both Black like I did not necessarily understand what they were going through, either because of their recent immigrant status, different cultural background … there's a lot of diversity within what we call Blacks. I think that's an interesting thing about how race works is that it sort of creates what we sometimes call a “fictive kinship,” where you're sort of by force, by the notion of people putting Blackness on you, you have a sense of community. But there's really so much diversity within that community right, that to assume that just because we're two Black people, that we're going to automatically see things eye to eye or understand things automatically is not necessarily the case for a lot of good reasons, even within ethnicities.

EmbraceRace: I'm wondering if we could take a step back and you could broadly frame, you know, why attention to racial identity of your students is important. What the research shows, what teachers and parents should be doing.

Daren: Yeah. So let me just say a few things. One important thing to think about racial identity is that it's actually a developmental process. Right so it's dynamic. And so it's something that can and usually does change over time. So how one sees oneself at one point in their life in terms of, along the long lines of race and racial identity, that can and does usually change over time especially as you experience different things. So sometimes we see snapshots and think that's what it's going to be like for their whole life and that's not necessarily the case. And that goes for all folks- white folks, folks of color etc. So you want to think of it as something that is dynamic and that's really impacted by the context you're in. ok.

The other way to think about it that's important is that it is sort of one part self-determination and another, a much bigger part, a description. So in other words, racial identity isn't always just a choice of how you choose to identify. I could choose to identify as an Asian women, right? I can do that. A lot of people would kind of look at me and smile or giggle or be like, "Dude," right?

That is just the way of saying like you can identify however you want but everyone knows you're a Black dude right. So I think strong, particularly strong people can identify however they want despite what other people think about them and walk that walk. But most people are very much socialized by how other people identify themselves. Right. How other people identify them, what's inscribed onto people. So for my parents, I grew up in a predominately white neighborhood. My parents had a lot of work to do because maybe in my head, who knows how I saw myself. But what my parents saw is what other people were likely to see, which is a Black boy or a Black man and all the possible dangers that might come with that. So I would just want to go to a party, one of those parties were the kids were just having a party, right, where no parents were there. And my parents were just like not having it. They knew that if something went wrong and the police showed up like who were the first... you know, they knew that they would be coming right for me. Even if I wasn't doing nothing wrong. At the time I was just like, "Why are you tripping? What are you talking about?" But they had a way, they thought something that I wasn't seeing at the time.

So I guess in terms of what to do about it, and this goes for both parents and teachers, knowing that we have to have a sense of how society sees our kids whether we see them as our little babies with this hobby and that talent, we have to understand the ways in which society see our kids. And a lot of us are aware of that and therefore we start coaching our kids accordingly. And I think that's an important part: giving them an awareness of racism. And that's hard. When I studied this, it was like, "Yeah. Of course we have to make them aware of racism." When I had my own kids, I was like, "Oh my god I actually have to have this conversation."

EmbraceRace: Right!

Daren: So it is hard. But you have to give them an awareness of, what are the challenges that they’ll go up against. And understanding that identity is developmental. Remember, my parents were like, "Dude, you can't go to these parties. They're going to single you out." And at the time I was like, "What are you talking about," right? But now I totally get it! So you also have to be patient in understanding that, depending on where your child is at in thinking about these issues, that they may not like jump right on board with you. They might be like, "What are you talking about," or resisting or not want to like have to deal with the cognitive dissonance that comes with realizing that like "Wait, people may or may not treat me differently right because of the way I look." But that's an important component of it, is to be aware of it.

But then there's another big piece of it is developing a sense of connectedness. And the connectedness piece can look in two different ways. One is more immediate sense of connectedness, right, like having a community. Whether it's your family. Whether it's a group of friends. Whether it's people in your community who you know, you can say, "This is tough, but we're all dealing with it together. You're not going through this alone. You have a community here that understands what you're going through, that we can laugh about it, cry about it together." That whole thing is really important, especially for kids right, so they're not going through this alone.

But then also a sense of connectedness to a broader historical community. Like yes this is hard and it stinks that we have to navigate and even challenge racism. But we are part of a bigger struggle. We were standing on strong shoulders. And this is a struggle that we're continuing on and you and you and you, young child are part of that ladder where you stand on our shoulders so that someone can stand then on your shoulders eventually. That's also gives them a sense of purpose. So it's not just, oh there's racism and good luck! Yeah there's racism which defines part of our existence. And, by the way. framing all the beautiful things that have come out of that resistance. What I do with my kids is, "Yes there is racism, there were enslaved folks, there was Jim Crow. But there are so many beautiful things scientific things, artistic things, linguistic things, community things that were built out of that…" It's a focus on the strength that communities build out of the struggle. Sure, there is a struggle. And you can sit there and just focus on the struggle. But I would argue that you use the struggle as a platform to talk about the strength and the beauty that's come out of that. And so all those things that we did. I had to work twice as hard to get half as far is a beautiful thing. Even if we knew that we weren't sort of given a chance and despite the stuff you had to overcome.

And that will lead, lastly, to what my colleague Dorinda Carter Andrews calls achievement as resistance. So when you have this awareness of the racism and the sense of connectedness then you realize that the work you're doing -- whether it's school work, whether it's just being a good person or being a community member - is rooted in a struggle. And that you achieve that by achieving excellence, whether it's behaviorally or academically - that is that is the best form of resistance, both because it both proves the stereotypes and the powerful ideas wrong, but also it serves to be part of that longer struggle that we were talking about.

EmbraceRace: Absolutely. One question that we got quite a bit and we got a version of it again here is how do we get teachers to reflect honestly, this is from Donna, and talk about the impact of their own racial identity and the racial identity of the kids they are dealing with and on the interaction they have? So that's obviously there can be a tricky thing.

But let's put this question from the perspective of a parent who has that concern and wants to know how to do that productively knowing that not only can it be a challenging conversation. But parents are also concerned about, what the ramifications of complaining to the teacher for my kid? If I raise an issue that causes some stress, is a conflict or is received as conflictual.

Daren: Yeah. I see what you mean. I think it's less about their identity and more about, again, how intentional they are going to be about engaging in issues of race and racial identity. So I hear you. The spiel I usually give to teachers is that the research shows that kids, especially students of color for example, who have a strong racial identity are kids who do better in school. So I think what I usually try to appeal to is what teachers are really interested in, which is their kids do well, whether it's for good or whatever reason. Teachers want their students to do well. And I think if we frame this as oh, this is just something to make the kids feel better about themselves, I could see why people might be a little hesitant about going on that you know excursion. But we have 20+ years of research that shows that students who have strong racial identities in educational environments that nurture thinking about these issues are students that are doing super well.

Some of the ethnic studies programs that we're seeing especially in West Coast are great examples of that. It's crazy because the one in Tucson basically got shut down by the school board in spite of the fact that it is sending kids who are literally deemed as functionally almost illiterate to college. Because the politics of it got kind of crazy, it got shut down. But there's a lot of research on different levels, whether it's high school or otherwise, where if you take an approach that's intentional about engaging these issues, that these are kids who actually do better, and I think it's because again it helps to contextualize why they're doing this work.

I think all too often when students are facing racialized realities, coming to school, at school, etc. and then school just pretends like none of that's happens. It makes school like an alien place. So when you're being more intentional about it, it makes school more relevant and it helps you prepare for when things go wrong. That you read that, that you're not shocked by it, and I think that's where, this fits into why the parents do this work. too. So that when their kids inevitably face some form of discrimination or prejudice or systematic racism, that hopefully they're not totally blown away and have a sense of cognitive dissonance that's too much. Either way it's going to be a lot of confusion to deal with. If you're prepared for it. So if I'd had a situation where the police came and did come to me first, or only me, it would be upsetting, of course, but I would be a little more ready for it. Does that makes sense?

EmbraceRace: Yeah. There's something you said earlier that I just wanted to revisit, which is you talked about the advice parents give black kids in particular, that you “have to work twice as hard to go half as far.” And I literally said that to one of my kids recently. We were watching American Idol. And we were down to the final where America votes, where it's not just the judges like Lionel Richie. And the public is deciding who is going to continue and they voted white, white, white.

Daren: Right.

EmbraceRace: We're watching this and it was so obvious the talent, right, like there was talent on all sides and you could look at any one of those white people and say well each one was talented. But there was tremendous talent among the contestants of color, too. I'm using that as an example of the things that you have to name because they see it and we see the patterns so if we don't name it you risk your kids just internalizing, you know, white people are better or something.

Daren: Yeah.

EmbraceRace: So you name it. And then the “you have to work twice as hard to get half as far” part. That’s the standing on the shoulders of people before you as you said to say, "Look at this person and that person and look at Grandpa who worked hard and made a way. These examples connect them to a community. So, I get that.

But I wonder with the research that you do. You know, my daughter's response was, "Well, I'll work eight times as hard to go twice as far." You know, and I was like, "You go!". But then she thought about it. She didn't want to practice her instrument that day and she said, "Yeah well actually I don't want to work that hard so I'm going to figure out how to change things so I don't have to work eight times as hard." So I worry a little bit about working twice as hard or ten times as hard. And I just wonder what, given the research and just talking to kids at school who are facing all sorts of things, racial oppression, that they can't necessarily talk to their teachers about, how do you help them navigate that? Someway that's not simply about working yourself to death.

Daren: Yeah that's a great question. I want to say, so the first part was I was thinking about the American Idol example right. And I think what I can imagine happening in my household is something like this. Right. As they're going, "ok now America is going to vote." I could see myself making some sort of comment like, "All right. Now all the white people are going to get voted in." And then I can hear my kids being like, "What do you mean." And then I talk a little bit about why. It might start off as humor. But then I might explain it a little bit and we've had a lot of conversations to our kids about you know things that they enjoy. I'll say things like, they'll watch, I can't even name the show. But I'll say something like, "Oh, are there any folks of color in this show?" Or "Are the folks of color any leads." And we'll have those conversations.

Or naming what type of gender roles we see are happening in the shows that they watch. And do the conversations go great all the time? No because sometimes they're just like, "Dad. Leave me alone. I just like this show. Like why is everything gotta be that way." But I think what I like about this strategy, whether you use humor, or whether you figure out do you want to have like a family sit down, or whatever it is like just being comfortable talking about how you think racism or sexism or other things are operating and naming that, right. So I think that's important. I know it's hard. Sometimes you just want to watch American Idol or whatever it is or you just want your kids to enjoy the cartoon. But I think it's important to like name it so that they have that awareness. Now in terms of, the second question I think was more about … I hear you about the “twice as hard to move half as far” because that feels like your life is going to be really hard, right?

EmbraceRace: Right.

Daren: And you're going to have to work harder than other people and you want to be able to tell your kid that it shouldn't happen. You should be able to just work hard and get where you need to go. That also sounds like it's reasonable and I think the way that, like Theresa Perry I think helped me think a lot about, she is a scholar at Simmons College as well, and she talked about this notion of both framing how people are looking at you.

So for Black people she would say being upfront that people have questions about your intellectual capabilities. And then to have to have a sense of identity that's both not overly optimistic about their prospects but also not overly pessimistic. So, in other words, we definitely want to say, Look, there's going to be some challenges you're going to face. Right. But there are going to be opportunities for you to do your thing. And when those opportunities come, you do them, and then you will see that that will likely work out for you. And if it doesn't we're going to be there to support you.

You have to talk about racism in a way that doesn't produce apathy or a sense of hopelessness. We want to do some truth telling which is important so our kids are ready. But also equip them with the tools and a sense of what Jeff Duncan-Andrade, another great researcher out in California, would call “critical hope.” He distinguishes between “hokie hope” and “critical hope.” Hokie Hope is just like oh everything's just going to work out. Don't worry, right. Critical hope is saying, I know what the challenges are going to be. But there's also opportunities. There's also things that I can do to help out myself and my community moving forward.

And by the way that this working harder than other folks. however you could quantify that, but essentially you might have to work a little harder than other folks. I frame it as a badge of honor. Because I think what happened is that as we move through life -- I've seen this having going to like elite colleges -- the kids who are super privileged right, the minute they face any adversity, in college, for example, their whole world falls apart. And our kids who've had to face adversity and be resilient in the face of it, when they have something that happens they roll with the punches. "Here's a challenge. I can overcome this. I'm gonna have to do something else. I'm gonna have to figure out a different way or a smarter way or whatever it is, but I'm going to keep going." So I frame it not as a burden. I frame it more as a responsibility and an asset that we're going to have. We are going to be better because when we get to that, when we get to those next places, we are going to be stronger in different ways.

EmbraceRace: That's helpful. Yeah thanks for that Daren. So question from Sharice who wants to know and certainly we get variations on this across topics. Any advice for Pre-K teachers, right? How do you teach, address, talk about racial identity in school? Is there an age that's too young? Do you wait for kids to ask the questions or what can you do proactively?

Daren: Yeah that's a great question. Pre-K is too young. There’s a lot of research showing that Pre-K students are already starting to develop racial constructs and meaning around race. But when you're working with younger kids, it may be a little deep to get into the notion of race as this made up thing that's real but not real. I think for them it’s more around issues of fairness, not judging books by their covers. You just sort of figure out a way that's developmentally appropriate to talk about fairness, equality, stereotypes. I think kids especially at that age are really good at having that conversation, they're actually better at it than adults half the time because they're super honest and they won't hold things back. And so it's not too early. You may not call it race. You may not call it racism, right. You may not call it racial identity. Again, what we're really talking about more broadly is fairness and equality and judging people.

Those conversations can be had early on and that doesn't have to happen through conversations either. I mean some of it is just by about, for example, what are we reading and who do we see? Who do we bring into our classrooms? Who do we construct as authority figures? Take the example of Sesame Street. Sure, some of it is preachy. Right? Some of it's like, "Yes. Treat people the right way." But a lot of its power is images of diverse people doing things together. For me, Sesame Street was a powerful thing because in what other shows would you have women who were in positions of authority on TV? For me, to see that normalized was a powerful thing. So some of it's about talking but I think a lot more, especially with young kids, is about showing. That's about like you know how are you modeling for those young students either in your own interpersonal or interacting with other adults etc.? What you're putting in front of them will help them learn even more powerfully than sitting down and having an open circle about it.

EmbraceRace: So this question comes from Abby who asks about examples or models of school curricula or teacher ed programs that are exhibiting sort of best practices around racial identity development.

Daren: Yeah. The one that comes to my most obviously to me are the ethnic studies programs that we see. And those are mainly more in high schools and we're seeing them mainly in the West Coast for a lot of different reasons. But these are programs that are like super intentional about centering folk's racial ethnic identities and their histories and making that the jumping off point for all other academic inquiry that comes from it. And the good programs, it's not just a class about your identity. The good programs use the identity piece as a way to teach math and to teach English and science and so on and so forth. And that you know the research about that by highly reputable universities including Stanford show that they just do a great job in terms of producing whatever academic outcomes you're interested in, whether it's GPAs or college going or persistence or whatever it is.

Part of the research that I'm doing with my colleague Scott Seider right now is we're looking at 6 different schools in the Northeast. These are all high schools that are engaging in what we call critical consciousness work. And some of them might look more like civic engagement, most of the schools are focusing on issues of race mainly because of the times that we're in right now and their students are really thinking about issues around police violence and all the stuff that's happening now. But we're really actually starting to figure that out.

So I think we have a lot of research now that shows that when you attend to identity, you get the outcomes we are looking for. Now the obvious question is well, how do we do that? I think there's a lot of different ways that can look. But here's the thing that I will tell you from the research that we've been doing. We basically think that it has some measure of helping folks analyze inequality, so there's the analysis piece. Understanding that it is how it is. A second piece is around how to navigate it. And that's more like, "Ok, now that we know how these things work, how do you act like a student in schools? How do you position yourself as you're applying to colleges et cetera to like give yourself the best chance" - that's the navigating piece. And then the third piece is about is what we call challenging inequality. So navigating might be nice and all but it doesn't necessarily change anything. And it produces outcomes that are disparate. And so the notion of challenging it is another piece of it. And what we're finding is that different schools that have different philosophies or approaches are doing usually one or two of those things well but usually never all three. So you might have a school that's doing great with helping them analyze and navigate. But then when we ask them questions about, "So what do you think you can do to like change things?" They're kind of like, "Uh, I don't know." Or where as we get others schools that might be, that are doing a great job at challenging so that they say, “I know how to organize my classmates to protest something," but then when you ask them, "Well how does racism work?" They respond with, "What do you mean?" And they might have answers that are really big. Like, "The man is really holding us down," which, there's something to that, but it's more complex than that. So we're seeing schools that are hitting some of these things but never really all of it. I think the ethnic studies group is probably the one that to me, is probably doing the most. And that's the work that needs to be done. Analyzing, navigating, challenging.

EmbraceRace: Here's a question from Amy, and I wonder if you can answer with an example or two from your own experience running boys groups in schools. Boys from a mix of races - brown kids, Black kids, and other kids as well. Her question is, do you have suggestions about managing conversations with kids in the classroom when there are only a few kids of color. I can imagine she doesn't want those kids to feel put on the spot, othered, self-conscious. So how do you handle that?

Daren: That's a great question. Anywhere from the 4th grade up I work with on up, I feel like I can have some measure of this conversation. It's helped them realize what race is and what it isn't. Helping them realize that race is not biological. It may have biological features, it might use phenotypic characteristics to put people in racial categories. But help them realize, and this is for all ages, that race is a powerful set of ideas that we layer on top of people. And that that's a really powerful tool. I think a lot of people when they think of race, they think it's this magical orb that’s somewhere in us that makes us Black or makes us white. And it's really way more complex.

I think race is something that happens to us more than it is something that we are, if that makes sense. It's more the thing that that happens as a result of being identified as belonging to a race category that makes race actually real, right. I help a lot of kids of whatever race. We try and help unpack how is your race constructed. I do this with teachers, I have to do this with teachers a lot because training teachers are mostly white. Usually this exact scenario like a bunch of usually white women and only a few students of color. And I have to navigate this exact same scenario. And what we have to do is help everybody think, how is your own race constructed? What are the powerful ideas that we're keeping on top of the race that you are identified as or that you identify with? So thinking about that and also importantly thinking about how race has symbolic structure, as I've been talking about, but also material structures. Material structures like what are the rights and privileges that you were afforded by the virtue of these ideas that, or not. By virtue of these ideas that were layered on top of you. So for kids we mainly talk about the first, the symbolism. What are the assumptions that people make about you because of your race?

And it really requires them developing an important skill which not a lot of students have or not a lot of them necessarily have fine tuned which is what DuBois calls a sense of “double consciousness.” With young kids we do this activity called the mirror-window activity. We say, if somebody looked at you through the window, basically someone who's looking at you from afar, who only has like basic superficial things to base their judgment on, what do you think that person thinks about you? And then you have the mirror view which is the you that you know you are. The you that you see when you're looking in the mirror. And we have them think about the potential differences between the window and the mirror for them and helping them be very conscious of the window them, not because that's what we want them to become, but we have to help them realize that this is how other people might be seeing them. And we talk about how it's not fair. But we also talk about how that's a dynamics that we have to be able to navigate. So what happens a lot, especially with my 6th or 7th, my 6th grade boys ... I think 6th graders are really in between. They just came from 5th grade where they had their own homeroom teacher and where they might have been play fighting and joking around. Now they're in 6th grade or 7th grade and they're still play fighting To them, in their head, they're just still play fighting. But I have to tell them that the folks around you, whether it's your teachers or whether it's people on the street, they don't see play fighting. They see grown men engaged in violence. We really have to make students clear about how other people see them. That consciousness that is important skill. And also it's sad because then in some ways it really can socialize you to act in ways that aren't authentic to yourself. I know I've experienced it a lot where I've policed myself because I was super aware of what other people thought about me. But it's also a survival skill. Like the example I use with my students is that I'm often rushing from my job at Simmons to the train station to catch the train but I can't just run down the street. I can't just be sprinting down the street, through a whole bunch of college campuses. You know police officers. I can't just run up next to some lady - I have to do this delicate moving quickly but not too quickly and then making sure I'm like getting ready to go but not in somebody's personal space right. So it's a sad thing but it's also an important skill that you have to learn, that seeing how other people see you will then help you to be able to be strategic in how you're acting and behaving moving forward. I hope that answers your question in some way.

EmbraceRace: It does, Daren. So there's a follow up I'm dying to ask but I'm being disciplined.

Here's what Mary asks. She asks as a parent but I bet a lot of teachers have this question. “As a white single adoptive mother with four biracial kids adopted from foster care I feel ill equipped to give my kids what you truly deserve. Although I'm very open, proactive, and make sure they have racial mirrors in their lives, including their birth family, I simply feel like I'm cheating them out of the best experience of being Black. What would you say is the absolutely best way to make the best situation out of a very non-traditional family?”

Daren: I appreciate the question. This is a particular context. But I've had this type of question come from all in a lot of different contexts. Basically, I'm not of the racial background of the kids that I care about, how do I help them do this, right? So I think the first level of it is honesty, being honest with kids. Naming that tension rather than not. Because kids are really good at deciphering B.S. So if you're just trying to be the person that you think they think they want you to be, but it's not you, they'll see through it. So this is what I tell, for example white teachers, just say "Look, I'm a white teacher, I'm a white person. I have a lot of work to do in thinking about my own identity, much less yours. I want to do better." The kids will run with that. They will love that. They will love the honesty and they will work with you. Especially if you frame yourself as, to the kids and by the way to yourself, as a learner, they will love that. "I have work to do." And it helps you both. It helps you because you do have work to do.

So for the parent of these kids, it sounds like you're doing a great job. It sounds like you're engaging and that you are intentional about the racial mirroring piece is important. But I think it's also about continuing to be explicit with your kids about why you're doing this stuff. By the way, I heard part of the question was how to be “authentically Black” and I don't think there is a way to be authentically Black. I understand the question and I understand the notion. But I think that there is no one way to be Black. And so there are plenty of Black kids who were raised by white parents who are great and who have a strong sense of self. And it's usually the parents who were pretty upfront about their own positionality and when they felt like it was time for them to step in and when it was time for them to say they didn't know or to step back. What I would say is you're probably already doing a great job given you're already being intentional about it. I would just say remain open, have open communication with your children about what you're doing, why you're doing what, what you know, what you don't know, what you need to do, need more work on, etcetera.

EmbraceRace: That's a great note to end on, in general, approaching kids and people as a learner. And not having to have all the answers, and knowing that kids have answers! They know how they feel and what they're experiencing. So that was beautiful. Daren thank you so much, the hour went by too quickly.

Daren: Great thank you guys so much. This was so much fun. I appreciate it. 

Dr. Darren Graves

Dr. Daren Graves is an Associate Professor of Education at Simmons College. As a teacher educator, he is committed to preparing educators to work with students by directly engaging issues of race and to bring the students’ racialized realities into their educational contexts. In addition to his teaching duties, Dr. Graves serves as the liaison between Simmons College and the Boston Teachers Union Pilot School where he coordinates professional development opportunities for the Union School staff, serves on the Governing Board, coordinates the placement of Simmons interns and student volunteers, and works directly with Union School students and teachers inside and outside the classroom.
  • Share
  • facebook
  • twitter