Nurturing Resilience in a World of Racial Aggression and Violence
A Talking Race & Kids conversation about nurturing children's resilience in response to injustice with Dr. Allison Briscoe Smith.
How do we nurture children who remain resilient in the face of injustice, whether to themselves or others, children willing and able to mount meaningful responses to injustice even when that’s scary and hard to do so?
In this hour-long episode of Talking Race & Kids, Andrew Grant-Thomas and Melissa Giraud of EmbraceRace discuss resilience and joy with child psychologist and EmbraceRace friend, Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith. Most of the conversation was spent responding to your questions, concerns, and suggestions. The edited transcript follows starting with the framing conversation and then to community Q&A further down the page.
EmbraceRace: We're here with Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith. We asked her to come on because we adore her and value her strength-based approach to her work with children and families. She's taught us to see a lot of strength in our own responses to parenting around race and has helped us think about adding to our toolkit. Building on strengths and nurturing resilience in children is a central goal of EmbraceRace.
First, let me just tell you a little bit about Allison who is joining us from San Francisco with her 5-month old baby in her lap – so that’s the cooing you’re hearing! Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child psychologist specializing in trauma and ethnic minority mental health. She's combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma homelessness or foster care. Much of her work has been done with schools as a clinician consultant consultant and trainer. Currently, she's an adjunct professor at the Wright Institute and does a lot of consulting and training in the Bay Area Schools nonprofits to support trauma informed practices and cultural accountability. Allison identifies as Black. She and her partner have three multiracial children and they are Black, White and Latino. Welcome back, Allison.
Allison: Thank you, good to be here!
EmbraceRace: Hello. Nice to see you again and to see the baby. As a mom of now three children of color, and as a therapist working with all kinds of all kinds of kids and working with the folks who work with kids alone, you really are we're living it in every aspect of your life. I should add is living in the Bay Area right. Probably the most certainly one of the most if not the most racially ethnically diverse places in the country.
So Allison, thinking about all those hats you're wearing that put you very much in the world in every way, and thinking about this last year, since you were last on with us talking about life in the then emerging Era of Trump. What's it been like?
How are you making your way through?
Allison: Yeah, I think we probably can all attest to it being a rollercoaster. Many folks dealing with lots and lots of different emotions, whether it's fear - which was a very big one for a lot of folks. Or anxiety, rage and also room for joyfulness, too. I think it's been a lot. Last year, many of us were just on the precipice not knowing what this election would bring. There are things that have been realized and actualized that are perhaps worse than we could have expected. And some things that perhaps are different. But focusing on resilience and joy is really thinking of the ways that people have mobilized into action. People have felt that this is a time for a calling and reconciliation.
I really see people step up in terms of wanting to be able to talk about issues of race with their kids. I used to have to argue with the notion of post-raciality, that used to be a main defense against talking about or discussing race. But now we have more opportunity to talk about race and there's even a call for it.
EmbraceRace: Allison, let's take that specifically in two parts. And thinking specifically about how there's been reason for a lot of us to be less happy than we would have liked to be over the last year. But that's balanced at least somewhat by the fact that there has been as you say this mobilization.
You have a lot of people certainly here where we are in western Massachusetts, a lot of people who not only are in the mix, mobilized, trying to make things happen. We know, for example, there's a record number of people running for elected office. But you also have people meeting in their living rooms, middle-aged folks who are first-time activists of all stripes.
Before we get to what you might be seeing in the world around you, we were talking beforehand about some of the specific things that you've been doing?
Allison: I've always really focused on on the positive. That's been very much my own personal attempt to make it through the work that I do which is mostly focused on trauma.
So there's been a lot of talks that people have been coming to, I've been giving lots of talks. And I have to say that the demand went up after January. So I've kept on going with that and kept on doing talks and had very much focused on the positive and very much focus on our stories of resilience in the talks and the work that I do. So what I've just kind of professionally.
The second part has also been for the students that I work or the people I work with, trying to create a safe place for people to do their emotional processing, to talk about their anger, their fear. So there's that work part.
But I've also really connected with a number of communities that have been very supportive. So whether it's a book group that I've been going to where we got lots of support that way. Talking with my own parents and my mom, having that kind of access. Reconnecting with my partner around thinking about what is it that we want to be teaching and doing? Also just working a lot and taking this notion of both community and self-care really seriously. Really thinking that this is a marathon instead of a sprint. And what is it that I need to do to be strong and do that?
EmbraceRace: Among your clients, among kids, what strategies are you seeing work for them broadly?
Allison: Broadly, what I'm seeing is also community related. So kids and families participating in protests or in marches. Here in Oakland, we're tapped in and have opportunities for marches and teach-ins. I'm seeing a lot of families get connected in that way. And also families talking with each other. I've seen a lot of schools reaching out for facilitated conversations about race and healing and teaching about social justice.
I think we've done that in part because our kids are asking us lots of questions. So I think the anxiety and the questions our kids are raising are really compelling us as parents to step up.
EmbraceRace: We see a lot of that, too. People asking us to come in and lots of questions, like just today, questions like: "My kid's teacher didn't do anything for MLK Day and didn't seem disturbed it," that kind of thing, people are going in and saying, wait a second, it doesn't have to be this way and it's not alright.
And as you said, Allison, more and more people are asking for social justice, racial justice interventions, right. Not just some diverse books for our kids - which obviously is wonderful and important - there's another step or two beyond that and more people looking to take it now.
Allison: That's the thing I've been impressed by, that some people have really moved to action. I think some people have been terrified and haven't wanted to move to action or this isn't compelling enough. But I have been really impressed by many folks who have been compelled to move to action. Whether it's a daily commitment to action or just trying to speak more about this or trying to demonstrate support in different ways. So that's what gets me thinking about what is joyful or resilient is people's willingness to try to step forward.
EmbraceRace: At the top here we should talk about what resilience is. We say we want our kids to be resilient. Is it something that kids have and that we want to help them maintain. Is it something that we give them ...
Allison: Yeah there's a whole lot of theory about this - there's a whole science of resilience and there are a couple of different definitions.
Sometimes people conceptualize resilience as traits that you have that protect you from bad. So whether or not you have lots of verbal intelligence or are not anxious, kind of internal characteristics that allow you to be shielded. So that's one way of thinking about it.
But I like the idea of resilience that asks, what things support someone in bouncing back. So, it's not that you're not impacted by bad things. It's not that you're impervious to them but rather that you have a set of characteristics or your supported and developing characteristics that allow you to bounce back in the face of adversity and to come back or to get stronger. So it's not that you're not untouched, you're not impacted, you don't feel bad. But rather, you have all of that and you are able to move through and overcome that. That's how I think about kind of what resilience is.
EmbraceRace: And you work on both of those parts. Developing those internal strengths and then the bouncing back?
Allison: I that's what my job is as a therapist, to both pay attention to the natural, inherent resources that a person has to deal with difficulty, and then to help cultivate those as well and to support the development of those things. So I think about that on the individual basis as a therapist. I think about that as what I do as a teacher, is to support people in cultivating those skills.
But I think it's also the piece that we can do together as well, is to develop community-based skills to overcome, to focus on the resilience that we have within our communities, and to develop those together. And that's again why I feel so hopeful. I think if you think about resilience as something of limited quantity or imperviousness to bad things, then you don't think it's in community, developed or cultivated or shared. But I think what we can see in dealing with the current political climate is that we can develop resilience, we can develop these skills.
EmbraceRace: As we said earlier, resilience is a huge thing for us. It's literally the first of several goals that we have for EmbraceRace - nurturing resilience in children, especially in kids of color.
And ... I wonder about this. I'm thinking about all the literature, all the attention we've heard lately given to "grit." Grit in education, especially, students with grit. Not the same as resilience but certainly related to it. And what I wonder is, first, in the U.S. context, we tend to be super individualistic. So this idea that individuals deserve all praise and all blame for their own circumstances. And then with respect to people of color, in particular. Right this idea that, well, you know, if they're not doing as well as a group, or if any particular individuals aren't doing as well, maybe they need to be more resilient, maybe they need to have more grit. And you pointed to the resilience in community, but how do you deal with the danger that this attention to what many people think of as an individual level characteristic, trait, attribute, skill might deflect attention from the reasons we need to have resilience and grit in the first place, which need to be worked on and can be. And might even leave the individual to blame himself or herself for not having sufficient resilience, sufficient grit. I mean how do you think about that with your own kids for example?
Allison: Well I think about it in terms of the things that I can do at the individual level, what can I do for myself, what can I do within my family. But I can teach my children all day long how to defend against racism and prepare that generation and the next generation to defend. And/or I can actually help teach and train and support people to stop being racist so that I don't have to support my kids in that way. And so I think it's both, it's not either or.
So we can actually think about, what if we actually got rid of the systems or oppression that got us here in the first place? And we can also begin a broader societal way that our entire society has been harmed by racism. So what are the broad social movements that we can engage in to reduce racism because that will help our society be resilient. That will help us to come through this dark period and bounce back.
So I think we should be paying attention to each of those steps. There's an author that I listen to who talks about vicarious trauma, which is a notion of helpers being impacted by trauma. She talks about how we're often attending to the broader social web, we want to pay attention to the social web. But we also need to do the individual work to make sure that we're not burning up our side of the web. So there is individual work that needs to be done. Can we take care of our part of the web and also attend to these larger structures?
So I think asked even in a way that you ask the question, Andrew, is one that allows us to frame resilience beyond the individual. And if we frame it beyond the individual then we move to not blaming folks for things but instead thinking that we're in this together and we've got large societal constructs. So that's what we're going to try to do.
EmbraceRace Community Q&A
EmbraceRace: There are a lot of questions we got by e-mail about, what's the right balance between teaching and preparing versus protecting your children against some of the roughest stuff that's happening right now. Sometimes you don't have the choice. So how do you think about that, for people who do have the choice?
Allison: There's a model out there from a guy named Stan Sue who talks about how to work across cultures, but he's got this idea called "dynamic sizing," which is basically hypothesis testing, and kind of going back and forth. I think sometimes people want a one-size-fits-all approach, or want a completely tailored approach. And the fact of the matter is that the approach for your 7-year-old might work well today but might be different by the time they're 9.
Melissa, you said this was kind of a helpful way of thinking about it, one of the pieces that I really think is important is that you are the expert of your child. You know what your child really is like and what they need. And to think through, and to try it out. What happens if you do have that conversation and they end up really anxious? OK. Then we'll come back and we'll talk to them about it.
If I don't have the conversation and someone else has it for me. OK. Then I need to step in on the conversation and to really think about it as a dynamic. What I want more than anything is for people to try it out. Experiment. Hypothesize. Try it in small doses, see how it goes. And know that we're going to make mistakes, that we're not going to think hard about it and come up with the perfect way of doing it. But we're going to have to practice in order to figure out how to support our kids in this conversation.
EmbraceRace: Yeah I really appreciated that advice. We had a specific question about this protecting vs preparing balance from a parent, Michelle, who is Jewish has a lot of family affected by the Holocaust. Many grandparents and that generation died and she hasn't told her seven year old son about the Holocaust yet. Because he's prone to insomnia, he's very anxious.
A think the flip side of people want a one-size-fits-all is that people can be pretty dogmatic. She's being told you're being racist if you don't tell him about the violence that happened recently in Charlottesville. She told him the broad strokes of what was happening there, of these hate-filled marchers and how the second march in Boston was stopped because community rose up. So I liked the way she approached it but she still ended up feeling glad and anxious herself because she talks about social justice a lot with her child and this is a very hard thing for their family. I'm sure you hear stories like that and I wonder what your response would be to her.
Allison: Well to be first of all really empathetic with the tremendous loss that she and her family have experienced, and that has an impact. It has an impact in terms of our anxiety and our fear and to speak it out loud. And there are also certain cultural traditions around, we don't speak about terrible things. But I wonder if she's part of or can connect up with parts of Jewish communities that have spoken about this loss before, that have a language about this. If there's a synagogue or a temple or a community nearby that actually has practiced this conversation, can she get a meeting with other folks to think through what they have tried. What are the stories. What are the books. What are the things that are told. And to know that you can do all of that work, find all the community, and when you tell your child your child might have a sleepless night.
But think through, what's the overarching concern? Is the concern that they're going to have a little bit of distress now? Or is the concern that they're going to have lots of prolonged distress later? Because a 7 year old is going to find out about this. And I also kind of want to put it this way, would she rather have her be the bearer of this information, or would she want someone else to do? There's probably a holding and a love and a support and a connection that she can provide that a stranger can't, or that a teacher can't. And to know it's going to be hard. It has to be hard.
But then to focus on this idea joy and resilience, to think through. And her family survived. And she's here. And she's here to tell the story. And it's important for her child to know the story. So that's not to wash away how bad it is but to think about there is a story of joy that can be told in her survival.
And I think about this and resonate with this in a different way as an African-American. We were enslaved. We weren't supposed to be here, in terms of being doctors and lawyers, and productive people - that wasn't supposed to be the plan. We were supposed to be making content for folks! So my story, as much as it's filled with heartache and pain, is one of resilience. And there's a way that we can give and support our children in that story of resilience, and that's often within community, that's often by turning to the other members of our community and saying, they survived or they had this terrible loss and they're still here. Of course it's a challenge, but we want to frame and think through, what is it that we're really fearing in not talking? Because this sense of protection will be violated at some point, someone's going to tell that story for them.
EmbraceRace: Thanks, Alison. Let me go to more questions. This person agrees very much with your framework for resilience, that resilience can be taught. She says, "I care for children with developmental disabilities and children who have been traumatized. In my clinical practice, I have parents complete a resilience questionnaire and then discuss their resilience factors so they can help their children build resilience. What did you do when parents have few resilience factors in order to help them help their kids?"
Allison: Well I think that means that we have to ask different questions. And we need to think about whether or not the construct of resilience has been really made to fit that family. What are the other things that they're doing? Is it a matter of remembering, of paying attention to, of making the concept of resilience smaller in some particular way? And even if we go through that process, then the idea is that we have something, something to work with. We've got to hold onto the hope even if we're feeling demoralized or bad that the number is small. We have to think about how can we help it to lift it up? And we have to pay attention to the capacity for growth, and that's a sign of resilience. So we may start off with a low number of factors but there's an ability to step into more, and to pay attention to that growth. Those are the ways that we can support that.
EmbraceRace: Allison, let me ask a quick follow up. I think your older two kids and ours are roughly the same age, ours are 7 and 9. Can you say something about for example our 7-year-old and the skills, you talked about skills. Let's even take actually the recent high profile example of a President Trump referring to not wanting immigrants from "shithole countries" but wanting immigrants from more countries like Norway. Of course it was widely understood that he meant, by the first, countries with lots of black and brown bodies in particular, and by the second, countries with a lot of white people and indeed he said Europeans at another point. So if your child hear's that - White, Black, brown, whatever stripe - what are the sorts of things that you say? How do you manage that?
Allison: One of the things that I encourage people to do is to think through, what is your family mission? What's your family's purpose. Kind of like a family mission statement. And to think through, what are the things that your family's already organized around? So one of the main promises for my family, for example, is kindness, which means that we've got a lot of conversation about kindness. So when a comment like that comes one of the first questions asked my kids is, do you think that was kind, the way that he spoke about other people? And how do we think about that? Is that the way that we would speak about other folks?
So that's one kind of piece, and then comes the question, well why would he say that? And we can think about naming it in different ways. My son is at the age, he's 9, where he's able to use a language around saying "that's racist." And so we can talk about that. What does that mean? Well it means that he's in a position of power and can harm people and that he's got these negative views, so we can have that dialogue.
My 7-year-old is probably more able to stick with, "That's not nice" or "that's not kind." So we can kind of size the conversation while keeping up with our focus which is on kindness. But everyone on the call may do something different, like, you might have a focus within your family around justice, around what is right, or how to treat people. I think you can tailor the message according to the messages that you've already been giving.
I think a lot of people have this assumption that when you're facing something like that that you've got to come up with a new discussion. You don't have to come up the new discussion, what is it that you're already telling your kids? Are you already telling them to be nice to each other? Are you already telling them that life isn't fair but we try to be just. What are the things that you're telling them all the time, and you hook back into that conversation. It's not a new conversation. This is a continued conversation about the characteristics and skills and values that you're already trying to give them. That's a long way of saying, I wouldn't necessarily have a specific kind of answer about what you raised up, but encourage us to think, how do I want to speak about this to my kids and about it being consistent with how we're already talking to our kids.
EmbraceRace: Allison, we started having family meetings and have a family mission as well. Inspired by you.
So here's a question from Nekenya who says that her 11-year-old daughter and her friends were called the N word by another student at school. "It broke my heart to have this happen to her. She told me that her feelings weren't hurt that she was angry instead. The problem I had was that I didn't receive a call from the administration to inform me of the incident. I went to school to tell the vice principal that it is important to notify parents so that they have the opportunity to speak with their children and to give them the necessary support. I wasn't sure if the other parents were here or not."
That happens again and again where things happen and you sometimes you get when you ask teachers or administrators not everybody like you know our kids talking about race in class and they say it never comes up you know but it sort of always comes up. Right. And and so whether the administration is aware or not aware it's happening.
Maybe you have responses to that.
Allison: So one of the things that I appreciated that lifting up the story is that it really is important to listen to how the child feels. This kid says, I'm not sad, I'm angry. So we need to center the experiences of the kid, not our experiences as parents, but the experience of the kid. What is it like for them? What do they feel like? And then also ask the kid, what would you like to see done? What would you like to have us do about it? I think that's a way to empower young kids and older kids to think through, how would they like this problem to be solved. And that's borrowing from restorative justice questions that we have which is focusing not only on the hurt but what can be done. And it sounds like an important piece to that was, I need to talk to administration about this. This is the piece that I need to have happen. And really appreciating that that they can do that and lift that up.
EmbraceRace: Let me elaborate on that, because, one of the issues it brings up for me which I think is a significant issue for many of us is ...
Even if you are had the luxury of being able to be super-involved parent in school, our kids are there 30 plus hours a week, even if you manage to get them to share some of what's happened during the day, there's a lot that happened that you will never know if your child or an adult doesn't share that with you. And we certainly had that experience with our friends even with us at times of finding out long after the fact, that something happened, and finding out even about patterns of behavior that we didn't know about or other parents didn't know about. So it raises this question of, first, how do you artfully underline the importance to teachers and administrators of the need to share this information? And then, what can we do, broadly speaking, as parents, to encourage better than worse ways of dealing with things that may come up?
Allison: That's a very big question about how do we support our teachers. I mean part of it is really thinking about this as a matter of support and empathy for teachers. I do a lot of work with teachers. The majority of the teachers that I work with feel impassioned about this subject - and I work with folks that aren't - but also feel like they aren't adequately supported in how to talk about this and how to think about these issues and that they're often just trying on their own and they're making mistakes and it feels like big stakes for them. So I think there's some empathy that we have to offer.
And I think it's also our right, whether you're at independent schools or public schools, to be up front with what you're asking for for your kids. So if you have the opportunity to do a meeting with the kid at the beginning of the year or some point in the year, we're often talking about their academic needs and their other needs. One of the things that we say is, we really know it's important for you to understand who [my kids] are and for you to understand what their challenges are, and who they are as people. And so what are the things I can do to help you see that? So for example, I know there's going to be a problem if someone comments about my son's hair. That's going to be a behavioral challenge in the room, so can we talk about that.
And that's because he's a boy that gets read as Black in this community and he struggles with that. And it's not just him acting out because someone said something, it actually means something. So can I have that dialogue with the teacher, about how can I help you see my kid?
One of the pieces of research that we really have is that, these racial gaps that we have in achievement and discipline tend to slow down and get smaller when teachers have positive relationships with the kids. So what can be done that you can support a positive relationship or a strong relationship - strong doesn't always have to be positive - a strong relationship with your child.
I'm in a lucky position - I just do these talks at the school. You know I just roll up and give my presentation about implicit bias. That's one mechanism of doing it! You can take my talk and share it with families and with schools as well. How do you want to be able to help your child get seen, is a way to think about supporting them across many domains of identity.
EmbraceRace: Here's a question that is near and dear to our hearts. This idea that parents and teachers and grandparents and guardians and others, caring adults, can play this protective, supportive, resiliency-nurturing role is obviously crucial to what we're trying to do. And it raises the really important question of, what is the work that as adults we can do? Certainly if we're parents, most of us are super motivated to help our kids, but when that may entail looking at your own stuff, your own resilience factors, how you were taught to manage you know hardship perhaps in your childhood home or whatever it might be, that can be difficult. It can be difficult to face and it can be difficult to know how to face it, even if you are willing you know in principle to do that.
My understanding is that therapists have their own therapists, right. So there's a structure for doing that. I'm wondering what can you say generally to folks who may be listening and thinking, I haven't really looked at my own stuff [in regards to race] much less thought about how does that translate into how I play this role from my child?
Allison: I mean I think you can start anywhere from ... dedicate time to thinking about. Can I think about, how do I teach my child about race? What am I saying, what am I communicating? What do I want to teach my child about race? You can do that as a thought experiment, you could journal it, you can get together with other folks, there are lots of books to be read. There's things like that but creating time and space to reflect on that I think is important.
I think actually having this dialogue if you're partnered in parenting is also important. Ask the simple question, How do we teach about race and what do I want to be teaching about race, is one question that you could start with to begin that kind of dialogue.
I know many folks are you know trying on other things they're joining up with SURJ and joining up with other groups and practicing that way. But I do think we have to practice like all the ways that we practice parenting. We're practicing as we go. We have to create space to try to develop this as a skill and develop this as a conversation and the embodiment that we're getting used to.
So that would just be like the smallest way and I think that would get started but it's it's a way to get started.
EmbraceRace: So here's a question from Sam who asks, curious to know whether parents/guardians should shield kids from media - mainstream and or social?
Allison: I think that's a really rich and complicated conversation. And I tell an example of how starting in March of last year or the year before had not been showing my kids the news, hadn't beentalking about politics at all, had really moved to what I would consider a media diet. I was restricting their media use and wasn't having them here talk about what was going on. That was my way of kind of controlling it and what ended up happening was, they go to school with other people who watch media. And so they had heard it from them or they saw it from them.
I think there are ways that we want to think about yes, there are some things that I want to restrict, there's some things I want to control. But also knowing that the outside world is going to come in. So how do we want to think about that.
There also is another way of thinking about, well, I'd rather engage with this news or this media with them. So can I watch this news piece with them, can I pause and answer their questions. Can I listen to the radio with them. Is there a way that I can do this in conjunction. One of the things that kicked this off for me, and you all have a webinar about this, too, is how do we read racist literature, racist books with our kids? And so the idea is about not ignoring that piece, but actually, if we were to read it together, how do we do it together.
In my family, we've been reading the original Grimm fairy tales which are crazy! Cinderella's sister cut's off her toe ... it's or very violent. So we've been doing that and the language has been about, this is what patriarchy is. This is what misogyny is. Why is it that all the girls have to do this? What's the role of step parents? It's been a conversation about that and it's also been about, well why does Disney show us something different? Well, why does it? Let's talk about commercialism. Let's talk about what they're trying to sell you. So it's been an opportunity to kind of do that. I have to admit my kids have stopped wanting to hear those stories now! But you know, that was a way of engaging with it. Back to the question, again, I defer to the wisdom and the gut and expertise of each family. This is not to say that you want to show your kids everything - there are things that we can titrate. But just remember, if you don't tell them, if you don't give them that access, it will be given to them by someone else. And in my case, it will be given to them by another 9 year old or another 7 year old. So that's yet another factor that's coming in.
EmbraceRace: You know it's funny, I have an example in our family, too. This always comes up because you are trying to get, you want, in our case, to find media that puts black girls at the center and it's just so hard to get. It's just crazy hard. So when Hamilton came out, I did not listen to and didn't want to expose my girls to it because it was founders' history, again. [The writer, Lin-Manuel Miranda] could have done it differently. He could have had Sally Hemings or other [historically neglected] people speak. And when I finally did, it was such a great opportunity to talk about, well where was our family when this was happening? Andrew and I both have family from the islands - Andrew immigrated from Jamaica and half of my family, my dad's side, is from Dominica.
So we were talking about that. [Alexander Hamilton was born poor in the Caribbean and witnessed and participated in the slave economy there. He was left destitute after a massive hurricane there, which prompted his move to the early colonies that are now part of the U.S.] And this is what was happening with slavery on the islands when Hamilton was there and Dominica was a marooned slave island. And more recently, we've been talking a lot about Dominica because it was hit by a major hurricane recently and we still have a lot of family there. And I heard our 9-year-old explaining to a friend of hers, they were listening to Hamilton, and she said this happened in Dominica! And she started to sing ...
"A hurricane came and devastation reigned/ Our man felt his future drip, dripping down the drain..."
And she spoke to her friend about Dominica and our family there still and the history of the place and the recent Category 5 hurricane that hit there. And I realized, wow, she really got a lot of that! So you can sort of insert stories that need to be told.
EmbraceRace: I have a follow up on that. Allison, you've said here and certainly in talk about resiliency there's this encouragement to talk about, as you've said, about not only family history but sort of a history of people. As you put it, to be a Black woman, to be here meant people survived, people are resilient against tremendous odds.
And what I wonder ... so often when we hear that, when we hear all sorts of families talk about delving into the family history and bringing up the stories of resilience and grit and triumph and all of us. I also think, two things. One, some parts of the history, in most cases, surely in all cases we go back far enough, are not so fabulous, are not so noble. Sometimes we were, our ancestors, were the perpetrators of atrocities. And I have some anxiety that if we are asking children or if we ourselves are to derive strength and pride, joy from some of the good things, what do we do with the things that are not so wonderful?
And then one related thing, around slavery perhaps in particular, I'm sure you've seen and certainly I've seen, many of us have seen perhaps, how Black kids, Black students in school - middle school students, high school students - often do read the slavery part of U.S. history. My own feeling is it's because, even though in certainly the vast majority of classrooms presumably we say slavery was a terrible thing you know all of that, I think there's something really powerful that says it's better to have ancestors who were masters of the enslaved than to have ancestors who were the enslaved. How do we deal with the really difficult parts with the parts of our own histories?
Allison: Yeah I mean I think the thing that we need to do is to help develop the capacity in our kids to engage beyond - pardon the pun - black and white thinking. We need to help them understand that it's not all good and not all bad. And we do this in multiple different ways. We end up talking them about bad behavior as opposed to bad characteristics, or poor choices, or the ways in which context is really important. But we have to help to differentiate. And that means that if they can develop that skill of differentiating and holding on to multiple pieces, multiple perspectives, that they can also work towards holding onto and reconciling that good people have done bad things, bad things have happened to good people.
It's complicated. We all struggle with that, right. It's easy to just assume that a person is all good or all bad. But this is the reconciliation that we all have to do with the ways in which we participate and have benefited from systematic oppression. Maybe the way that you've benefited hasn't been according to race, but it's according to something. Maybe it's according to ability, to gender, to economics. So that reconciliation is all stuff that we have to do. We have to be able to think through that good people have benefited from oppressive systems and what's the work to be done.
That's something that can become more and more complicated as kids become older. We have to understand that kids in their development are challenged to think outside of the binary when they're little but we can help them to do it. We can sit with them and talk about, this was really hard and there was also good parts, and there was bad parts. We can talk about how it's confusing for us as grownups to do that reconciliation. But I think it's much better if we have a more just and honest view of how things happen then a sense that everything has to be all good or all bad. And I think this is actually a place where we can think about, as we stand as people of color in this conversation about race, you know the question you're asking about reconciliation with complicated natures of our past are also the passions that are being asked for white people as they're stepping up to think about their participation in a racist system.
So maybe it's a place for us to connect empathetically is to think about how that reconciling. I also think about this as a parallel conversation that we can have in conversations with our mixed race kids. So you know we've got to help to support them that they are one thing or the other. You know they have to be able to reconcile that Mama looks different than daddy or that Mama looks different than Mama. We have to be able to to help them with that. So if we can develop the capacity for kids to feel well, be well and understand that they have a "complicated" racial background then we can do the same day for these other pieces as well.
EmbraceRace: Here's a question from Patricia who says she said she's joining from Ontario and she says: "The biggest struggle we have over here is that speaking about racism and discrimination. That puts a target on your back because Canada has been romanticized as being free of racism and discrimination and and that it isn't a real problem."
That's not just Canada, right!
She continues: "My kids struggle with how to advocate for themselves on issues of racism and discrimination. Right now I am the one who advocates on their behalf. They are aged 11 and 18 years. How do I support them in advocating for themselves?"
Allison: I guess the question is advocate in what way, advocating for them to be seen?
I appreciate you with this question lifting up that their are places and spaces where people feel as if racism doesn't exist. I live in Oakland and I'm near a community of Berkeley where there's a lot of great, righteous activism that goes on there. And also a sense that these problems couldn't possibly exist here. So I think it's important as you're kind of saying, Melissa, let's join in thinking about the ways that people have created spaces where they feel racism doesn't exist. And it might be hard to speak up in those places.
But in terms of advocating with kids, I guess the question is advocate in what way? What are the skills that you're thinking about - is that speaking up about an issue, calling out an issue? And also knowing that the skills that someone has at 11 and 18 are going to be very different overtime. I have to say, I wasn't an 11 year old at protests. I wasn't an 11 year old that knew how to speak about or think about race in particular ways, that's something that came over time and with support. And it came, yes, in the conversations with my parents, but also in the absence as well.
So we want to appreciate that the advocacy that an 11-year-old needs is different than an 18-year-old and different than a 36-year-old. But it might be having a conversation or space with them to think about, what help do you need? What do you want to see? We can engage this conversation about racial justice with our kids. What would a racially just world look like? Having our kids imagine and envision that, and then let's think about how we would get there. What are the things that kids are already doing about that and how do we support them? Also appreciate that sometimes when we're in these liberal bubbles it can be difficult to actually narrate that not all our experiences include experiences of oppression.
EmbraceRace: One last question and then we'll we'll close out. This one comes from a white mom to two adopted brown boys. She says that she has a new level of awareness about racial injustice and she's really hot about it. She's really hot and quick tempered and quick to react and therefore, she says: "my resiliency is not great. I quickly burnout from conversations and relationships that aren't willing to get to where I am. I see the beautiful resilience in my friends of color, recognizing that they've dealt with living in a socially unjust world their whole lives. I want to be sure my Black sons are learning to be resilient which I'm not now a great example of, if ever I was or could be. Is the balance of using my White privilege to change spaces fair when my boys may not have the same opportunities?"
Allison: Wow. I don't know about the fair part. What I kind of connect up with is the mama bear - the rage and the mama bear kind of play of wanting to protect your sons and wanting to protect their children. So validating that and seeing that, but also knowing that our rage at that level will burn us out over time. So moving from rage into action, moving from rage into sadness - that those are things that are going to come, but knowing that this is continued work that we have to do.
I believe I saw on the transcript before but I would also lift up that there are some great resources to be in community about this discussion. One thing I would say is to not do this on your own, to reach out to community of folks that are doing this. PACT adoption agency which is here in the Bay Area really specializes in lifting up how to do this, how to be in a community with folks and thinking about trans racial adoption in particular. What it does in a beautiful way that I think it's a great model is that they have a summer camp for the kids where the kids get to come together and talk about what they need. They get to speak out about what they want. They get to center their experience of how they want to be ushered through this experience. So it's a powerful and moving model. You know you just have to go to PACT camp. What if we actually believe that our kids could be responsible and equipped to come up with the solutions and we listened to them. What if we actually asked them what they wanted?
Lastly I would say it's OK to narrate to your kids that you are trying your best and you're not doing it the ways that you want to but you're going to keep on trying. Tell them that, show them that, that you don't have it all fixed, that we can try this together.
I narrate my mistakes all the time to my kids and what I'm hoping for. I'm hoping that we're going to be able to do this together. I'm hoping that the world will treat you differently. And I'm hoping that you're going to be equipped to deal with it. But I think it's OK for us to admit that we're trying and when we fail to.
EmbraceRace: If you want to borrow our kids, they'll narrate your mistakes for you.
EmbraceRace: Well thank you so much, Allison. This has been great! We are so happy to see you on the other side of that pregnancy and appreciate your your wisdom and generosity. And we appreciate the peak at the baby, too. Congratulations - she's lovely.
Allison: Thanks to you all for doing this, and it's been great to see some names I know in the chat. It's also great to have this forum. This is the work. I so appreciate being in community and conversation with you all.