Teaching and Learning About Race: Fantastic Practice in Late Elementary School
If we're to achieve the goal of raising children to thrive in a healthy and just multiracial democracy, we must have an education system that supports honest and open teaching and learning about race and racism, past and present. Many of us envision these conversations happening among middle and high school students and their teachers, but we must also protect teachers' ability to guide younger children toward foundational understandings of human diversity and social justice.
In this webinar, we will focus on teaching late elementary school kids to be thoughtful, informed, and brave about race. What does healthy and developmentally appropriate teaching and learning about race look like with late elementary aged kids? Watch this conversation about the education we must ensure for our children.
EmbraceRace: Welcome everybody. You're here for Teaching and Learning About Race: Fantastic Practice in Late Elementary. We had a session a couple weeks ago, Fantastic Practice in Early Childhood, which we're defining as zero to 8 years old. Now we're talking about late elementary, 8 to 12 years old, although the boundaries of that get debated. We're really excited to talk about what healthy and development mentally appropriate teaching and affirmation around race for 8 to 12 year old's looks like in a classroom.
We have two guests tonight. Dr. Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn is an educator, a speaker and professional learning facilitator. Sarah has experienced teaching at both the secondary and elementary levels, and in 2011 was named teacher of the year at Lakeside Upper Elementary School in Lake Village, Arkansas. She has designed and facilitated talks and workshops with schools and organizations across the country, including on Learning for Justice, Microsoft, and LinkedIn. So some big biggies there. Sarah is based out of Oxford, Mississippi. Welcome Sarah. Great to have you.
Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn: Thank you for having me. It's so great to be here.
EmbraceRace: I am also really happy to introduce Dr. Onnie Rogers, sounds like Bonnie without the B. Onnie Rogers is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University, where she directs the D.I.C.E lab, which stands for Developmental Identities in Cultural Environments. Dr. Rogers is a developmental psychologist and identity scholar, and their projects focus on how children and adolescents make sense of their racial, ethnic, and gender identities; how cultural stereotypes and expectations shape the development and intersectionality of these identities; and the ways in which multiple identities influence adolescent, social, emotional and academic outcomes. Onnie, great to have you here.
Onnie Rogers: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure. Looking forward to the conversation.
EmbraceRace: We find that this work is usually personal for the folks who do the kind of work that you do.
Can you share a little something about you personally that helps explain your investment in the work that you do?
Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn: That's a great question and hard to answer in a short amount of time, as I'm sure many of the people listening reflect on that question as well. I am Biracial Asian and White. I identify as Asian American and that is particularly because that's how the world racializes me. So, that is how I'm seen. That's how I walk through the world, but that really didn't become my salient understanding of my racial identity until I moved to the deep south and started teaching there.
I had grown up actually mostly in various parts of Asia. And in those spaces I was seen as Multiracial or even as White in certain situations, but then moving to the deep south teaching in segregated schools, majority Black and African American schools in the segregated south. And being in many cases, the first Asian person that my students, their families, my colleagues had interacted with really raised that awareness for me. And it made me realize that I had always known I was Asian. It was something we talked about at home, but I had no practice talking about that with other people. That there was no really easy way for me to speak with my students. I was teaching fourth grade. So right in this age level that we're talking about tonight, and I had students, mostly my Black students, who would ask me, "What are you? You're not White, but you're not us either. So like, what is that about?"
And I didn't have language or a way to talk about it, but I could tell that it mattered and that, like you said, it is personal. It starts from those moments of reflecting back on our own experiences as young people, our upbringings, our educations, and then seeing how maybe sometimes we replicate that silence with students ourselves. I'm so excited to hear from Onnie today, because I just finished reading your amazing recent article about this. And so hearing the way that some of those narratives that we had as young people are are still so active with young people today.
EmbraceRace: Thank you, Sarah.
Onnie, what is your personal investment in this work?
Onnie Rogers: Yeah. I love that. And it's such a great question, because it always goes back to the beginning, right? It goes back to our own lives and experiences. And for me, I often say my first life, I spent as an elite gymnast. So from the time I was very young, I spent a lot of hours at the gym. And for those who aren't as familiar, now we think gymnastics is pretty diverse, but it is a very White sport. And I grew up in predominantly White spaces, predominantly wealthy spaces, often being the only Black girl in a whole competition, and certainly on my gymnastics team.
And so that was my normal. That was just sort of the way it was. And as I finished my collegiate career at UCLA where I was a gymnast, I was studying Education, as well as Psychology and Child Development. And really got interested in these questions of identity. Surprise, surprise! Someone who had a very strong athletic identity started questioning identity.
I was very curious though, about how do we figure out who we are? How do the messages and expectations from other people really shape what we think of ourselves? And at that time I had intended to be an elementary school teacher. So I've always been interested in kiddos at this age, but really shifted to the research side and asking these questions about how are young people figuring out their identities? And so that's the work I've been doing for the last decade plus now. And most of that work has been qualitative. So I have conversations with kids about this. And as Sarah was saying, kids are curious, they're paying attention, they're asking these questions. And so it's a really fabulous and exciting and important time to engage with young people about who they are, who they're becoming, who society is, how they understand their relationship to other people.
EmbraceRace: I'll tell you, Onnie. I'm really glad that there was this organic way for you to bring in your elite gymnast background, because I wanted to brag on that from the beginning. I'm like, "No, no restrain yourself." Thank you. Those are really interesting answers and it takes us back to the question of, what is intentional, appropriate teaching and buttressing identities in the classroom look like in this age group? I sort of think back to being in that age group myself, and I think my experience was what a lot of people still experience of there didn't seem to be a lot of intention. There were lessons about MLK. Maybe only MLK. And I know that's shifted for some people and not for others, but this question of who we were in the school socially, how we were positioned differently, the racial identity of the teacher. I think the MLK message was in part really framed in a colorblind way. That, "Race used to matter, but it doesn't matter now and we're all the same and we can do anything."
EmbraceRace: What is the right approach for teaching this age and supporting kids in figuring out their racial identities?
Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn: I think the biggest thing is not shying away from talking about it. I do workshops with educators, who is most of the time who I'm talking to. They say things like, "I want to have these conversations, or I believe that this matters and I don't even know where to start. I didn't practice this myself, in my home, or in my classroom." There are so many people who shared the same thing.
It's the same quote from MLK, "I hope my children are not judged on the color of their skin," and kind of just stopping there and emphasizing that colorblind mentality. When, of course, as everyone has said already, of course kids see color! Kids see human difference. Right? And they're curious about it. That doesn't mean that they always are expressing it verbally. Sometimes they don't have the language to do that. So I think the biggest and most important thing that we can do is to model and practice using accurate language for human difference, because that sends the idea that difference is not a good thing or a bad thing. Difference is just different. There is not always a value judgment associated with difference. Now, of course, societal structures and so on have created hierarchies and put values on difference, but kind of fundamentally in a lesson we want our children to interpret, is that they can get along with, see, make friends with kids who are different in so many different ways. And that's okay. And getting comfortable with some of the language for that really matters.
I want to share really quick anecdote if that's okay, because as we were getting ready for tonight, I've been reflecting on a few experiences that I had as a classroom teacher going from that first year of teaching and having students saying, "What are you?" And not really knowing how to engage and feeling like that was a missed opportunity in retrospect, that I would kind of dance around the issue. I'd talk about, "Well, my family's from Malaysia" instead of saying, "This is the racial identity that goes with it. This is the language that we use with it." And I don't think it was ever a satisfying answer for my students. They would keep asking. And yet, I didn't know how to answer. To a few years later, I didn't know how to answer. To a few years later, I was now teaching on the Mississippi side of the river in a small town in the rural Mississippi Delta, again, majority Black and African American school. And I was teaching third grade now. So my students were mostly 8, 9, some 10 years old.
One of the big field trips that we would do every year was farm safety day. We're a rural community, you got to go to the civic center and learn farm safety, like how to put on your life vest and don't walk in front of the tractors and things like that. And the thing that has stuck with me is that the White private school from the same town also had their third grade class go to farm safety day on the same day. It was the first instance that I had seen my students interacting with the other third grade students who lived in their same community, but who they almost never interacted with on a day-to-day basis.
Now that year, I had one White student in my class, the rest of my students were Black. And in the White school, in the third grade class, there was one Black student in their class. And the rest of the students were White. And watching these two groups kind of eyeing each other and not knowing what to do, and my students, like several of them kind of tugged on my arm and said, "Is she okay? Do we need to get her?" That really made me realize how racially conscious, of course they are, even at this 8, 9, 10 years old. They already not only see it, they also have assumptions and ideas about how society is organized around it, who belongs where and why, who doesn't belong where and why.
And it was really important to talk to other teachers in the school and make sure that we had a conversation with the class afterwards and not shying away from it, which is what I would've done when I first started out. And it wasn't perfect. But sometimes that's okay too, saying, "You know what, kids, I didn't have much practice doing this when I was young, but we're going to work through that together." And I think that was so much more meaningful for them than the standard kind of dancing around it, using the nice or the polite language that I had been raised to use when I was growing up myself.
The biggest and most important thing that we can do is to model and practice using accurate language for human difference, because that sends the idea that difference is not a good thing or a bad thing. Difference is just different. There is not always a value judgment associated with difference.
EmbraceRace: I want to pull back and tease apart two things, the question of what healthy and developmentally appropriate practice around race and racial learning looks like from the question of why this is so important to do? So Onnie, your research and teaching experience, it lifts up identity, not only racial and gender identity, class identity, culture identity.
Can you speak about what's at stake here? Why was saying your family's from Malaysia not a satisfactory answer? What is the unspoken question to which they want an answer? Can you give us a couple insights into why this matters so much?
Onnie Rogers: Thank you for setting that example and story, Sarah, I think it's a really useful way to see how it unfolds. Part of what I was reflecting on for this question was just the fact that kids are already thinking about this. So this notion of whether it's developmentally appropriate... It's like kids are already paying attention. They're noticing, they have questions, they're experiencing discrimination, they're experiencing racism, they're experiencing exclusion on the basis of their race. And so the question of if it's developmentally appropriate, I think we can set to rest in a way. It's appropriate, it's happening, it's part of their lives. Often that's just happening in silence though. And so how do we open a space to engage these conversations and give young people support and tools and language to process these experiences and to move through them?
Onnie Rogers: And so this question of why does it matter so much that we do it, and more importantly, that we do it correctly or effectively. What it calls to mind for me is Beverly Tatum's analogy of the conveyor belt. She describes racism in our society as a system, and she uses the analogy of a conveyor belt, or waiting for your luggage at the airport. And so we live in a society that has been structured and designed around racism, which means people are given advantage on the basis of their skin color and are disadvantaged and excluded on the basis of their skin color. We promote ideologies of white supremacy and white normativity. Those are baked into our laws, our policies, our history, and our present. And so we're all sort of as Americans in this country and globally, we're having a conversation in the US.
And so in the US, we are all on this conveyor belt and most of us are just standing, but we're still moving in that direction. And the direction, the set point is towards racial inequality. It's towards white normativity and white supremacy, anti-Blackness, that's the normative pathway. And that's where most of us are. I think we like to think that it's the people who are running with the conveyor belt, those who are actively racist, actively promoting harm to others that are the problem. And certainly they are. But the larger majority is those of us that are standing.
And so the thing that I always take with me in terms of why we have these conversations is, Tatum says, "Unless we're actively running in the opposite direction and faster than the conveyor belt, then we're going to be reinforcing it." So when we're thinking about what to say to kids or how to have conversations, it's a core question I ask a lot in my research as well, which is, in what ways is this work, is this question reinforcing racial inequity, the status quo, White normativity, or in what ways is it disrupting it? Because it's not doing nothing.
And so I think sort of recognizing that neutrality or silence, or sort of just doing nothing is indeed neutral. That's a fallacy. So just coming to grips with that, that by doing nothing, you're still doing something and often that's something is the exact thing you don't want to do. And so how can you engage kids in open dialogue? Be honest, have genuine conversations, respect kids' knowledge that they're bringing their experiences. They're not sort of empty receptacles that we're filling. It's really how do we open space for them to share what they know and just really taking with us that we have an obligation. It's our responsibility collectively to be active disruptors and participants in creating the society and culture that we want to live in.
How do we open a space to engage these conversations and give young people support and tools and language to process these experiences and to move through them?... Respect kids' knowledge that they're bringing, their experiences. They're not sort of empty receptacles that we're filling... It's our responsibility collectively to be active disruptors and participants in creating the society and culture that we want to live in.
EmbraceRace, Melissa: I know that Onnie, in the paper that Sarah was referring to, in your research, you really looked at kids experiencing being in so called "colorblind" classrooms and then experiencing real racism. That was certainly like going back to my hearing about Martin Luther King, and the teacher saying it doesn't matter. And then in the meantime, "Why does your family look so different?" And my nickname was "n lips" in my school.
But there was no mention of that from the teachers. They thought they were doing their good work, but they weren't noticing, or if they were, they thought shushing it was a better idea. So again, lots of kids are having these experiences, trying to name the difference, pointing at you if you're the difference. So it's not like it's not happening. And you just have to ask the kids of color, ask the families of color, and they'll tell you what's happening in the school or where that's happening.
Onnie, what have you found in your research about what kids are actually seeing and how educators are interrupting that, or not?
Onnie Rogers: This project, we were talking to kids in second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth, so in this elementary school range about various aspects of their identity and one of them was race. We ask kids questions, "What is their racial label?" Do they know? How important is that to them? How do they understand it? What does it mean? What experiences do they have? What are some of the good things about being Asian or being White or being Black? What's hard about it? What are times where it feels challenging?
These were part of the conversations. And so one of the things we found was that a lot of kids really did engage what we referred to as the colorblind narrative, which is, "We're all the same." It wasn't that they weren't aware of race, but the explanation was race doesn't matter and the title of the paper is actually “Martin Luther King Fixed It”: Children Making Sense of Racial Identity in a Colorblind Society, which was a quote from one of the students. So race used to matter, but not anymore. "Martin Luther King fixed it."
But I think one of the most striking things in that data is that there were a group of kids, the majority who did this what we called incongruent narrative, where they would say, "Yeah, race doesn't matter. Everybody here gets treated the same." And then they would go on to tell you a story about being excluded on the basis of race or about differential treatment, either of themselves or seeing others treated that way. To Melissa's point, certainly kids of color are recipients and have plenty of stories in which they are the victims of racial discrimination and marginalization, but the White students in the schools also observe that. And so we also hear from White students about who's excluded and who's treated unfairly. And so even though they're not the ones experiencing it, they're not blind to it either. And so part of what we were seeing and hearing is that there was this master narrative about, "Everyone's the same, everyone's included," but then there was a lived experience narrative that really spoke to the racism and the inequities that actually happen on the basis of race.
And so part of the tension then was seeing kids grapple with that inconsistency. "What are we supposed to do with these experiences when we're consistently told that race doesn't matter?" That's why it matters to do this right. We have to make space for kids to bring their truth and their lived experiences to the conversation and to the table.
And I'll just say one last thing in relationship to thinking about teachers in this role. One of the things we picked up from students in these interviews. One of our quotes that we have cited a handful of times is a White student who's a sixth grader who said, "Race doesn't matter, nobody cares about it. It just doesn't matter." And the follow-up question is, "Well, how do you know it doesn't matter?" And he said, "Well, the teachers don't talk about it. We don't learn about it. We learn about math and we learn about this and we learn about that, but no one ever teaches us about race. It doesn't matter." And so that idea that kids are paying attention and drawing conclusions about what is significant, what counts as education, what counts as important knowledge, that's getting transmitted implicitly based on what we say or don't say in the classroom.
EmbraceRace: Sarah, how does Onnie's work squares with your own observation, your own work, and your own experience in the classroom?
Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn: It completely does, which is great and maybe a little depressing to think about that this is such a reality across the country for so many kids, so many young people, the pressures of that master narrative and I think the power that language choice of master narrative is really powerful there because it is almost this unspoken conspiracy that we all buy into that we're going to say, "Oh, race doesn't matter and da, da, da, da, da." And yet even our youngest kids have an implicit sense that is not quite true, and yet they still act out or enact that master narrative. And research shows, and also from personal experience, having explicit conversations about race and racism with kids seems to have a lasting impact because it one, makes them aware of the different narratives that are there, and two makes them feel like it is okay to question some of those master narratives and to name the falsehood of that.
It's been a very interesting experience for me the last few years. I have three White step kids. And so raising them when I have such a racially minoritized sense of self and being part of their upbringing and seeing how they make sense of the world has given me a lot of hope in the realization that having the conversations matters a lot because now they're the ones who notice things and say things.
I think about my stepdaughter when she was about 11 coming to me and saying, "Sarah, how come all the Indigenous people we learn about in school we learn about in past tense?" And that is a pretty complex realization, but it was again that one, having accurate language for being able to pose the question; two, realizing that there are narratives about what we should and shouldn't learn about, that maybe there are erasures in curricula, kids themselves notice that, and I think it is really important to allow them to ask those questions and to listen to those questions as well. Because they hold a lot of knowledge and a lot of noticing that sometimes as adults we don't give enough credit to.
EmbraceRace: None of us comes out of the womb having deep insights into what we're talking about tonight and being able to make explicit, even for ourselves, what's going on around us. How do you understand what you're seeing against this master narrative that says, "You're not seeing what you're seeing." But what's so interesting about the experience that the two of you have, yes, it's always rooted in something personal for all of us, but Onnie for you as an elite athlete in a very White sport and that being part of the baseline for your reflections on what's happening around you. Then Sarah, being born and growing up largely in Asia and then going to teaching Black and African American students in Mississippi, as you say, often in many cases the first Asian American person that they would've interacted with. I mean, those are really extraordinary circumstances to be doing this work. Sarah, for you especially over the course of your teaching, clearly your sensibilities and your analysis change.
What advice do you have for the folks who are listening, who are thinking, "Yeah, I know that there's work to do with my children and/or the children in my life and in my classroom but I also understand that clearly I need to do my own." What would you say to those people who do want to go on their own journey?
Onnie Rogers: Yeah. It's such a great question and I love that we're starting there in many ways. I often say we can't talk to kids about race if we can't talk to ourselves about it. If we've got our own anxieties about even bringing up the topic or we're not sure where we stand or how we understand it, that's part of what makes it really hard for us to engage kiddos, because our own fears and anxieties and uncertainties are part of what's clouding our ability to engage.
I think getting knowledge, it seems more widely known and recognized now but the reality is we just don't learn much about race or racial history or the history of this nation when it comes to race in school. It's not really part of our curriculum. That master narrative, we've been sort of speaking about, that is built into our curriculum. There's a reason that by and large, our discussion of racial history is Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and that's it. So that's intentional. And so this idea of just learning. What does it look like to pick up some books and actually ask hard questions about how did we get here? When did things change? Did they change? We've said they changed, but you know, that sort of inquiry that's authentic.
And then I think, maybe Sarah, I'm not sure who was just saying, but that kids have so much awareness and noticing and part of what happens as adults is you get socialized out of noticing. As adults, we aren't paying attention. We often don't notice the patterns and the inequities because they're so pervasive, and we have these narratives to explain them away. We're not tuning in. And so what does it look like to "turn on" your attention? Pay attention. What's on the TV screen? Who's always represented in the books or the stories that you're reading? Paying attention to your environment is a really important first step and signal.
And then I would say curiosity. This idea of just being deeply curious to that point of gaining knowledge about history, but also about yourself. Like what do I think about this? Why do I think that? Where did I get this belief from? Why is my kid asking this question? What is it that they really want to know? So leaning into curiosity and leaning away from that tendency to dismiss or ignore or quickly move away from.
And then I would just say the intentionality piece, which obviously that's a big part of this whole conversation is that it has to be on purpose. In general we're not going to fall into this. I will say I've got two girls who are now 10 and 6. And parenting, sort of as Sarah was saying, has been a major force of my own growth and development and continued refinement of questions and ability to lean into conversations and make sure I'm paying attention with my kids and helping them develop that sort of critical awareness, critical gaze.
When my oldest was about 4 or 5, we watched the Sound Of Music for the first time and we had lots of conversations about diversity and we talked about race and so that was part of our everyday or sort of general socialization. And so we were watching the Sound Of Music, just the two of us, and we got about halfway through the movie and she's like, "I really like this but I don't think Daddy will." And I was like, "Why is that?" And I should say, my husband's White and so my daughter's biracial. And I said, "Why won't Daddy like it?" And she's like, "Because there are no Brown people. And Daddy doesn't like it when there's no Brown people in the movies."
And I was thinking, I'm like, "Daddy loves this movie, it's a classic, right?" But again, I'd seen it so many times I hadn't noticed. And here she was seeing it for the first time and was like, "This is very different from what we typically watch," and being able to articulate it and to feel comfortable to make that observation. I think those sorts of experiences as a parent have pushed me to say, as Sarah was saying, it really matters what you're saying and doing.
We can't talk to kids about race if we can't talk to ourselves about it... Part of what happens as adults is you get socialized out of noticing.... We often don't notice the patterns and the inequities because they're so pervasive, and we have these narratives to explain them away. We're not tuning in. And so what does it look like to "turn on" your attention? Pay attention.
EmbraceRace: There are a lot of folks asking in questions they sent before about what's the curriculum? What do I do if I'm nervous? So this question of like self work, and also of you as a teacher, your racial identity being seen and having to be honest about what that means in the classroom. It seems like that would be a place to start teaching. I talk about this too and I talk about my own identity. I know you've had some of those experiences just by virtue of teaching where you teach, yeah?
Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn: Yeah. I want to first put like a plus one on everything that Onnie just said. I think that, especially that note about curiosity, like quieting that voice in our own head sometimes and just listening. Because a lot of times people ask, "What is the curriculum? What is the script? What are the words I can say out of my mouth that are going to make my children perfectly race-conscious, without any biases," and I wish that existed, right? I think Andrew, you said you were going to write that script and then we were all going to fix the world.
EmbraceRace, Andrew: Yeah, no, I already have it done. I'm just not releasing it yet.
Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn: Well, stop sitting on that because it's very important. But as we know, if only it were that simple. So a lot of times we are going to make mistakes, and actually making that visible in front of the kids in our lives is also important. I have a dear friend who always says, "Perfection is not expected. Grace is appreciated and effort matters." We cannot say that we deserve grace in every situation. Sometimes we will cause harm or whatever it is, but it is appreciated when we can give it, when we can feel it. And yet our effort matters and showing our kids that, saying, "Oh, when I did that, that wasn't so great. Here's here's why I feel bad that I did that thing. Here's the impact that it had. Here's how I'm going to repair that situation." Because part of it is not just normalizing having the conversation, it's normalizing all the ouches that come with the conversation.
Educators, they tell me, they're like, "I want to do this. I'm really afraid I'll hurt someone's feelings." Or, "I'm afraid I'll say the wrong thing. I'm afraid that I didn't learn this myself. I haven't mastered the content." And the thing is there is no mastering the content, even for us as adults. So we have to just kind of jump in. I'm going to get really tactical for a second and share a resource in the chat: Social Justice Standards, The Learning for Justice Anti-Bias Framework. This comes from Learning For Justice and in full disclosure, I'm an Associate Director there, so there is that connection, but I have no skin in the game sharing this with all of you. The reason I want to share it is it shares age-appropriate outcomes for talking about identity, diversity, justice, and action with young people.
And it gives in that age appropriate language, these are sort of statements that we would hope that kids could articulate or would be thinking, feeling, believing to say that they have a strong understanding of identity or a strong understanding of diversity. And if you kind of scroll through this resource, you'll see the super, super complicated adult-facing versions. You'll see an even easier version for younger kids, but I find this really helpful and I use it in my own life. I use it for myself. I look at some of these things and I go, "Wow, I am not good at this third grade thing yet. How do I find opportunities to practice it?"
And that's okay. Again, we are learning together all the time. And what I have noticed is being in that mindset of continuous learning, continuous practicing, collective learning, is that the sort of ouches that happen in my own life feel less wounding. It doesn't mean they don't affect me when people are like, "What are you?" or like, "Where are you from from?" Or, "You're not from around here." That stuff bothers me, but it doesn't wound me in the same way because I can understand where that question is coming from in a different way and how it is operating off and out of a place of ignorance, which still has a harmful impact and yet, how do I sort of think through in talking to young people today, how do I raise them to have a level of different awareness where they are not asking similar questions that might cause harm or saying things? And realizing that in many ways that ignorance has been weaponized against minoritized groups and as an educator one of my clearest responsibilities is to mitigate a lot of that ignorance.
EmbraceRace: Thanks, Sarah. Yeah, these standards are great and we our kids' elementary, school before the pandemic, we had a parent and teacher group that sort of was working through the standards and what does it mean, so I think it's a great tool for those conversations as well with other stakeholders in school communities.
Thank you for sharing the resource. I love that anti-bias scenario that goes with the grade-level outcomes that we'd like to see. Because again, going back to this issue of kids by the time they're 5, and certainly by the time they're late elementary, they've become so accustomed to being told that what they're seeing isn't real. So they're used to a certain rhetoric being associated with. So we need to go beyond the rhetoric. I mean, the words are important and these words are certainly, these grade-level outcome, the words are different than how we teach them. To have these sort of values and convictions. I especially love Sarah the point about modeling making mistakes. We're going to make mistakes. The question is are we self-aware and then are we transparent with our children?
Can you share a little bit more about what modeling mistakes has looked like for you in your parenting? It's not only about what you say and what we'd like our kids to say themselves, but how you back it up with behavior?
Onnie Rogers: I think it's a really great question. There's always the tension, if you will, about what you're doing versus what you're saying. It's both and kids are paying attention to both. So, you know, I say simple, but the sort of obvious simple thing as a parent has been engaging diverse books and curriculum and stories as part of our everyday. Not on special occasions, not only about topics of oppression and history and slavery. About lived experiences, diverse kids living their lives as the normal. And so I think this idea that the way kids learn about the world, as they're paying attention to what's around them, they're so in tune, and if they're not seeing diversity represented, then they're learning that being Brown is different. That that's surprising and not normative.
But if they get that exposure routinely, then it's normal for them. And so I think there's that intentionality around what you do, the friends you make, the company you keep, the spaces and the kind of music you listen to, the artwork in your house, like all of those sorts of things are behavioral. I've tried to be and continue to find myself being just more intentional about when to name or notice an inequity, and it's not just about race! And I think that's really important. I know that we don't have time to talk about all the things, but intersectionality is a buzzword and this idea that race co-exists along with multiple other vectors of oppression. Social class and ableism and sexism. And so the way I talk about gender with my kids, the way I talk to them about different racial and ethnic groups and communities and histories, all of that really does matter and they start to thread the needle with those things.
EmbraceRace: I think in talking about the flip side of oppression along those vectors, talking about privilege and the linkage between those two things. Because it's easy for those of us who have relative privilege in various areas, yes, to talk about the downside of it, but without acknowledging the upside that we may benefit from in some way.
Onnie, I'm thinking about your daughter at age 4 or 5 watching Sound Of Music and saying, "Daddy, wouldn't like the fact that there are no Brown people." Would she, at that age, been able to articulate why Daddy doesn't like when they are no Brown people?
Onnie Rogers: That's a good question. I mean, probably in her 4 year old way, which is to say, when we would point out representation or like, "So, there's like no Brown people in this show or everyone here is White," then with that would be like, "Well, our family doesn't look like that, the world doesn't look like that." It's just kind of strange when stories or books are only showing one thing as if that's the whole of the story. So I imagine at that age she would've kind of understood that being like, "That's not the way we like to tell stories." Now, as a 10 year old, that knowledge is cumulative and the conversations we've had over the years, she would definitely be able to say for Sound Of Music, well, we had a whole conversation about Hitler and the time... So she'd be able to give you that context. But I think like that evolves, right. And I think it's an important point, which is to say, little kids, younger kids cannot understand the entire scope and abstract weight of structural racism but that does not mean that they don't understand fairness and injustice and inclusion and belong. They get those ideas. And so teaching those explicitly about who feels included and excluded, who feels left out, those are the building blocks that give them that language and awareness to begin to understand the systems.
EmbraceRace: Right. Sort of related to that, I love Sarah what you said about looking at the standards that you look at them and say, "I haven't met the third grade standard for XYZ," and that's so true. That so often there's early on and still happens in EmbraceRace, people say, "I sent this article about how to create an inclusive kindergarten or whatever to someone who's not a teacher and doesn't have kids just to get them to understand how to be inclusive generally, because we didn't have those lessons as kids and because we're sort of always learning."
Sarah, one of the things you said was that people underestimate what kids can understand, maybe because of what people thought they could understand or not having the language when we did. What would you say to that or add?
Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn: Yes. I think that in general, we underestimate kids knowledge and understanding a lot of the time because they don't often have the sophisticated adult vocabulary to articulate it. That doesn't mean they're not thinking it or feeling it like Onnie said. I don't know, a 4 year old who would not be quick to tell you something feels unfair, but what it means is like helping them tease out the difference between, is it really unfair if you've been playing with this toy for a long time and now I'm asking you to share versus unfairness in the broader sense of injustice, inequity, and helping them get to that. But they have a strong, innate sense of many of these concepts that are really quite sophisticated.
A question that I ask educators sometimes is, "At what age do you think it's appropriate to start talking to kids about race?" And the answers really vary depending on audience, depending on identity, by and large people with racially minoritized identities say, from when they are in the womb they need to start talking about it. And it is typically more often White educators who will say, "When they bring it up themselves," or "Maybe when they're like 8, 9, 10," at which point as Onnie's research shows, they've already internalized these social norms that you just don't talk about it. And so that might never come up or it'll come up in weird ways. I hear so many stories of kids who say something like, "Oh, that's racist," because a teacher will say something like, "Well, it's not all black and white." And just simply naming the words "black and white," the kid has been told or figured out somehow that that's just not appropriate then that gets labeled as racist, which shuts down the conversation, which, in Onnie's paper is another tool of maintaining that master narrative.
So all of that is to say helping to kind of undo and unpack some of those norm disrupting, just the normal way of being disrupting, that moving walkway is important and it's really doable. So Onnie also just mentioned books. There are so many more middle grades books available now that represent diverse characters just living their lives, doing cool stuff. School librarians are a great resource. Local librarians oftentimes have a little more freedom and leeway than people in the schools do. So, that's where we go, we go to the local library and I am always so impressed by the diversity of characters that are just on display, on the covers and letting kids pick texts that represent themselves and represent stories that might be different from their own that they can learn from and relate to in lots of ways too.
So, that's a really exciting thing that's happening at the moment. And there's a movement now to include more historical texts in that and that's a big piece of the puzzle too, is that these erasures of histories, why these things happened in the first place, are probably one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. It's also why it's the thing that people are trying to restrict educators talking about, is history. Once you start to untangle, why do these systems exist? Where did they come from? "Wow, these have existed for a long time." Kids can't un-notice that, and the only way to maintain the status quo as it is now is to make sure they never have that knowledge to begin with. So we have to make sure that we are helping them have that bigger, fuller, more accurate, honest version of history as well.
EmbraceRace: On one hand the notion of "colorblind ideology." The idea that we don't talk about race and we don't mention it does, it has no importance. If you do this work, of course, is a very familiar idea and still I'm struck by, again, I go back to that wonderful example of the kids, Sarah, not being satisfied with knowing you're from Malaysia. Really wanting that racial identity. Why? Because it really matters. We have all kinds of research that shows in a split second of meeting a new person, we notice their gender or at least what we think their gender identity is. We make a guess about their age and racial identity in a split second. Almost anyone you've met, the person who checked you out of the store, we have some guess about what that is.
And if we don't know, if there's ambiguity, yes, many people are troubled by that. Why? Because it matters. So there are all these ways, racial segregation. There are all these ways in which it's abundantly clear that race continues to matter tremendously in this country and yet you have huge shares of the population saying race doesn't matter. I mean, that is just powerful ideology.
Has either of you actually identified yourself by race or otherwise on purpose in front of your class for you in order to help nurture a classroom community? What would be the best practice? Is that a good practice to sort of be explicit about your identities, including your racial identities, to set a tone early? Is that a thing that you've done?
Onnie Rogers: I'll say that this idea of introducing, naming yourself, your identities, from my view, it's very important that it's done with intentionality rather than a checklist. So I gave my pronouns, I told my racial identity, and I told them one personal fact. That is not necessarily going to have the effect. When I teach my Intro to Developmental class lecture for undergraduates, I definitely take time to introduce myself and I share about who I am, who my family, my identities, my positionalities. And then I ask the students to turn and talk and interview a partner and do the same.
So I think this idea of the extent to which you integrate it into your classroom, and then you carry that forward. So I make it clear and explicit that relationship building is the core of our learning and so we're going to get to know who's in the classroom. If it's like a one off thing it's not going to have that intentional effect that it might sound like. So really thinking about how it's incorporated into your philosophy of teaching and your practice.
Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn: Very similar on that point about intentionality. So I don't want to belabor that point too much. But I don't know any elementary school class that doesn't start with an about us or about me kind of at the beginning of the year. And I have seen though, oftentimes that kids are expected to complete this activity and not the adults in the room. And it is really important as the adult in the room to also do that. If you are asking kids to disclose these things, to give that model to share, this is advice I give in general is kind of what we say or disclose, that opens a door to what other people might feel more comfortable sharing or disclosing with us to. So sometimes people will ask me, "I'm genuinely curious when I see somebody who looks different and I want to ask them where they're from, but I don't want that to be rude. What can I do?"
Well, one thing that you can do is when you're meeting that person and introducing yourself, share whatever it is about you and say, "I'm so and so, and I'm from Ohio and I..." Whatever it is that you wanted to know about them, just about yourself and just leave it at that. You've opened a door and if they choose to disclose, they will go through that because as people, we often mirror what others are doing. And they might not choose to and that's their choice, that's okay. That's when you know that this is maybe not the person that I keep pushing with, but if they kind of open that door, then you've created as a dialogue. It's the same with kids in the classroom, the things that you say about you will help make them feel more comfortable and safe sharing whatever it is that they want to.
And as we're doing these "get to know each other" activities at the beginning of the year, it's also super important that we let even young kids know upfront how that information is going to be used and shared. We have to have their consent. Sometimes educators have kids do beautiful identity maps and want to put them up on the walls in the hallway, outside the room, this is who is in our class. But if we're not telling our students we're doing that ahead of time, they might have put something on their map that they felt safe showing to their partner next to them, that they don't want up in the hallway for the whole world to see walking past. So there's that piece of disclosure too and helping kids understand that we want to be more vulnerable and transparent with discussion and that what they choose to share about themselves also can be respected. And that those two ideas don't have to be mutually exclusive.
As we're doing these "get to know each other" activities at the beginning of the year, it's also super important that we let even young kids know upfront how that information is going to be used and shared. We have to have their consent... helping kids understand that we want to be more vulnerable and transparent with discussion and that what they choose to share about themselves also can be respected.
EmbraceRace: How should an adult, like a teacher, apologize when they catch themselves perpetuating a microaggression? What words can children use to apologize in similar circumstances?
Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn: That's a great question. "I'm sorry." That's a great start. Or, "Wow, I messed up." And centering the impact of that more than your own embarrassment about what you did. Especially when we're modeling for kids, "Wow, I messed up. I feel bad because this person must feel 10 times worse." And really helping understand it's about the impact of our words, not just like, "Ooh, I feel bad, I messed up and make me feel better for that."
EmbraceRace: Well, thank you both. This has been a great conversation. There are a lot of avenues for further learning, which is what we should all be doing all the time. So thank you so much. And we hope there'll be further avenues to collaborating with you both. For sure, really love this conversation.
Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn: Thank you. I could talk to all of you all day.
Onnie Rogers: Yeah. This is fantastic. Thank you everyone.
EmbraceRace: Take care.
- Social Justice Standards, The Learning for Justice Anti-Bias Framework
- Why Naming Race Is Necessary to Undo Racism, Psychology Today, Dr. Onnie Rogers
- “Black Lives Matter” Matters for Children’s Development, Psychology Today, Dr. Onnie Rogers
- “Martin Luther King Fixed It”: Children Making Sense of Racial Identity in a
Colorblind Society, Child Development Journal, by Leoandra Onnie Rogers , Ursula Moffitt , and Christina Foo