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Why & How to Talk to Kids about Microaggressions

Microaggressions are the “everyday slights, indignities and insults committed against marginalized groups because of their membership to those groups.” (Professor Derald Sue). Microaggressions are hard to talk about, on one hand, because when we commit them we generally don’t intend and are not aware of the hurt we’ve caused. On the other hand, the victims of microaggressions might hesitate to speak up for fear of being seen as "overly sensitive" or otherwise assuming the risks often associated with advocating for oneself.

Adults are not alone in committing or being subject to microaggressions; children also commit them and suffer from them. But if even adults struggle with microaggressions, how can we help the children in our lives navigate them successfully?

Watch this discussion with Drs. Stanley Huey and Anatasia Kim about why to talk to kids about microaggressions (spoiler: microaggressions cause real harm!) and how to approach it. Like many worthwhile conversations, talking about microaggressions is messy, nuanced and ongoing. But doing the work results in more thoughtful, informed and brave humans, young and old. As usual, we took questions from the EmbraceRace community ... that's you!

EmbraceRace, Melissa: Hello, everybody. It feels like it's been a long time because it has been longer than usual. We took a break from webinars during August and it feels great to be back. So we're excited about this conversation. We've been wanting to have it. We've had it in sort of other forms, but not directly gone to why and how to talk to kids about microaggressions. First, I want to tell you a little bit about who we are. My name is Melissa Giraud. I go by she/her/hers. I'm Multiracial - Black, White - and I'm a Co-founder of Embrace Race.

EmbraceRace, Andrew: And I'm Andrew Thomas. I'm also a Co-founder. I identify as Black or African-American, he/him and we are delighted to have you here.

EmbraceRace, Melissa: So Embrace Race, in case you don't know, is an organization, a community that supports adults to raise and mentor kids who are informed, thoughtful and brave about race. And this conversation fits in really well. Some of you may have been on with one of our guests, Dr. Anatasia Kim before and I was talking to her about possible webinars, and she brought up microaggressions and I told her we've never done one on microaggressions. And she said, "Really? It seems like you would be all about microaggressions," which of course we are or they come up a lot, but we haven't attacked them directly in part because they're really messy.

And I've committed microaggressions. I continue to commit them and probably often when I don't know, and they've been committed against me. And so, they're really messy, they're really hard. It's ongoing. And if we have trouble as adults, how hard is it to teach our kids about it? It's definitely worth it, and that's what the conversation is going to be about today, both looking for those opportunities to be better ourselves and to have those conversations with the kids in our lives.

EmbraceRace, Andrew: Not surprising that we got a lot of questions, a bigger number than usual, questions from you, the registrants. We obviously won't get to all of them, but we'll do the best we can and I'm sure you've got some good wisdom from these two folks who we're really delighted to have.

Stan Huey com Stanandhis Son

So let me introduce first, Dr. Stanley Huey, goes by Stan. He is an Associate Professor of Psychology at USC, with a joint appointment in American Studies and Ethnicity. His research focuses on reducing disparities in behavioral health by optimizing treatments for high risk populations, particularly under-resourced ethnic minority youth. As a licensed clinical psychologist. Dr. Huey has extensive experience treating trauma victims and youth with behavioral problems. He consults in areas of diversity and cultural competence, evidence-based treatment, parenting, and parent training. Welcome, Stan.

Anatasia Kim Zoom

And I also want to introduce Dr. Anatasia Kim who has been with us before, was awesome. We looked immediately for an opportunity to get her back. Dr. Kim is a Professor at The Wright Institute in Berkeley, California and a cognitive-behavioral therapist. Her primary areas of interest are child, adolescent, and family development and minority mental health. Dr. Kim also provides Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) consultation and training to organizations. She is the lead author of at least two books, one of which is It's Time to Talk (and Listen): How to Have Constructive Conversations about Race, Class, Sexuality, Ability, and Gender in a Polarized World, which came out in 2019. Delighted to have you both.

Let's start at the place we typically start, which is you're both very engaged and working with children, with young adults, with families and with BIPOC and around BIPOC mental health in particular. How did you get into this work? Why this work, Anatasia?

Dr. Anatasia Kim: Well first, thank you so much, Melissa and Andrew for the introduction. And I'm so pleased to be back on this wonderful programming with the two of you and your audience, and very pleased to be sharing tonight's discussion with Stan, who I actually attended graduate school with back in the day. And so I'm so happy to be reconnected to my friend and former classmate. And so good evening, everyone. Very pleased to be with all of you today to discuss this very important topic. It seems more timely than ever before. And before I answer Andrew's question, I want to briefly acknowledge the overwhelm of crises and challenges in our communities across not only the US, but around the world as we gather this evening. And some of you are I know navigating all kinds of things, including natural disasters in certain parts of the country and the recent anniversary of 9/11.

So with all that as a backdrop, I feel very honored and humbled to be with you today to be able to have this conversation. So, I do the work that I do because really quite simply it has been and it remains very, very personal to me. As a woman, as a person of color, an immigrant, someone who grew up poor in communities with violence and limited resources, I have had countless firsthand experiences of microaggressions as early as I could remember. And these are both before I came to the US and certainly much more after I came. And I came to the states as an eight-year-old with my family. And as someone who also identifies as cisgender, as heterosexual, able-bodied, educated, middle-class, I have undoubtedly, even if unknowingly, perpetrated microaggressions myself that have caused harm to others. After all, we are an amalgamation of both privileged and subjugated identities.

So, I've been on both ends firsthand. So first and foremost, my personal experiences have really, really motivated me to do this work. Also, my own kids. I'm a mother of two teenagers. And their experiences as multiracial children have motivated me to do the work. My clients, who are predominantly kids, teens, young adults, and the struggles that they experience because of who they are and their identities also motivate me to do this work. And I want to say finally, I am also very, very, very concerned about the deepening divisiveness and polarization that's all around us. So I'm actually daring myself to feel motivated instead of just at times depressed and demoralized by the possibility of what we can do together, what we can do differently, what we might do to learn and grow from and with each other, and certainly be good role models for our kids to do the same. So, I'll stop there.

EmbraceRace: Thank you. Stan, why do you do this work?

Dr. Stan Huey: Well, Melissa, Andrew, thank you very much for the invite. Race, ethnicity, bias, it's something I like talking about, although it's also this sort of stressful thing because of the complexities of it in terms of my own personal experiences, but it's also part of the research that I do. But I do like having conversations about it, even though those conversations can be difficult at times. So like you pointed out, I do research focusing on ethnic disparities in mental health, particularly in Black and Brown communities. And basically trying to look at whether standard treatments work well for ethnic minorities, whether tweaking, adapting, modifying in one way or another is helpful in terms of enhancing treatment effects. And increasingly, my research has moved in the direction of racial bias, specifically in how that might affect outcomes, particularly for minoritized youth.

And I'm doing more research relating to bias. So in terms of my personal motivations, I'm a Black psychologist. My spouse is a Black psychologist. I have a nine-year-old Black son. And for a long time, I was the only Black member of my department, in the psychology department. So just in terms of my daily or weekly experiences, I think that has partly motivated my interest. I had a younger brother, five years younger, and several years ago, he died while incarcerated from suicide. And I think our public mental health infrastructure to some extent and our criminal justice system to a large extent are deeply flawed in ways that work to the disadvantage of Black and Brown bodies. And I don't blame the system specifically for my brother's lifelong challenges or his death, but they didn't do much to facilitate his overall health.

And if you'd asked me this like 10 years ago, kind of, this is something that I think I've realized more recently, these really personal motivations in terms of what I do. So that's me. And then I think one other thing I've become more aware of as I've done research in this area and done more reflection is that I now label myself as a recovering sexist. And I borrowed that label from someone else from a talk he gave, and I said, "Thank you." So now I use that term just to highlight that it's a process for me too in this one domain, as a male in a male oriented society to sort of at least be aware of my privilege and particularly given that I have a lab full of women, I need to keep recalibrating and rethinking about ways that I might contribute to certain social inequities out there.

EmbraceRace, Andrew: Stan, let me say, first of all, thank you so much for that last point, that you’re a recovering sexist. And Anatasia, you also acknowledge that you committed microaggressions. Even that much is hard. Even for those of us who know that of course we have, to acknowledge even that, especially in the present tense, “I am this,” is really difficult. Thank you for doing that. And condolences on the loss of your brother. Obviously, that's a big, big thing.

EmbraceRace, Melissa: So just thinking about being the only Black person in your department previously, immediately I went to Sandra Oh and The Chair. I don't know if you all have been watching. Amazing, right? It was really just woo! But I wonder if we could talk about getting to the nitty gritty of microaggressions.

Stan, I'm going to start with you. Can you could define what a microaggression is and talk about what that means in the context of families and kids?

Dr. Stan Huey: Sure. So there are lots of definitions out there, but I tend to describe it as these subtle insults, slights, problematic statements, typically directed at marginalized groups. Typically based on race, ethnicity, gender. And the statements or actions are often ambiguous enough to elicit plausible deniability. So if there's confrontation or trying to call someone out on it, it can lead to a denial that there was any ill intent.

Now I don't think that's a defining characteristic of a microaggression, but I think it's a common characteristic. And the other interesting thing about microaggressions is that we're not talking about necessarily intentionally derogatory statements. And sometimes microaggressions can actually be intended compliments. So, I think it's important to kind of understand, I guess, the diversity of microaggressions. Some things that might seem like overt racism and other things might be like, "Hey, I thought I was saying something nice about your people."

So I think there's a lot of diversity. Monnica Williams, I think has a typology of like 15 or 16 different categories. So there's a lot of diversity in terms of how people think about it. Derald Wing Sue gave I think one just really excellent example in one of his seminal pieces of being on an airplane with some colleagues. And he and the colleagues were kind of seated in this really inconvenient place. And they're all people of color. He struggled whether to say something or not. He did to the flight attendant and she was really, really defensive. "I'm not racist. I can't believe it." So then he kind of regretted saying it, but then he felt that if he hadn't said something that he would have felt... So I think there's a dilemma with the ambiguity, that's also often like, "Okay do I say something? Do I not? And if I do, how do I say something that doesn't elicit some sort of reaction."

[Microaggressions are] these subtle insults, slights, problematic statements, typically directed at marginalized groups. Typically based on race, ethnicity, gender. And the statements or actions are often ambiguous enough to elicit plausible deniability. So if there's confrontation or trying to call someone out on it, it can lead to a denial that there was any ill intent.

Dr. Stan Huey

Dr. Anatasia Kim: I think Stan really captured it all. My takeaway from his really thorough explanation is what you said very early on. It's messy. It's messy, it's complicated, both in definition. In terms of phenomenon, in terms of various pieces that contribute sort of to it. It could be intentionally rude and negative and derogatory. And as a way to disrespect at a conscious level. It could also be the complete opposite. And I think that when things get a little messy and we don't necessarily have vocabulary and certainly education to broach messy and to solve it, then we tend to stay away from it. And I think that for the most part, that's what we have done. Which is we have stayed away, we have avoided, things have been experienced, we have perpetrated and we kind of hope it goes away. But of course it doesn't sort of really go away.

And I think for the purposes of this talk Stan is right. I think both he and I were in grad school where it's various typology of different sorts of variations of microaggressions, micro insults and invalidations. There's different categories. But for the purposes of this talk, what feels to me most important to highlight about all of these is that not only are they super, super common and they could be very fleeting, happen super quickly. But they can also do cause significant emotional and psychological injuries. Intentional or unintentional, even if I was saying something positive about your people.

And not only that, they create relationship disconnections and they create ruptures, and over time they erode our communities. And so as such, microaggressions are something that actually involve all of us. It's not just folks who have marginalized identities as a result of your gender, religion ability, class, nationality, et cetera. But it involves all of us, the reverberations of microaggressions impact all of us, whether you are in it, in that particular exchange or not. And we each have a role and we must each take on responsibility to do something about them. And that's why it's really, really important for all of us to engage in terms of education around it and to work together, to figure out what to do if and when we encounter them.

So Stan mentioned a few of them. I mean, some of the common examples, obvious ones are using racist, sexist, heterosexist abelist language, jokes, metaphors. I mean, things that I've received on my own personal end. I grew up in LA, I live in Oakland, California. But I grew up in LA and being called “illegals” and “aliens.” I was previously undocumented. And so that felt really extra sort of anxiety inducing, persistently asking people, “Where are you from?” based your race or ethnicity. It could be dismissing or denigrating the importance of what people eat. And these are things that I also I was on the receiving end of. What people wear. The holidays that they might observe based on their religion. Other common ones are misgendering in spite of numerous reminders or corrections. Misidentifying people repeatedly as, "the other Mexican kid in the class." Of course, but not the “Mexican kid” because that other kid actually, their family's from Guatemala. But those kinds of things that happen again and again. Someone asking you, "Can I call you something else besides your name? Because I don't know. It sounds weird. I don't get it. It's too long. I can't pronounce it." Those are not big injuries, but they contribute to big injuries overall because they're persistent and they're insidious.

[Microagressions] can also do cause significant emotional and psychological injuries. Intentional or unintentional, even if I was saying something positive about your people. And not only that, they create relationship disconnections and they create ruptures, and over time they erode our communities. And so as such, microaggressions are something that actually involve all of us... the reverberations of microaggressions impact all of us.

Dr. Anatasia Kim

EmbraceRace: This was super helpful. I want to pick up on the point. So Anatasia you've given us already a number of insights of the harms that microaggressions can cause. I want to actually take that point and link it to the previous question about what a microaggression is. And in particular, we typically might have think of, well there is someone who says something, does something. The person who perhaps commits the microaggression. The person who receives the microaggression.

What I've heard you both clearly say is intention or lack thereof certainly doesn't define the microaggression. And Anatasia when you talk, for example, about being referred to as “an illegal” because you were undocumented at one point, it then occurs to me that, well, the receiver...

EmbraceRace: Or not even because she was undocumented, just being called that.

EmbraceRace: Just being called that. It makes me wonder, can a microaggression be committed, even when the receiver doesn't receive it as such?

Dr. Stan Huey: I think that's an excellent question. And I've got a bunch of examples in my head that reflect that ambiguity. Again, I'm the father of a Black boy, and there've been a couple of instances where a White classmate or even a parent would like rub my son's head and say something kind of funny, or seemingly complimentary about it. But it always made me uneasy. I think my son was perfectly happy and fine with it. He wasn't upset. I was the one was kind of like, “This is a little too racialized and exoticizing of this little Black boy's hair.” So, my son's kind of come home and said his name has been mispronounced. And it's not a typical Black name. It's Huey, kind of sounds Asian to some people.

And so they'll say, “*mispronounces Huey*” and all these other different things. And I've taught him well, "Well, you just kind of let them know the proper way of handling it." He doesn't seem distressed. I'm not terribly distressed about it. It seems like an honest mistake. But in another context, I could see it being a microaggression.And there are certainly other cases where folks at the school with more traditional Chinese first names, a few kids that we know with traditional Indian names. They encounter having their names butchered all the time.

So, at what point does it become a microaggression, if the recipient, the young recipient isn't perceiving it that way? But maybe a parent like me does. I don't have an easy answer to that. And Anatasia, maybe you thought more about that complexity.

Dr. Anatasia Kim: Yeah. I think it's a really great question. And I love your examples. I'm sure the four of us, the folks who are on this call could probably come up with at least the one or two very complicated, like, "Yeah. But that was just my friend. And that wasn't anything. Why are you tripping, Mom?" Which is the response I typically get from my kids. And, “Why are you making a big deal?” But here's the thing about microaggressiona because every single single incident in and of itself could be explained. And it doesn't have to cause these profound, debilitating injuries that is going to cause long-term harm. Or that's going to cause the metaphorical cancer to our communities. But here's the thing. It is happening all the time, persistently, not just to Stan's child, my child, Melissa and Andrew, your kids.

But it's happening all the time. And we have to take individual responsibility for the collective impact that it has. To me, it's almost sort of akin to like, "Oh yeah, but the fact that I have a plastic hair clip, how is that going to do anything about climate justice?" And it's like, “Well I have a plastic hair clip and then millions of other sort of people also use plastic sort of products.” So I want to really encourage all of us, myself included, to really think about our individual experiences, what to do with our kids, our students. And also to be tethered and connected to our collective responsibility to move this forward. Such that even if my kids are okay and the kids at their school they're okay or Stan's kids are sort of okay and no harm is being done. To be sure harm is being done sort of in a collective way. And we have to each do our part to help move the needle of the collective. Because the polarization that we are experiencing, isn't like... I don't think any one of us have intentionally maybe perpetrated some sort of harm, but we have a collective [and] individual sort of responsibility and role.

One of the points I like to make is that we have to, as individuals, also hold on to our collective responsibility. So even if that kid's like, “It's fine,” it's actually, to put it bluntly, Andrew, it's actually not fine. It's an opportunity. It's an opportunity that could be missed if it's neglected. And it's an opportunity to really think about how you can learn and how you can grow. Folks, everyone’s sort of involved. And I feel like it's the adult's responsibility as parents and educators to not lose valuable opportunity that is right here in front of us. Because those are the most compelling and most important tools for learning and growing.

EmbraceRace, Andrew: This question, I do think of course there are many such examples, but I do think of one, a particularly powerful one, that happened when our older child was five.

EmbraceRace, Melissa: You should tell the story.

EmbraceRace, Andrew: Well I'll tell it very, very briefly. Just so it's not so mysterious, but our older daughter, when she was five, really big into astronomy. And read a ton, knew a great deal. She and I signed up to take up an astronomy course at a local college, sort of a community course. It was taught by an older White man. And when it was cloudy, he gave lectures on how the Greeks defined an ellipse and whatever else, because we couldn't look through the telescope. And repeatedly, there's only one other child in the class. There are 10 adults, two children, the other child was seven. The instructor kept bringing up this young Asian American boy to participate in the demonstrations and kept referring to him repeatedly as a “scientist.” And this is something that neither the boy nor his mom ever claimed for the child. But never, literally, I don't remember him once looking at my daughter, much less inviting her up, even though I then spoke to her several times. And one of the things I was left with, it was precisely this question of wondering what did my child understand of this moment? Not in an explicit way, but in an implicit way. And not knowing.

EmbraceRace, Melissa: Well, she did say, "I'm a scientist too."

EmbraceRace, Andrew: She said "I'm a scientist too."

Dr. Anatasia Kim: Love it.

EmbraceRace, Melissa: Yeah, yeah. So, I do wonder, I mean, in your case you challenged the instructor and he was not changing. And we have a lot of questions about challenging just the complexities and the challenges of countering microaggressions when we commit them and when they're committed against us or kids.

I wonder if you have any advice on how parents can navigate microaggressions committed again their children? What's a good way to respond if someone says, “Can I touch your hair?” and the kid's noticing. Or, “That's a funny thing you're eating.” Or, “Are you Black or Korean?”

What do you explain to clients, to your kids, that might be helpful in thinking about how parents can guide kids around microaggressions?

Dr. Anatasia Kim: Yeah. I mean, let's go there. Because I'm sure that all the registrants and people here are like, “Okay, we get it. So like, what do we do? What do we do?” And I appreciate the example that you shared, Andrew of your daughter. And I'm sure that there are countless examples like that.

Before I answer that question directly, Melissa, I want to sort of say that there are some typical, predictable challenges or rather missteps, if I may call it as such, as we try to address and counter microaggressions that happen. To us and certainly to our kids as we try to help them navigate it. And I think the first and foremost is that we tend to respond and try to help our kids with knee jerk reaction. I'm just putting myself Andrew in your shoes, because I don't know exactly how you responded to your daughter when she first approached you with this situation. So if it was my child who had come home and told me, "Wait a minute, I'm there. The teacher never calls on me. She always calls on this boy, this Asian boy who is called a ‘scientist,’ but I'm never called a scientist. Never called on.” And says something sort of to that.

I think my immediate human, not my child psychologist, but my immediate mama bear reaction is like, “What’s his name? What's his classroom? Where do I find him? Yeah, where's he at? What's his number again? What time do you get out?” And I mean, the mama bear instinct really would come out. Because I'm a mother first and foremost. And I am wired just as the parents probably who are here is to go into that protective mama bear, papa bear sort of mode. And I want to acknowledge that because sometimes I feel like if we don't slow down this train and get to like, "What should I do and say?" without realizing potential barriers that can get in the way of our goal to create an opportunity for learning and growing for our kid, we could unintentionally sabotage our own attempts.

So knee-jerk reactions, I want to say it happens to everyone. I'll use myself. Even to this day, my kids are both in high school. I am still the neurotic knee jerk, extra neurotic and dramatic sort of mother. The head rolling and sort of everything immediately. The mama bear comes out. Been there, done that. And as I said, it's almost always, even today, is my initial reaction. Though I've gotten much better I hope in not acting on them. So we need to first and foremost acknowledge, right, and also identify the strong emotions that come up within us as adults, as instructors, educators, as parents for our kids. Because that can prove to be a really significant, if not a debilitating challenge, that gets in our way of trying to cultivate a really learning and teaching and growing moment.

We need to first and foremost acknowledge, right, and also identify the strong emotions that come up within us as adults, as instructors, educators, as parents for our kids [when a microaggression is committed against them.] Because that can prove to be a really significant, if not a debilitating challenge, that gets in our way of trying to cultivate a really learning and teaching and growing moment... So breathe, breathe, breathe, so that we can really have some insight and have our strong, righteous, emotional reactions work for us instead of against us.

Dr. Anatasia Kim

EmbraceRace: That's so real. Yeah.

Dr. Anatasia Kim: Yeah. And then the other thing that I think we often do, myself again included, is that we get very, very rigid in our options. So Andrew, going back to your daughter, it seems like there must be a right thing to do and a wrong thing to do. But listen, there are so many different options in terms of how to approach. And I think this lack of flexibility in the way of options that we present ourselves and our kids to does a disservice. So this rigid all or nothing thinking. Let's say if it's a little bit younger and there's play dates. My son's name is Dexter. So I might say, "Dexter, he said what to you? Okay, Dexter, we can't have any more play dates with James, okay? You understand? Clearly, they're a racist family, so we need to steer clear. No more play dates with James."

And then it gets shut down because I'm like, “Wow, I can't believe James said what to my son Dexter.” There's other kids in this classroom, and I would like to think that I'm not the only one who's approached it this way. Or maybe on the other end, I might approach my son and I might say, "I can't believe James' mom is so sensitive, Dexter. I mean, weren't you just joking around with James when you touched his hair? Why is he being so sensitive? And why is his dad's stance so uptight?" That might be the conclusion. And then I might do nothing more than the conclusion that I have come to cognitively within myself about those situations.

So when we approach microaggressions with these kinds of good and bad, all or nothing, very narrow options and perspectives, microaggressions are more difficult to address meaningfully, in again, ways that kids can learn and grow. And they're watching us in terms of how we frame this messy situation, and they are coding it and coding it and internalizing it and learning from us in terms of what to do in situations like that. So the stuff that's coming out of my mouth, my kids are also internalizing them. So, I mean, this is certainly not an exhaustive list.

Anatasia Kim, if you're saying there isn't a right thing or sort of the wrong thing, if you will, good or bad or all or nothing, then what do we do?

Well, first and foremost, we have to talk with them. We have to talk with them. And it sounds like Andrew, that's what you did, which is like, “Tell me a little bit about what happened.” Talk with them. If our goal and my goal with my kids, with the work that I do is, could we explore opportunities to really think about how to engage with this messy phenomenon in a different way that invites innovation, that invites growth and that invites learning, right?

So I can't come to my child with the answers in a prescriptive, instructive way. “First do this. Dexter, he said what? Now I'm going to go talk to your teacher and this, that, and the other. And that's it.” Without really understanding where Dexter is, where your child is, where your daughter is, Andrew. So talking with them has to be the goal that we come back to again and again. Talking with them, right, versus to them and at them. I'm glad my kids are not here because they'll say, "You never talk with us, you hypocrite, mother! You talk at us." Okay, so yes, it is true, and this is why I'm also in this work. It's very humbling and it's messy. It doesn't matter if you have a PhD and you've been doing this as a child psychologist for 20 years, yeah? It remains very difficult. And I think we have to show them by being a good role model, by talking with them.

And then I'll put myself again in framing this, but I think personally before anything, breathe, breathe and breathe. Only because when the possibility of harm has been inflicted on your child, or your student, for the teachers out there who are joining us, right? Or if it is the case that my child might have potentially harmed somebody else, guess what that elicits? That elicits very, very strong, strong emotions for most of us. And we get ready to defend, we get ready to fight. Like, "They did what to my baby? They're accusing my baby of doing what?" Right? So even before we have been fully apprised the situation, we get very, very agitated and activated, which is normal and understandable.

So breathe, breathe, breathe, so that we can really have some insight and have our strong, righteous, emotional reactions work for us instead of against us. And I'll say more in terms of what kinds of concrete conversations I might have with my clients and with my kids. But I'll pause there and turn it over to Stan.

EmbraceRace: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you so much. It strikes me in what you're saying, Anatasia, also that breathe, breathe, breathe is a good advice to help you and prevent you from committing microaggressions as well, right? Just kind of stopping and not letting the brain that has to plow ahead, even though you don't know how to pronounce someone's name, or even though you're not sure if, maybe that's not the Black person you think it is. So maybe just pausing or you don't know if someone's a doctor or a nurse, pause, pause, pause. And it's really hard, really hard to pause. But I really feel like if I could do that more, it would be really helpful in these situations. So I appreciate you're talking about the other side of it.

Dr. Stan Huey: Well, I think conversations about race and ethnicity are just sort of difficult anyway. And I think microaggression conversations, sort of an extension of that. In a way it’s sort of like talking about sex with your kids. We know we should be talking about it early and kind of orienting them to certain things and in a preventive way, but it's hard, it's awkward, it's tricky. There's lots of tricky terrain to navigate. I'm an African man, and with grandparents who migrated from the deep south in the 1940s, they couldn't vote. So they came here to California.

But I recall a few years ago, my son brought, for Black History Month, they were talking about Rosa Parks and the book. And I was kind of like, "Oh my god." It was interesting. Even though I'm well educated, I understand our history, I have this personal history in terms of my grandparents and why they came, migrated, but still, having this conversation with him about Rosa Parks, the racism, it was a little uncomfortable. And it was interesting. Given me and who I am, it was not an easy thing. And so, I imagine that given this larger colorblindness ideology that's kind of out there in the ether and the air that we breathe, and if you have a certain demographic, then that's sort of this ideal in terms of interacting with other folks, it could be difficult just having those conversations.

And when maybe you're approached or you hear something about something that might be race-related, if you've got this uneasiness about race-based conversations, if you have this colorblind-ness ideology, you might be more inclined to avoid the conversation, to come up with alternative explanations for why something like this thing happened. So, I think one of these kind of overarching recommendations is given how clear the science is in terms of things that we notice about people, whether or not we want to, we notice gender, we notice race, we notice age, these things are very salient. Very young kids are able to make these distinctions. They notice something, they differentiate, they form friendship groups based on these things in ways that us adults sometimes are kind of concerned about. I'm concerned that all of his friends are boys, for example. The birthday party, only boys were invited.

But these natural groupings kind of happen. And we need to think about having conversations, talking about these things, having open dialogue with our kids when certain things happen, and trying to be comfortable with that back and forth. And understanding that we're going to make mistakes at times in terms of the advice that we give. Kind of to Anatasia's point that these aren't going to be perfect conversations. We'll likely get better at it along the way. And even folks like us who are trained in child psychology and we think a lot about this stuff, we do research, Anatasia, she writes books about it. We don't get it right all the time. And that's because there often isn't a right way to deal with it. The point is to make the effort to try to understand that kids see the world in part through race, gender, age. And let's not pretend that these things aren't salient characteristics that they notice and that they're going to bring back home sometimes race-related experiences. And we need to try to have those conversations, even though they may kind of fall flat at times. But keep trying, basically.

These aren't going to be perfect conversations. We'll likely get better at it along the way. And even folks like us who are trained in child psychology and we think a lot about this stuff... We don't get it right all the time. And that's because there often isn't a right way to deal with it... We need to try to have those conversations, even though they may kind of fall flat at times.

Dr. Stan Huey

EmbraceRace: Thank you, Stan. I'd like to pick up on a couple of threads that I think also touches on some of the questions we've gotten. And in particular, what's really clear, what we knew already and what you've certainly fleshed out for us is, for many people it's very challenging. A microaggression has just been offered. You're witness to it, you're the receiver of it, perhaps even you can said it, but especially one of the first two, and there's all kinds of incentives not to speak up, right?

So in the case of any parent, any caregiver who has gone into engage a teacher with some concern that affects their child is worried perhaps that the treatment of the child will change, right, if the teacher responds poorly. Certainly that was my concern in the example I offered. You worry about rupture, to use a word that you used, Anatasia, in the video I saw of yours, talking about microaggressions in the context of therapy on YouTube.

Both of you and perhaps in particular are saying we do need to engage, right? I'm talking again now about engaging the person who you think might've committed a microaggression against you. We need to do that, even though it's often hard, it's uncomfortable, Stan, as you were saying.

Can you say a bit more about the upside of engaging? So, we fear rupture in the relationship, we fear some sort of bad rebound with respect to our child, whatever it may be. But what's the upside, again, with which we should gird ourselves as we say, "I'm going to do the courageous thing, I'm going to take this on, I'm going to have that conversation."

EmbraceRace: The beautiful struggle, right?

Dr. Anatasia Kim: Yeah, that's right. It is a beautiful struggle, that’s really well said. The incentives are both obvious and not so obvious. The incentives are concrete and obvious in the fact that if we're talking about historical systemic racism, we are all living, everyone who’s logging in and connecting from the United States, we are all living in a nation that is birthed against the backdrop of genocide, of slavery, of violence. That is our collective history. I do family therapy, right, and generational trauma is real. The reverberations of trauma unresolved, whether it's just within my own family, my individual life, or us sort of as a collected, don't get it twisted, it lives, right, and it thrives. Even though it might not be so obvious. Otherwise, how do you explain or begin to explain the type of inequities and disparities and oppression and subjugation that we have?

The law is a very, very blunt instrument. It's against the law to discriminate based on gender. I mean, this is not true of many places around the world, but here, in these United States against maybe gender and race and sex, blah, blah, blah, blah. Just because it's against the law, it doesn't mean people do it, right? It doesn't mean that people don't discriminate. And harm is absolutely done. Maybe not legal violations, but harm and a really spiritual, psychological, emotional sense is absolutely inflicted, right? And we do the inflicting. I think about this work really as a spiritual one. I do it because it's personal. I do it because it feeds and fuels my soul. When I'm presented with the opportunity to choose courage and to choose bravery instead of fear, that is an opportunity for me to become a little bit more healthy, a little bit more happy. And in turn, right, then for my kids and other people around me to also see a model and for us to be able to do it together.

So to me, it's a very, very spiritual endeavor. I mean, there's so many companies and initiatives that tells you if you do X, Y, and Z, you're going to be so happy. There's a hell of a lot of rich, rich, rich, rich people who are really, really unhappy, really, really, really unhappy. Yeah. If you are driven to this work purely for selfish reasons, forget your kids for a minute, forget the kids. Let them fend for themselves, but if I am in this for purely my own salvation, my own opportunity for liberation and freedom and sort of happiness, when I address instead of ignore, push away, deny, sweep under the rug, the microaggressions, when I choose to stay and to brave the storm of looking at some of my own painful emotions and also the messiness and discomfort around connecting with someone else who may have harmed me, or I might have sort of harmed, I am choosing courage. I am choosing a road less traveled and certainly that has an opportunity for us to be able to have a better chance at even our own self-driven motivations and goals. Yeah.

Whatever your thing is, choose it. Yeah. But it has to be yours and it has to be compelling enough so that you could do two things. Number one, have stamina. Don't be so diluted into thinking that if you just do it once or twice, or just with my kid, we're good. Yeah. That's sort of akin to like, I'm going to do my thing over here in Oakland for climate change and I'm sure the air is going to be really great right here. It just doesn't sort of happen like that. Yeah. So stamina, be in it for the long haul.

I can't just say, I'm going to be just super fit and eat super healthy this weekend. That's good. I might be super healthy this weekend or even for a week, but health, physical health, is also a lifelong endeavor and sort of lifestyle, so stamina. The second thing is to be brave. Yeah. This is the thing that I tell my students, my kids, dare to have the audacity to do something that really scares the heck out of you. That makes you feel uncomfortable because only then do you know that you are experiencing something different that gives you an increased capacity to be able to learn and grow.

All the teachers out there, if you are a physical trainer, if I stop by the time that I'm like, oh, I don't know, my muscles are starting to fatigue, then I don't know. I'm not really going to get to a particular sort of level of strength and flexibility. This is in many ways no different. So have stamina, have courage, whatever you feel comfortable, do the opposite as a general rule of thumb, that's my personal practice.

If I am in this for purely my own salvation, my own opportunity for liberation and freedom and sort of happiness, when I address instead of ignore, push away, deny, sweep under the rug, the microaggressions, when I choose to stay and to brave the storm of looking at some of my own painful emotions and also the messiness and discomfort around connecting with someone else who may have harmed me, or I might have sort of harmed, I am choosing courage.

Dr. Anatasia Kim

EmbraceRace: I love that. I love that and modeling that is important. If we take that to some examples in the questions of about what's happening to kids, there was an example of someone who's Black, eight-year-old daughter was in a White neighborhood and goes to a mostly White school, and deals with microaggressions from her peers and her teachers, like touching her hair or referring to her as, “chocolate milk.”

We don't have more information, so we don't know whether she's brought it up, probably has if it's happened, she's eight and it's happening in school, how she feels about it, but given what you were talking about stamina and courage, I love that because if you just want a quick solution and give me the three guidelines, it's not going to happen with a lot of this stuff. It's so complicated, contextual and all that.

But how can we prepare our kids? What is the way that we talk to a child or what is the relationship or environment we create to enable our children to grow in the beautiful struggle? To feel better in the end, and to treat other people better, and see themselves, hold themselves in higher regard because they've struggled. Stan, what do you think?

Dr. Stan Huey: Well, I think that's a great example. Kids, adolescents, adults face all sorts of headwinds to optimal development, and then if you're minoritized, if you're a woman, a girl, these different things that you have to sort of grapple with, LGBTQ. The microaggression she's experiencing regarding race is probably one of a number of things that she's struggling with. One could sort of hone in on the microaggression part, but my thinking is that it is really part of a larger sort of set of conversations that caregivers, other folks in the youth's life would have about, well, how to deal with these sort of life challenges that come along. I think it comes back again to having those ongoing conversations with your kids.

So in this case, the most salient thing might be these microaggressions that she's experiencing as one of the few African Americans there, and it's probably the sort of thing where the parent really can't come in and fix this sort of thing. It's a sort of thing where the child probably needs to sort of figure out what she's going to say, what she's going to do when this sort of thing comes up, what fits with her personality, what's her tolerance level? If she says this sort of thing, what's the likely response that she's going to get, and then how is she going to deal with that?

When I'm doing kind of working with students who are working with clients who are dealing with those things, I work with them to help them guide their clients through problem solving, how to predict what might happen when a particular thing is said and done, and how are you going to respond based in that situation. I don't think there's an easy answer to it except that the conversations needs to be had, and ideally working with your child to help with the problem solving and helping to deal with these things that are going to come up and figuring out when you do get involved, when you do step forward.

It's the sort of thing that as the father of a Black son who when he started preschool, there were these biting incidents, and I think parents get worried about those things anyway. And as the parent of a Black boy, I was particularly concerned about that, but in this case with my wife's help, I let it kind of ride out. The school dealt with it really well, and it sort of fixed itself, but there've been other times where we've had to sort of step in and get involved. So sometimes as a parent, maybe you wait and see what happens, and then if after the conversations, after sitting back and letting things kind of happen, you may need to jump in and do something.

Dr. Anatasia Kim: I mean, I think if it was my kid, that scenario that just described, where she's the only Black child and all of these things are getting perpetrated on her, I absolutely agree with Stan. The answer is conversation, talking with your child, and then solutions are less formulaic and less prescriptive. It's what emerges from that phenomenon and the uniqueness of sort of the two of you. I'm going to just insert my daughter's name. I might sort of say in that situation, “So I heard,” and maybe my daughter doesn't even bring it up. Maybe I hear from the teacher or from another parent, or maybe I observe it. And so I might sort of say to my seven or eight year old, I might say, “Well, this is what I heard. I wanted to sort of bring it back and to check in with you. What do you think? What's your take on what's been going on?”

And then getting her to really open up about her perspective. Why is this important? Because especially for someone, especially a young girl of color, especially for this young Black girl, it really communicates and privileges and centers her experience. You are not telling, but showing her your perspective, your experience, your take on what happened really matters. And for kids and for people with marginalized identities, that's particularly really, really important. Yeah. And then I might sort of say, “Oh, Serena, why do you think that happened? Why do you think your classmates are touching their hair and everyone is doing it? No one's sort of standing up. Why do you think?”

Kids are amazing because even two or three-year olds’ will have a hypothesis, sometimes a little bit off from sort of reality, but they will have hypothesis. They'll have an understanding of how they're making sense of what goes on sort of around them. And to be able to give this young girl an opportunity to really bring that to the surface, I think is really, really important and can be really empowering. And then I might say like, “Why do you think the other kids are doing that? What's your take on why they're doing it?” And she might say, my daughter might sort of say, “No, I don't know. I think they think my hair is really cute. I think that they're whatever. Actually, my friend said they really like chocolate milk and that's why they call it and that's sort of a really cute name.” So it might sort of be that, and I'm like, “Well, do you think? What else?”

If I feel like my child is sort of missing it because of lack of experience or sort of other things, I'm like, “Hmm, that's interesting. The other thing I was thinking was this. I wonder if they really don't mean to be mean to you, but I wonder if they are sort of saying you are different and I wonder how that makes you sort of feel. Have you experienced some of that?” I might do this as a therapist also. So really again, centering and empowering her voice, her experience. And then finally, “What do you think you want to do about it?”

And so the solution and the answer, I think whenever possible, if it could be child driven and I'm talking about even for a two, three year old. “What do you think?” It might not be a viable solution or a way to sort of approach it, but it gets them the opportunity to really think about it. It gets their cognitive juices sort of flowing. It really privileges what they're thinking, what they're feeling for you to be curious about, “Where did you get that idea? How come you do feel that way though?” That becomes the breeding grounds for a different kind of an experience, including opportunities for learning and growth to happen. So that's how I would approach it. And certainly if there is something that needs to be addressed by an adult, then that's where the adult sort of comes in, absolutely.

One thing that I want to be super clear before we end, I know we're over sort of time, is I think when we're talking about this and I said this in the beginning and so did Stan. Oh, well, I perpetrate and I've been on the receiving end. I think the way that we assess whether we are doing this work right is to really understand how we are being accountable to those who are most subjugated and most oppressed. So it can't be the people in the privilege sort of position with privileged identities. “I did that great. I think this program at our school is going really fabulously.” Whether something that you are doing as a community, as a family, as just a parent and a child pair is going well, is when we are able to center and empower and privilege the voices and the experiences of those who are disenfranchised and are marginalized. It is up to them to say whether they are feeling less harmed. So I just wanted to add that because that's I think power and privilege is really, really important.

Dr. Stan Huey: I wanted to just piggyback really quickly on that because I think it's an excellent point. There is a part of me that's ambivalent about necessarily putting the onus on kids all the time, particularly when they're in a relatively disempowered position. I think about my own situation, and I mentioned before that I'm a recovering sexist. At some point, I realized that I was one of those stereotypical male interrupters. When women are speaking, I would kind of jump in there. I've had to work for my undergraduate students who are almost all females, for students in my class, for my graduate students to really be aware of that tendency on my part.

I've seen it as my responsibility. I'm not counting on them to tell me when I interrupt. This is my job to monitor myself and that privileged role, and that's just kind of one area. So I do think that to some extent we do think about how we can help kids cope with these things and help them navigate these things, but one of the virtues of this larger social justice movement is that we are talking more about systems, changing systems, changing the behaviors of the institutions, the powers that be, and to be more accountable, and to think more about the impact of these infrastructure structures and these biased behaviors on marginalized communities. I think maybe thinking about at least in part, about how we change certain structures to better reduce the impact of these biased actions, behaviors, microaggressions on young kids. Adolescence is one thing for us to think seriously about.

EmbraceRace: Right. That's a really great point. And I feel like we have to have a part 2 because we just didn't have enough time there, you guys. That was really beautiful. I love your interaction and all the questions from everybody today. Thank you so much. I know we didn't get to most of them, but again, we'll have to have you guys on again. We really appreciate it. Stan and Anatasia, thank you so much. Really appreciate it. Really wonderful conversation.

Dr. Stan Huey: Thank you for the invite. I appreciate it.

Dr. Anatasia Kim: Bye.


How to Talk to Kids About Microaggressions by Anatasia Kim, PhD

Stanley Huey

Dr. Huey is an Associate Professor of Psychology at USC, with a joint appointment in American Studies and Ethnicity. His research focuses on reducing disparities in behavioral health by optimizing treatments for high-risk populations, particularly… More about Stanley >
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Anatasia Kim

Dr. Anatasia S. Kim is a Professor at The Wright Institute in Berkeley, CA and a cognitive-behavioral therapist whose primary areas of interest are child/adolescent/family development and minority mental health. More about Anatasia >
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