by Sarah Fiedeldey
When I began my consulting work in 2018, I had a four-month-old (aka I was sleep deprived) as well a nine- and a seven-year-old (aka I was an acrobat in progress). I stepped into this work with enthusiasm, promise, and a healthy dose of fear. There was so much to know and learn. After a time, this perceived not knowingness began to accumulate. The resulting effect was paralysis. There were moments and days when I felt miserably ill-equipped for the work of supporting and coaching educators. I’d stay up late, spending too much time trying to fill this perceived gap--reading, thinking, reaching out, planning, replanning. I was often spinning my wheels. I felt myself, at times, completely overwhelmed. Brene Brown names these uncomfortable life experiences as “FFTs” and unpacks these feelings with clarity and humor in one of her podcasts (listen here for more). I’ll leave the irreverent and honest explaining to her.
Then, at the start of this pandemic summer, this first-time, overwhelmed feeling began to creep in again. This time it was related to antiracism. There is so much to know, learn, and unlearn. I knew that the history taking shape in front of me demanded that I turn long overdue energies to growing my own understanding and awareness of race and racism in America. But this time, in this newness, I made a different and intentional decision. I wouldn’t be paralyzed by my not knowing. What’s the good in that? If I allowed myself to freeze up, my learning would stop.
And so, I began slowly reading, watching and listening--articles, interviews, podcasts, books. A little here and a little there, without pressure or expectation other than that I would allow myself to wander through the learning and thinking, gently open my eyes to new ideas and soak them in. Taking my time, I realize, is part of my white privilege. My whiteness insulates me in such a way as to allow for the luxury of space and time in my learning when, in fact, there is an abundant sense of urgency. I call myself out in this way while naming my slow learning process.
Of course, there are moments when I’m drained by the learning work and feel hollowed out, but this can never compare to years upon years of racist oppression and widespread systemic injustice experienced by the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) community in America. It’s about time I feel more tired and fed up and shocked but not paralysed.
Most recently, I’ve been reading Dr. Jennifer Harvey’s “Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children In a Racially Unjust America.” My motivation in selecting this title was to be able to parent in an intentionally more racially conscious way. Afterall, I’m doing my darndest to guide three children through life. I want them to be able to have the thoughts, conversations, and reckonings that my whitewashed yet diversity minded childhood didn’t nurture. While reading, I realized that many of the ideas and entry points easily translated to the work of educators.
So here I am attempting to share a new practice adapted from the thinking and ideas presented in Harvey’s book. I write this as a white parent in the process of making sense of my own white racial identity. Embracing this practice might support a small step in a better direction. This may serve as a tool for you in your own parenting or teaching.
Scenario: Your child or student shares a (potentially) racially charged comment or question.
“Is it bad that “T” is Black?” Or
“You can’t____ because you’re Black.”
Though we’d like to think that children don’t adopt racialized language and thinking, they are so steeped in white body supremacy (Menakem, 2017) that it easily manifests in observations and play.
Enter the practice:
Resist the urge to silence, chastise, or shame.
These tendencies create a sense of taboo around race, and in the shame or silence, children make their own determinations about race without our caring support. Maintain a soft facial disposition and breathe.
Open a dialogue, perhaps using what and how questions.
What do you mean when you say… ? Or
How might someone feel hearing…? Or
When you said...what was on your mind?
If we assume we know the child’s intention or meaning, we run the risk of inserting our own feelings and experiences around race. Asking questions allows us to gather more information which can better guide our next steps. Children have an opportunity to show us where they are in their own intellectual and emotional understandings if we slow things down, ask open ended questions, and listen well.
Reframe and refine with justice in mind.
Thanks for explaining more about that. Yes, “T” is Black. No, being Black is not bad. Sadly, sometimes the messages and words around us make us have ideas that simply aren’t true. I wonder how hearing those words would make...feel? It’s powerful that you and I can use our words (and actions) to stand up against injustice. When we stand up for each other and speak out against harmful ideas, that’s called advocacy.
Use the dialogue to guide the child towards naming and understanding racial realities in America, to acknowledge the emotional impact of the comment, and to support a vision of that child’s agency in building a more racially just existence. Harvey explains, “Awareness of the formative power of modeling and dialogue become for us deep motivation to cultivate our own capacity. It can give us courage in the face of experiences that make us afraid” (p. 132). With clear intentions, we create a safe space for children that names rather than shying away from words like race, racism, injustice, privilege, inequity, and more.
Our homes, and our classrooms, offer us opportunities to support children in their development and thinking around race if only we courageously step into these moments. Harvey reminds us that, just as we would attend to a child’s physical development through nutrition or offering toys for fine motor skills, we must attend to a child’s development of racial consciousness.
In this space, I’m certain I’ll make mistakes and do a lot of learning. I’ll have plenty of FFTs again (and again). In exercising this practice, I continue my journey as I parent and teach. I work to transform from the inside out, reshaping my mindset and inner voice. I remember that antiracist parenting and teaching means that I actively work to challenge racism and demands that I intentionally talk to my children (and those of others) in explicit and purposeful ways. Here, I can grow alongside children who will surely come to advocate a more racially just present and future.