Connecting the Dots: Talking about Race at Home, in School, and with Community

I was recently at a discussion at my local public library when I recalled an interaction at my daughter Kaia’s former school.  She was 4 years old when she brought home a self-portrait project that was done during class.  The art media utilized was recycled folders, yarn for hair, and crayons for color.   The presentation of the project yielded the same quizzical look and response from my spouse and me, “it doesn’t look like her.”  Admittedly, our expectations were not high as four year old portraits go.  The yarn was black and evenly cut.  The facial features, although uneven at times, were outlined nicely with crayons, but the recycled folder used as the base was of the light manila variety.  For visual purposes, Kaia’s skin is similar to mine, medium to dark brown, depending on the season, or Pantone 317-5C per Angelica Dass’s work on Humanae.  Having had numerous conversations about skin color with her, we felt very comfortable in asking whether she thought that the manila base resembled the color of her skin, to which she replied “no.”

We were intent on bringing this up at our parent-teacher conference the following week.  After showing her teacher (a 20-year veteran who claimed there was little to surprise her in the classroom) the art project and expressing our concern that the media did not resemble our daughter’s skin tone, she responded back with, “I think your daughter is beautiful and I don’t see her as having a different skin color.”  Surprise---to which we calmly responded, “we believe our daughter to be beautiful as well and we are proud to acknowledge her having a different skin color.”  We expressed the importance of having conversations that affirm her skin color and shared my spouse’s perspectives of growing up in a predominantly white community and mine of coming from a Filipino culture where colorism is rampant, alive, and well.    

The dialogue at the library was titled, “How to Talk to Children about Race” was organized in response to recent race related incidents around the area.  I was pleasantly surprised to see over 100 local community members and educators in attendance.  From the initial discussion question, it was apparent that attendees had come to the space for very different reasons.  Some to seek clarification on local incidents, others to demand community action, others wanting to talk about how race is talked about in schools, and others came for the very reason of the title---they knew it was important, but had little experience in talking to their kids about race.  I have always found the last reason to be interesting, and quite frankly, corresponds with research that white families seldom talk to their children about race.  Certainly, when incidents hit the news cycle families feel compelled to and do address it, but those times can be infrequent and are often addressed from a colorblind approach. 

In a recent 8th grade Ethics class, I asked my students when they remember talking about and learning about race in school.  After the reactionary head tilt and furrowed brow, students were hard-pressed to come up with an answer.  Some talked of learning about Civil Rights icons, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Jackie Robinson, to which I quickly responded and they agreed, “that’s not talking about race.”  We proceeded with a visit to the interactive PBS website, Race as a Power of an Illusion, where we continued with discussion on topics of “race as a social construction”, the ways race was/is used to justify inequalities, and the genetic variation among and between racial groups.  All of which were of interest and made sense to the students. 

I’ll admit, in certain settings, I find conversations on race uncomfortable and unsettling.  I acknowledge that folks may have little experience in having this conversation with children, so let me offer my top three tips on “How to Talk to Children about Race.”

  1. Do not fall into the trap of “colorblindness.”  In her 2014 Ted Talk, Mellody Hobson described the concept of being “color-blind,” pretending not to see difference in skin color, not noticing race.  Yes, it is a worthy and noble ideal to live in a society that does not notice racial differences, but unfortunately we live in one that does and too often, individuals are treated unfairly because of it.  As a number of colleagues have strongly stated in the past, not talking about race will not make racial problems go away.  We would never say that not talking about chronic hunger and food insecurity will make problems of poverty go away.    Hobson concludes, “Color blindness is very dangerous because it means we’re ignoring the problem…We can’t be color blind, we have to be color brave.” 
  2. When it comes to talking to kids about race, meet kids where they are.  As a parent and social worker, I’ve always been a fan of open-ended questions.  It allows the listener to gauge where the speaker is on a particular issue and allows the opportunity to probe further with questions like “tell me more about that” or “I am interested in understanding more about…” or create opportunities to clarify knowledge or add different perspectives.  Often times when working with children, I’ll use the KWL teaching strategy.  “K” assesses what students know about a certain subject, e.g. “I know that the town of Charlottesville has been in the news, what have you heard about what’s going on there?”  “W” assesses things they are interested in learning about as it relates to a particular subject, “Based on what you are hearing about Charlottesville, what questions do you have?” And “L” helps to determine what they have grasped or learned, “Based on what we have talked about, I am interested in your thoughts and opinions.”  I’ve used this strategy with different age groups and it has proven effective in prompting conversation in a nonthreatening way that allows the speaker to share what is on their mind.
  3. And finally, especially in our household, we have always found the use of literature and media helpful in creating opportunities for conversation on race.  Books like It’s OK to Be Different by Todd Parr and The Colors of Us by Karen Katz can create numerous opportunities to talk about difference, skin color, and stereotypes with young children.  Teaching Tolerance and Raising Race Conscious Children are useful websites for parents and educators who seek thoughtful strategies and structured activities for home and school.  I’ve always been a firm believer that difficult topics like racism can be talked about with young children in age appropriate ways.  In fact, I am reminded each time one of my daughters say “that’s not fair” --- they understand fairness and equity. 

In keeping with Rob Evans weekly ritual of recognizing “cognac” moments, I’d like to conclude by sharing a few of mine. I do not believe there was malicious intent on behalf of my daughter’s pre-school teacher, but I do believe the situation that was brought up during the conference was a “first” for a well-intentioned educator who was socialized during a certain time period.  To her credit, I am grateful that she was willing to listen, be uncomfortable, and be open to something new.  I hope that the knowledge and awareness was put to good use with future students of color in her classroom.  I am grateful to the over 100 community members that gathered during a school/work night for over 2 hours in a small town library to engage in, at times, uncomfortable conversation---I hope that there are others doing the same in other small towns across our nation.  Finally, I am especially thankful to those individuals, who after the meeting acknowledged that racial problems cannot be alleviated in one night and dialogues like this are only the beginning.

About The Author

Michael Buensuceso, MSW

Director of Cultural Competency
Berwick Academy

Michael Buensuceso, MSW has been working in independent schools since 2008 serving in various capacities within diversity and equity. Previously at Kent Place School in Summit, NJ and Trinity School in New York City, Michael is now the Director of Cultural Competency at Berwick Academy in South Berwick, Maine. In his role, he is responsible for creating, supporting, and implementing initiatives that increase the level of cultural competency of all students, faculty and staff. Michael reports directly to the Head of School and is a member of the senior administrative team.

An experienced facilitator and trainer, Michael was one of the founding faculty of the Educators’ Institute, a joint effort between the American Conference on Diversity and the Peter Sammartino School of Education at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He served as Vice President of Programs for the American Conference on Diversity responsible for the development of strategic program
initiatives, the development and implementation of adult and youth programs and research statewide. Over the course of his career, Michael has consulted with businesses, community groups, local governments and educational institutions from all parts of New Jersey to offer training, professional development and strategic planning on diversity and multicultural related issues. He has also consulted with the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities and the University of Richmond, in designing and implementing programs focusing on multicultural awareness and bias reduction for their students, faculty and staff.

Michael earned a B.S. in Business Administration from the University of Rhode Island and a M.S.W. from Columbia University.