Like talking about the “facts of life,” or “the birds and the bees,” many parents and teachers know that discussing race and racism is necessary in helping young people learn about life.
St. Louis Public Radio reporter Tim Lloyd presented “A Teachable Moment,” a three-part series that examined how area teachers are leading discussions in their classrooms about issues raised after Michael Brown was fatally shot by a Ferguson police officer in August.
As part of the continued coverage of these issues, St. Louis Pubic Radio, through the Public Insight Network, invited educators and parents to share how they talk about race at home and in school.
Among them is Janise Barnes-Owens of East St. Louis. She teaches at Vincent Gray Academy, an alternative secondary school.
Barnes-Owens said most discussions with her students about race occur during character education sessions. At other times, she seizes on those “teachable moments,” as described by Lloyd.
“I try to include as much historical information as I possibly can,” Barnes-Owens wrote in response to the PIN query. “As far as systematic racism is concerned, my students deal with this issue on a regular basis.
“Our discussions range from civil rights and police brutality to the Black Panther organization,” she wrote. “Many of my students think that (these talks) should begin as soon as a child realizes that there are differences, and that sometimes these differences may become problematic.
“Racial color blindness is truly a great ideal, but given the present circumstances and stereotypes, it will remain an ideal until it is looked at without rose-colored glasses,” she wrote.
Following are responses from other PIN sources. Some have been edited for length or clarity.
Danielle Dowd, St. Robert, Mo.
Danielle and Adam Dowd adopted their daughter, Alice, about a year ago, from Sierra Leone.
“My daughter came to the U.S.A. at age 6, and we immediately started talking to her about race. We do not try to hide any information from her. We try to give her as much info as possible and then listen to her, and let her form her own opinions. She finds it all very interesting and often seeks out books from the library to learn more about the civil rights movement,” Dowd wrote.
Dowd works as the youth missioner for the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri, supporting and overseeing youth groups throughout the diocese.
“Many of the youth and youth groups that I work with are very interested in issues of social justice,” she wrote. “When I talk to youth groups and parents, these things come up. As a transracial family, we talk about race at home almost every day.
“I try to give historical context while not relegating racism as ‘history.’ It is something currently happening as well. I also try to explain systematic racism, which is ‘prejudice plus power’ ... the power (via representation in media, government, heads of corporations) to carry out those prejudices.”
Dowd dismisses the notion of color blindness as a “privilege that people of color do not have.”
“Color blindness erases the experiences of people of color and does nothing to dismantle racism, “ she wrote.
“I think it’s important to have these conversations with young people, even if they are difficult. These conversations are not one-time talks ... they are ongoing conversations.”
Leslie Scoopmire, St. Louis County
“I have three kids: One is a young adult, 20, at college; one is a senior in high school, 17; and one is a freshman in high school, 14. I also just retired (from the Pattonville School District) after teaching middle and high school for 27 years.
“With my own kids, (conversations about race occur) over situations they encounter at school, among their friends, or in the news. With my students, it was in discussing historical situations or the news.
“In history class, I would usually talk about the Civil War amendments (especially equal protection and due process clauses), Reconstruction, etc., and go from there.”
Regarding the Brown case, “my son (Scott, 14) and I … talked about white privilege …
“We also talked about the common tactic of criminalizing a suspect to justify their death at the hands of the police. We also discussed the two different ways the expectation of due process actually played out in this situation. We also talked about the double standard of rushing to judgment in this case, and that overreacting can inflame a situation.”
“Listen to the young people, and be open and honest. Talk about being aware of presumptions we all bring to the table. Treat kids and young people with respect and encourage examining our own views. Discussions should be conversations, not lectures. Be aware that the words an adult uses are heavier than one may realize, and can have a great impact. Be clear yourself, about your own views and attitudes. Remember that very few situations are clear cut.”
Kelsey Power, St. Louis
“My husband and I have a young son who just turned 3. I also have a stepson, who is 24. We are both from St. Louis originally, but have both lived elsewhere — (my husband) in California and Texas, me in Thailand and Ghana. My husband is African American, I am Caucasian.
“My husband and I talk about race in the context of news or experiences — whenever it comes up. With our 3-year-old, we haven't directly had many talks about race yet, focusing more on differences and similarities overall — same with gender.
“For my young son, I use broad terms to describe past or current conflict or injustice — something like, 'At that time, some people didn't want everyone to be able to vote.'
“Certainly, we will introduce more specifics in everyday conversation as he gets older. I don't think it's too soon to talk about whites oppressing blacks, but as he doesn't yet classify people by race, I don't want to introduce the topic too soon. We do read books about racial history in this country.”
Regarding the Brown case, “we again addressed the issue in broad terms for my young son. We said, 'you've heard a lot of people say ‘Ferguson’ on the radio, that's where we're going today. Someone got hurt, and we want to make sure nobody else gets hurt.'”
“As his awareness of the world … increases, we will talk more specifically about racial and gender issues, in the past and now. One thing that my husband and I recently discussed was how excited we are (about) when he gets to be school age, to be able to teach him a comprehensive black history course, year after year. We are planning to educate him at home.
“I am generally against the term 'color blindness' as I think it sounds like a flawed goal. We don't want to gloss over our differences, we want to love them. Just as it's beautiful to have green or brown eyes, it should be beautiful to have any shade of skin and texture of hair.
“People in the media, and many white people I've talked to who didn't grow up with a lot of diversity, seem to approach race with a lot of nervousness — like it is necessarily a difficult topic to broach. I think that if you yourself can find comfort with the issue of diversity with any topic — gender, race, age, ability, sexual preference — it will be easy to talk about it with younger people without embarrassment."
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This report contains information gathered through of our Public Insight Network. To learn more about the network and how you can become a source, please click here.