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Talk the talk: Many white parents avoid talking about race, but that can signal the topic is taboo

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 15, 2010 - In an elementary school library, between "Junie B. Jones" and "Lemony Snicket," a group of parents and teachers sit in a large circle.

Billie Mayo, with Educational Equity Consultants, asks them for their names, their connection with Avery Elementary School in Webster Groves, and where they are on their social justice journey.

Each person shares. They want to be respectful. They want to see issues of race with both eyes open.

A tall white man comes in late and takes a seat.

"My name is John Hickey," he says when it's his turn. "I've got a first grader and a second grader here at Avery. What's sobering for me is this last week, this past weekend, I had two different examples of seeing how my kids and kids in their school had to confront racist incidents, and I guess I was sort of living in this little bubble where I was thinking, wow this is Avery, we're different here, our kids don't have to deal with this, and my bubble got kind of burst with a couple things I saw and heard this weekend."

The Community Connection meeting, run by EEC, works with the group on issues of race. Most of the 21 adults are parents, the majority white. They talk about how they view race themselves, how they think and react and respond, even when it's hard, and even when, like Hickey, it comes up in the most unexpected places.

COLORBLIND

Jeane Copenhaver-Johnson used to feel flutters of nervousness when she'd begin to talk about race. A white woman, she'd meet with families of color, requesting to observe their children's experiences with race, especially in the classroom.

The families always welcomed her, and soon the flutters vanished. Copenhaver-Johnson, an associate professor in the school of teaching and learning at Ohio State University, began to realize her early discomfort came from how she was raised.

Her family, like many white families, never talked about race.

"White families often have the privilege of not having to talk about that issue with their children in a way that's protective."

As a white mother, Copenhaver-Johnson says it wouldn't occur to her not to talk to her children about fire or anything else that could be potentially harmful. Families of color, she says, openly talk about race from that same protective stance, as well as in a way that's affirming and as a source of pride.

"Because they wanted their children to understand that when things happen to them, that this was one possible thing that might be occurring."

So why don't more white families talk with their children about race? Peter Wilson, president of Educational Equity Consultants, thinks the idea of colorblindness plays a big role in the exclusion of race from discussions.

"Lots of white parents subscribe, I think unconsciously, to that colorblind norm," he says. "And so if you can't actually see color, then how can you talk about it?"

Educational Equity Consultants works with about eight school districts in St. Louis, training teachers, parents and administrators in understanding racism, developing race consciousness and creating safe environments for learning.

Currently, one thing they've talked about comes from a September 2009 cover story of Newsweek. In that story, Copenhaver-Johnson's studies and observations were included from years of watching children of many races grapple with the race.

"See Baby Discriminate" cites a 2007 study from the Journal of Marriage and Family that reports that "out of 17,000 families with kindergartners, nonwhite parents are about three times more likely to discuss race than white parents; 75 percent of the latter never, or almost never, talk about race."

Often, Copenhaver-Johnson found white families thought of race as something neutral, something they themselves didn't really experience. And when she'd approach white teachers about talking about it more, many were reluctant, didn't know how to talk about race, and feared they'd do more harm. So they stayed silent.

"They're working out of very good intentions and I think we all kind of have the same goal outcome," she says. "It's just how we're going about it is very different."

And the results she found differed dramatically, too.

When presented with a book featuring black characters, black children in the classes Copenhaver-Johnson observed could talk easily about race. The white children disproportionally talked around race.

"That is, when race is right there, we talk about everything except for that, whereas children of color were very attentive to issues of race."

And that avoidance is a learned behavior.

Even though white parents and teachers may choose silence, fearing being impolite or not knowing how to broach the subject, white children get the message inherent in that silence -- we don't talk about race. They end up following those patterns, Copenhaver-Johnson says, and themselves become afraid to talk about it.

PRINCESS ZAKHIRA

For her daughter's fifth birthday, Barbara James and her family all dressed up as Disney princesses. There was a Belle, a Cinderella, a Jasmine and a Snow White.

James wanted her daughter to have a princess party, but she also wanted ZaKhira to know that a princess can be black, too, just like she and her family are.

"There's an Asian, there's an Indian, there's a white, a blonde, a brunette," James says of Disney's array of royalty. So James made the decision to reflect her own family in the princesses, and when her daughter started asking questions about race, James tried to answer them, too.

"Because it will come up," James says. "It comes up every day, no matter if you're 5 or 35. You need to know how to deal with it."

And the questions started coming pretty early. James is black, her husband is bi-racial, black and white, and they have two children.

"They're just now really learning that they're different," James says.

ZaKhira, who competes in pageants and auditions for roles in plays, commercials, movies and for modeling agencies, has to understand that she may not have gotten the role because she doesn't look the part. And she might not win a pageant, her mom explains to her, because some people may not consider their skin color beautiful like they do.

In the past year, ZaKhira, now 9, has really started understanding race and what it means. Her mom wants her to have diversity in her life, and so far, she does. Her friends at St. Louis Charter School are Hispanic, black and white.

"There are many different cultures and races," ZaKhira says. "And it really doesn't mean anything bad about us because we're different. So we're all special."

ZaKhira talks easily about who she is, with pride, but she's learned some hard lessons, too. When she got in a fight with her Hispanic friend, and said something about his "Mexican self" to him, she felt bad afterward. She and her mother talked about it, why it was wrong to call people out negatively on their race, and ZaKhira apologized.

Then, recently, she opened up a snack packet with Disney princesses on it and told her mom how happy she was to see Princess Tiana  made it onto the packaging with the other princesses.

In fact, ZaKhira's whole family went to see Princess Tiana in "The Princess and the Frog" during opening weekend.

ZaKhira loved it. Her mom, not so much.

"It was a little bit disappointing that she was a frog for the majority of the movie."WHAT'S BEST

Lois Sechrist and her family have never had a specific approach to talking about race. Rather, when it comes up for the white University City family, then they talk.

For most of her two children's early years, Sechrist says her children were surrounded by other kids and caregivers of different races.

"We didn't really talk about it a lot until maybe they were a little bit older," she says.

But then it did need to be talked about.

As Sechrist's kids grew and started attending middle school and high school, many of the white kids they'd been friends with started moving away or attending private schools.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2006-2008 American Community Survey, of University City's 33,441 people, 18,022 were white and 13,191 were black.

In University City's high school, 90.1 percent of students are black, while 8.3 percent are white, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

It became obvious by middle school, Sechrist says, that most of the white families were choosing other schools.

Sechrist and her kids would talk about it for several days each time it happened, but for Sechrist, the reasons were never simple to explain and she didn't want to judge why other families chose what they chose. Those families were likely choosing what they felt was best for their children, she'd tell her own, now 12 and 15, and while race could be a factor, so could economics, the quality of schools, and many other issues.

Sechrist has felt that what was best for her children was growing up with diversity.

"I'm hoping in the long run it will be good for my kids to be exposed to a lot of different people and not to be in a homogeneous setting," she says. "Time will tell."

TALK IT OUT

So how do you talk to kids about race?

By talking to kids about race, Wilson says.

Sounds easy. But Wilson and Copenhaver-Johnson say if it doesn't seem so easy, a good place to start for white families is in thinking and talking about their own race.

"And that's in some ways most important for whites because most whites don't even think about themselves as being a race," Wilson says.

"One of the things that I had to learn how to do was acknowledge whiteness in a way that was explicit and overt," Copenhaver-Johnson agrees.

Next, allow kids a space to talk, to ask questions, to make connections and, if it happens, to say things that adults might consider inappropriate.

"Because if they say them, then we have the chance to have dialogue about it," she says.

It's hard work, Copenhaver-Johnson says, and can be full of mistakes. But she thinks silence is the biggest one.

Still, talking brings its own set of complications, she says, and when adults lack interracial and intercultural experiences, they have to be willing to be wrong, to admit that they don't know everything and to learn alongside their children.

Adults should also acknowledge when they do have a bias, says Tabari Coleman, project director with the Anti Defamation League's World of Difference program, which offers anti-bias education for teachers, administrators and students in St. Louis.

Coleman says adults need to treat children's observations and thoughts with respect and seriousness. If they say something offensive, talk about it, acknowledge it and move forward.

Talking about race doesn't have to be a lecture or a class with kids. Instead, find those moments when race is an issue and talk about it. And that doesn't have to just be about negative issues, Copenhaver-Johnson says.

Discussions about race tend to focus on marginalization and oppression, and those are important issues to challenge white privilege and work toward equality, she says.

But other narratives are also important, ones of happiness, overcoming challenges, stories of empowerment.

White children need to know those stories, too, she says, so they don't frame race solely as an issue of oppression.

NOT SO SMOOTH SLEDDING

Saturday, Hickey, the Avery parent, his two sons and two of their friends spent the day sledding on Suicide Hill in Forest Park.

Hickey's sons are white, the two friends Hispanic, and the group was joined by two other boys they'd met, who are black. After many trips up and down the hill, they decided to walk around Deer Creek at the bottom.

And there, Hickey says, scribbled in the snow, was a racial slur about two feet tall.

He wasn't sure that his own children really comprehended what they saw, but he knows the older boys did. Quickly, Hickey stretched his foot out and erased the words.

What was that, dad? one of his kids asked.

It was racist garbage, he remembers saying.

As the meeting at Avery nears its end, Hickey shares the story with the group.

And he realized, he says, that even in a school with diversity, with people working toward social justice, their kids have to deal with this. It's why he talks with them about race whenever they have questions, why he tries to help them make sense of what they see and hear.

"But it also made me realize our kids are seeing that in this community," he tells the group.

Stephanie Rhea, the mother of a first grader, agrees. "Racism's like sex," she says. "If they're not learning it from us, they're learning it from someone else."

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