Raising Kids Who Embrace Race

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 33 │Raising Kids Who Embrace Race

Wednesday, November 4, 2020



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Melissa Giraud & Andrew Grant-Thomas

Do you want to talk to your kids about race and racism, but not sure where to start? We spoke to Melissa Giraud and Andrew Grant-Thomas, founders of EmbraceRace, to learn how to approach these conversations with young children. Using their professional expertise, and their own parenting experiences, Melissa and Andrew also share advice on raising advocates for racial justice.


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LaWanda: Welcome to today's episode of Notes from the Backpack a PTA podcast. I'm LaWanda Toney.

[00:00:07] Helen: And, I'm Helen Westmoreland and we're your cohosts. Today, we're going to talk about racism and how we can raise kids who advocate for racial justice. Whether it’s talking about the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality, or who has been most affected by the pandemic, race has become an unavoidable topic for many parents. It can feel intimidating to start conversations about race and racial justice with your children, but we can't let that stop us.

[00:00:48] LaWanda: We're so glad that we have Andrew Grant-Thomas and Melissa Giraud, the founders of Embrace Race, here to speak with us today and advise us on how to talk about these issues and lead by example, when it comes to racial justice.  Andrew has spent his career as a Racial Justice Advocate, serving as a Racial and Social Justice Consultant for the last 23 years. Previously, he has served in a variety of roles at nonprofits, including a Deputy Director of the Kirwin Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Director of Color Lines Conference at the Harvard Civil Rights Project.

[00:01:29] Melissa has dedicated her career to supporting the learning and life outcomes for underserved students and families, especially immigrant girls and girls of color. Prior to co-founding Embrace Race, she served as a consultant for several organizations, including the Gates Foundation, Spring Point Schools, MG Consulting and the Carnegie Corporation.

Andrew and Melissa have two daughters ages 9 and 11. Thank you guys so much for joining us today.

Melissa Giraud: Hi, we're really excited to be here with you today. So, thanks for asking us.

[00:02:03] So let's dive right on in Andrew and Melissa, tell us a little bit about yourselves and what inspired you to start Embrace Race.

[00:02:12] Melissa Giraud: We started Embrace Race in  April of 2016, really inspired by, our children and by other people's children. We ourselves have been thinking about race and working in equity issues for, our whole lives, both personally, professionally. I'm a mixed race woman, black, white, who grew up the child of parents who are immigrants to this country. And, I grew up in a Puerto Rican neighborhood that was underserved and disinvested in.

[00:03:00] So, I have many privileges, but, I haven't had the privilege of not seeing the way our country is deeply racialized and unequal in a racial way. Andrew can tell you about his experience as well, he's African American, he is an immigrant from Jamaica himself. And so again, both personally and professionally as you laid out, we thought we'd be more prepared than we actually felt when we were parents.

[00:03:40] Because, I think when you finally do have a child, you realize there's this window in which you just feel so vulnerable because you're experiencing, vicariously, through the eyes of your child, the world anew and the world that is racialized anew, and you worry, gosh, How do I do this with my own child different now that some things are the same and emotionally it's really hard. So, we were really looking for support and that's why we started Embrace Race. Andrew, maybe you want to say more?

[00:04:20] Andrew Grant-Thomas: I really devoted my whole career to race. Race as a point of departure for talking about immigration and criminal justice and transportation, education , housing, and then we become parents. Right. And, we have these two Brown skinned mixed race girls, and the question is not only what is the best that we can do to prepare these girls, not simply to be acted on in the world because they're girls of color , who we will become women of color, that's obviously hugely important to us. But they will also be actors in the world. They'll be moving through the world through schools and workplaces and social circles, having an influence on others and that's hugely important role to play, for all of us.

[00:05:32] The last piece I would add is, how our children, both our two literal children, but your children , your nieces, your nephews, all of those children will remake the world.

[00:05:52] Collectively, they will remake world increasingly as, they grow up. So, the question is  what sensibilities, what analysis, what understanding of the world, what understanding of other children, right and their peers will they grow up with?

[00:06:18] Helen: Thank you. So I'm a jump right in. So I was, raised, I'm obviously a white woman. I was raised in the South and went to public schools. I don't remember a single conversation in my household ever explicitly about race. And, now obviously with a young child, I think about that in a different lens. So, I'm curious from your all's perspective, having spoken to thousands of parents across the country on this topic, why is it important and what does it take to undo , that historical precedent for many of us white parents, particularly, who didn't have that experience themselves?

[00:07:06] Melissa Giraud: That's a great question, Helen. Well, first of all, the conversation is already happening without you. So, your child and every child, no matter how they're positioned racially, is really bombarded with messages about race all the time. They're also bombarded with messages about gender and about class and about other things about nationality, about power. And when they walk into a store, the advertisements, the dolls, when they watch TV, when they go to school and their early readers, a lot of those are not very diverse. They're really learning who's valued, who has power, who's more important, who's beautiful.

[00:07:57] All of that, whose neighborhood appears to be, wealthier and more invested in. they're learning all of that really early. And, if you don't talk to your kids about this conversation that they're already involved in, then you're really leaving them alone to sort through, quite toxic messages that might not yield a good outcome, in terms of the attitudes that they develop and the way they act and show up in the world. And the research has showed us that as well. That, being, quote unquote colorblind, that's a very strong ideology in the United States.

[00:08:46] Being colorblind, actually teaches kids that it's shameful somehow to talk about race,? And, that it's not important. And, that this is the way things are. This is the way things are supposed to be. You see those inequities and maybe that's just how things are supposed to be. Which the implications in that are about, inferiority of some and superiority of others. So, it's really important as uncomfortable as parents are, particularly white parents, but a lot of non-white parents as well, have not grown up speaking about, race in their households. So, there's this discomfort that prevents people from starting, but it's really important to not wait for the discomfort to go away.

[00:09:38] Andrew Grant-Thomas:  If we are not vigilant and thoughtful and informed and proactive with our kids, they will believe that what they see is just the way it is. That is natural, it's inevitable, it's even sort of normative.

[00:10:10] At great majority of the lives we have constructed for ourselves, our constructed lives, right? How we are collectively, is what we have created for ourselves, which is to say that we could create it's something different. We can, and in fact, we will change things. In 20 years, a great many things will be different than they are now. the question is, what are we bringing to that construction and reconstruction of what we're about?

[00:10:59] What our schools are about, what the criminal justice system looks like? Whether or not lack of affordable housing is seen as a problem that we want to address.

[00:11:29] LaWanda: I just wanted to add, a lot of times, people don't know how to start the conversation with their kids. There's some anxiety around it. You don't know if they're too young or the right way to approach race with children.

[00:11:46] Do you have advice for our families listening?

[00:11:54] Melissa Giraud: Definitely my advice would be, to start early, start now, kids are noticing, at three months skin color and things that later, they'll understand as racial difference. We really need to, from the beginning, talk to them, even when they're not talking, expose them in your neighborhood, if you can, in their schools, when you're choosing schools, their daycare. In terms of, who are the people raising them, bring into the household, who do they have over for dinner?

[00:12:42] All of those ways that you are exposing kids to people who are like them and who are different from them and showing that you value that. And I would say also very early, using books, for example, starting to build the vocabulary and the habit of, oh, we are not afraid to talk about difference. it is not taboo to talk about, skin color. So, even describing in your books, you know, how little baby books they have, the big faces of kids, make sure you have diverse faces and start to build the vocabulary the way you would, parts of the body,. Just, oh, a Brown face and a light Brown face and a White face and that hair is blonde.

[00:13:28] So, that that's how to start it with young kids. But, if you haven't started and it's also not too late. The place you want to start is to ask them questions,

So we were on diversity committee with a, at our kid's preschool with a parent, the parent was telling us that the child had this experience of having really well-meaning teachers read about Martin Luther King to the class and the child was Indigenous American, and the child went home and said, my friend told me that I'm going to have the bad jobs because I'm Brown.

[00:14:32] And that was actually a book in which the people in the book who had Brown skin couldn't get certain jobs and that's still true today to a different extent. if you leave it to the school or leave it to a book or leave it to anything, you don't know how that child is synthesizing all of the input they're getting. So, it's really important  to ask questions about what's going on at school. What's going on with their friend group, do they notice any people who are favored in the classroom?

[00:15:11] Who do they like most in the classroom? And, and just get an informed assessment of how they're thinking about race. Those are great ways to start the conversation to just see what, to be a more informed person about your particular kid. 'Cause, you're the expert in your kid? So, you know where to take the conversation from there and you also know, you can ask questions, whether the child is very young or a teenager and, you know in talking to them when their eyes are glazing over, because you're trying to explain something, maybe you're not reaching them, you know, maybe you've gone over their heads.

[00:16:00] So, it doesn't take a PHD in child development or racial identity development to know that, right. You have skills just as a thoughtful, connected parent.

[00:16:18] Andrew Grant-Thomas: The one piece I wanted to add is, you know, also be forthright about your own attitudes, thinking, history with race. So Helen, you know, when you say you didn't have these conversations, that's true for a great many people. Talk about that. And, race is, typically a fraught topic in this country. It's hard for a lot of people.

[00:17:38] So, there can be a lot of anxiety around it. I think share that, as soon as you're able to, be open about that with your child. A lot of people will say, gosh, I live in a, yeah, my friendship circle, my neighborhood, my community, my schools are racially homogeneous, right, so it's hard. Okay. Well, first of all, that is a choice I'm not saying, it's an easy choice for everyone to change a situation, but it is a choice. But if that's the situation you're committed to, well talk about that.

[00:18:15] Talk about why does our neighborhood look so different from some other neighborhood that we drive through? Again, let's not normalize it. And then you can, if you don't know, we can actually do some research on that. That's a great thing, right? To do with your seven year old. Let's, let's dig into why our neighborhood looks like this and why older neighborhoods different. So, you know, churn it and have the conversation.

[00:18:44] Melissa Giraud: Yeah, I think what Andrew was saying that, oftentimes we do hear that, but Oh, I really want my kid to have a diverse circle, I want to have a diverse circle. But we just can't in our neighborhood and I don't want to tokenize someone and, there's a lot of hemming and hawing, but they often don't tell their kids that it bothers them. So living in that, all white neighborhood, that says a lot to your kid and you really have to work and be in conversation and put all that on the table.

[00:19:22] I'm nervous approaching someone, you know, to be my friend being, if they're a person of color, if you're a white person saying this, because why would they want to be friends with me XYZ, just, you know, for XYZ, but just really being vocal about your anxieties. I mean, again, depending on your kid's age, but you can talk about what makes you uncomfortable or the problem that you want to solve with your kid at any age.

[00:19:57] Helen: Absolutely, I think that's important, looking at that lens for parents of different racial backgrounds, because, some parents don't have the luxury of sitting with that anxiety. They have to, particularly parents of color, talk to their kids about that, so it really does behoove, all parents and especially white parents, to have that conversation. I want to ask you , given that, anti-racism, racial justice, the black lives matter movement is on media more than it's been portrayed in media before and in some, some very difficult and violent ways for kids to grapple with.

[00:20:41] How have you seen parents and how do you advise parents to talk police brutality?. And, and what's going on around that right now?

[00:20:54] Andrew Grant-Thomas: There's a lot to say here. People who identify as white and are, and are identified as white and people who are not identified as white are somewhat differently situated.

[00:21:19] So, white identified people have always been and remain by far the numerical majority in this country. And they have, a huge share of the power in this country. There's actually a New York Times study of 922 powerful people, in this country, which came out, within the last month. And, it's not only obvious things like, you know, the fact that 44 of the 45 presidents we've had have been white men. But, they looked at right lawmakers, top business leaders, police chiefs, Presidents of elite universities, Hollywood studio heads, a whole bunch of, people would agree have, have a tremendous amount of clout influence, et cetera. Roughly 80% of those people are white.

[00:22:12] So, that means white people are somewhat differently situated in terms of their influence over how things go, certainly around race. At the same time, it's really important for us to appreciate that people of color are not by any means simply victims. And, that the racial dynamics in this country, aren't only about people who are white and people are not white, right. Or people who are Black and people who are not Black. It's Black people and Latinx folks and Asian Americans and White people. And of course within each of those groups there's tremendous diversity. So, as a Black man with biracial children who are Black and white, And I think Melissa would agree with this.

[00:23:13] What we're trying to do is yes, they will be acted on, as I said at the very beginning, but they will also move through the world and they will act on others. They will have ideas about these different groups of people. They will act often in accordance with those ideas. And we feel as much responsibility, for, hopefully inculcating in them, healthy attitudes about other children of color.

[00:23:53] Half of the children in public schools are children of color in a great many places, a great many schools, a great many cities, even states, the action among people of color and children of color is actually, the most salient part of what's happening racially in that place. So, if people of color don't learn right, to deal with each other, see each other as fully human beings across lines of race and ethnicity, we're going to be in trouble.

[00:24:26] Melissa Giraud: Yeah, how you have the conversation about police brutality, racialized violence, is really different if your child is from a targeted group. It's also true that, Black people are positioned differently and Black boys are positioned differently, than Black girls and than Indigenous folks, and than, LatinX folks.

[00:24:58] So it really depends on again, you, as a parent are the expert in your child, you know their context, you know how real and close that violence or how real being a target is, for that child or not. And, you need to again, ask them questions about what they've heard, what they're thinking about what they've heard. Make sure not to show them videos yourself of police brutality of murders, there's been a lot of that happening and that's a very traumatic, for all kids, but especially kids from targeted groups.

[00:25:39] Other than that, showing your, own feelings, your own sadness about a murder that's happened but saying there good people, including us who are trying to make this better. And, naming some of those people, there are so many, we don't have to look back for heroes. There are so many heroes right now who are becoming progressive DAs or progressive Mayors or climbing flagpoles to take down the Confederate flag.

[00:26:18] So we have to both, express the sadness and, tell our kids we're going to try to keep them as safe as we can, and then also talk about how, there really is movement

Helen: Thank you.

[00:27:03] LaWanda: So, we've been hearing the word anti-racist a lot lately, can you help us define that, for our audience? What does that mean to you

[00:30:06] Andrew Grant-Thomas: The idea that you can't be neutral. Ibram Kendi is the one who's really popularized this idea of anti-racism, lately. And, yeah that's his, you know, maybe his big as central point is, you can be racist or anti-racist. Not in some essential way, in other terms of who you are as a person, but in terms of what you do, which is really important. And, I also love that emphasis on behavior, right. Because, that's really a nice contrast with the way we tend to think about racism, which is as this attitudinal thing. we talk about bias and bigotry and prejudice and it's not that those are irrelevant. We suppose that someone who has deep bigotry toward members of another group would probably act accordingly.

[00:30:58] I care and I would say that we should all care less about what's in someone's head than in what they do. What they do is what really matters. I think of a friend of mine, sort of wealthy white woman in Atlanta, who said she was literally walking along, pushing her baby stroller, her expensive baby stroller, she put it. And, she was thinking about her support for Black Lives Matter. This was about four or five years ago. And, she said she literally stopped on the corner of the street because she thought, well, what does that even mean?

[00:31:38] But she said, my husband doesn't know that I support black lives matter because it's never left my head. This is the critical thing. It's not enough to feel bad about things or, abstractly support this, or be against that. What do you actually do about it? So I love anti-racist, you know, in so far as it says, we need to do something. There are no sidelines, right? The sidelines that maybe you thought you could stand on, those have disappeared. If they were ever there and it's one of the really nice things I think about, seeing all those white faces right in the front of protests and so on.

[00:32:14] I will say one thing I don't love about anti-racism is, I think a positive framing, people respond better to that, right? What are we for? Anti-racism suggest while you're against racism, what exactly do we mean by that? In any given instance, if something, or some things are promoting racial unfairness, racial injustice, racial inequality, preferably let's talk about what that is, because if we're not precise about what it is, then it's hard to see how we can undo it.

[00:33:08] Helen: I appreciate that.

[00:33:25] LaWanda: I just had one more question about, as we all know, we're in the age of COVID, and how can families...

[00:33:37] Andrew Grant-Thomas: What?

[00:33:37] Helen: Our worlds are upside down?

[00:33:39] Melissa Giraud: Is that why I'm in my closet?

[00:33:41] LaWanda: Yes, the world is a little different. Yes.

[00:33:45] How can families work with their schools to encourage these positive conversations about race and equity? How can families talk to their schools about it, especially during COVID. How does that work?

[00:34:01] Melissa Giraud: That's a great question

[00:34:21] So, I think the first thing to do is to not assume an adversarial relationship with the school. they've had to think about this, go to them and find out what they're thinking, find out what their plan is and how you can support. Also find out, whose needs are being centered, because families in need in COVID and another times right, including families of color, really need to be centered in the conversation. So, those are some of the questions to be asking.

[00:35:15] Andrew Grant-Thomas: So, you know, one way to think about it is, , any school has a bunch of stakeholders, right? They're a bunch of different people in the mix who have different roles. And if you, as a parent, let's say, or guardian, if you are dissatisfied with what your school is doing or not doing, the path toward, a positive conversation about a race, racism, educational equity can be stuck in, in any number of places.

[00:35:51] So, you know, we've definitely had the experience of having wonderful individual teachers, who want to do really good work, but they are not supported in doing that work? I'm thinking of a specific teacher She wanted to do some really good work around MLK Day. She wanted to, as he put it, push the envelope a bit

[00:36:20]So one of those stakeholder groups for her were the parents of the children in her class. So you're talking about, 30, 40 parents and guardians possibly. Who could learn what she's doing and respond to it in any number of ways? Not all of them positive.

[00:36:44] So what she had to anticipate, parents who say, look my kid is too young for you to be doing this. or maybe my kid isn't too young, but I don't like what you're actually doing. Then, she's thinking if that happens and I go to the administration or the parents go to the administration, will they have my back?

[00:37:33] So, there's a lot of different possibilities, but I think as Melissa was saying, , let's not assume that because you're not seeing what you'd like to see that you don't have, possible allies in the classroom in the administration, among other parents. Let's, approach other families of need and meaning not simply families of color. We shouldn't assume that families of color are being ill served, but it does happen disproportionately that they are. So, let's pay attention to those voices.

[00:38:08] Let's pay attention to the voices, poor, white families, whose needs may be ill served as well. Let's make sure that those voices get into the conversation about, what we're doing, what more we could do. And then let's see if we can actually work together.

[00:38:51] Helen: This has been an incredible conversation. We really appreciate both of your insights and advice to us as people and our listeners. And we want to give you a chance to share a takeaway. So, Andrew, you could start, if there's one thing you really want to be sure

[00:39:13] families walk away from today's conversation with, what would that be?

[00:39:55] Andrew Grant-Thomas: A lot of parents and grandparents and teachers and others come to us because something has happened.

[00:40:04] Something's happening in the world, you think of Charlottesville, you think of the protest, something's happened at school. The child has said something, overheard something, has a question and, and many parents and others, understandably, , they're wondering, I want to nurture a child who will right, be racially inclusive and be smart about race and be open and all those, I want to nurture a better person.

[00:40:31] which is wonderful and it's clearly a starting point and that’s the premise of what we do, and there's a bigger picture to it. Which is all of our children, whether they are two or nine or 19 they, and we, because we're still in the picture, we and those children, those nieces and nephews and grandchildren, all, whatever our relationship to them collectively are going to decide the future of this country.

[00:41:14] It may sound a little bit grandiose, but you know, the US has often been sort of promoted as a big experiment in multi-racial democracy. And, the question is how is that going to go? That's what's at stake.

[00:42:05] So, together, we're doing this, Melissa and I are helping spearhead this work because we believe that the choices we make collectively will absolutely make a difference. And the choices you make will too, and let's do it together.

[00:42:23] Helen: Thank you, Melissa. How about you? Any final advice for families or things you want them to take away?

[00:42:28] Melissa Giraud: Yeah, I would underline that they should start now, in educating themselves and talking to their kids, modeling for their kids, racially-just behavior.  it's never too early. And, it's not enough for our kids to be nice. Our kids need to understand what justice looks like and to, be able to work collectively to pursue those just goals. Another thing I would say is it's hard work, but our mission in part at Embrace Race is to make this challenging work easier. And, there are a lot of resources and community spaces that we offer, that help parents, caregivers, teachers, develop a practice around, guiding, racially just kids and around their own, learning and evolution.

[00:43:37] And, we need to raise kids who are prepared rather than protected. We need to prepare them to, to see those things and to act appropriately.

[00:43:56] Helen: And I want to just call out for our listeners, your website, embracerace.org is really, really chockfull of some great resources and places to get started, or to continue depending on where you are with your own family.

[00:44:10] Are there any other places or resources you guys want to call out, for families as they're on this journey? ­

[00:44:22] Andrew Grant-Thomas: If there's one place to start, we have a fairly recent piece called 16 ways to help children become thoughtful, informed, and brave about race. I think each of those 16 ways, is well-grounded, and there's of course, a lot more to be said about each of them, but, you know, you're not alone, think on it yourself. If you have a partner think on it with your partner, with your friends, with others who are invested in doing this work, and guarantee that, it's not about being perfect. It's just about doing better and we can do better. We can all do better wherever we are.

[00:45:20] Melissa Giraud: Yeah

[00:45:20] Andrew Grant-Thomas: Let's do better. Y'all.

Helen: let's do better. [00:45:26] LaWanda: Let's do better

[00:45:30] LaWanda: I like that a lot. We're starting today with the conversation with you all. Thank you again for helping us today.

[00:45:38] Andrew Grant-Thomas: Thanks folks.

[00:45:39] Melissa Giraud: Thank you. Thanks so much.

[00:45:42] LaWanda: And to our audience listening, thank you for joining us. For more resources related to today's episode. Check out notesfromthebackpack.com.

[00:46:06] Thanks for joining us and see you guys next time.


Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast is made possible by funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.