Supporting Students of Color

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Episode 48│Supporting Students of Color

Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021

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Show Notes

Shawn Jones

How can schools do a better job affirming children’s racial identities? Dr. Shawn Jones, psychologist and professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University, joined the podcast to offer guidance on creating schools that better serve students of color. He shares how families can help by talking openly and honestly about their own experiences with race. He also offers suggestions for how white families can be part of the effort to create more affirming schools for students of color.


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LaWanda Toney: Welcome to today's episode, I'm LaWanda Toney,

Helen Westmoreland: and I'm Helen Westmoreland. And we are your co-hosts.

LaWanda Toney: We're so excited about today's guests. As some of you may know, one of our most popular episodes was, Raising Kids Who Embrace Race, and we talked about how families can raise advocates for racial justice.

Today, we're thinking about racial justice through the lens of school life.

Helen Westmoreland: That's right, LaWanda, we're exploring what does it take to create a school culture that is actually welcoming to all students? How can we ensure that as adults debate critical race theory, youth aren't caught in the crossfire? Schools have made great strides when it comes to diversity and inclusion, but there's still a lot of work to be done.

So LaWanda tell us about our very special guest.

LaWanda Toney: Helen, we have a fantastic guest today, who's going to help us answer those questions. We're welcoming Dr. Shawn Jones to the show. Dr. Shawn Jones is an Assistant Professor in the Counseling Program in the Psychology Department at Virginia Commonwealth University. He received his doctorate in clinical psychology with an emphasis on children and families and holds a master of health science in mental health. Dr. Jones' work focuses on the psychosocial wellbeing of black youth and their families. He also co-hosts Our Mental Health Minute podcast with Dr. Rianna Anderson. Welcome to the show Dr. Shawn, tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.

Shawn Jones: So first and foremost, I just want to say it's such a distinct honor to have the opportunity to be with you all, LaWanda and Helen on today. Yeah, really looking forward to the discussion. So yes, my day job, so to speak is as a professor and a clinical psychologist, I'm licensed in my Commonwealth of Virginia and I work with children and families. In addition to all of those things, I'm also from Texas and that means a lot to me in some of the conversations that we may be having on today.

And then in terms of the work that I, and my team down in Richmond, Virginia do is we really strive to think about ways in which we can harness and support the strengths that are inherent among black youth and black families. So, really coming from this narrative that wait, we don't have to just pinpoint the things that are going wrong. How can we think about the things that are going right in your day in your life in your family and accentuate those things for the benefit of your mental health?

LaWanda Toney: That's awesome. We all need that.

Shawn Jones: Indeed, gotta accentuate the positive, for sure.

Helen Westmoreland: That's so true. So I actually want to just start off building off what you just said, Dr. Shawn  Obviously this has been a tough past year and a half for everyone. But I hear you talking about really the importance of building on family assets. How would you describe what you're seeing as black family and youth wellbeing right now? Where are there strengths? Where are there needs that we need to support?

Shawn Jones: Yeah, absolutely. So, this has been a really, really challenging 18 plus months that we have been going through collectively. And at the same time we have seen disparity. There are ways in which we were kind of together in an experience, and then somehow these differences, these disparities emerge. And so when we think about black family life. Whether we think about the summer of 2020, and some of the racial reckoning that occurred there, or we're talking about this longstanding pandemic that we still find ourselves in. A pandemic that has disproportionately impact black and brown, communities and families.

I'm going to take the second part of your question first, that there are many things that black families are navigating, right? There's these kinds of stressors that we all have in daily life, getting ready for the school year, going to a new grade, picking classes out these things that can be exciting and challenging. Then we overlay that with this pandemic and some of the stress and the anxieties and the uncertainties around this global pandemic that has unfolded. And then let's just layer on top of that, right, racism and racism related stress and reckoning around that. So, that is certainly a tall order for black families to navigate and weight against.

That being said, Helen and LaWanda, what we're finding when when we interviewed black families in the research that we're doing, is a remarkable amount of resilience, that we're seeing, in the face of those things, and really that there are a couple of themes that are emerging. So one is really the importance of staying grounded and one sense of identity as connected to wellbeing. So this idea of whether it's family, the adults, or caregivers in family systems, or family members telling each other, this is who you are, you're still great, you're awesome, despite what you're seeing or reading about or hearing that is going on, despite these uncertainties, like you're still great and actually being a little chocolate boy or chocolate girl, being black, that actually is cool. And so this intentional language around harnessing and supporting identity, this socialization around those things, is a very, very common and persistent theme that we're seeing, when we think about how we cut through all of those layers of stress to get to a side of health and wellbeing.

Helen Westmoreland: Absolutely. I want to follow that up a little bit with the flip side of that, is how schools are responding and supporting, what are some of the things that you're learning there?

Shawn Jones: Yeah, absolutely. I think, you know, a couple of things that I'm really excited about. So one is really thinking about, these things are systemic. So it's great if XYZ elementary is really honoring all students in their school, it's better. If the district, that XYZ elementary belongs to is really on board with this. So, what we're really seeing is taking some of the research, the longstanding research on racial identity, on racial pride, on even teaching about racial difference in a respectful way, and really putting that in the hands of teachers, of aides, as well as superintendents and principals to say, okay, how can we set up a school culture that, we don't say we are all the same. We actually say, oh no, we all have these differences and look how they're cool. And look how we can bring these different food stuffs or these different musical experiences or these different ways of cultural styling and dress together to support that and to uplift that.

And how can we set up our room? How can we set up the built environment to have images that reflect all of the students who are sitting at the table or sitting in their seats? But the seeds that can be planted now and into the future to really kind of wrestle with thinking about how we create these verbal and nonverbal messages that say no matter who you are, you are, you are welcome here. There  is pride to being you. You don't have to necessarily be someone different or conform or contort yourself, but you can actually be who you are and we can celebrate that.

LaWanda Toney: I love the ideas that you have for celebration. On the flip side, though, is there, do you have advice for parents of color whose children are experiencing things like bias or microaggressions, things like that at their school?

Shawn Jones:. So, the first advice that I always give to parents who asked me a question like that, is to listen. I think that sometimes, and very, very well-meaning, we want to jump to action. Oh, what happened? This was done, you were othered, you were rejected. I'm going to go have this conversation, I'm going to go XYZ. And that may be a part of the ultimate solution, right?

That advocacy may certainly be a part of the ultimate solution, and let's think about the eight-year-old who comes home and says, this classmate who I really wanted to be friends with is asking me why my skin is so dark or why my hair is this texture. If our first response is oh, let's go to the school, we miss an opportunity to sit with the emotions, with the disappointment, with maybe even the confusion of that othering that our children are feeling. So, I think the first step always is to come to those moments as hard as it may be with a listening ear.

The second part of it is an open heart. What I mean by that is I think that oftentimes, as a mechanism for protecting the innocence of children, we may not share our own experiences, or we may not have share the fullness of our vulnerable or raw emotions.

So, I am not saying necessarily to say, ah, like I am so upset that this happened to you, that this bias happened to you, that this microaggression occurred against you. So we listen and then we respond with our own true emotion. I remember when I was nine and, and somebody says something like that to me, and I was really hoping that you never have that kind of experience. It really hurts my heart that you have to have that experience. And let's now, then we get to one of those avenues of advocacy about what are we going to do about that incident?

How are we gonna respond? How are we gonna support the child? But I think starting with listening and then responding with true and vulnerable emotion and maybe even one's own experiences can be really edifying for youth who are experiencing those things.

Helen Westmoreland: Hmm.

LaWanda Toney: That's really good.

Helen Westmoreland: I know there is something to be said about just like being able as a parent to have that humility in the moment of whatever it is your job is not always to react sometimes it's just to listen and connect. I appreciate that.

I want to talk a little bit about, you mentioned, Dr. Shawn, some of the research on racial identity and racial affirmation and the importance of that in schools and what they're doing.

Many PTA leaders are advocating for more inclusive curricula right now, and I feel like there's this huge debate going on in our country about critical race theory, but I'm not sure anyone can define it. I'm not going to ask you today to have to define it all, but I do want to ask, like when you say there's a lot of research to support this, could you tell us a little more about some of those key things and arm our listeners with some of that evidence.

Shawn Jones: Absolutely, yeah, I really appreciated in the introduction hearing, I appreciate it, and also I was like, oh, shaking in my boots. Right.

Helen Westmoreland: I know we were like, do we bring it up? I'm like, can't really talk about it without bringing it up. That's what most people know right now.

Shawn Jones: No, you're right, and I really appreciated the line there, of making sure that youth are not caught in the crossfire of this politicized, if we're being honest, right, conversation, that's going on. So, I'm not going to define CRT that that is beyond my scope, what I am going to say about how it applies to the research that myself and other scholars do.

What we know is that it's important for parents to teach their children about race and difference. It's important to do that in ways that are developmentally appropriate. Right? So a common example I give is I am not advocating any parent to teach their four year old, where to place their hands on a steering wheel, if they are pulled over by law enforcement. That is just not a developmentally necessary conversation to have. But it is important to talk both about, as you said, racial affirmation, pride that one can have in their race and their ethnicity and their cultural heritage. Whether again, that's food, that's language, that's dress, that's art, that's music, all of those things we know, actually, that teaching and providing messages and examples and exposure to those sorts of things are associated with positive self-esteem, for black and brown youth.

We know that it is associated often with metrics of academic persistence and in some cases, even academic performance, we also know that it can be a buffer against the development of things like being sad or being anxious. So, the lesson to teach about culture and race and pride, is one.

The other is that we know, particularly as kiddos are getting in kind of middle childhood age range, that also teaching about the potential of a bias, we call that preparation for bias. Teaching about the fact that, because your hair texture is a little different than your skin tone is a little different, or you have an accent, you may, not necessarily, but you may experience some differential treatment and importantly, this is what this does not mean about you. And this is what we, as a family are going to collectively come and plan and practice about what we're going to do if those moments ever occur to you. So, that's when we get into the 10 and 2 that's when we get into, what do we do if a teacher, repeatedly, doesn't call on us or assigns us to a particular part in a story that is played by an enslaved person. That's when we get into those sorts of more coping and more active responses, so that pride and the preparation have been in tandem associated with a host of those positive youth outcomes.

On the flip side, we know that silence is also a form of socialization, so sometimes parents feel like if I don't say anything, if I just close my eyes to it, if I don't speak to race and difference in what's going on, then I will continue to protect my children and, I honor that assumption. Unfortunately, the assumption does not bear out in the data and the research that we're seeing, and that silence about race, that children are still getting what we call socialization from other agents, so whether that's the mass media, whether that's their peer groups, whether that school systems positive or not.

They're getting other messages of socialization, so I always encourage parents to, to say something and that's all parents, that's whether you're black, brown, white. All parents should talk about those things, so I think those are three points that our research is consistently showing.

LaWanda Toney: Dr. Shawn, it is sometimes so hard as a parent to know what to say. You think so many things in your mind, like if I say this the wrong way, am I going to screw him up forever?

Helen Westmoreland: oh, you would never screw your baby up, LaWanda.

LaWanda Toney: So I'll give you an example. So, Caleb was in maybe the first grade and it must have been Black History month, because he came home and he was very like confused. And he said, I watched this video on Rosa Parks and I was like, okay, you learned about Rosa Parks today. He was like, why would anybody care where you sat on the bus?

Why did they make such a big deal about her, because of the color of her skin? And he was just done, because we hadn't talked about it. It was the second grade. I was like, nobody told me they were talking about this. And he was just like, do these white people like this still exist? Are they still alive? Oh, you know, because they talked about Rosa Park when she died, blah, blah, blah, stuff like that. So he was just like, if we go outside will somebody, tell me to sit somewhere on the bus, in the back of the bus, instead of the front, I was like, oh gosh, I don't know what to say.

And so I just kept listening, and then I said, well, let's think about what she did. I said she stood up for herself. Right? I said, so that helped other people stand up for themselves. I was making it up as I went along. I had no idea, because I was just not prepared, I thought, well, we'll have this conversation, but it'll be a long time from now, not really the first grade. And, I agree with you that it has to be levels, I couldn't go all the way in. So it's rough. It's hard.

Parenting is hard work, so we're so glad that we have people like you to help us answer some of these questions, that we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis, and they get harder, as they get older.

Shawn Jones: Yeah, absolutely. If I, if I may just respond really quickly to that, so you said so many great things.

So, first of all, absolutely, we often joke that, but it's serious. We, we didn't get the, the playbook of parenting downloaded on our phones. And then if we did, if, if somehow you did, first of all, let us know. But then second of all, for whatever reason, it didn't have the, the version where we talk about kind of race and stuff, that part they left out of the, out of the beta version. So already, yes, parenting is difficult.

Talking about race, racism difference is difficult, and the other important thing that you said LaWanda is like, there isn't one right way or one set of things that you have to, or should say. My encouragement is always to have the conversation. And to also, again, this is a beautiful moment to say, you know what? I was not thinking I was going to have to have this conversation with you Caleb, but, you know, I thought we had a little bit more time, like even, even the levity and the humor in that, and the honesty in that, I think when that son, that daughter, they look back they'll respect that. They'll appreciate that there wasn't this attempt of, oh, I have it all and I understand it all, because we don't. I think if we understood why racism has persisted the way it has, then our society would be different.

So yeah, we don't have it all figured out and we don't know what all to say, but you started and you recognize that they don't need everything, but I'm a give him, give him enough to be able to, to rise and to still do the things that are first or second grader needs and wants to do so I want to just commend you,

LaWanda Toney: oh, well, thanks. It didn't feel good in the moment, but I appreciate that, that's helpful.

Helen Westmoreland: I'm waiting for my three-year-old to come home with those questions.

LaWanda Toney: It will happen.

Helen Westmoreland: Right, especially as a white person, super important to have those conversations, even though her view of it might be very different or, or she might not even be able to articulate it. And my imagination goes a little wild, in your example, LaWanda of like, what could have that your child's teacher  or the school have been doing. You're always out on a limb a little bit as a parent, but I feel like, there things schools could do to help make those conversations a little more intentional, a little easier. What do you think Dr. Shawn am I living in a Lalaland? Or are school's actually doing that?

Shawn Jones: You're not living in a Lala;and, I think that there's a shift and there is an importance that is being conveyed, at, among school systems of that intentionality, right? I, I have a very similar story to yours, LaWanda, where I was interviewing this black family. And four-year-old came home from daycare and was crying, because they decided at their preschool to teach the impact of, of segregation during February that they were going to put up signs about like who could drink at which water fountains at the school. Andthe parents were just floored because they were like, first of all, four years old, second of all, I would not have used that demonstration to drive that particular point.

LaWanda Toney: Out of everything in the civil rights movement, this is what you choose to use, okay I'm done.

Shawn Jones: So in that moment, right as I was talking with that family, I was like, well, how did that go? And they mentioned yeah we advocated, we said, you know, in the future, can we have more communication? And I really think just the bi-directional communication and collaboration is really key. Some, you know, black and brown families are primarily who I've worked with. Some of those families, they are a little wary of kind of letting the school into what's going on at home, and I do understand the historical realities of that, and I think it's, it's important to still communicate so that way teachers, other educators can help to plan ways to say, okay, how can we again, develop curriculum that's developmentally appropriate? How do we maybe send something home in the backpack to say, Hey, just so you know, we're getting ready to have this set of conversations and just to at least maybe get caregivers ready to either have that conversation in advance with their children or to follow up behind it with some of the socialization that they have agreed as a family that they intend to do. And so I think it can be a little bit that can go a long way. Some of it is happening and I think more of it could happen and will happen, I think moving forward, I'm excited for that day.

Helen Westmoreland: I have one more question, you've given some good advice for black families and youth about how to talk about racial pride. I'm curious if you could give some advice to some of our white families who might be listening. What do you suggest is the role or strategies that white parents could use to make schools more affirming places for our young people of color.

Shawn Jones: Yeah, Helen, I honor you for this question. I think a lot of times when we think about racial socialization, when we think about racial identity, we think of that as a BIPOC endeavor, and we don't think about the importance of white families having conversations about the meaning and significance of race, the meaning and significance and history of whiteness. So for some families, there is learning that has to be done in order to do that socialization. And so I encourage folks to take that up and to, to find out more about whiteness and about, you know, what things they are proud of and what parts of their culture and heritage they bring forth and communicating those things as well. So, I think that that is one is to have those conversations internally.

With regards to the school aspect, so if you're a part of a district, a school district where they are still maybe teaching about the civil war, that's fresh on my mind, cause I'm in Richmond.

Helen Westmoreland: LaWanda and I actually grew up a few hours from each other and I learned about it as the war of Northern aggression, I don't know if you did LaWanda, we're only a couple of years apart, but that's how I learned about it in middle school.

LaWanda Toney: It's a whole story for me. I I'll save that for another time.

Shawn Jones: But, thank you, that's right on point. Right? And so, when we learn about those things, or again, as a Texan the way that I learned about the Alamo, whew, like now, and now as an adult I'm like, oh, I learned about that a little bit differently than like how it went down and so encouraging retelling those stories, or telling those stories with more nuance and context and being a co-conspirator and helping your, other parents of color who are also likely bringing this to attention in schools, and may not be getting heard at meetings or otherwise to also show up and say, no, we have to do our curriculum different.

We're doing our, all of our students a disservice, right? When, when we see it as, a way that we are looking to benefit all of our students and we come to the table in that way, then I think that that is how we kind of can move the meter on some of these conversations and the way in some of these lessons are taught in our schools,

LaWanda Toney: Yeah, Helen, I'll just say I learned it in fourth grade, South Carolina history.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah.

LaWanda Toney: And I came home and I said, Mom, Dad, why do we live here? I don't understand, I don't get it, it was very traumatic. I'll just leave it at that. Dr. Shawn, we really could talk to you all day.

Thank you so much for everything that you shared with us, but I do have one last question for you out of everything that we've discussed, what is one thing family should walk away from today's episode.

Shawn Jones: Yeah, if there was one thing that families should walk away from today's episode with, it is to have courageous conversations. Please talk, talk among caregivers in your household to get on the same page about how you want to talk about these conversations and talk  with a listening ear with your heart, to your young folks. And again, that's all families under the sound of my voice, no matter what your skin tone, color, origin, any of that is it's important to have those courageous conversations.

LaWanda Toney: Nice. Thank you, where can I our listeners find out more about you and your work?

Shawn Jones: Sure, absolutely. So easiest way to find me is to look at my Twitter at S C as in Christopher, T as in Tracy Jones, you can find me there and there's links to my other sites there. And then also I would love for folks to check out more content about this by following @ O U R M H M, so that stands for our mental health minute, but again, it's at O U R M H M, and you can find us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook under that same handle.

LaWanda Toney: Awesome.

To our listeners, thank you for joining us, don't forget to visit our apple podcast page and leave a rating and review. Your reviews and ratings help others find our show. And we appreciate hearing from you and as always for more resources related to today's episode, including the great handles that Dr. Shawn shared, please check out Thanks for listening and join us next time.