By Andrew Grant-Thomas
November/December 2015 issue of Poverty & Race
A couple years ago, my daughter, Lola, and I signed up for a weekly evening course called “Watching the Nighttime Sky” at a local college. Lola was 5, a voracious reader, and waaaay into learning about the solar system and the universe. The little girl could name Jupiter’s four visible moons!
The class was taught by a retired professor, a white man. On clear nights we peered at the sky through a telescope; on cloudy nights, we got a lecture on the history and science of astronomy. Fun subject, daddy-daughter bonding, what could be better?
It didn’t take long to observe that while the instructor referred consistently to the only other kid in the class, a 7 year-old Asian-American boy, as a “scientist,” he completely ignored my brown-skinned girl. During lectures he’d call the little boy up to the front of the room to participate in demonstrations (“How did the Greeks define an ellipse?”). Lola? Nothing.
I told the man— on three separate occasions—about Lola’s budding astronomy expertise, and, more to the point, about the need to engage 5-year-olds in the course of 90-minute talks to the degree possible. (I put it a bit more diplomatically.)
The instructor never pushed back or appeared defensive, but nor did his behavior change. I became increasingly frustrated. One evening, my bored, squirmy girl responded to the man once again calling on the boy “scientist” by whispering in my ear, “But, Daddy, I’M a scientist too!” We left.
Part of my unhappiness was simply that of a father who saw his daughter denied an experience that could have been much more rewarding for her. Part had to do with how the incident troubled that well of fear in my mind that many parents of African-American kids and girls know well, the fear that scenarios like that one will play themselves out unrelentingly in the years to come, sometimes with a great deal at stake.
And then there was this: At 5, Lola didn’t have a robust set of tools with which to read the dynamics at work in that class. (She is markedly more sophisticated about race and gender now than she was just two years ago.) She was bored, not hurt; she felt a bit puzzled, not diminished. I worry that as Lola and her younger sister become more alert to the identity and contextual dynamics that will pervade their engagements with peers, teachers, employers and others, the social harms the biases of others may cause them might be compounded by harm to their psyches.
How can my partner and I help our girls become racially literate, and alert as well to the challenges posed by class, gender, disability and so on, while also building their capacity for resilience in the face of the hard-edged realities their growing discernment reveals? It truly does take a village to provide good answers to such a question.
Figuring out how best to support the development of healthy racial sensibilities in children is difficult, uncertain work. While teachers can find substantial support at Teaching Tolerance, Teaching for Change, Facing History and Ourselves, Border Crossers, and elsewhere, the online resources to help parents and other caregivers do that work are neither plentiful nor readily available. Moreover, as far as we know, no one has organized the available materials in one place. All this is especially true of materials aimed at parents of young children, though we know that even toddlers have begun to make sense of race, whether or not we choose to engage them explicitly on the subject.
EmbraceRace is a multiracial, online community of parents, teachers, mentors, childcare providers, and other adults, young people, and experts who present and discuss our questions, experiences, beliefs, concerns and resources.
Our Facebook page is up (www. facebook.com/weembracerace); we launch the site and other platforms in December. EmbraceRace will feature lots of blogging by community members, webinars and discussion groups, a podcast, and a resources section. The basic idea is to invite a wide range of people to examine their beliefs, experiences and concerns; to engage others in discussion that is as forthright and incisive as we can make it; and to have that thinking and discussion informed by the best information, resources and expertise we can find.
We do all this in pursuit of three goals.
The first goal is to educate and inform adults about the pervasive impact of race in children’s lives. Regular readers of the PRRAC newsletter know about the aversion many Americans have to talking about race, in general, or to acknowledging its continuing influence on the social, economic and political outcomes that matter. Knowledge is no panacea for the ills of racism and poverty, but some part of the road to healthy people, family and communities is paved with the kinds of information and insight that EmbraceRace will help make more widely available.
Second, we want to support parents and other adults to nurture resilient children of color and racially literate children of all stripes. At a time when race remains perhaps the sharpest edge along which Americans divide ourselves, we must find ways to help our children develop the tools, knowledge and sensibilities they will need to meet the challenges that race poses.
Third, through EmbraceRace we hope to collect, organize and highlight resources that will help adults be effective racial equity advocates for children. My kids will likely face fewer, less serious obstacles to fulfillment than many millions of their peers, especially other black and brown children, will face. And they will do so under the watchful eyes and care of parents, family, and friends able to advocate for them more forcefully and with more resources than most. It’s our hope that EmbraceRace will bring more, better advocacy resources to its members than they otherwise would have, and help close the gap between those with more resources and those with fewer.
Partnering with EmbraceRace
The successful development of a large and vibrant community that can meet the goals we have established can only be the work of many. We are grateful to the NoVo Foundation and to several individual donors for their early investment in the promise of EmbraceRace. We thank the bloggers who already have started to submit posts, the people and organizations that have committed their expertise to enriching the community, and the members of our National Advisory Board, who lend their insights and good names to our cause.
We are eager to add to this valued store of partnerships. Please contact me if you want to know more (Andrew@embracerace.org). We want bloggers; people who can help us identify guests and topics for our podcasts, discussion groups, webinars and forums; and people who want to organize or lead them. We are very interested in launching a programmatic component that would feature the voices of kids—especially pre-teens, but also high school-aged kids—leading thoughtful, heartfelt race work inside or outside schools. We would appreciate any references you have to such young people and work.
We need people to write race-conscious reviews of kids’ books, movies, toys and games, and experts willing to field occasional questions from community members related to our core themes (e.g., race and racial justice, parenting, child social and emotional development, children’s popular culture, race and K-12 schools, and especially their intersections). We welcome referrals to experts in these areas. And, of course, we welcome anyone who wants to participate productively in our community conversations.
We have many daunting questions we need to answer well if we are to realize the potential value of EmbraceRace. How do we build a real sense of community among diverse strangers taking about race? How do we establish more rather than less civil space that accommodates constructive exchanges and learning even as it embraces truth-telling?
How do we respectfully bring in the voices and perspectives of parents and kids marginalized by racism and poverty? Mark Twain said it ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble; it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. How do I, a longtime racial justice worker with many strong convictions about race, avoid getting tripped up by what I know for sure about race that just ain’t so?
How do we, as a community of parents, teachers and other caring adults, prepare children to survive in, thrive in, and shape a racial order we, and they, might hardly be able to imagine?
I hope some of you will help us try to answer these questions.
Andrew Grant-Thomas is Co-Founder and Co-Developer of EmbraceRace and works as an independent consultant. Formerly Senior Researcher at the Harvard Civil Rights Project and Deputy Director at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race & Ethnicity, he has written, spoken, and worked on a wide range of race-related issues. agrantth @yahoo.com