Every day since George Floyd’s death, I have read to my five-year-old, brown-skinned boy about reasons to love his skin. After reading a book that explained how black and brown-skinned people are not always treated fairly, he asked, “Does that mean white people are mean?”
As we discussed ways that systemic racism plays out in society, this was exactly the generalization I feared. In the process of explaining how racism has caused minority groups to undergo harsh and unfair treatment, I hoped not to create a scenario where he, as a minority, now lumped others into categories because of the color of their skin.
It brought me to a recent conversation I had with colleagues: We can all become equity warriors by having conversations on race together, asking awkward questions, safely discussing comments that seem “tone deaf,” and by leaning into the same type of discomfort my son’s question created.
I addressed part of this issue with him through a book for young children called “All the Colors We Are” by Katie Kissinger. It discusses how we, as a society, place people into buckets of “black” and “white,” when really we are all different shades of brown.
We are all different shades of brown.
That is because the skin of all people contains melanin; the degree to which our skin is “light” or “dark” depends on how much melanin we make. Persons (or ancestors) from areas of the world that get a lot of sunlight have a lot of active melanin, and subsequently darker skin. Those from areas of the world with less sun and colder weather require much less melanin, resulting in lighter skin. What a great way to explain to my son why our skin may look very different, but in fact is much the same.
Which leads me to wonder: Why does our current focus on ending police brutality and racial profiling–while very necessary—occur so far downstream of these basic points? What if our kids were so exposed to diversity as their norm—taught to understand and appreciate differences in skin color and cultures—that they never grow into adults for whom we need to “undo” racism?
That may sound far-fetched, but I believe it isn’t. I recently came across an infographic called Lifting All Children Up. It explains how policy decisions create opportunity gaps — both inside and outside our public school systems — which cause some schools to rise and which create unfair and unequal opportunities for others.
We already deal with harmful policies that impact communities outside of school (including policies resulting in unequal housing, employment, safety, health care, and access to healthy foods). These policies are rooted in systemic racism and result in segregated communities, areas of concentrated poverty, and resource-poor neighborhoods. Work is certainly needed in these areas. We should simultaneously work to mitigate these problems from extending into school systems our kids attend daily.
It is our hope that for future generations, less focus will be needed on developing ways to “undo” racism, because our children are less exposed to policies that lead to unequal resources and diminished diversity within the schools they spend most of their time in. One approach is to broadly implement policies that empower children to learn in diverse environments with equitable provision of education/resources and positive discipline techniques dedicated to keeping children in school (rather than pushing them out.) We believe such policies can equip youth to grow into adults who embrace and value how we are all different and yet the same, worthy of being treated with dignity and respect.
To that end, I implore all policymakers and educational leaders to address and remove policies that:
- Base school funding on local income and real estate values
- Fail to ensure a stable, experienced, qualified and diverse teaching force
- Fail to build on the first language and cultures of emerging bilingual students
- Use discipline policies that push students out of school and into the prison pipeline
- Do not seek and ensure a diverse student base
We also ask that the educational system ensure our history books tell the stories of the many persons of color who contributed to building this country, and include a vast repertoire of literature with as many Black, Hispanic, Native American, Pacific Islander, and Asian / West Asian protagonists as it includes European and white. Additionally, curricula should represent the diverse history of this country, interwoven throughout the calendar year and not just during “set months” like Black History or National Hispanic Heritage Month.
To our mothers and fathers, grandparents, aunts, and uncles who seek an end to systemic racism, please read to your children on the topic of race consistently, even if it leads to uncomfortable questions (it’s OK to say you don’t know the answer). This education can start as early as you begin reading to them —meaning it should start during infancy and toddlerhood. Additionally, the more we seek to involve our young ones in diverse schools and extracurricular activities, the less “awkward” and “difficult” these discussions can get. Should you need some books on these issues, which simultaneously engaged both my five year old and pre-teen, consider starting with:
- Let’s Talk About Race, Julius Lester
- The Skin You Live In, Michael Tyler
- All Are Welcome Here, Alexandra Penfold
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