Episode 219 – Teaching children to be race conscious should not discriminate against age. In this episode, we chat with Sachi Feris, founder of Raising Race Conscious Children, about how to talk to children about race from an early age, how to take a more critical lens towards “whiteness,” and what we can do as adults to educate ourselves to support our children’s learning.
And it really is possible to talk about some pretty heavy and complicated things with the framework of talking about fairness. We don’t have to expose our youngest to images or language around violence, for sure. But we can talk about the things that aren’t fair and we want to work to make things more fair.
Sachi, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
We’re delighted to have on the show today Sachi FERIS. She’s a blogger and facilitator at Raising Race Conscious Children. I’m really delighted to have you on the show today, Sachi, to talk about talking about race with children. Let’s start off learning a little bit about you and what inspired you to start this blog.
Sure! Yeah, if you don’t mind, Ron, I’ll just backtrack a little bit about my upbringing and who I am in terms of what brings think of this work. I’m a native New Yorker and I was born and raised in Manhattan in a neighborhood in a big complex of buildings that happens to have had a history of racial segregation. So, the complex was built after World War Two for white veterans.
Of course, that history had a huge, huge impact on my life growing up. To mind, I had no neighbors who weren’t white. That same story was true for my school life. So, my school, ironically, was not a religiously affiliated school, but was probably 80 or 90% Jewish. And I also identify as Jewish.
So, within the two worlds that I spent the most time – my home and my school – I really was, until middle or even high school, surrounded by people who shared one or both of my identities as a white Jew.
And that story is quite typical in [that New York] is, of course, one of the most diverse places in the world. But my kind of bubble of a life is true for many, many New Yorkers. And it’s one of the most segregated cities in the world still.
And I would say, ironically, within the white Jewish community in which I grew up often enough that it was meaningful to me in [that I was] some way other-ized by how I look., that something about my physical experience made friends of my parents call me “exotic” or, as I got older, ask questions, [such as] if English was my first language. Kind of just other-izing or what we might now [call] “micro-aggression”.
And of course I experienced these very, very infrequently compared to what I imagine a person of color experiences. But they were still frequent enough for me that they just at first really led me to this own question of, “What is my identity in this world and how do I fit in?” And that’s sort of the first key step for what brought me to this, in terms of race and thinking about our racial and cultural identities.
As I became older and realized that education was my passion, I really became passionate about creating curriculum around this theme for our youngest school-age children. And essentially I as a young teacher found that there was lots of curriculum out there for school students and up but really not a lot of concrete curriculum that, in a very concrete way, exposed questions about difference and race and identity and discrimination and social justice. And I spent a long time creating such curriculum and adapting curriculum for older students that really could be accessible to our youngest, as well.
Fast forward [some] years ago, I became a parent. And for the first time, I didn’t have a curriculum to rely on to prompt these questions. I was just trying to change diapers and get out the door in the morning. And I really had this “A-ha!” moment that I could either do what most did and be colorblind – and research says many, many Americans, particularly white Americans, continue to live this colorblind world and see colorblind as the goal.
But the truth is, research shows the opposite, that, in fact, colorblind might have good intentions but it’s not reaching the [goal] that we want it to in seeing justice for all, essentially. And that by being race-conscious, we can give tools to young people to be more equipped and minded and to be allies and justice-seeking people as they grow.
So, that was my choice. I really transferred my inner dialog to words, even when my children were babies, to be race conscious. And that kind of came full circle because I brought that back to my teaching, as well. Although I had been developing and implementing curriculum around issues of race on that level, I wasn’t necessarily being race conscious. But I was also reinforcing colorblindness in different moments.
Yeah, a very interesting background. And some enlightening points about New York and the fact that it is a very diverse place but still you can have that issue or certain areas or your social bubble actually being not that diverse. So, something I never actually thought about but I can see that being true.
So, thinking about our youngest children, what sort of advice can you provide in terms of approaching this conversation and being open about it, as you say? How do we do that with children that are ages zero-to-six, which we’re working with in early-childhood education?
Yeah, I mean, I think at the very basics – and this is what I model and have participants practice in workshops – is being race conscious. So, for example, a lot of the media that we still consume shows whiteness as normal or whiteness as beautiful or whiteness as race-less.
So, a lot of times – we were talking about talking about race – a lot of times, people think that is about talking about people of color. And in fact, we also – and even more so, in a way – need to be talking about whiteness and dismantling the idea that white is not normal; white is not neutral; white is not better.
Because so much of the media that we see – and even in children’s books, the children’s book industry has gotten a lot better in the last 50 years but we’re still not there yet. The majority of books published even in the last year feature white protagonists. So, even if we carefully curate our libraries, we are still inevitably going to see that bias.
And that doesn’t mean we can’t read even a book [such as] a childhood favorite of mine that my mom saved that features all white people. But when I read it, I can say, “You know, when I read this book I notice that there are no kids with brown skin in this book. All the kids are white.” I see that and it makes me feel a little sad because it’s not really fair that there aren’t kids who look different in this book. I like reading a book that shows all different skin colors of people.
So, that’s just one thing and one moment that I could say that I really have my own critical consumerism of packaging on toys for a race and gender and what messages are, whether in a children’s book or toy packaging or the back of a cereal box or a YouTube advertisement, that they are showing us in terms of, who is this for and who is represented? And do we like the messages that we are receiving about this?
One other example that I always give is that if you do a search on [internet marketplaces] for the words “baby doll” you will get a list of all white baby dolls. And it’s not that I search for a white baby doll, just a baby doll. And the search engine gives me white baby dolls.
So, what is that? What’s the impact of that when we’re searching for a baby doll and we have to search for any baby doll that doesn’t have white skin? What are the toy manufacturers or the Google people or whoever is saying about which dolls are the best dolls? And is that okay? Do we like that we’re only shown white dolls? Or do we feel like it’s not so fair and it’s not [a good] thing?
And once we can plant that with our youngest and say something isn’t fair – which of course is so relevant to the preschool age – we can say what’s unfair about it so they can make connections to fairness in their own lives and sharing with toys to fairness in terms of more complicated world issues.
And it really is possible to talk about some pretty heavy and complicated things with the framework of talking about fairness. We don’t have to expose our youngest to images or language around violence, for sure. But we can talk about the things that aren’t fair and that we want to work can make things more fair.
Yeah, those are really good points and kind of get the frame going in terms of talking about whiteness as well as other races in terms of the media that we’re consuming. And certainly when I pick up books with my children, you notice the difference between books from 20, 30 years ago and those written today. So, there’s progress – of course, more to be made – but I definitely can see some improvement there, which is nice.
When we’re talking about this age group, is there a certain age where it makes sense to start having these conversations? And is the conversation approached a little bit differently with, say, a three-year-old versus a five-year-old?
Well, I would say, and certainly for parents but also for caregivers of children who are pretty verbal, and for folks – adults, I should say – who are not talking about race or are not race-conscious, that starting with the pre-verbal children is as much for the adult as it is for the babies because it’s a way to get adults comfortable. Which, again, for many people – not all people, but for many people – is new and does feel awkward or forced.
So, again, I guess my answer is, start with babies; that we don’t have to pretend we don’t see race; that we start naming race in a transparent way with babies, the way we describe our worlds when we go into a supermarket and say, “Look, I see red apples and green apples! Look, I see yellow bananas!” And we say, “Look, I notice that we have different shades of skin!”
And of course, we want to teach young children to do that in socially appropriate ways that aren’t hurtful or are just uncomfortable for another person. We don’t want to teach a child to point someone in the supermarket and say, “Hey, you’re this, that or the other!” But we can do that in the safety of our living rooms with books and other media.
And at the same time, we’re teaching how to have those conversations. So, we’re saying, “In a book we can make some guesses about how someone might like to be called. In real life, we ask respectful questions. We wouldn’t tell someone how they like to be called. And we’d usually ask those questions to someone we have a relationship with.”
So, that’s why we can always also say, “This person might identify as [a given race] or they probably identify as [a given race]”. But we’re teaching respectful ways to show that, yes, it is okay to notice race. So, I would say we definitely start with babies and we sort of build as children are getting older.
But certainly the strategies I was talking about before in terms of thinking of things in terms of fairness and unfairness, are certainly relevant to this preschool age. And I think the conversation, it just gets more complicated as children get older and are asking questions and making connections, et cetera.
But I think the strategy in a lot of ways really can really be same but the language simply changes, just like the language will change based on who the adult is and their own individual identity and who the child is. This isn’t like a one-size-fits-all, have-to conversation. The conversation is certainly going to sound different for each person.
What if you want to, as an adult, educate yourself more on this subject or try to get yourself to be more comfortable talking about race? Do you have any recommendations for that?
Well, I mean, I can say that I offer a webinar open to the public every couple of months, at least. And that’s on the website, www.RaceConscious.org. The workshop is really organically based on giving folks a chance to practice these concrete strategies.
And what really gives me a lot of hope and inspiration as a facilitator is that I would say the majority – at least 50% – of people who practice this strategy report it feeling hard and at the same time feel like they can do it.
So, in one instance, they’re feeling, “This is a little different. So, it feels hard, but I feel like I could do this. And with practice, it would get easier.” So, I think it is simply just starting and picking up a children’s book and saying, “Okay, I can do this. I can open the book and say, Look, I see a child here with pale skin. We call that white.”
In my case, I would say, “I call myself white, too,” or, “We call ourselves, even though our skin tones are a little bit different, I have more of an olive tone and the person in this book has a paler white skin. But we both call ourselves white, right?”
So, we can we can start doing that and we can just start getting familiar and practicing. I think of how I’m not a native Spanish speaker but I married a Spanish speaker and we speak Spanish in my family is our primary language. When I was learning Spanish, I remember walking down the street kind of talking to myself in Spanish. And I was practicing. And I think it’s the same idea of like, “You want to learn a language? You’ve got to practice.” This is also a new language. And we have to kind of practice how it sounds in our minds and out loud so that it becomes comfortable.
Can you tell us about the fundraiser you’re collaborating on?
Yeah! So, this month I’m collaborating with 10 other workshop facilitators. It actually represents more than 10 people, but 10 other workshops that are kind of facilitating on topics related to the topic I do, but they’re all anti-racist workshops. Some are geared at parents; some are geared at school leaders; one is geared at children. And actually a couple of them have already passed but there are 9 more coming up during the month of September.
And essentially, this group of 11 workshop has decided to donate 100% of the proceeds to the Movement For Black Lives. We’re hoping to have a lot of folks – we already have a lot of folks signed up and taking some workshops. The workshop that I facilitate that’s part of that is happening on September 13th. But I have a bunch of really talented colleagues that are facilitating like-minded workshops, as well, that would love for any of your listeners to consider supporting.
Oh, very cool, that’s awesome. And what’s a couple examples of upcoming sessions that you’re hosting, perhaps including the one that you’re doing?
On September 12th I have two workshops. So, one is [geared] towards children and I’m covering the history of Plessy v. Ferguson [racial segregation trial of 1896] for kids [aged] 6 to 10.
That day, Showing Up For Racial Justice [a social justice organization] is also presenting a workshop that’s called “The Calling In Workshop”, meant for white people, but, of course, open to anyone who is interested in calling in friends and family members to the fight for racial justice. So, folks who need to learn this language or help in how to have those conversations with other adults.
My workshop is on the 13th – “Raising Race-conscious Children”. And I’ll be talking about modeling these race-conscious practices and practicing them. So, those are a few that are coming up. And on the website www.RaceConscious.org is the list of all of them.
Awesome! Sachi, thank you so much for all this phenomenal work that you’re doing and have been doing for years here. You’re clearly very passionate about it and have clearly thought through a lot of these things and have the experience to talk about them and get other people talking about it, which is the whole point of this conversation, is raising race-conscious children.
Sachi, before we head off for this episode, where can our listeners go to get more information and perhaps get in touch with you or check out some of your content, including these sessions that you’re hosting?
Yeah, it’s the same one that I was giving before. So, that’s the easiest place to go, is www.RaceConscious.org. Or you can find us on Facebook, as well.
Wonderful. Thanks again for joining us, Sachi. It was great having you on the Preschool Podcast!
Thank you, Ron!
Thanks so much!