Post submitted by Ali Michael, guest contributor
I recently explained to my four-year-old daughter that her Uncle Kelly feels like both a boy and a girl. Does that make sense?” I asked, knowing that it wouldn’t make sense to most adults I knew. “Yes,” came the reply.
The notion that some people are not boys or girls, or that some people are both, has not been confusing to my daughter. Neither has the idea that girls can love girls, and boys can love boys. The notion that some people are Black and others are white, and that it’s okay to talk about that, is cool with her too. The basic fundamentals of the social construction of gender and race have not been hard for her to grasp.
Where she gets tripped up, crying, and asking, “Why?” is when she hears about people who hurt other people.
When she learned that many Native Americans died during the time of her beloved Little House on the Prairie, she cried for at least an hour, pleading with me, “But the baby Native Americans didn’t die, did they!? Say they didn’t die!” When we read a picture book about Martin Luther King Jr., and she saw that Black children were not allowed to swim in whites-only swimming pools, she popped her thumb out of her mouth to say, “But that’s mean!” She has quite a keen sense of justice that seems practically intuitive.
Often with difficult conversations about sexuality or race, we tend to teach kids what not to say, or what not to think, rather than engage with them expansively about all the beautiful ways of being in this world. I grew up feeling paranoid that if I talked about race or sexuality, I’d say something offensive or taboo. I didn’t know where to start, or how to connect my essential goodness to a love for people who were different from me. I don’t want my daughter to be afraid of talking about differences.
We need to tap into the goodness and sense of justice that children bring into the world with them, and give them tools for maintaining those gifts as they encounter people and experiences that are different from their own. That’s the kind of work the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Welcoming Schools Program does in schools.
Parents and teachers need to be able to talk with their children about things that many of us were taught not to talk about. Welcoming Schools gives us the tools to do just that.
Many of us, myself included, have gotten the message that talking about sexuality or race with young children can introduce them to concepts that they are not yet ready for, or perhaps, to things that wouldn’t impact them if we didn’t feed it to them directly. I’ve often heard from well-meaning white teachers, for example, “But children don’t see race unless we bring it up first.” Or similarly, “Children wouldn’t choose to be gay if they weren’t seeing it in the media.”
In fact, as Welcoming Schools’ recent film What do you Know? shows, children already know about and can talk—quite fluidly—about different kinds of families and relationships. In the film, 6 to 12 year olds talk about things like hearing the word “gay” in school and confronting bias. These things are happening, whether or not teachers are bringing them up. Welcoming Schools gives teachers the tools to bring the topics up in appropriate ways and to address bullying when it happens.
Similarly, from research on young children’s racial attitudes we know that they recognize racial difference at a young age and absorb the stories all around them that attempt to explain those differences. Welcoming Schools helps here too, giving teachers and families tools to rewrite the stories that our children hear as they work to make sense of our complex world. They help to write stories that honor the diversity of our children’s lives and the world they live in. They do so with the faith and knowledge that children are able to understand concepts that seem complicated to adults. And they do it with activities and curricula that make it accessible.
Building welcoming schools is about supporting all students to feel competent to discuss and address issues of injustice that impact themselves and their peers. It is about helping students who are bystanders see the struggles of their peers as their own. It is about helping children speak up when they hear a comment that might injure a friend, regardless of whether that comment impacts themselves and their own family. Ultimately, it’s about keeping the goodness and sense of justice in our kids thriving throughout their lives.
Visit www.welcomingschools.org to find resources for teachers and parents on talking to children about race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and more.
Ali Michael is the director of P–12 consulting services and professional development for the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education and the founder of the Race Institute for K–12 Educators. She is also the author of Raising Race Questions: Whiteness, Education, and Inquiry (forthcoming).