MOUNT DESERT ISLAND — “Race and racism has a very violent history in our country. It’s hard for white parents to talk to white kids because it’s scary,” said Sirohi Kumar, who is soon to be a junior at Mount Desert Island High School. “A big fear is that they’ll get it wrong… The other option is, your children grow up ignorant of race, which can make it worse.”
When protests began in May following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died while being restrained by a police officer, Kumar was part of a group of students who organized local protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. If people in the community were not talking with their children about race before, Kumar and others in the MDI Racial Justice Coalition stood up to say that it is time to start.
“BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) children get a raw deal when it comes to talking about race because it can’t be ignored,” she explained in a conversation with the Islander this week. “White families don’t talk about it because it seems like too heavy of a topic.”
When asked how she talks with her children about race and racism, Kendra Rand, a member of the MDI Racial Equity Working Group, points to Kumar and her cohorts, Charlie Parker and Alex Burnett.
“The work they’re doing is hard, it’s complicated and you can do that work too,” Rand tells her children. “That is such a big gift to parents like me. It’s so important to point to them and talk about how cool they are.”
Rand’s family not only talks with her two daughters about the work being done by the justice coalition, but also about the racial history of our country.
“My husband and I make a point of doing this and we don’t always get it right,” she said, adding, that it isn’t a reason to stop having the conversation. “It’s constant, it’s lifelong and it’s messy. We try to give our girls a vocabulary to name whiteness and racial terminology they can understand. We try to dispel this idea that it’s bad to talk about race and racial identity.
“It’s like a huge muscle to build, but we have to keep doing it.”
One of Conners Emerson School’s first grade teachers, Rachel Singh, says children are up for the task, more than adults realize.
“I’ve always taught first graders,” said Singh who started out in the Boston public school system before moving to MDI in 2015. “They blow me away with the depth of their clarity.”
During her first year of teaching in Bar Harbor, Singh was reading a story to her class about an enslaved person. One of her students suggested the economic benefit of having slaves played a greater role for the landowners than the social hierarchy.
“They are amazing,” she said about the insight of her students. “It just shows me they are ready for it.”
More often, it is the adults who are not ready to have a discussion about race because it can feel difficult to maneuver. But, the recent socio-political climate around the subject of race and racism has provided too many resources to ignore the call to action.
“This is an uncomfortable topic,” said Dawn Nuding, a licensed clinical professional counselor with The Counseling Collaborative who works with children. “They have an awareness and are watching what is going on in the world. I don’t think it’s ever too early to have a discussion.”
Author Ibram X. Kendi, whose books include “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You” and “How to Be an Antiracist,” explains how parents already teach their children abstract ideas like love and kindness, said Singh, speaking about a speech of Kendi’s she recently listened to.
“We don’t give them everything at once when they’re not ready,” she said, adding that Kendi said the abstract conversations begin as early as 2 years old. “Plant the seeds at an early age that every human being is valuable; every person has worth. Even if people look different or speak different, our hearts are all the same. This is something I say a lot.”
What can make the conversation more difficult in Maine is the lack of diversity among the population, but Nuding says for that reason it is especially important for white families to do so.
“Recognizing there is a privilege with that,” she said. “Especially when you turn on the TV and you see people who look like you. Not everyone experiences that.
“Race in itself is a social construct,” Nuding adds. “It elevates some and really negatively impacts others.”
She and Singh emphasize meeting children where they are when broaching a conversation regarding race and racism. Young children can be aware and sensitive to what is happening but unsure of how to contextualize it, Nuding explains. Having books in the home with people of different races and cultures help spark conversations. Middle school children can find the whole thing immobilizing.
“They have this weird clarity around what’s happening and being frustrated about why it can’t change,” she said. “Teens get mad and that energy is more helpful to them.”
What’s important for parents and influential adults is, “managing and recognizing the child in front of me” and figuring out how best to support them, Nuding adds. “I think it’s good practice sitting in the discomfort.”
As a result of the local call to action, a racism task force has been created in the school district to address how conversations and education around race can become more commonplace. Sirohi was instrumental in writing the charter for the task force and has been appointed as one of the student representatives.
“Education around race is so difficult, especially for white teachers, but it’s still essential,” she said.
When asked how long she estimates the work will take to make real change happen in the district’s curriculum, Sirohi is realistic in her projection.
“I think a long time, but the good news is we’re not starting from scratch,” she said, having laid out multiple objectives for the task force. “If we can educate the next generation, we can implement all those other demands.”
The website EmbraceRace offers 10 tips in talking to kids about race:
Start early: Studies show children as young as 6 months old can show signs of racial bias.
Encourage Your Child: Encourage your child to ask questions, share observations and experiences and be respectfully curious about race.
Be Mindful: What kids hear from us is less important than what they see us do.
Face and know your own bias: Let your child see you acknowledge and face your own biases.
Know and love who you are.
Develop racial cultural literacy: Develop racial cultural literacy by learning about and respecting others.
Be Honest: Be honest with your child, in age-appropriate ways, about bigotry and oppression.
Tell Stories: “Lift up the freedom fighters.” Tell stories of resistance and resilience.
Be Active: Don’t be a bystander on race.
Prepare for a marathon, not a sprint: Make race talks with your child routine. Race is a topic you should plan to revisit again and again in many different ways over time.
There are many more resources available online, at local libraries and bookstores