Kids say the darndest things
Updated: Jul 12, 2021
For several years, I worked directly with elementary-age girls in school settings. I was largely able to create my own programming, with feedback and recommendations from teachers. I absolutely adored my students. Some of my most heart-warming ad gut-wrenching conversations on race were with them.
Some of the how-to articles I had read tell you to practice and be prepared prior to having these conversations with kids. I do generally agree. Know how you’re going to explain what racism is beforehand. But sometimes, kids say some things.
I remember one of my students, a Black fifth grade girl, wanted to find out where my family was from from. Before I could respond, she started making a list of potential Asian countries of origin – China, Japan, Korea. I gently interrupted and said that I am from the Philippines. This girl shrugged and said, “Well, it’s all the same anyway.”
Y’all, my lips pursed so hard and my eyebrows raised so high. Never mind that we had just finished several weeks’ worth of lessons around understanding racial diversity, inclusion and allyship. My initial thought was to ask whether she listened to anything we talked and learned about the last month and a half. (Then I questioned how effective my lessons were and made a mental note to reassess them).
But instead, I took a deep breath and responded that it is not, in fact, all the same. I then asked her, has she ever heard anyone use the trope that “all Black people look alike”?
She paused and after a few seconds, her eyes grew wide as she uttered “Oooohhhh.” I followed up with something along the lines of, “just as we know not all Black people look alike, Asian people are not all the same people. We are all uniquely and beautifully different.” She nodded, said “sorry Ms. Julia,” and that was that.
There was another conversation, my first year in that position, that made me incredibly sad. I had a biracial student; I think either in kindergarten or first grade. We had just had an event, which Trevor (who is African American) attended. I remember sitting with her on the dingy school floor, right outside the library, waiting for her to be picked up. Her eyes were furrowed, like she wanted to say something but didn’t know how.
“That was your husband?”
“Yep” (He wasn’t at the time yet, but saying he was my husband made things easier).
“Yes, he is. He’s also from a country called Kenya.”
“And you’re together?”
And her face was truly trying to understand. I didn’t know her family’s story. She was a light-skinned brown girl with 4a/b curls. I had met both her parents before, but always separately as she lived primarily with her white mom. And then she said something that I will never forget because it broke my heart and I had no idea how to respond.
“I didn’t know you can.”
Now, looking back – and yes, I do look back frequently and over analyze and over scrutinize the conversations that could have gone differently – there were so many other ways I could have responded. Open-ended, clarifying questions for starters. But what came out of my mouth instead was, “Oh…”
I know. I know. I still shake my head thinking about that. There was clearly something bursting out of her, trying to grasp the validity of who she was. It appeared as though she didn’t witness or experience many multi-racial couples and families. It was clear that she was grappling with her own multi-racial identity. Her surprise that I could be with someone from another race than me was incredibly telling.
I remember back-pedaling and saying something like, “There are many different ways to be a family,” but her mom had arrived, and I wasn’t sure if she even heard that last bit.
Sure, there are some ways you can prepare and practice what you want to say to a child about race and racism. But there will be even more times that you will be caught off guard by a comment or two. It will just happen. Do I wish I could have gone back to that dingy school floor and had a re-do? ALL THE FREAKING TIME.
Beyond practicing our talking points. Beyond open ended questions. Beyond all of that, I learned that one of the most important pieces of engaging kids is just sitting with them through it all. Just sitting and listening. Not walking away because you’re annoyed. Not changing the topic so I was no longer uncomfortable. Kids will say kid things, there’s no way to prepare for all the possible scenarios. As adults, we don’t need to know everything or all the answers. That’s okay.
One of the most helpful things we can do is to provide our young people a listening ear and a safe space where they can learn from questionable comments or ask difficult questions.
Big freaking sigh.