“You can always count on Cat to lace up to march for civil rights or hunker down for a marathon of bad reality TV. She’s very timely, which sounds like a weird adjective, but hear me out. In an era of a global pandemic, she’s a COVID long hauler. In an era of a reckoning with longstanding injustices, she’s the outspoken granddaughter (whose views might come as a surprise) of a Conservative icon. In an era when kids are wondering WTF is going on, she’s a progressive educator with some answers. We have a group text where we discuss, scream, cry and strategize about everything swirling around right now, and I’m thrilled to elaborate on some of those convos here.” – Michaela
As you know, because our group text is basically 24/7 these days, I’ve been digging into a lot of James Baldwin lately and one thing I just listened to was his legendary debate with the Conservative icon, William F. Buckley, who also happens to be your late grandfather. The debate, “The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro,” is still as relevant in many ways today as it was in 1965.
You know how to eloquently and effectively argue a point and persuade, just like your grandfather. Yet, your views could not be more different. I think a lot of non-Black people right now might not know where to start when it comes to having the difficult conversations that need to be had with their own families and inner circles about the Black Lives Matter movement, and injustices in general in this country. I’m picturing you, knowing where you stand, sitting down with your grandfather. What advice do you have for others on where to start a similar conversation in a similar context?
It’s a great question! I’ll preface this with saying that I loved my grandfather deeply and I’m so proud to be his granddaughter. He was a brilliant mind, God-fearing Catholic, sailor, multisyllabic speaker, and mentor to many. However, do I personally believe the American Dream is at the expense of the American negro? Absolutely. It’s a fact.
It’s important to keep in mind that way and rate at which we digest the news cycle and happenings has objectively changed. Cellphone cameras are now one of the most powerful weapons against injustice. Most people know more about the reality of what it is to be Black in this country than they did in 1965. Of course, some people deliberately had their heads in the sand ignoring injustice and continue to do so. With a hand on a Bible I swear that my grandfather would be disgusted by what happened to George Floyd. Would he be out with the Black Lives Matter protesters? Probably not, but like so many Americans who are critical of what happened to George Floyd (and many others) but still think the status quo is mostly fine, those are the people we need to be having the conversation with.
The brilliant Ijeoma Oluo—the author of So You Want to Talk About Race—did a great talk on NPR predicated on how to talk about racism with your parents, but really I think it applies to anybody. She advises, “I think it’s really important to start first from a place of your own ignorance that you once had. A lot of times when we start conversations about justice and social justice with people who may not believe that these issues are important or understand why there’s so much urgency around them. We forget that at one point we didn’t think there was urgency either.”
Racism doesn’t always present itself as a MAGA-hat wearing, confederate flag waving, gun-toting thug or an Amy Cooper in the park. As Oluo says, racism is a practice not restricted to “bad” people. It is a continuum, and for white people, acknowledging our internalized biases that we are guilty is the place to start. To be an ally to BIPOC we must do the self-work and avoid the calcification of conversation with others that can come from a confrontational “I’m right, you’re wrong” standpoint.
I truly wish my grandfather was alive so I could have these conversations. One misconception I believe people may have about him is that he wasn’t knee-jerk. That is, about anything other than Mother Church and her tenets which were not up for debate. I think we would have had some meaningful conversations about racism in this country, and how I personally have arrived to the point where I am and where I hope he could get. That said, I’m glad he hasn’t had to witness Donald Trump in action.
You’re an early childhood educator. We both graduated from the same program, so I know that you’re skilled in a very particular approach to educating the whole child using a progressive, “one size doesn’t fit all” approach. That being said, and speaking of conversations, there are tough ones that need to be had with children right now, too. How do you unpack these things–from protests to why the heck are we out of school for so long and why are we wearing masks–with somebody who is working from a different mindset and with a different set of tools than an adult?
One thing that I see adults consistently do is underestimate what young children absorb. Protecting your child and completely shielding them from the world is a fine line, but there is a way to bring them into the conversation which empowers, not traumatizes them. In fact, the more they are kept in kept in the dark, the more they worry. Luckily in these uncertain times there are so many resources and experts to lean on to help scaffold these parent-child or teacher-child conversations.
A fellow teacher brought this excellent breakdown from the Child Mind Institute with suggestions for how to speak to children about the virus. I highly recommend watching the full video and reading the companion article, I’ve used these tactics in my own practice. As Zoom school started we calmly but frankly reminded our four-and-five-year old students that right now a lot of people are getting sick from something called the coronavirus. It’s safer for us to do school on Zoom right now but we will all be together again. I also reminded them of the Mr. Rogers quote: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Antiracism work should start from the get-go. Research suggestions that young children are capable of noticing race as early as three months (Sangrigoli & De Schoners, 2004). By 2.5 years they are becoming aware of their ethnic and gender identities (Quintana & Vera, 1999). Between 3.5 and 5.5 years, ethnicity and race are a prominent component of a child’s sense of self, and are capable of both cross-racial relationships and color-based exclusion (Park, 2011). With this in mind, all caregivers and teachers should actively combat ingrained colorism from babyhood.
I’m a children’s literature junkie. I believe books are one of the most powerful tools to instill values but also help children add meaning to their surroundings. I encourage all parents with an infant baby to buy Ibram X. Kendi’s board book, Antiracist Baby. Children should also be consistently exposed to stories from infancy where the protagonist is a different color or ethnicity. Not all princesses are white and blonde, thank you very much. (They also don’t need a prince to be happy, but that’s a diatribe for another day.) If any of your readers want a personally curated list of suggested antiracist reading by age I’m happy to pass that along. The school I most recently worked with follows the Pollyanna racial literacy curriculum which I also highly recommend for all classroom settings.
I generally work with very young children, and a theme which we talk about a lot is being an upstander. You can approach these protests through the prism of what’s fair and not fair. Is it fair that people are treated differently based on their skin color? A lot of upstanders are going outside to stand up for fairness. Even as grownups, doesn’t it really all boil down to that premise anyways?
We’re going to continue this conversation with Cat later this week, so stay tuned. In the meantime, for “homework,” you can catch up with her on Instagram and check out this incredible article she just wrote about her ongoing battle with COVID-19. And how about these reading resources she provided?!