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Talking With Kids (And Parents) About Systemic Racism

students raise hands in classroom
Sky Nesher
Hear from Vermont educators about how to talk to kids about race and racism, and how to practice anti-racism in parenting.

Protests erupted across the country over the killing of George Floyd in police custody on Memorial Day. Calls for justice and the overthrowing of systemic racism in the U.S. echoed from Burlingtonto Seattle. In this recorded conversation, Vermont educators offer insight and advice to parents about how to talk with their children about systemic racism and white privilege, and why it's important to do so.

Our guests are:

This is the second post in a series from the episodeof Vermont Edition that originally broadcast live on Wednesday, June 3, 2020 at 1 p.m. You can find the first post, featuring Xusana Davis, Vermont's Executive Director for Racial Equity, here.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can find the full transcript of the show here.

For more conversations from this show, andinformation about systemic racism and ways to combat it, keep an eye out for future stories on Vermont Public Radio’s home page over the next two weeks.

Jane Lindholm: A lot of parents and educators are trying to think about how to talk to kids about racism and anti-racism and what a curriculum might or should look like that addresses both history and current events in the context of race and identity.  Could you talk a little bit about what you're doing on this front? 

Erin Maguire: I think it's certainly important to recognize that schools are microcosms of society. We have an obligation to teach anti-racism just as we need to teach anti-bullying and against other harmful behaviors. Our focus has been around implicit bias and considering stereotyping, and we are just in the beginning stages of this work. We've also focused in on ensuring that all cultures hold equal value and we’re beginning to talk about what that means for the perspectives that we teach through.

Apply to be part of the Vermont Racial Equity Taskforce

If you think about how we teach stories through a Eurocentric or Western-dominant lens, you can imagine how thinking about the colonization of the Americas might be taught very differently, for example, if it was taught through the lens of Native Americans. We’re really beginning to think deeply about the language we use, the conversations we're having. 

"On its head, this work is really about a dismantling. It's not just efforts to reform a system that's been broken, but it's saying that this system at its very foundation was never intended and created for the students that it serves today." -Christie Nold, Social Studies Teacher in South Burlington

Erin Maguire: We're also working to make sure that teachers have the understanding that they need and the training they need to be able to have these conversations. This is something that is sometimes hard for white people to talk about. I'm white and cis gender, I'm able-bodied. I'm privileged. It’s important that I recognize that, sit with that and understand the benefits I receive because of that and how it impacts my conversations and my language as an educator in Vermont related to instructing around anti-racism in our schools. 

More From NPR: What A 1968 Report Tells Us About The Persistence Of Racial Inequality

When you talk about these things with students and other professionals in your field, is there concern about how to address this at school without parents being worried about what their kids are being taught? 

Christie Nold: Absolutely. There is no question that engaging in anti-racist work, especially when engaging in it with integrity, is going to bring up a lot of feelings, especially among white folks. On its head, this work is really about a dismantling. It's not just efforts to reform a system that's been broken, but it's saying that this system at its very foundation was never intended and created for the students that it serves today. And rather than just reform that system, we really need to deconstruct it, dismantle it and think differently about how we center youth. 

And that brings up a lot for folks who are entering this conversation for the first time. I hope that as educators we can create some on-ramps for people without doing what Paul Gorskicalls "pacing for privilege," which is really moving at the rate of the slowest person in the room.

Because we need to be moving with a much faster urgency. Lives are at stake. 

More from VPR: Race, COVID-19 And Health Disparities In Vermont

Christie, you were at the Burlington protests over the weekend with your students. And one of the things you discuss is how your students of color are expressing to you what they feel about school as a safe space — or not a safe space — based on racism. What do they say to you? 

Christie Nold: I feel incredibly privileged to be able to be in conversation with such incredible young people and young leaders.

One misconception is that people think of trauma as though it is always situated at home for young people, and that school is a safe place. For many of our black and brown students, learning from home might actually be a place of love-centered learning that they don't experience on a daily basis in our school. 

"I think it's certainly important to recognize that schools are microcosms of society. We have an obligation to teach anti-racism just as we need to teach anti-bullying and against other harmful behaviors." - Erin Maguire, Director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at Essex Westford School District

Christie Nold: Yesterday, I had the incredible privilege to sit down with one of my students and her mom. And one of the things that I heard this student say was, "I need white people to be speaking about this. I need them to be surrogates for my words because it's heard differently."

The fact that an eighth-grade student has such deep understanding of critical race theory and analysis to be able to say, "I need white folks to speak up and to bring voice to this conversation," and the fact that my saying it is going to land different than this student, who has the lived and embodied experience of it, is something that I reckon with all of the time. 

More from VPR: Teenagers of Color Lead The Way At Protest Rallies

Erin, you've also been working to try to get the legislature to pass an update to the Ethnic and Social Equity studies standards for schools, right? 

Erin Maguire: Yes. That is work that's happened across the state, from many people, and I am really supportive of that, and grateful and appreciative for the legislature's call to examine racism and social justice, both educationally as well as some of the work that the governor's office has done to call out the need in Vermont. 

What are some concrete strategies for centering racial equity in our schools and things our listeners can do?  

Erin Maguire: For parents, it’s never too early to talk with children about race. Even babies should be looking at different faces that don't necessarily match the race of their caregivers. Children as young as five are able to have expressions of racial prejudice, and it's important for parents to have ways of explaining that and understanding it, and speaking out against it.

For schools, it’s important to have training for educators. All school districts across our state should develop a comprehensive list of concrete materials and trainings for our educators and as well as for our parents. I think the comments about providing support to white parents who may not know how to talk to their children about race is a really important piece. 

And I also think that providing space for people to know each other in their differences is very important. We want to make sure that our people who have been marginalized, whether we're talking about race or disability, have a space to be heard and listened to and believed within the context of the work of education. 

More from NPR: Beyond Protest: 5 More Ways To Channel Anger Into Action

Christie Nold: Some books that can help in thinking about white emotionality are White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and White Rage by Carol Anderson.

There's also an amazing scholar, Kelly Wickham Hurst, who wrote at the beginning of COVID-19 about how many black students are actually thriving right now because they are out of the site of trauma that can be our schools.

More from NPR: This List Of Books, Films And Podcasts About Racism Is A Start, Not A Panacea

Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.
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