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Talking To Kids About Racism Early And Often

South Burlington High School and Milton Middle School have both had rocky conversations about race and inclusion during this school year.
A Burlington group helps adults navigate talking to kids about racism.

There are a few awkward talks that parents in America have with their kids: Don't do dangerous drugs. Be careful with alcohol. And of course, the Sex Talk.
The Peace and Justice Center in Burlington is hoping to add another topic to that list: racism.

At the third of four workshops at the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington, a small group of adults discussed race and racism, and how to broach those topics with kids.

Parents, teachers and other adults made up the group. They were encouraged to bring up scenarios to role-play with other participants. It wasn't always easy or comfortable.

Discussions ranged from what to do when a child uses a racial slur to how to speak with a young girl who wishes her hair was straight and blonde rather than dark and curly.

Rachel Siegel of the Peace and Justice Center was the group's co-facilitator. She says learning to talk about racism is like learning any new skill.

"For those of us, and I include myself, who grew up not talking about racism, trying to do it now is like learning a new language. If I were learning Portuguese, I would assume I'm going to make mistakes. I would assume I would sound stupid and be very self-conscious," said Siegel. "And yet for some reason when people are learning to talk about racism, when all of those same issues come up- of feeling self-conscious and being afraid to make a mistake- we think we shouldn't."

She says these conversations are important regardless of how diverse a community is — or isn't.

Co-facilitator Traci Griffith says that in Vermont — the country's second whitest state — issues around race aren't always in the spotlight.

She emphasizes that racism is not just a personal issue, but a societal one. She adds that it may not be obvious to those who don't experience it.

"I think people in Vermont think it doesn't happen here. The problems aren't quite as obvious to people who are not people of color, because they don't have to deal with it on a daily basis," said Griffith. "The people of color who are coming to our community, or who have been here for a period of years, or who have even grown up here, they've had experiences that show that racism does exist in our community."

The workshop touched on the idea of "white fragility." That references an inability to handle the stress of conversations about race and racism.

Facilitators also pointed out that white individuals and institutions often decide where and when race is discussed. They used the concept of  Black History Month as an example of establishing when it is or isn't the time to talk about race.

But Rachel Siegel says it's important to make racism a regular topic of conversation with kids.

"If I normalize it for my kids, there's hope that they can become fluent," says Siegel. "And they will be much better equipped than I am to actually change the world."

She says her organization will continue training facilitators to bring these kinds of discussion groups to more communities around the state.

Annie Russell was VPR's Deputy News Director. She came to VPR from NPR's Weekends on All Things Considered and WNYC's On The Media. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School.
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