By Angel Boose

On June 10,  Restorative Justice Montclair hosted a Community Conversation: Talking to Kids About Race & Racism. The panelist included representatives from Restorative Justice Montclair, district administrators, a licensed therapist and trauma-informed specialist. The diversity of the panelist allowed for varied views and experiences to be shared.

Gayl Shepard, Restorative Justice Coordinator for the Montclair School District was the moderator of the discussion. She began by stating “Appropriate doesn’t always mean comfortable. Sometimes you have to be uncomfortable to grow.” She urged the panelist to be painfully honest in the discussion. She posed the question, “How do we have conversations with children, when adults can barely discuss it?” She shared her first experience with racism and urged each panelist to do the same.

Dr. Michelle Fine shared that there is a responsibility of white parents to talk to their children about race and privilege, in addition to white teachers needing to facilitate the conversation as a preventative measure to racism rather than addressing it reactively. Black parents are all too familiar with at some point having to have “The Talk” with their black children about racism, what to do in the event they are faced with it, how to interact with the police, and the goal being to stay alive. Some parents avoid speaking with their children about race as a protective mechanism but avoiding it can be harmful.

Many people say they don’t see color. The panelist agreed this is harmful. Syreeta Carrington stated “The person may have good intentions, but it is telling someone you don’t see them as a whole person.” Principal Jeff Freeman added “I need people to see color and acknowledge my blackness. Not seeing color is not acknowledging who a person is.”

Being described as articulate by someone white, while meant as a compliment, may be taken as a microaggression. You rarely hear the term used to describe someone white because it is assumed to be a given. There are so many preconceived judgments made around race that are falsities. Children of color often have to defend their own identify because of their speech, style of dress, choice of hair style, or engagement in activities that may be seen as not being traditional to their race. Dr. Sonja Gray shared that it is a self-esteem crusher for someone to want to harm you just for being you. “It makes children hate themselves and they develop a desire to align with what others consider acceptable.”

The administrators on the panel were asked, “How do you speak to students when incidents of racism are reported?” Both agreed you must talk to the students, listen, acknowledge they did a good job coming forward, and assure them they will be supported. It was shared that many students avoid reporting incidents after sharing that no one ever did anything before. Action must be taken when incidents of racism are reported and follow-up with the parents is key. The difficulty is dealing with parents whose personal beliefs and views don’t align with racial equality. Shepard fervently stated, “The response to racism needs to be consistent for children of all races.”

What are some steps we can take as educators in addressing race and racism? Principal Anthony Grosso believes “You have to develop a culture of not accepting it, defending it, and you must speak the truth. You have to be vulnerable and avoid defending.” Candice Pastor stated “This needs to be the next thing we are passionate about teaching our students, and it needs to happen now. Amanda Adams shared that “Not seeing color is not a good strategy because children see color.” When addressing incidents of racism, a good approach is explaining the pain of the experience. It may create an environment that allows the person to listen and let down their guard.  

Like many school districts, Montclair began training educators and stakeholders about addressing racism, using the program “Undoing Racism,” but the training and implementation was not consistent. It was acknowledged this must change. With the implantation of training and necessary conversations things can truly begin to change. There is no better time than now. 

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