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June 22, 2015 1

What Should We Tell Our Children About Charleston?

Credit: Stephen Melkisethian / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Credit: Stephen Melkisethian / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As we grieve, protest and fur­ther inves­ti­gate the hor­rific mur­der of nine African Amer­i­can parish­ioners at the his­toric Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, many peo­ple are ask­ing: What should we tell the children?

Par­ents, fam­ily mem­bers and oth­ers are some­times uneasy about dis­cussing issues of vio­lence and injus­tice with chil­dren because they want to pro­tect them from ter­ri­ble and scary top­ics. How­ever, it is impor­tant that chil­dren have a lan­guage for dis­cussing the unfair­ness and injus­tice they see in the world and that as adults, we model that these con­ver­sa­tions are ones we are will­ing to engage in as we assure them that we are work­ing to coun­ter­act injustice.

Except for very young chil­dren, it is impor­tant to raise the issue with chil­dren. It is likely that with online access and the 24/7 hour news cycle, many young peo­ple have already heard about it and may be look­ing for an oppor­tu­nity to learn more. In talk­ing with chil­dren about emo­tion­ally chal­leng­ing top­ics, remem­ber to:

  • Give them the time and space to express their feel­ings (what­ever those feel­ings are) and actively lis­ten with empa­thy and compassion.
  • Find out what they already know, clar­ify any mis­in­for­ma­tion they have and answer their ques­tions. If you don’t know the answer, be hon­est about that and find out the answer together.
  • In an age-appropriate way and using lan­guage they can under­stand, share your own thoughts, feel­ings and spe­cific val­ues about the topic.
  • Give youth infor­ma­tion about what is being done to make things safe and what actions are tak­ing place to coun­ter­act the injustice.

Here are spe­cific talk­ing points you may want to cover with young people:

Words and sym­bols matter

We have heard that the alleged shooter, Dylann Storm Roof, told racist jokes and spewed biased ide­ol­ogy. A con­tem­po­rary of Roof’s said “He made a lot of racist jokes, but you don’t really take them seri­ously like that.” Hate has the poten­tial to esca­late and the Pyra­mid of Hate illus­trates how biased behav­iors and attitudes—when left unchallenged—can lead to more seri­ous acts of dis­crim­i­na­tion and bias-motivated vio­lence such as the one per­pe­trated in Charleston. If those atti­tudes, beliefs and behav­iors were ques­tioned and addressed, per­haps there would have been dif­fer­ent out­comes and those nine lives would not have been taken.

Sym­bols are forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that con­vey impor­tant mes­sages to chil­dren about what we value, what is impor­tant and what kind of soci­ety we want to cre­ate. Hate sym­bols, espe­cially when dis­sem­i­nated and per­va­sive, com­mu­ni­cate that hate and bias are accept­able. Roof had patches on his jacket of flags of regimes in South African and Rhode­sia that enforced the vio­lent white minor­ity rule. He was also seen in sev­eral pho­tos with a Con­fed­er­ate flag, which has come to sym­bol­ize racial hatred and big­otry. Iron­i­cally, the flag is still dis­played in South Carolina’s state­house grounds in Colum­bia and activists and elected offi­cials have been press­ing for its removal for years.

Racism is sys­temic and can be overcome

While Roof was not a for­mal mem­ber of a white suprema­cist orga­ni­za­tion, he espoused white supremacy ide­ol­ogy that is preva­lent, online and world­wide. In address­ing this topic with young peo­ple, we need to give them hope and inspi­ra­tion by show­ing them that we have come a long way on issues of race and other social jus­tice issues by push­ing for leg­is­la­tion, edu­cat­ing peo­ple and tak­ing action. At the same time, it is also impor­tant that we con­nect the dots so that young peo­ple under­stand that issues such as school seg­re­ga­tion, racial dis­par­i­ties in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem and vot­ing rights are not indi­vid­ual acts but are part of a larger sys­tem and that if soci­etal change is going to take place, the solu­tions also need to be systemic.

Activism makes a difference

Since the mur­ders last week, there have been protests across the coun­try and in Charleston and Colum­bia, SC specif­i­cally call­ing pub­lic offi­cials to take down the Con­fed­er­ate flag as a first step. On Sun­day, in a mov­ing demon­stra­tion of empa­thy and con­nec­tion, church bells across Charleston tolled for nine min­utes to sym­bol­ize the nine vic­tims. We know that our nation has a long his­tory of activism that has brought about sig­nif­i­cant social change–from mar­riage equal­ity to immi­gra­tion reform and the recent “Black Lives Mat­ter” move­ment. One of the most impor­tant prin­ci­ples we can con­vey to our chil­dren is that their voices and actions make a dif­fer­ence and will help to build a bet­ter world.

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June 19, 2015 0

The Rachel Dolezal Teachable Moment

Abstract Colorful Group Of People Or Workers Or Employees - ConcRachel Dolezal, Pres­i­dent of the Spokane, Wash­ing­ton chap­ter of the NAACP  (National Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Col­ored Peo­ple), made head­lines and became the top trend­ing item on Twit­ter last week when it was dis­cov­ered that she had been pos­ing as Black for many years. In her inter­view on the Today Show, she con­tin­ued to assert: “I iden­tify as Black.” These events have sparked strong emotions—anger, con­fu­sion, sym­pa­thy, shock, curiosity—and have fueled a lively pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion about Black­ness, iden­tity, cul­tural appro­pri­a­tion and what it means to be an ally.  All of these con­cepts are ones we address in anti-bias edu­ca­tion work.

Iden­tity is an extremely impor­tant con­cept for peo­ple to under­stand and grap­ple with, start­ing at a young age. Know­ing who you are, what groups you belong to (race, gen­der and gen­der iden­tity, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, reli­gion, etc.), your his­tory and how your fam­ily makes mean­ing of the mul­ti­fac­eted nature of your iden­tity are crit­i­cal for self-esteem devel­op­ment. When we know who we are, we can build bridges with oth­ers with whom we are both sim­i­lar and dif­fer­ent.  The con­cept of race is largely under­stood as socially con­structed rather than solely based on genet­ics and biol­ogy. The racial group to which one belongs is a com­plex set of fac­tors includ­ing phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics, fam­ily lin­eage and ethnic/cultural upbring­ing. Rachel Dolezal did not grow up Black even though she claims to be Black.

The term cul­tural appro­pri­a­tion has been raised quite a bit in this con­ver­sa­tion. Some peo­ple say that Rachel Dolezal is appro­pri­at­ing Black cul­ture because of her hair style, com­plex­ion, life choices and insis­tence that she’s Black. Cul­tural appro­pri­a­tion is when peo­ple use spe­cific ele­ments of a cul­ture (e.g. ideas, sym­bols, styles) with­out regard for the impact to that cul­ture and it usu­ally hap­pens when a per­son or group exploits the cul­ture of another group, often with lit­tle under­stand­ing of the group’s his­tory, expe­ri­ence and cul­tural norms. Accord­ing to Maisha John­son, it is prob­lem­atic for a vari­ety of rea­sons includ­ing triv­i­al­iz­ing his­tor­i­cal racial oppres­sion, per­pet­u­at­ing stereo­types and let­ting priv­i­leged groups ben­e­fit or profit by using other people’s cul­ture. Is Rachel Dolezal appro­pri­at­ing Black cul­ture or is some­thing else operating?

Based on her pro­fes­sional inter­ests and choices, it seems clear that Rachel Dolezal has a pas­sion for social jus­tice and could have been an ally as a white woman.  There have been exam­ples through­out his­tory of peo­ple out­side a par­tic­u­lar iden­tity group being allies to oth­ers. Count­less white peo­ple have been allies to African Amer­i­cans in the civil rights strug­gles of the 1960’s and today–some even died for the cause.  Dur­ing the Holo­caust, non-Jews helped Jews escape at tremen­dous risk to them­selves. GLSEN spon­sors Ally Week in which straight allies make com­mit­ments to equal­ity for LGBTQ peo­ple.  For more than 10 years, ADL has edu­cated youth and adults across the coun­try to become bet­ter allies and still more works to be done. We need to teach our chil­dren that it is an impor­tant to be an ally, no mat­ter who you are.

What can we learn from this dia­logue and how can we turn it into a teach­able moment for young peo­ple?  Here are some suggestions:

  • Edu­cate youth to explore who they are cul­tur­ally and racially and in all of their com­plex­ity, affirm­ing their iden­tity through books, cur­ricu­lum and all that we expose them to.
  • Point out when you see cul­tural appro­pri­a­tion and high­light why it’s wrong; at the same time. pro­vide young peo­ple with real cul­tural expe­ri­ences with peo­ple from dif­fer­ent groups.
  • Pro­vide exam­ples for and encour­age young peo­ple to use respect­ful ally behav­ior and chal­lenge ally behav­ior that crosses the line into dis­re­spect­ful or unhelpful.
  • Show youth that the world would not have changed with­out allies and that being an ally is a skill devel­oped through prac­tice and hard work.


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June 15, 2015 2

Swimming Pools and Segregation: A Long History

Universal Pops / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 Public swimming pool in Raleigh, NC closed by the city after four black males went swimming with two white companions in 1962; this demonstration was part of the Civil Rights Movement.

Uni­ver­sal Pops / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
Pub­lic swim­ming pool in Raleigh, NC closed by the city after four black males went swim­ming with two white com­pan­ions in 1962; this demon­stra­tion was part of the Civil Rights Move­ment efforts.

The lat­est police inci­dent caught on video cap­tures a police offi­cer out­side a com­mu­nity pool who appears to be wav­ing his gun at young par­ty­go­ers who approached him as he tried to sub­due and even­tu­ally hold down a teenage girl. She was wear­ing a bikini because she was at a pool party.

The party was held at the com­mu­nity pool in the Craig Ranch North sub­di­vi­sion, which is pre­dom­i­nately white although McK­in­ney, Texas is racially diverse. A group of African Amer­i­can teens heard about the party on social media. Not long after they arrived, allegedly a nearby white res­i­dent, began to harass the teenagers and one woman told them to “go back to Sec­tion 8 hous­ing.” In a state­ment, the Police Depart­ment said offi­cers arrived at the pool respond­ing to a call about a “dis­tur­bance involv­ing mul­ti­ple juve­niles at the loca­tion, who do not live in the area or have per­mis­sion to be there, refus­ing to leave.” Sev­eral adults at the pool report­edly placed calls to the police.

After the inci­dent, Eric Case­bolt, the police offi­cer, was placed on admin­is­tra­tive leave and resigned a few days later. The video and story went viral. The sig­nif­i­cance and sym­bol­ism of it not only res­onated because of the larger con­text of polic­ing and race rela­tions, but also because it revolved around a pool and Black and white peo­ple swim­ming together in that pool. It is a teach­able moment.

Pub­lic swim­ming, race and seg­re­ga­tion have a long and dif­fi­cult his­tory in this coun­try, dat­ing back to the early 20th cen­tury. Between 1920 and 1940, swim­ming as a pas­time became increas­ingly pop­u­lar and the num­ber of pub­lic pools being built sky­rock­eted. By the 1960s, Amer­i­can use of pub­lic swim­ming pools declined dra­mat­i­cally. Accord­ing to Jeff Wiltse, author of Con­tested Waters: A Social His­tory of Swim­ming Pools in Amer­ica, this decline was the direct result of deseg­re­ga­tion.  Although some white peo­ple were com­fort­able with the deseg­re­ga­tion of cer­tain pub­lic domains, it seemed the major­ity of them—both from the North and South—shared the belief that swim­ming pools should be exempt from racial integration.

Swim­ming pools are unique in that they do not just require swim­mers to share a space—rather, swim­mers must share an inti­mate space. In addi­tion to con­cerns of “con­t­a­m­i­na­tion,” whites had a deep and wide­spread fear of inter­ra­cial romance and dat­ing. Despite laws against seg­re­ga­tion, African Amer­i­cans were often met with angry and some­times vio­lent crowds of white peo­ple when try­ing to use a pub­lic pool. Although these crowds had some ini­tial suc­cess in deter­ring blacks from swim­ming, even­tu­ally inte­gra­tion laws were more strictly enforced and whites had to go else­where if they wanted to avoid swim­ming with African Amer­i­cans. With this dra­matic decrease in swim­mers, many pub­lic pools closed and white Amer­i­cans joined pri­vate pool clubs where the gov­ern­ment did not yet enforce inte­gra­tion. How­ever, even in 1973, when a court order man­dated an end to racial exclu­sion at pri­vate clubs, white Amer­i­cans con­tin­ued to avoid swim­ming with blacks by build­ing and solely using res­i­den­tial swim­ming pools.

Even though the United States has com­pre­hen­sive civil rights leg­is­la­tion which deems seg­re­ga­tion ille­gal, overt and implicit bias con­tin­ues to make its way into our schools, vot­ing places, res­i­dences and other pub­lic and pri­vate spaces.  Laws are crit­i­cal but they are not enough to fun­da­men­tally impact the hearts and minds of our citizens.

For edu­ca­tors, fam­i­lies and oth­ers who inter­act with chil­dren and youth, you can:

  • Talk with young peo­ple about the his­tory of racism, seg­re­ga­tion and the strug­gle for equal rights, using the Civil Rights Move­ment as an exam­ple of how activism can bring about change through leg­isla­tive means.  Talk with them about the civil rights issues today and what can be done to reverse those injustices.
  • Teach and talk about the ways that implicit bias con­tin­ues to per­me­ate our insti­tu­tions, seg­re­gat­ing peo­ple along racial lines and cre­at­ing advan­tages for some and dis­crim­i­na­tion for oth­ers through polic­ing and the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, our schools, vot­ing rights and more.
  • Find real oppor­tu­ni­ties for young peo­ple of dif­fer­ent racial and eth­nic groups to work, study and play together.  Research shows that when peo­ple of dif­fer­ent racial/ethnic groups inter­act with each other reg­u­larly, stereo­typ­ing and prej­u­dice are dimin­ished. Sim­i­larly, expos­ing stu­dents to accu­rate infor­ma­tion about other groups allows them to learn about sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences and they are less likely to take on biased atti­tudes and beliefs. There­fore, it is impor­tant to include dif­fer­ent peo­ple and per­spec­tives in your class­room cur­ricu­lum and expose chil­dren and teens to dif­fer­ent kinds of peo­ple through books and other media.

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