Talking to Kids About Racism With Educator & Activist Emma Redden | Kids VT | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Talking to Kids About Racism With Educator & Activist Emma Redden


Published June 18, 2020 at 3:59 p.m.

The cover of Redden's book - COURTESY OF EMMA REDDEN
  • Courtesy of Emma Redden
  • The cover of Redden's book
Burlington educator and activist Emma Redden believes that speaking with children about race is an act of liberation. Redden is a preschool teacher, most recently in the Old North End of Burlington, and the author of the 2018 self-published book Power Means Who the Police Believe: Talking With Young Children About Race and Racial Violence.

Redden believes that it’s important for parents to begin speaking about race and justice with their children when they are babies. This allows them to “lay a foundation, so concepts around skin color, melanin, ancestry, race, racism and white supremacy culture can build on each other,” she says.

Redden’s work focuses on helping adults learn to talk with young children about race, racial violence and white supremacy culture. Pre-COVID-19, she led workshops for parents, teachers and other educators. She also teaches a graduate level course at Goddard College. Redden spoke with Kids VT to offer tips on how parents can begin these important discussions.
A page from Redden's book - COURTESY OF EMMA REDDEN
  • Courtesy of Emma Redden
  • A page from Redden's book
Kids VT: How do you bring your activism into your work as a preschool educator?

Redden: I see my role in the classroom as an educator and community organizer. The folks I’m organizing with are just small. Much of our curriculum and work in the classroom is centered around practices of non-violence and community, as well as explicit teaching around colonialism, race and racial violence. I am deeply moved by the depth and ease in which 4- and 5-year-olds can engage with the subjects. They are curious, they ask incredible questions and they still have enough access to their human instincts. They can adapt and adjust toward fairness very easily. In my experience, grown-ups often really struggle to do this.

KVT: How do you speak about racial violence with preschoolers?

Redden: I use language I learned from a childrens’ grief counselor Jill Macfarlane. I say things like, ‘The police made a choice to make a man’s body stop working. He used a gun,” or “A man with light tan skin believed a lie that his life was more important and that it was OK for him to hurt peoples’ bodies with brown skin.” I try to tell the whole truth, to use words kids understand and to avoid details. The gruesome particulars of racial violence do not have to be included to get across the root message that a person with light tan skin made a choice to hurt the body of a person with brown skin and this is not fair and not ever OK.

I am deeply thankful for the historical work of Nell Irvin Painter, Michelle Alexander, Beverly Daniel Tatum, Andrea Smith, Ibram X. Kendi, Luke Harris, Larry Mumiya, Chenjerai Kuminyika, Resma Menakem and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, along with so many others brilliant Black and indigenous authors and thinkers, who have written so truthfully about the history of the colonized land, now called The United States of America

KVT: In these challenging times, what are some good starting points to help Vermont parents talk to their children about race?

Redden: I think the work around race varies for different folks depending on how they are targeted by racism. Studies show that families of color talk about race with young children far more than white families. I think white families often believe that race is irrelevant to their white children. We actually know that quite the opposite is true: Whiteness is an enormous determinant of everything from children’s health, to who kids’ friends are, to where they live, where they go to school, how they are treated at school, who they trust and more. So the first step, one that many families of color already have taken long ago, is to acknowledge that children’s race has an enormous impact on all facets of their lives.

Often white families don’t have a foundation laid and then a very public execution happens, like that of George Floyd, and they have no context to talk with their kids about that murder. There is so much history that has led up to a George Floyd’s murder. Therefore, it’s a hard place to start a conversation about race. That being said, if and when that is where many folks find themselves, historical context needs to be offered as part of discussions about the current moment.”

KVT: It seems like there is so much work and repair needed — both locally and nationally around racial inequality and supporting Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities. What can families do?

Redden: I believe families of color know much better than I what they need to do to take care of themselves in this extremely violent world. I do my best to listen and take their leadership. As for white families, I think they should consider what their relationship is to racism and white supremacy. If anything happening in the country is a surprise to any of us, we need to ask ourselves why. If we are not deeply practiced in talking with our white children about racism, we need to ask ourselves why.

As James Baldwin, and Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Sonya Renee Taylor and many other brilliant Black people suggest, I think white folks, myself included, need to think about what has happened to us that we are so hurt, and so disconnected from our own humanity, that we need racism. And I think if we aren’t fighting with every cell in our body to eradicate racism, in some ways, that means we think we need it.

KVT: How does your identity as a white woman affect the work you do?

Redden: My work every day is to try to understand what whiteness expects of me, and then to try to make decisions in direct opposition to that. A huge part of my work with myself is an effort to reclaim my own human decency. As the brilliant Reverend angel Kyodo williams and Lama Rod Owens have helped me understand, it is white folks’ inability to access to our humanity that positions us to cause so much harm to folks we have decided are not white.

I think this culture, based in the myth of white supremacy, taught people I love that having control over yourself, your surroundings and others is more important than the messy, wonderful, vulnerable work of being alive.

KVT: Do you have any book recommendations for young children on race?

Redden: When We Were Alone by David Robertson is an incredible book about an indigenous family and highlights some of the effects of colonialism.

Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness by Anastasia Higginbotham is an important book about racial justice and a police murder.

Something Happened in Our Town by Ann Hazzard, Marianne Celano, and Marietta Collins is written from the perspectives of both a Black family and a white family.

All the Colors We Are: The Story of How We Get Our Skin Color by Katie Kissinger is my favorite book to explain melanin.

The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson is a beautifully written and illustrated book about children experiencing racism and classism at school.

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This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.