How to Talk to Kids about Antibias and Antiracist Practices

This podcast episode provides important lessons antibias and antiracist practices as well as how to address some uncomfortable conversations with kids, in the moment, when biased things are said.

Guest Expert: Liz Kleinrock

Most parents and educators who are listening to this podcast want to develop a culture in their homes or at school where kids are kind, accepted, allowed to ask questions and support one another whether so that everyone gets what they need to thrive. This necessitates some pretty uncomfortable conversations about bias, stereotypes, racism, ableism, gender and more. How can we help our children embrace antibias and antiracist practices that move beyond the antiquated views such as “I don’t see color” or “gender doesn’t matter” to a more advanced understanding of how these social constructs impact and define our peers and those we don’t know? How can we help our children realize what is equal and what is fair and how the difference effects ourselves and others? For all of this and more, we turn to Liz Kleinrock.

Bio

Liz Kleinrock (she/her) is a Korean-American, queer, Jewish, antibias and antiracist educator of both children and adults, and creates curriculum for K-12 students, specializing in designing inquiry based units of study. In addition to her work as a classroom teacher, Liz also works with schools and companies to facilitate learning for adults that supports antibias and antiracist practices. In 2018, Liz received the Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching, and in 2019 delivered her TED Talk, “How to teach kids to talk about taboo topics.” In the spring of 2021, Liz released her first book, Start Here, Start Now: A Guide to Antibias and Antiracist Work in Your School Community with Heinemann Publishing, and is excited to announce the publication of four upcoming children’s books with HarperCollins. She currently teaches and resides in Washington DC with her partner and two bunnies.

Important Messages:

  • What pushed you in the direction of anti-bias/anti-racist work? “I identify as Korean, Korean, American, Asian American, Jewish, bisexual and throughout my K-12 schooling experience, I don’t really recall ever learning about anyone who looked like me. I don’t recall learning a lot about my history really, aside from like the Holocaust. And a lot of that education I had to do on my own. And at the same time, I do recall a lot of very ignorant, very biased comments and questions from my peers also from teachers at my mother reminded me recently that one time in high school and I was on the volleyball team, the coach asked who was gonna be out for high holy days Jewish students on the team responded. The coach didn’t believe me. I’ve always been grateful and feeling that every time I’m working with young people or in a school, I’m, I’m trying to do something about the problems that we’re facing.
  • For listeners who are neurotypical, cis-gender, white, able-bodied- maybe they feel “this doesn’t impact me” or “I don’t have firsthand experience with bias so I don’t know how to respond.” What do they need to know? “The demographics of our communities are changing constantly. And ultimately we really want to be thinking about how can we set our, our children up for success regardless of their identity? How can we make sure that everyone feels respected, feels included that we are building future spaces, where people with identities that have been marginalized are not treated as an afterthought. How can we create environments where everyone knows they’ve been thought of ahead of time?”
  • Allyship: “And so even if you feel like this work doesn’t apply to you, we know that allyship, we know that solidarity across identities is such a crucial part of this work. And if you feel like you hold, you know, certain aspects of your identity, where you have a lot of privilege, then I ask you to spend that privilege.” How do you spend your privilege?
  • Like once you realize that you have it, it, I think it’s fairly well, it’s kind of like a waste of time and energy to just sit around feeling, you know, guilty or ashamed. Because I don’t think a lot of folks are really asking you to feel that way. But once you acknowledge this part about yourself, what can you then do with it? What can you do within your own community to educate people about issues that others are facing? What does it mean to elevate and amplify, the voices and actions of people who have been trying to create more equitable and inclusive communities for all of us? There are so many different ways to be involved.
  • And I would add also I had interviewed Abby Goldberg. Who’s a professor at Clark university and does incredible work on gender and adoption and, and longitudinal studies that are just act really amazing. And she also said that we don’t know how our kids are going to grow up. And so yes, we’re trying to help the world and help others, but also know that your child may grow up and say ‘I’m gay’ or your child may grow up and have a partner who is of a different race. They could adopt, like I did, we don’t know what’s going to happen later on in life with your own child. So, it may become personal. Isn’t that correct?
  • There’s no way to predict because you know, there are parts of our identities that might be more fixed than others, but we are in a constant state of evolution. And I think the really amazing thing about this, this work about the way that language is evolving is that children now have so many more options when they think about how they identify. I think a lot about my trans and non-binary friends and colleagues that they knew, something was different about them for such a long time, but just didn’t have the language to really put their finger on it. And it can be so incredibly empowering when you teach your children language around lots of different identities. So they actually feel more included. They know that there’s a community out there.
  • Anti-bias/Anti-racist: We are acting on hierarchies. It’s about lots of different hierarchies that we create in our minds that we might put certain weight on certain people or communities or groups or even ideas that some are, you know, somehow like better or worse than others. And what happens is most often we act on them. And so with an antibias work, some of the most challenging parts are the very beginning where you actually have to sit or reflect, or maybe you’re in a situation where you realize that you have been harboring a certain kind of bias and very naturally they’re going to be some shameful or defensive feelings and it come up in you because I think we all want to assume we’re good people.
  • Doing the work: “Nobody ever wants to think that they’re a problematic human. But I also believe that we have to understand what the problem is before we can try to repair it. And that’s when the work really begins.”
  • And most importantly with anti-bias and anti-racist act activism with education, it really has to be rooted in action. So what are you doing with this knowledge? Like, are you just holding it for yourself? Like, what does that next step look like for you?
  • For the parent or educator or coach that’s listening in, who wants to get started talking to kids about bias and racism anti-bias and anti-racism where do they start? What would be the first conversations that they should be having after this podcast and after they reflect on the things you just mentioned? Start with yourself! Did I feel seen valued, loved, and affirmed for who I was growing up? Do I feel that way now? Reading books about different issues, listening to podcasts like this, really trying to build their knowledge base first before jumping in. And I really do think being able to listen to those who have historically been marginalized is gonna be one of the greatest gifts and teaching tools that you can receive.
  • How do you think you’d react in real-life situations? Like if somebody says or does something that is harmful or problematic or biased in front of me, how do I respond? How do I react? Cause I do think that, when things arise and we, we engage in those like fight or flight responses, we usually end up spending, the next night or two mulling over. What did I say? What did I not say? What do I wish I had done differently? And to think about how you can actually show up for people in the moment in as silly as it sounds sometimes like role playing, looking at different scenarios, like practicing what you might say in your head can be really, really helpful.
  • An elementary school girl named Abby in your book: She said, “maybe white people don’t like black people because they think their skin is the color of poop.” And you responded to that. And actually I thought in a, a beautiful way. But you said, after you were thinking about it and mulling it over in bed and kind of were like, wait a second, I would respond differently now. And, and I was wondering, how would you respond to that?
  • BOUNDARIES: They need to understand boundaries. They need to understand dehumanizing language. But with just a knee jerk reaction, it means that there is no room for dialogue. There’s no room for questioning. There’s no room for reflecting or learning or unlearning.
  • NOT YELLING. If I just yell at this kid…the first memory she’s going to have about talking about race or racism… then she’s probably going to revert back to this emotional state and think, well, the last time I said something or asked a question, this is what happened. So I’m out, I’m not gonna do this anymore. And we really don’t want that to happen.
  • MODELING: There is also modeling that needs to happen for everyone else. Who’s witnessing it. They need to understand what it looks like to have a conversation where you can correct and call somebody in where you can ask questions in a way that you know is authentic.
  • NOT ONE AND DONE CONVERSATION: Abby was also a student of color who was not black. And so thinking about how other kids of color, especially those with darker skin in my class might have felt. Need to have check-in conversations with other students and follow up conversations with parents and caregivers. There was a lot of moving parts. And I think for at least educators knowing that it’s not just a one and done conversation, but there are a lot of different parties that you do need to check in with and make sure that they are cared for.
  • Make sure the people are centered in that conversation, but at the same time, according to your book, you don’t want to be tokenizing a particular person or making an example of somebody like choosing somebody from your classroom. Need to have one on one conversations, asking kids like, ‘Hey, would you like to check in sometimes, you know, grabbing them for a minute before they head out to like recess or lunch?’ To parents: ‘Hey, like, this is something that came up in class today. Feel free to ask your child about it. Please let me know if they share anything at home that you think I need to address with them individually or as a whole group.’ And all the parents were really appreciative of just having that check in too. Cause I think for a lot of teachers, it’s a, let’s just sweep this under the rug and like, let’s pretend that nothing happened. Like no one mentioned this.
  • This kind of biased/racist moment—remember– it becomes a wonderful teachable for 95% of the class. And it becomes a, a moment of trauma for the other 5%. Like that’s not a win.
  • PARENTS: How can parents then integrate conversations of antibias and anti-racist work into their every day at home? MOVIES: If they really like movies, you can be really intentional and selective about what types of content and like how who’s being portrayed. How are these people being portrayed? BOOKS: Some of the easiest ways to start those conversations with kids. Because even if you know, the characters in the story do not match the identities of anyone in your family, there are often underlying themes that connect to, to everybody. SPORTS: What kinds of sports teams? Diverse? Different parts of neighborhood? MUSEUMS: If especially if you live in a more homogenous neighborhood, are you going to museums? Are you talking about history? You know, there are lots of different ways to integrate those types of family experiences, not just things that you’re hoping you’re, you’re not just signing your kids up to go out and do these things on your own, but how you can create these, you know, communal learning moments for everybody and your family together.
  • Join the groups that are doing the work. People are already doing the work. BE WATCHFUL OF YOUR ACTIONS: A lot of white folks who might live in more like financially affluent areas, when a lot of white people learn about certain issues for the first time they jump into like white savior mode. Yes. Like, oh, I need to help. I need to save I have all the solutions. But you don’t live in the community that’s hurting. LISTEN. DECENTER YOURSELF.
  • So step one, decentering yourself there. You’re not here to save anybody. Going back to the language around like amplification and elevating asking people how you can help rather than making the assumption of how people want to be helped. Would you still be doing this if you couldn’t tell anyone about it? if you could not post pictures of yourself or tell everyone what you’re doing on, on Facebook or on Instagram, would you still do it?
  • There was a really beautiful quote from Jose Andres, when he’s being interviewed about world central kitchen. And he says that too many people believe that charity should be about the redemption of the giver when charity should really be about the liberation of the receiver. And I think that is such a beautiful way to think about philanthropy around humanitarian work. And I really try to keep that centered in what I do.
  • Many of us do have like these very, you know, deep rooted, emotional relationships with people in our family, our reactions might come out far more, you know, emotionally charged than others—if they say biased or racist things. Best advice: Take a breath. Have a one-on-one. No one likes being called out and feeling shamed and you know, cuz it’s your family, you’re probably gonna see them at the next holiday and the one after that. And if you are able to find a common ground, that’s amazing, perhaps they’ve just never thought or asked like how using certain language might make you feel.
  • Thinking stem: “I used to think, but then I learned and now I know.”
  • When adults thing kids aren’t talking about LGBTQ: Kids are going be talking about it regardless because kids talk about all the exact same things that adults talk about. I think the ignorance of adults is assuming that, you know, kids are only interested in talking about video games and like TikTok and you know, that’s really not the case. Because kids are exposed to all of the things that adults are exposed to, especially with social media and the way technology has advanced. I think that when kids say certain things to me, like if a child came up to me and said like, you know, being gay is a sin, the first thing I would ask them is like, where’d you hear that? Who said that? Right? Do you think that too?
  • And then if it’s in a classroom setting, I would say, no, “there are actually a lot of people in our school and our classroom community who identify as gay and so we know that our classroom environment needs to be a place where people feel safe and secure and welcomed. And you know, your parents might say that at home, but we don’t use language like that here.”
  • TOP TIP: There’s no one size fits all. Every family is different. So the needs of your family members are gonna be different. Even if you have, you know, best friends in this, if you live next door to people, it’s gonna look different. The same thing, because I’m trying to be responsive to my students in front of me. I might have a partner teacher who shares a wall with me and our work is gonna look different because the people in front of us are different. That it’s really important to know that we are on this lifelong journey of learning and unlearning. We don’t get to a point where we say, cool, I’m done. I checked all the boxes, like give me my certificate of being anti-racist it, it doesn’t work like that. And that, you know, I have often, you know, gone back and forth about how I feel about the term expert in the way people use it.
  • Books/Lessons. Change the language around racism and discrimination. There is often like oversimplified language that will tell, especially young people, you know, racism exists because, you know, black and brown people have darker skin or, you know, they were treated poorly because of the color of their skin when we have to think about who’s bearing responsibility and the language we use. So I would ask that instead of that language, you would say, you know, black and brown people are treated unfairly because of racism because of white supremacy. It is not the color of the skin. That is the issue. It is the white supremacy. That is the issue
  • Remember to also talk about the contributions of people of color—not just racism and slavery.

Notable Quotables:

  • “The demographics of our communities are changing constantly. We really want to be thinking about how can we set our children up for success regardless of their identity. How can we make sure that everyone feels respected, feels included, that we are building future spaces, where people with identities that have been marginalized are not treated as an afterthought. How can we create environments where everyone knows they’ve been thought of ahead of time?”
  • “Even if you feel like this work doesn’t apply to you, we know that allyship and solidarity across identities is such a crucial part of this work.”
  • “In certain aspects of your identity, where you have a lot of privilege, I ask you to spend that privilege.”
  • “What does it mean to elevate and amplify, the voices and actions of people who have been trying to create more equitable and inclusive communities for all of us? There are so many different ways to be involved.”
  • “For my trans and non-binary friends and colleagues– they knew something was different about them for such a long time, but just didn’t have the language to really put their finger on it. And it can be so incredibly empowering when you teach your children language around lots of different identities. So that they actually feel more included. They know that there’s a community out there.”
  • “We are acting on hierarchies. We create in our minds and might put certain weight on certain people or communities or groups or even ideas that some are ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than others. And what happens is most often we act on them. And so with an antibias work, some of the most challenging parts are the very beginning where you actually have to sit or reflect, or maybe you’re in a situation where you realize that you have been harboring a certain kind of bias and very naturally they’re going to be some shameful or defensive feelings that come up in you because I think we all want to assume we’re good people.”
  • “Nobody ever wants to think that they’re a problematic human. But I also believe that we have to understand what the problem is before we can try to repair it. And that’s when the work really begins.”
  • “Most importantly, anti-bias and anti-racist activism has to be rooted in action. So what are you doing with this knowledge? Are you just holding it for yourself? What does that next step look like for you?”
  • For the parent or educator or coach that’s listening in, who wants to get started talking to kids about bias and racism anti-bias and anti-racism where do they start? What would be the first conversations that they should be having after this podcast and after they reflect on the things you just mentioned? Start with yourself!
  • “Read books about different issues, listen to podcasts like this, really try to build your knowledge base first before jumping in. Listening to those who have historically been marginalized is going be one of the greatest gifts and teaching tools that you can receive.”
  • “With just a knee jerk reaction, it means that there is no room for dialogue. There’s no room for questioning. There’s no room for reflecting or learning or unlearning.”
  • “This kind of biased/racist moment—remember– it becomes a wonderful teachable for 95% of the class. And it becomes a, a moment of trauma for the other 5%. Like that’s not a win.”
  • “Step one, decentering yourself there. You’re not here to save anybody. Going back to the language around like amplification and elevating asking people how you can help rather than making the assumption of how people want to be helped. Would you still be doing this if you couldn’t tell anyone about it? if you could not post pictures of yourself or tell everyone what you’re doing on, on Facebook or on Instagram, would you still do it?”
  • Jose Andres: “too many people believe that charity should be about the redemption of the giver when charity should really be about the liberation of the receiver.” And I think that is such a beautiful way to think about philanthropy around humanitarian work. And I really try to keep that centered in what I do.
  • “Take a breath. Try to find common ground.”
  • Thinking stem: “I used to think, but then I learned and now I know.”
  • “There is often like oversimplified language that will tell, especially young people, you know, racism exists because, you know, black and brown people have darker skin or, you know, they were treated poorly because of the color of their skin when we have to think about who’s bearing responsibility and the language we use. So I would ask that instead of that language, you would say, you know, black and brown people are treated unfairly because of racism because of white supremacy. It is not the color of the skin. That is the issue. It is the white supremacy. That is the issue.”

Resources: