How to talk to children about discrimination and racism
Turnaround for Children's Tami Hill-Washington shares her experience and expertise in raising, affirming, and protecting Black sons.
The nonprofit Turnaround for Children translates knowledge about how children develop and learn into integrated tools and strategies that enable every child to reach their full potential. Their 180 Podcast features leading voices in education exploring how to transform the systems that educate our children using 21st-century science. The Renewal Project is publishing a series of interviews featured on the podcast to highlight the perspectives and experiences of educators who are striving to build equitable and positive learning environments.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, protests have erupted across the world and deep-seated anger has come to the fore. How can we stand together against discrimination and racism? How can we move forward? And how do we talk to our children about it all?
Tami Hill-Washington is an educator with deep experience in the K-12 school system. Today she works at Turnaround for Children, whose work, among many other activities, explores the science and actions around learning, as well as social and emotional well-being. Tami partners with school leaders, helping them develop positive and inclusive learning environments.
In this conversation, Tami shares her world views and what it takes to rethink and reimagine our society—and education in particular. She speaks about a world in which we listen, show empathy and embrace others. A world in which we rethink our 20th century education—and where diversity and inclusion are ingrained in our shared values.
Chris Riback: Tami, thanks for joining me. I appreciate your time and your insights.
Tami Hill-Washington: Thank you, Chris. Thank you for having me.
Chris Riback: You have a lot of roles. Educator, wife, mother, citizen, just to name a few. To what extent do you feel those are uniquely intertwined at this moment, versus to what extent do you feel the need to keep them compartmentalized?
Tami Hill-Washington: That’s a great question. I think that these roles for me would be intertwined. When I think about my identity and my makeup being a Multiracial woman with roots from the deep south from my mom and White Caribbean roots originated from England, from my father’s side of the family, I have a great mixture of a worldview and an understanding of how my identities come together. And I really feel like all of those components of me being a wife, being a mother, being an educator, help me to understand the world in a way that makes a lot of sense to me based on my identity and my point of view.
Chris Riback: I wonder is it possible right now even to be anything other than the sum of each of one’s own respective roles and experiences, the way that you just described? And yet at the same time, it’s key, I would think, to be able to get outside of one’s own experiences and understand other people’s.
Tami Hill-Washington: I think you have a valid point there when you talk about getting outside of one’s own experiences. As a woman and as a Black woman in America, I think that I don’t have the luxury of ever thinking about not operating in my experiences. But for my White brothers and sisters who may not have enough awareness about their whiteness and how whiteness is entangled with Black identity from the origins of our country, I think that that would be hard for them. But it is work that’s worth doing. So an investment in each of us understanding who we are as ourselves, and how we interact and commune with one another across lines of differences is really important — always, but especially in this flashpoint moment that we’re having as a country.
Tami Hill-Washington: I think it’s really important for my White brothers and sisters to understand that they have to step outside of themselves in order to understand the Black experience in America. And how we carry a double consciousness of having to uphold White norms and values. And at the same time, having to uphold our own norms and values and how we have to navigate through the world. Versus a White person who walks through a world that is created for them and by them.
Chris Riback: On the listening front, what has your experience been like over the last few weeks in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd? And, of course against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tami Hill-Washington: It’s been extremely hard that Black bodies are being murdered in cold blood for the world to see on TV over and over again is very troubling and traumatizing to me. And to live in a household with three Black men that I love, my husband and my two sons, I know that my husband and I cannot protect our sons when they walk out the door, there’s no guarantee that they would come back. So, we never take for granted how we have to move in this world, because their safety and their bodies are always at risk because of the dehumanization that has been done to Black males and Black females too, which is often not spoken about. My work in diversity, equity, and inclusion has been continuous throughout my life. So this flashpoint for me is not a surprise. It’s just another episode of how Black lives don’t matter to people. And that one of the things that is different about the flashpoint that we’re experiencing is that there was a captive audience due to COVID-19. That people were able to listen, see, and hear in a way that they were not before. So, I think that there is promise in what happened because across racial lines, people are really up in arms and just tired of what is happening. So, on one hand, we have the virus of COVID that has captured this audience to see the atrocities that continue to be committed against Black men. But then on the other hand, we have the virus of racism.
Tami Hill-Washington: And some people that I heard referred to this virus as the virus of 1619, when the first slaves landed on the American colonies. So there’s two viruses that we’re dealing with. One that we hope to get a vaccine for and one, the virus of 1619 that I hope that we can build a world that none of us have ever lived in. Because we were all born into this marginalization and oppression, and racial stigmatizing of people of color. That we have to try and reimagine a world that we can all live in together that’s more equitable.
Chris Riback: What are some of the ways that Black parents – and by that, I am counting on your particular experience, because I don’t think that one can speak for all parents – prepare their children to grow up in the United States. What are the ways that you and your husband have guided your two sons as they have grown up?
Tami Hill-Washington: Thank you for framing it that way Chris, because I can only talk about my lived experience as being a Black mother of two boys growing up in America. And one of the things I think my husband and I did intuitively and intentionally was really prepare our children to go out into the world that will not treat them fairly. For them to really understand that this is a meritless system. So it doesn’t matter how hard you work. Because of the inequities that are created, you may or may not get to the opportunities that you want to be closest to. Meaning some job opportunities might not happen for you, or a program that you wanted to get into for grad school might not happen to you because of the inequities that are created in the world.
Tami Hill-Washington: I think one of the things that we did well was we really had to build our sons up spiritually. And also for them to have the confidence to actually go out into the world with an awareness that there is an inequity specifically and especially towards Black males that have to deal with stereotype threat. So I have two sons who are both over six feet with very broad shoulders. Both of them are athletes. But being an athlete is only one part of their identity. It is not their entire identity. And the things that they would have to face as Black men of color and White perceptions, or microaggressions, or implicit biases might come their way as they were being educated in school. So, some of the things that we would hear from their teachers were “I’m so surprised that he did so well on that,” which was shocking to them. Or you would hear microaggressions like “Your son is so articulate.”
So one of the things that our oldest son said to me was that, “My earliest memory of you and dad really sitting down and talking to me was when I was eight years old.” So imagine an eight year-old having to carry around a double consciousness of having to abide by White norms in a school setting, and also navigate their own identity at the same time. So the cognitive load of that is exhausting. And I could not guarantee that every environment they would be in throughout their education would be a safe one that was identity affirming for them. So it was really up to us as parents to make sure that we did a lot of identity affirming at home and built them up.
Chris Riback: We all try to give guidance to our kids. And the responsibility — and I mean this tongue and cheek — of the kid is to not listen to the parent and not to believe the parent. How does that work when you’re talking about identity about micro and macro aggressions?
Tami Hill-Washington: So I think one of the things that would be important for you to know in terms of context is that both of my kids did their elementary through middle school education in Minnesota. And we lived in a suburb of Minnesota, which is a pretty White state. And one of the things that we did intentionally was that we had to do our own supplemental education at home in terms of identity affirming things for them to make sense of what is happening.
Tami Hill-Washington: So if you speak to either one of my children, they will tell you that we were reading books, we were going to museums. We were watching documentaries. We were talking about those things. So I think because I’m an educator and my husband and I were really intentional about them being grounded in their identity living in such a majority White state, we thought it was really important for them to be proud of who they are and where they came from. And to understand that.
Chris Riback: Are there specific instances that you can point to, that bring that to light?
Tami Hill-Washington: Sure. There are. So we also lived in New York City when my youngest was a teenager. And one of the things that is most horrifying about George Floyd and all of the other incidences, episodes that have happened in the past are you’re doing normal everyday things but being killed for those things and never coming home again.
Tami Hill-Washington: One instance that my youngest son had when he was 14, he was headed to the dentist on the Upper West Side in the ’80s. And he went to go get on the train and three officers approached him and asked him was he someone that they arrested before. And that was quite horrifying to him because he was like, “They just randomly picked me out of the crowd and questioned me: “Did we ever arrest you before?” And when he came home, he was really upset about what happened. And he was able to tell us that he felt like he was racially profiled and that he was stopped. They did not frisk him, but he was stopped. And for my husband and I, it set off an immediate alarm around what are the precautions that we need to be taking in order to keep our son safe?
Tami Hill-Washington: So one of the things we did was at 14, we made sure that he had a state ID on him. Not just his school ID, because we wanted to make sure that he could be verified with his identity in case something like that ever happened again. Another thing we did was we made sure to tell him what his rights were, if he was ever approached by any officer in a respectful way, so that he could survive through that interaction with that officer. So that is one instance that really was sobering for us because it hit so close to home. And you never want to be one of those mothers that’s in the club of children that have been slain and murdered by officers.
There are things that we continue to do and invest in, in order for not only our children to be informed about what does it mean to grow up as a young Black man in this country, but also give them the tools to equip them to advocate for themselves, to affirm their own identities, to understand their history.
Chris Riback: What you’re describing is exhausting. It’s always on. It’s 24/7, no quit. And yet, it’s evident that the flip side of the exhaustion is the club that you just described. There’s kind of no time to be exhausted it seems.
Tami Hill-Washington: I would say that that was true. And I know for me that my husband and I have always positioned ourselves not only to help out our own sons, but we’ve always been involved in programs related to sports because that’s the passion that we have around building up young people and teaching them life skills through sports and activities. And it’s another way to build awareness and community with kids.
Tami Hill-Washington: What Black men face, young Black men in this country is terrifying to me to think that anyone’s child could be taken from them in a moment’s notice and be a part of that club. So, while it is exhausting, there are things that we continue to do and invest in, in order for not only our children to be informed about what does it mean to grow up as a young Black man in this country. But also give them the tools to equip them to advocate for themselves, to affirm their own identities, to understand their history and also to not only teach them about what they have to be protected against, but also to provide them with some exposure to what could be in the future for them and what they need to work towards.
Chris Riback: Tami, what are examples or environments that would serve as examples of what could be?
Tami Hill-Washington: Thanks for asking that Chris. I think one of the most important things for any child, and of course my own children, to experience is to be exposed not only to peers, but to men that have come before them generationally. So one of the things that we have exposed our children to are powerful examples of men that we know that are trying to impact and make a change in the world that is not self-centered, but it is community-centered.
Tami Hill-Washington: So one of the things that we’ve been intentional about is not only participating in sports as a medium to get to some of the building the life skills, or to be around men that have come before them through their own experiences. But to share stories from older men or men that have come before them to give them the wisdom that they need, and what it means to be a man, a Black man in America. Those are powerful conversations. But not only as a Black man, I think one of the things that my children have been able to do for themselves is to self-advocate. So not only do we have a community that looks like us that they are able to have their identities affirmed. But they also have, both of them have White men in their lives that are older than them that are mentors to them, that help to shape their worldview and that they have conversations with.
Tami Hill-Washington: So I think one of the things that Curtis and I have done very well is that we have taught our kids that everyone’s opinion and worldview counts. And that you can reach out to people and ask them questions or have debates and discussions about what does it mean to be a man in America? What does it mean to be a White man? What does it mean to be a White man in relationship with athletes that don’t look like you?
Tami Hill-Washington: So I think that experience for them has been very powerful because they’re not walking into scenarios where there is this colorblind society and they don’t know who they are. They know who they are and whom they’re from. But also to be affirmed by your own people in a Black community, but be able to have the wisdom and the knowledge from them and your ancestors that carries you forward, but also be confident in yourself enough to be able to reach across the aisle to someone that doesn’t look like you. And to be in relationship with those people are also very important because your perspective or your interactions with people should not be a myopic view of just a small slice of who you are in your own community.
And I think that is one of the infections to the virus of racism that we have because of the way it was designed. We are isolated, we are racially isolated in communities. Or if you are a person of color and you’re in a higher SES (socioeconomic status) bracket, you may live in a community, but you may not have a lot of people in that community that look like you. So how do you navigate in a community like that, where people are not intimidated by you, but you can find some kind of human connection or commonality? And I think both of my kids were well prepared for my husband be able to have those interactions. The what could be for me is for our children to have a better understanding of how not only they are in community with their own people, but how they are in community with people that don’t look like them.
Chris Riback: Tami, thank you. Thank you for your insights. And thank you for letting us understand just a little bit about your family and your personal experience.
Tami Hill-Washington: Thank you, Chris.
This article and podcast first appeared on Turnaround for Children’s website.