Culture Talks Event: Weaving Stories, Re-Weaving Our Future
On Wednesday evening, October 11th, I attended the Culture Talks event, "Weaving Stories, Re-Weaving our Future," a story sharing panel discussion on White supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism, hosted by the University Bookstore. Our co-founder Ilsa Govan (featured far right in the photograph above) moderated the event with (from left to right) Tilman Smith, Nick Terrones, Jen Lumanlan, and Erin Jones, serving as panelists. Each of the panelists shared personal stories and the panel had conversations about what those stories had to teach us. The following are some takeaways I received from the event.
Erin has worked as an equity educator with schools for over 30 years and consulted for non-profits, government agencies and businesses. Her book Bridges to Heal US: Stories and Strategies for Racial Healing provides strategies to move your community toward racial justice.
Erin shared a story about working with a school and having conversations with students about why diversity was important. At first, the student class president, a White male student, said he didn't understand why diversity was necessary. After their engagement, he shared that he realized, "we need their perspective, not their skin color."
She talked about her approach to working with people when racial conflict arises, which she refers to as "calling people in and up" versus "calling people out and down." She approaches situations with curiosity first, before deciding what to do, and this gives people an opportunity to open up to learning rather than getting defensive and shutting down.
Erin explained that who you expose your children to is more important than the multicultural books you read to them. Forming relationships, as well as the people and experiences you surround your children with, are the most effective ways to make an impact. We teach children more through our actions than our words. Erin shared how she often hears curious children say things out loud about her skin color ("chocolate") and hair. Parents will typically react by feeling embarrassed and ashamed and then shush their kids. These parental reactions teach children negative associations with race and perpetuate color-blind thinking. Erin said, "be color brave, not color blind" and explained that seeing color is not what's bad but it's the negative associations we make with colors that's harmful.
Nick is an Indigenous Early Childhood Educator and a member of World Forum Foundation on Early Care and Education's Men in ECE leadership team. His book, A Can of Worms: Fearless Conversations with Toddlers is a guide for having courageous conversations with children.
Curiosity first is also an approach used by Nick. He shared a story about a White preschooler who didn't want to 'share' a teacher with another child, saying it was because the child is Black. Instead of allowing the community to panic and seeing this as a 'problem' to correct, he instead had a conversation with the child first to try and understand from where this child was coming. It turned out that they had a new sibling at home and felt they weren't getting enough attention. They didn't like the idea of sharing the teacher's attention not necessarily because the other child was Black, but because they were dealing with lots of feelings of jealousy. By using this child-centered approach, the situation became an opportunity for open dialogue and learning about race for everyone involved. Nick reported that these two children are good friends to this day.
Nick also talked about how many people are surprised to learn that he teaches about gender, racial, and cultural bias to preschoolers. Nick explained that children categorize people by race at 9 months old and associate stereotypes with race by age 4. Nick sees preschool level as an important age to create foundational understanding about race and reminded us that knowledge is just knowledge to children, regardless of subject. To them, learning about dump trucks is no different than learning about race because they are curious and are always wondering about the world around them.
Jen is the host of Your Parenting Mojo podcast, which uses scientific research to understand parenting and child development, and she works as a parenting coach. Her book Parenting Beyond Power offers a framework for rethinking our relationship with children and how we use power.
Jen talked about the learning (and unlearning) she's been doing on bias and how as a White woman learning to own her privilege, feeling shame and discomfort was part of the process. She talked about how difficult it is to have hard conversations, but that we just have to keep practicing until we get comfortable with being uncomfortable. She shared an example of learning this lesson when she started using the word "vulva" with her daughter. She explained how initially, she was so embarrassed that she spoke it quietly at a barely audible level. Eventually, she got comfortable with it, so much so that her family didn't hesitate to shout "did you clean your vulva?" from down the hall during bath time.
Jen also talked about how much vulnerability was involved in the work she did and having to let go of the need to be perfect, specifically in reference to writing her book Parenting Beyond Power. She said she experienced pushback from both sides - some saying it goes too far, while others saying it doesn't go far enough. Jen talked about how she sees the book as "meeting people where they are," and she wrote primarily with White parents in mind. This led to a conversation about needing multiple educators, each with their own approach, to reach as many different people as possible.
Tilman is an educator and racial justice consultant. She is co-author of the book What's Up with White Women: Unpacking Sexism and White Privilege in Pursuit of Racial Justice which is a practical guide for white women who want to become more effective in their anti-racist practices.
Tilman shared the story of writing the book, What's Up with White Women? (which she co-authored with Ilsa), and the process of getting feedback after completing the manuscript. She explained how a trusted friend and colleague, Dr. Rachel Chapman, a Black woman, took a long time to return the manuscript with her notes, not just because she had so many notes to give, but also because she was worried about Tilman and Ilsa's reaction. When the manuscript was returned, Ilsa and Tilman found comments on every single page of the book. As Ilsa recounts in more detail in her blog post about this experience,
Throughout every part of our book, she pointed out the myriad ways we had softened our own racism and subtly and not so subtly claimed our own innocence in the stories and our analysis. The most common ways in which we did this was to assert that we were unaware of the harm we were causing people of color through our actions, even when they were egregiously racist. She made it clear that for a Black woman to read story after story, have experience after experience, the idea we didn’t know what we were doing was not only laughable, but dangerous.
Tilman shared how she felt ashamed and embarrassed about the feedback but also incredibly grateful. Rachel had taken a risk to make them uncomfortable by speaking her truth and possibly risking their relationship in the process. Rachel told them that they were trying too hard to be 'nice' or 'good' but that the opposite of racist was anti-racist and being 'nice' or 'good' had nothing to do with it. Tilman explained that we needed to let go of the need to be 'nice' or 'good' to effectively do anti-racism work, and that we need to be willing to make people uncomfortable in order to create change.
Towards the end of the evening, Nick shared one final comment that left an impression on me. He said, "Be an accomplice, not just an ally." It was a call for us to act, not just learn and passively support but instead to work alongside communities of color.