Allison Briscoe-Smith ’94, a clinical psychologist, teacher and author specializing in trauma – particularly racialized trauma, recently spoke to Punahou parents during a Webex event about race and racism, as part of the School’s focus on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. Briscoe-Smith serves as the director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, California, and has recentl published a book, “Generation Mixed Goes to School: Radically Listening to Multiracial Kids.”
The session was moderated by Punahou eighth grade teacher Christina Torres, who serves as co-chair of the School’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Strategic Planning Working Group, and also writes about race, class, and diversity, equity, and inclusion issues.
Christina Torres: Thank you everyone for joining us. We are so excited to have you here. Particularly, because we are so excited to have our panelist this evening. I’m going to be introducing Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard, then received a clinical psychology PhD from the University of California at Berkeley. She continued her specialization in trauma and ethnic minority mental health by working with the University of California at San Francisco and San Francisco General Hospital. She’s now combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness and foster care. Much of her work has been with schools as a clinician, consultant and trainer. She’s also the director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion at the Wright Institute, where she’s also a professor.
She provides consultation and training to Bay Area nonprofits and schools. I’m also very happy to share that she is a 1994 Punahou alum as well. She’ll be sharing a presentation with you. Then we’ll be doing some Q&A at the end. I’ll be helping to moderate that. If you submitted questions to your registration, we will be looking through that. We’ll also have a space for Q&A in the chat box as well. Please don’t hesitate to ask. With that, I’m going to hand it over, and so that we can all gain some wonderful knowledge from Dr. Briscoe-Smith. Thanks so much for joining us.
Allison Briscoe-Smith: Thank you so much for this invitation and this welcome. I’m so happy to be here. Really wish I could literally be here. I’m in Oakland, California right now, but desperately missing home. I just want to pause a little bit and just acknowledge the work that Keala, in particular, has put into this, also the DEI team here, and also the conversations that I’ve been able to have with President Latham as well. I really want to appreciate the opportunity to be here tonight and to be in conversation with you all.
Just a couple things to ground ourselves in this work tonight, which is, I’m a child psychologist by training and I focus on trauma in particular. I have the opportunity to really support families as they go through really difficult things. It’s with that perspective that I come to this space. In particular, also my experiences with race being a Black person growing up on the Big Island, living in the Caribbean for a little while, but then coming back and starting at Punahou in eighth grade, and finishing the Academy there definitely have impacted me in terms of how I think about race.
I’ve always been wanting to be able to come back to Hawai‘i and have this conversation. Knowing that I’m bringing some different perspectives or perspectives from the mainland, I’m really actually excited to be in conversation about how this is relevant and how this is showing up for all of our children. The other thing I should mention that I think is most important is that I’m a mom. Before being a clinical psychologist and all that, I’m a mom of three. I have a 12-year-old son, a 10-year-old daughter, and a 3-year-old daughter.
Then I did this stereotypical pandemic thing and got a puppy. Now I’m a dog mom too. What we’re going to do today is I’m going to go ahead and I’m going to speak for about 30 minutes, taking you through some of the common questions that I get, but really want to invite you to send your questions. The more that we can make this relevant to your particular questions, the better. Many of you already sent questions prior to this, that we’ve had a chance to take a look at. I’m structured to respond to those questions as well. Let me see if I can go ahead and share my screen.
I’m just going to do a couple different things here. Okay. Then I can still see. I’m going to assume that you all can see this. I’m going to just start. It’s also not necessary to look at the screen. I know many of you all may be looking at the screen all day. The invitation is for you just to listen and to be present. Christina will jump in if there are any questions that she wants to make sure that I can take a look at. They can’t really see it right now, but that’s okay. I’m framing this conversation, yes, about talking about race and racism.
We need to contextualize, that this is actually a talk that I’ve given a thousand times over, but has been really changed in the past year, and has really changed in the combination of the multiple pandemics that we, as a nation, are facing. Yes, that’s the pandemic of COVID and how that’s impacted us, but it’s also the pandemics of racialized violence. In this particular moment, I know so many of us are holding on to the fear and the pain of our broad Asian community as we are being impacted, again, by racialized violence and that targeting of that violence toward our Asian community.
This is on the heels of continued racialized violence towards African Americans and that this wave of racialized violence isn’t new, perhaps popularized in a different way. I have to begin with locating that this is a conversation that we’re parenting in some really challenging times. With that, I want to talk a little bit about … I want to address your questions, the questions that typically come up are about, should I talk about race, when should I talk about race, and how?
Even before that, I want us to ground in how challenging these conversations might be, how challenging parenting might be in general, and to ground us, or rather invite us to think about grace. To think about grace as a good starting point for how we can parent and how we can tackle any difficult conversation. A colleague of mine defined grace as unmerited favor. I think a good way for us to kind of think about that is courteous goodwill, a moment of kindness, of clemency, a temporary exemption of reprieve, just a moment to slow down.
That we, as parents, could often benefit from grace. I think about grace in the context of parenting in three different ways. I think about grace, number one, for myself as a parent, number two, for my child or children, and number three, for the people who care for my children or the institutions that care for my children. I’m going to give an example about what this was like in the context of the pandemic. The first thing that I can think about was that for us here in Oakland, California on March 13th, all of a sudden, March 13th, 2020, all of a sudden, I became a teacher to a sixth grader, to a fourth grader and a Montessori provider in the midst of all the things.
Our school shut down, and we had to pivot real quick. Then those first couple of weeks where things were really struggling for us here in the schools in particular, I, all of a sudden, had to do all of those things. It turns out, I’m a terrible sixth grade teacher and an awful fourth grade teacher and don’t really know what Montessori is. I had to offer myself some grace that why would I be the perfect teacher in that kind of moment? Why would I be able to do my job and transition to a pandemic and take care of all the kids without this being a strain, without this being difficult?
That it was going to be a challenge. To offer myself some grace, to let myself have a little moment of exemption of reprieve then. The other kind of thing that came up was that all of a sudden, my children who went from seeing their peers to only seeing us within family, from seeing their friends at school and their teachers to only having us. Why wouldn’t their behavior be different? I needed to offer them some grace in terms of their behavioral changes, their changes and relationships with screens, things like that.
Then that happened is I live here in Oakland, and my kids attend public school. Our schools put out an announcement about what was happening via Zoom, and there was the chat and the chat was just Zooming, and it was Zooming with all this negativity. This is the worst idea. This is terrible. This is awful. It was all of our anxieties and our struggles put on to the educators who were trying to make things work. We didn’t really offer them a whole lot of grace for them being human and struggling with something as well.
I try to think about offering grace to our educators as they’re making these really complicated decisions. Grace is a good way for us to think about parenting and complex time and also an invitation for us to think about when we’re talking about something like race to offer our self grace. What’s my baggage with this conversation? Think about it. Offer my children grace, they’re learning about it, how do they learn about it, and our educational system as well.
There’s a big caveat, which is that grace does not mean that we do not have accountability, that we really should have accountability and boundaries. As much as I can say, I’m a terrible sixth grade teacher, I still had to help out my kids. As much as I could say, my kids have to have some flexibility around how they are engaging with screens, they can’t watch screens for 1,000 hours a day. As much as I want to hold grace for our educational leadership, that we still have to hold to expectations of how our kids would be treated.
I want to ground us in that place, because I think this idea of grace can take us pretty far as we think about difficult conversations. Let’s jump back into the questions that we see. I have a story that comes up here, but I’m going to walk you through it a little bit, because this is a story that I hear quite often. It’s a story of, as I was talking and in community with folks about talking about race with kids, a family said, “Well, we wanted to decide to talk to our children about race.” This is a White family. They decided to read their daughter a story about Rosa Parks.
Then the next day, the little girl started putting the little brown dolls in the back of the bus. What this parent says so articulately that I’m going to read here is, she says, “Few of us are free from race-related perceptual biases, and it’s hard to work to clear our mind of them once we got them. Young children have a chance of never developing them. Should we not let this uncontaminated state consolidate before introducing interventions showing that race defines people? The way that I hear this and hear it so often is kids are innocent. Can we just leave them alone a little bit? Do we have to burst this bubble? Kids aren’t seeing race. Do we have to introduce it?” I’ve even heard this in the context as many of you, well, kids are colorblind or race doesn’t show up for them. I hear that as a place of such intention around protection, and such also intention around not teaching our children perhaps the harmful legacy that we have around race. This notion is also predicated on the sense of uncontaminated, or a tabula rasa, or colorblindness. What we need to do with that was, we actually need to turn to the research.
When we do that and when we turn to listening to kids, the research is very robust and very consistent, that children are seeing race. They are noticing race. I heard some of the questions that come up, sometimes folks are saying, “Well, is this only race on the mainland?” I want to pause and say that race is constructed in many different ways according to our history, according to cultural issues, histories of colonization. While perhaps the language is not so black and white in Hawai‘i as it is on the mainland, race is still something that is impacting and showing up.
In fact, again, what we know so consistently, is that infants are looking to the world around them and they notice and they response to skin color. Starting between three and six months, babies will pay attention more or show more interest in faces that are outside of their own racial group. Now, there’s a little bit of a caveat that I want to pause here to talk about, which is that this seems to be different for multiracial kids. The difference is new in terms of the literature. The basic shorthand view is that they don’t seem to be as distracted by multiple different phases.
In part, the hypothesis is because they see multiply different race faces in their own families. Now, the caveat is that that’s newer research, but just something for us to think about, especially in the context of Hawai‘i. Again, we come back to the research, we see that 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds make decisions about who they play with according to race. By 5 or 6, they’re holding the same racial attitudes as adults, including identification of who’s on the upside of power or who has high status according to skin color.
By 7 to 9 years old, there’s increased understanding of societal norms related to race. By 10 or 11, kids actually start learning that they’re not supposed to talk about this anymore. The research, again, is very, very consistent, that kids are not blank slates when it comes to the racial world around them. In fact, that they’re really seeking to make sense of what’s going on. Now, the key difference is kids are seeing and noticing and responding to phenotypic differences, color, hair, things like that. They’re not necessarily understanding race as we, as adults, do.
That’s not the same thing as not noticing. Okay. Again, I want to point out that this race identification within kids has been so robust, it goes back to the 1950s, the doll test that perhaps many of you heard about. That kids, again, are very much aware. What they’re doing is they’re picking up on the racial cues in the world around them. There’s another story that I want to tell around this part, which is a colleague, a friend of mine actually, said to me, “I’ve made a really conscious choice as a White woman to raise my children in Oakland, because it’s very, very diverse.
In addition to that, I’ve made a choice,” this woman says, to place my children in a school that’s very, very diverse. Her question to me was, “As I think about my rule on equity and justice, isn’t that enough?” I really, again, appreciate this question. Again, this is a question that I saw come from many of you in some ways. I’ve made a choice to live here in a place that’s really diverse. I’ve made a choice to send my kids to a school that’s really diverse, isn’t that enough?
The way that I really think about this, as a child psychologist, is if I were to place a toddler in a beautifully appointed library with many, many different books, and leave them there for a year and come back, would I expect them to know how to read? No. That what we have to do or what we have the opportunity to do is to step in as parents and to teach our children how to read, how to become racially literate, and to do that in a way that is aligned with our values.
To take it a step further, if we don’t do that, if we’re not the people that are teaching them, then it means that we’re leaving them to make sense of the racialized world around them and have that story told for them by others. What stories are being told right now about how we should value each other? What are kids seeing on the news and on the TV and on their phones about how people are treated? How that treatment manifests according to skin color? If we don’t speak to that, then it leaves them to think that that is what the world should be or is.
I really want to invite us to think about that. The research actually bears out the majority of parents are resoundingly silent around race, of the complexity that is leveraged when you’re a parent of color, where this conversation becomes a necessity. Again, the invitation is for us to think about children, not so much as innocent, but as sponges, picking up the world around them. It’s our opportunity to speak to and to think about race to them. I want to pause and think a little bit about this next conversation that, again, comes up right now so much in the context of the violence that we’re seeing.
A lot of the questions that I get are, I don’t want to actually show my children what’s going on in the news, because I’m worried that they’re going to get scared. Or I know that my children are scared about what’s going on for our community or scared for me walking out. So many of these conversations, I do agree that a media diet is a fantastic way of protecting, especially our little ones. I also want to caution us that if our children have access to a phone, then they’re seeing these images. They’re seeing and picking up on these kinds of images in some way, shape, or form.
The question comes about, what really is racial trauma? Now, I mentioned at the top that I’m a trauma focused therapist, and I think about trauma in the context of a couple different things. Trauma is an extension of stress. It’s either when stress becomes too tall, too big, so a big event or too long, and too prolonged. The issue with racial trauma is that we have these spikes and also this prolonged nature. There’s a definition here that I want to just read, which is a form of race-based stress, that refers to people of color and indigenous folks, reactions to dangerous events and real or perceived experiences of racial discrimination.
Such experiences may include threats of harm, injury, humiliation, shaming events and the witnessing of racial discrimination towards other people of color and indigenous folks. Racial trauma is unique in that it involves ongoing individual and collective injuries due to exposure and re-exposure. I want to argue, and I’m going to make an assumption that any of you that have been watching some of the things in the news and found yourself with a heart pounding or found yourself scared or found yourself remembering the things that have happened to you that this is a combination of racial stress.
I’m not making the argument that everyone is traumatized by this or that that everyone is going to be impacted the same way, but I am encouraging us to think about that stress shows up for us. Again, in the context of stress, what we’re tasked to do as parents is to help to mediate that. That can be actually by speaking about what’s going on and helping our children to feel safe. That brings me to the next part, which is, well, how do I do that? How would I possibly talk to my children about race?
I’m going to spend a little bit of time on this part and actually invite us, if possible to be on dialogue a little bit on this. I think I’m going to try to stop sharing my screen and just talk a little bit about family mission statements. Excuse me while I do that. I think I’m still sharing, right? I’m still sharing. Can I stop sharing?
I think I’m going to leave it, because I can’t figure it out. I’m going to leave it and just move my hands around it a lot in the hopes that we’ll figure it out. I hope you’re seeing that part of the screen. Let’s talk a little bit about family mission statements. The reason why I wanted to share this part, and maybe I’ll ask Christina to help me out, is if there is anything that comes up in the chat, you can help me out. I want to invite us to think about family mission statement. Awesome. Thank you.
Typically, I get lots of questions about, okay, my 4-year-old is like this and she asked this question. Or my 12-year-old is like this, and she asked this question. Thanks. Then my first question to that is, well, I don’t know your kid. You are the expert on your kid. I don’t know you, and you are the expert on you. That answer didn’t go very far with many of the families that I was working with. I thought a little bit more about it, and also took a look at the research. Here are the different factors that we need to think about as we think about how to talk to our kids about race.
Or I’m going to argue anything difficult for that. The factors that we should think about are number one, kid factors, who are our children? What are they like? Okay. Then the next group of factors we have to think about is the caregiver factors. Who are we? What are we like? What do we come with? Okay. That is in the context of our family mission statement. Let’s start with kid factors. I’ll give you an example. My son runs a little bit more like me, meaning that he’s anxious.
That means, for example, actually, this happened just the other day, when I went downstairs early because we’re still in shelter in place, downstairs early and to give him a hug. He goes, “Oh my goodness, are you sick? Are you dying? What’s wrong?” He’s also a little on the dramatic side. He jumped quickly to the catastrophe. He does that a lot. If any that’s going on, typically, we would choose another person’s name to them. The first question he’ll ask is, “Are they dead?” That’s what happens when your mom’s a trauma therapist. Go straight to the end there.
Which means that when I talk to him about what’s going on in the world, I need to slow him down. I need to tell them upfront that he is okay, if it’s true. I need to anticipate that he’s going to jump to the end, and I got to pull him back. It’s very different than the conversation that I have with my middle child. My middle daughter, I describe her as the person I want to be when I grew up. She’s very brave. She’s very courageous. She volunteered to do a seven-minute dance in front of the entire school, which I begged her not to do. She’s just that kid.
When I talk to her about anything, issues with race, I know that she’s going to come up with some great wisdom. Then she’s going to sit with it for a while, and I need to talk to her differently. I can tell her hard bits of information and she’ll be really stoic. Then, of course, I’ve got a three-year-old. When I talk to her, it’s a different conversation entirely. My language is different. My developmental appropriateness is different. I want to invite us in thinking about how do we talk to our kids, we have to think about who they are.
I also want to contextualize that my three children walked to the world very differently. My son is read as Black. He’s seen as a Black boy, and that’s how he’s seen in the world around him. My daughter, as I mentioned, my kids are multiracial. My daughter is read as Latina. She walks through the world and she did really differently to gender and race. Then my third baby looks White. She walks through the world really differently. Each of those conversations with them is different, because they’re different kids. Then at the same time, there’s also caregiver factors. Who am I?
I’m a Black person. I get to talk about that in a particular way with my children. Who’s my partner? My partner is the one who’s mixed in the family. If my kids have questions about being mixed, they’re going to go to him or he can offer that experience in ways that I can’t. Again, these are two factors that I want us to think about as we get ready to talk to our kids. All of that sits within the context of a family mission statement. Now, a family mission statement sounds a little intimidating. Actually, everybody has a family mission statement. I want to ask us a little bit about that.
I want to invite you to think about it this way. I want to encourage folks to, as I’m asking you these kinds of questions, to throw them into the chat, possible, which is a family mission statement. The way that you can think about it is, what are the things that you say to your children all the time that begin with we? Usually, when I talk to parents with little ones, the first thing they’re going to say is, we don’t hit? Okay, great, that’s actually part of a family mission statement. What are you trying to communicate around that? You’re communicating that we don’t hurt each other.
Or we love each other and we’re kind. First thing is to invite you all to pay attention to what are the things that you say to your children that begin with we? The next kind of thing is to think about your family, how to … A family motto or family t-shirt, what would it be? What was your family say all the time? Again, think about the things that you say to each other about. We are strong, or we are fighters, or we leave places better than we found them, things like that. Keala, I wonder if you could help me share the screen again, because I have a couple guiding prompts to do that.
As we’re doing that, I really want to invite us. I see that there’s a whole … Thank you, a whole bunch of folks on the call. Maybe folks can start jumping in a little bit with what your family mission statement is. Here are some of the guiding questions again. Think of your values. Who do you want your children to be? How can you tell if you’re living this vision? I’m going to pause and just see, Christina, because I can’t see the chat anymore, if there’s any things that are coming up or I can also lean in with some of the ones that I’ve heard before.
CT: One that we got right now is we are all honest in this house, and we forgive one another. That’s one that’s come up. Folks, I encourage you to put it into the chat box. You can make it to host and presenter. I’m also seeing like we are kind to one another or we are kind to others is another one that’s coming up as well.
ABS: That’s one that you both are the ones that are … Oh, great, I can’t see the chat. I see them, they’re coming. We are global citizens. Thank you so much for offering that. Let’s think through the ones that are offered and keep them coming to. We are kind is a really … It’s a really common one. Let’s think about this a little bit. If you’re trying to have a conversation about the complexities of race with our children, we actually could start with kindness. We’re talking to our little ones.
We could say, we don’t like what’s going on in terms of how people are being treated because people are being unkind to each other. We could use that as the first language. Now I want to invite us to use these as the building blocks for the conversation, kindness. For example, we have one here, we are global citizens. The invitation is for us to think about, what does that mean? What does our behavior mean? How can we tell if they’re living this vision? How would we treat other people according to this? Or the other one, like we are honest in this house. Okay.
How does that mean that we treat each other? How do we answer complicated questions? I would expect if that meant in that household if someone was saying, mama or daddy, I have a complicated question about race. Then you’d have to be honest, which is I have to think about that some more. Again, the invitation is that these are the building blocks of the conversations that we can be having. I also want to make the other argument. These are the conversations that you’re having already. This is the communication that you were having with your children already.
You are teaching about justice and race and gender and equity every day. Just because you’re not speaking about it doesn’t mean that you’re not teaching about it. That how you treat others, how your relationships are in your own household, how you get along with other folks is teaching a whole lot to your children, her making sense of this. Now I know I started with littles, but let’s scale all the way up to older kids. Older kids are thinking about this as well. They’re seeing how you act. They’re asking you these kind of questions.
I think they can be invited to be in dialogue with us about how we could possibly live these values. Think about this with your older ones when you’re disciplining your older one that’s aligned with some value that you have somewhere. It’s not okay for you to do X in this household, and these are the consequences. There’s also another way that you’re probably reinforcing other behavior as well, those are all aligned, again, with your values explicitly or not.
The invitation, again, is for you all to think about that and to try to figure out how we want to reinforce these kinds of ideas again and again. I see other is kind and compassionate to others, make the world a better place. Again, to think about that these are the great things that you can use when you’re having these complicated discussions about race. I want to invite you all to think about creating family mission statements and to also think about this in the context of you can push the conversation further, you can ask your kids, and your families come up with what’s your vision of racial justice.
How would you know what racial justice feels like? There’s a great one that has came up, we treat people with respect. Okay, so then what does that look like and feel like? How can I tell if I’m being respectful? Those are all the places to think about how you’re talking about issues of race all the time. I’m going to pause here again, and probably ask for your help, Keala, to stop sharing. Oh, I think I did it. I want to pause here. I’ve got tons and tons of other slides. I actually want to pause so that we can be in dialogue and went over just a little bit.
We can be in dialogue with somebody. I’m going to pause just a little bit and see what questions are coming up. This is my awkward pause to encourage folks to go ahead and put into the chat any questions that you have or hopes that you would had for what you might be will want to talk about tonight, particular questions for your children, things like that. I’m going to take a look and then let’s see. Okay. There’s a great question here that I want to take on. The question here is, a person says, I have a 9-year-old biracial child, Caribbean, Black and Asian. I held back about talking about racism until now, because I wanted to give her a chance to build her own self-esteem before any stereotypes or prejudice of her color comes in. Is it wrong?
I just want to pause and say, I’m not here to talk about what’s wrong or to judge people because of that. Because I actually hear what your intentions are here, is to support your child and feeling good about themselves. I’m definitely here for that. I think the pieces that I like to support folks is and thinking that conversations about feeling good about race can be a way of talking about race, and building that safest self-esteem, helping kids to notice color and to appreciate color or to appreciate their heritage or ways of supporting that.
I see here that this is a conversation about racism. I would say that a conversation about race and racism can be different. When I think about the littles, it can be appreciating and noticing differences, thinking about things like differences make us better. We’re better together, those kind of conversations. It’s not to be glib, which ignore things, but to build up that foundation. The other thing that what our research really does indicate is that kids understand are being impacted by issues of race very, very early.
That kids of color in particular are seeing and feeling that impact, that they’re seeing people are being treated differently. One of the things that we have to offer them, and I imagine here, again, because of the way that you’re asking this question is that we offer them love and support them. Then we can help them navigate. Again, my invitation is for us to do some of our own work to think about what can I tell them to support them and making sense of the world around them. It sounds like having self-esteem is really important.
Let’s support our kids in feeling good about themselves and help them to negotiate the racialized world around them. Let’s see. Reading the questions as we go. There’s some really complex questions that I really appreciate here. There’s one that if I can get to the sentiment, as I understand it, how do we talk about the importance of BIPOC solidarity as linked to their own freedom while also thinking about … I’m going to combine this with a question that I had before, with a sense that sometimes the affinity groups or doing things separately or pitting folks against each other doesn’t feel that great.
How do we convey importance of solidarity, but not buying into a viewpoint that pits one against the other? I think this is a really beautifully complex question that, first, relies upon us, as parents. Number one, think about how do we think about that question. What do we think about groups of folks coming together and groups of folks coming together based on affinity? Then we have to think the next piece, which is, when we see that groups are pitted against each other, that’s when we do that when it’s based out of a scarcity model.
We have a sense of competition, and that we can actually do a whole lot to not support the idea of competition or the way that I think about it, which is like oppression Olympics. Nobody wins in oppression Olympics, when we have to compare. I think the opportunity that we have here is to do a yes and, yes, it’s really important that we are all part of a large community. There are opportunities for us to be in small communities too. It’s really important for me to feel good about myself and my connection with others.
It’s really important that I have an opportunity to celebrate something that is really true for me and be able to celebrate others. That and peace is about not falling on to scarcity and competition, but rather thinking that what we have here is abundance. How do we think about that? I invite us to think about that in collaboration with each other, that we have a strong community that we can pull upon with each other. Christina, I see you here. I didn’t know if there was a question that you wanted to ask me in particular or direct my attention.
CT: Yeah. I think just to help out a little bit, and so folks can hear the question too, I’ll read some questions to you that that we’re getting. One question that actually we saw pop up in a couple of different ways, is my kids don’t necessarily feel racism because we live in this beautiful bubble of Hawai‘i and Punahou. How do you explain to them what’s out there without freaking them out? Beyond that, I feel like since my kids haven’t ever seen or been subject to racism that they know of, how can we help them identify and name it? Definitely calling to attention what you mentioned about how race can look very different here in Hawai‘i.
ABS: Yeah. I mean, I have a lot of different thoughts about this as a question. One of the thoughts that I have that comes up is what I hear in so many different places and in some of the other questions is this very consistent and very … I think about it in terms of my mothering, like desire to protect our children, to protect them from things that we think are unjust, and aren’t, and that can hurt them. How do I prepare them for this, is I think the way that I want us to think about it. That our preparation is our means of protection.
That being in a bubble may actually mean that we do not cultivate the skills necessary to engage outside of that bubble. That moments of protection, I think, make sense. We have the opportunity to prepare them, and that preparation might actually be the thing that will help them down the line. I also think it’s really important to really listen in and lean into this idea as to whether or not racism doesn’t exist in a particular place. A lot of the work that I do is in the context of implicit bias.
Implicit bias is the unconscious, automatic associations that we make, that often have consequences outside of our awareness. I think a lot of people can hold on to the idea of implicit because, again, it’s outside of my awareness, this association that I have, paired association between races is something that is being given to me by the smog around me, the negative messages that have been around me. There is no research to indicate that there’s any place that doesn’t have implicit biases. Now, are there implicit biases in one country always going to be about black and white?
No, but there’s always somebody that’s on the top and there’s always somebody on the bottom. Colorism tends to be pretty strong, where lots and lots of places across the globe have it such that the darker folks are on the bottom and the lighter folks are on the top. I want to encourage us to lean in and perhaps listen to how race and power shows up in Hawai‘i that maybe not isn’t literally Black and White, but it’s something else, and to also think about how that shows up.
I think sometimes people get this notion that racism or identifying something as racist is to say something that’s terrible or bad, as opposed to saying this is impacting and showing up. Two ways I want to think about that is, yes, it’s different in Hawai‘i. I’ll speak to my own experiences. My experiences growing up as a Black person in Hawai‘i going to Punahou were fundamentally different than if I grown up in Oakland, and in ways that I appreciate, and then ways that are complicated, and ways that I feel gave me this opportunity to view race differently.
In my own experience, it wasn’t as if my experience was free from race growing up in Hawai‘i, that there is an opportunity for us to support our children and feeling good about themselves, but doesn’t have to come by being silent about the things that are actually going to be complicated later. Our invitation, I want to say, is let’s talk about the things that might be complicated in different contexts as a means of supporting them. Because our silence, I don’t think is going to help us out. I see here there’s a question about, can you tell me again about implicit bias?
Implicit bias are our unconscious outside of awareness associations that we have. Think about it this way. Stereotype, we see again and again about who’s smarter, who’s faster, who gets good grades, who’s more likely to be stopped by the police. Those stereotypes get repeated so often, that they become automatic associations in our head. I’m actually hoping to be in dialogue with community a lot more around what implicit bias is and how it shows up.
The way that I am helped think about it, it’s a small, we grew up in a small sense repeated messages about who’s an up and downside of power, and we breed those messages in. That impacts our automatic associations and impacts our behavior. It also can impact this sense that maybe the smog is clear in some places than others. Again, we don’t have any evidence that there’s no smog anywhere around biases.
CT: Thanks, that was awesome. We got a few comments about, I’m going to paraphrase here, but a little bit about how to be upstanders. What do we do when we hear or see racist homophobic or sexist comments, or if it’s directed towards us, or even things about systemic racism? How can we engage with those conversations and also help others engage in those conversations, and maybe our kids too?
ABS: Yeah. I mean, so I think the opportunity there is to, first thing, is to be able to reflect into resource ourselves. I started with that kind of idea around grace. We can resource ourselves in terms of thinking about, what do I think about race? What has been my experiences with race? What do I think my responsibility is in terms of race? Where do I think I’ve benefited? We’ve got to do that internal work. There’s a plethora of books and blogs and places that we can go and spaces that we can resource ourselves around that.
Then I think it’s also about this whole conversation is speaking out to say something. I work with a lot of groups to develop scripts. Those are scripts that we use to interrupt biases. The reason why we talk about scripts and, Christina, I wonder if you think about as a theatre person, sometimes when you have practice, you’re practicing saying something, so that becomes automatic. Because what can happen is a moment of fear and a moment of shut down or this person’s going to think that I’m terrible.
The invitation, again, is I have something practice to say, and that practice can be something as simple as, hey, can you stop? It doesn’t make me feel good. Or can we pause, this isn’t feeling great. I think we’ve got the wonderful opportunity always to just put a pause. I just need to slow things down a little bit. Now I think about that in conversation, but I’m also really thinking about as we think about bystanders and upstanders in this particular moment, as we’re bearing witness to, again, racialized violence and the ways in which folks haven’t been standing up.
I’m also moved by the way that I see people doing it. In Oakland, as in many other places, a whole group of folks have coordinated to work in our Chinatown to escort our Asian elders throughout the community. That’s an upstander behavior. Standing up to go ahead and to coordinate and to do that. The next piece is, how do we help our children do that? It’s great when we can model it, if we can go ahead and model it. Then the only thing that we can do is that we can practice it.
There’s a model that’s offered by a gentleman named Howard Stevenson, which is that one way that we can support our children is by practicing these conversations. I know that many of our kids roll their eyes when we want to come and practice conversation, but think about it with your older ones, engaging in a debate, having them talk about what their ideas are. With our little ones that is practicing, what would you say if someone said A, B, and C? I also think in the context of Punahou having a focus on social emotional learning means having practice at doing things like upstanding, thinking about, what do you think about this?
Being able to identify what is right. The support can be a community and teaching. I think it’s also the thing that we have available to us. One of the things I want to encourage you all to do is, especially with your littles, anyone that has a kid under fifth grade, go home, or you’re home tonight, be home and turn to your kid and like, hey, did you know that people treated people differently because of the color of their skin? Half of their kids are going to be like, that’s dumb. Yes, yes. That we can like, yes. What would you do if that happened to you?
What would you do if you saw that to somebody else? I think there’s a way that we can actually listen to our kids and their experiences. I also want to frame that so much of this conversation, again, comes to me in the context of trauma. I have been so blessed to be able to serve folks in the context of unspeakable traumas and see the ways in which they’re resilient. I feel like a lot of times in this conversation on race is the worry that we’re going to break our kids and worry that we’re going to give them too much.
I really fundamentally trust in our kids’ ability to help us to calibrate, to help us to know what they can take, and that we can do that in relationship, that we can make a mistake. Hey, baby, I told you too much about that, and now you’re worried about it. Let’s think about what we can do. We can be okay. That’s the benefit of our relationships with our kids, is that we get to do that. I got all excited about that question. I’m sorry, because I went all the way.
CT: It’s a great question. I’m very happy. Someone asked another question that you touched on and maybe might be good to give some ideas or even some modeling or sharing some of that, is what this might look like in mixed families. We definitely have a lot of parents here with mixed families, including … I can speak to this. I read as Latina, but my mom is Filipino. She had to really think about how to talk with me about race, because we’re read very differently. What could that look like with families, especially if maybe you, as a parent, don’t read the same as your kid to the rest of the world?
ABS: Yeah. I just had a wonderful opportunity. We, a colleague … It’s not a colleague, my sister friend and I went ahead and have just finished a book and have a book out on called Generation Mixed Goes to School: Radically Listening to Multiracial Kids. What we did is we invited sibling pairs, multiracial sibling pairs to talk to each other about questions like, how do you identify? What is race like for you? Then we had their families in, and we listened to them. Then we did these listening sessions.
I’ve been spending the past couple years really trying to listen into what multiracial kids say that they want and say that they need. I think, of course, the context is different in terms of Hawaii, though in Seattle, the multiracial mix there is actually not too different than what it is in Hawaii in terms with Japanese and Asian and a lot of folks from Hawaii as well. All those folks that went to UDub. There’s a whole community. I want to contextualize it as different.
Some of the things that we heard were, just as you were framing, there’s a group of folks that we really heard that thought that their multiracial reality was racial transcendence, that because we have proven it together that I can be a whatever person and marry a whatever person, have his child, that we have beaten race, and that we’re all done. Their children told us that that wasn’t true. The children told us that what was important was that they had agency and how they wanted to identify and that that identification changed over time.
We heard from a lot of parents that that was hard. When the parents of color had a multiracial child, but in that moment was identifying more with their white parent. Or in some schools, we also heard from kids that like, oh, when I went to that school, I was multiracial Japanese. When I went to this school, people thought I was White. The movement that those kids had was a whole lot. We heard that that was a challenge for many parents. There were also many parents that we heard from that came really equipped to listen to their children, because of their own racialized experiences and their own experiences being either multiracial themselves or in multiracial relationship.
I’m going on two kinds of sides. I think the idea, again, of somehow that race no longer matters was really challenging for the children for whom they were feeling like it mattered and how they were identified and how they were treated. All this to say is the invitation is for us to really listen and to, as we think about how do we want to talk to kids, and this is, I think, a great place for us to land in this moment, I want to tell you that what is more important than the actual scripting of the things that we say is how we actually listen to our children.
That means, think especially in the context of multiracial kids listening, even as their identity changes, even as their identity is different than what you wanted it to be, even as their identity is different than what you think it is, is to really listen to what they’re saying. That is remarkably challenging, because it’s uncomfortable. We don’t think you look this way. Or I really want you to be this. Or that’s not why we sent you to that school. Yet the kids are really telling us something different. That was my long monologue about that, but a place I’m really interested in listening more about.
CT: Thank you. We’re seeing a few questions actually dealing with some of your work around trauma. One of them being, how do we work with kids that may have already been traumatized? This person reference the history on enslaved people that might have already caused some trauma or identity issues. We’ve also seen people scared that what they are going to do is traumatize and do more harm than good. I think you touched a little bit on not wanting to cuddle too much. What can we do? Or how can we either avoid or manage when trauma has happened regardless of where it came from?
ABS: Okay. I’m going to tell a real quick story. It’s going to frame how I think about conversations about trauma. I’m trained in a particular modality called child parent psychotherapy, which was based on Latinas, done in Spanish and done in the context of domestic violence. We hold on to that what we do with is that as soon as we welcome into a family, we begin asking questions on trauma. We got a lot of flak around that, how could you possibly ask young kids around their experiences of trauma? This is a story that I have permission to tell.
We had a little girl come in who had a complicated trauma history. She had been in therapy from the time that she was from seven until nine. In the course of that therapy, the therapist had never talked about the trauma, really coming from a place of wanting to go slow, not wanting to overwhelm the child. When the child came to us in therapy, we asked her, we understand that you’ve had a therapist before. In that time, you didn’t talk about some of the bad things that happened to you. She’s nine. We asked her, “Why was that?”
She said, “I didn’t think my therapist was ready yet.” I want to pause on that. Because my ways I’ve been supported in thinking about this is that the speaking about the trauma is not as bad as the trauma and not as bad as the silence about it. Not saying going willy-nilly does yelling about it. I’m saying be thoughtful. This eagerness that we have to protect is sometimes misaligned with our ability to speak to people’s experiences and to be curious and to be thoughtful and to actually demonstrate that we can take it.
Because sometimes I think what we’re communicating to our kids is I can’t take it, I cannot ask you that question because I cannot bear it. I think we have an opportunity and responsibility to name the unnameable, to speak about it, maybe to connect up with our own stories as well. I know that it’s hard to talk about this, but I’m going to try. I want to own that that is a particular perspective that we’ve got a variety and diversity of perspectives.
My kind of sense and that’s why I engage in this conversation, because I think the hard conversation that I can have is not to say that there aren’t conversations that I have in my children that are hard and distressing, and that show up for them. If I am so blessed and so lucky, I get to follow up the next day. This is not one conversation. This is multiple opportunities for us to think and talk together.
CT: Thank you, I think that’s so important for us to consider about not being silent. We had a few questions about how we can have conversations around race. This is for a first grader. I think it probably speaks to a larger audience, particularly with fewer representations here of certain races, like Black and Latino. Given that context of Hawaii, how can we start prepping kids for conversations that on the mainland may have a lot of focus on that and also support kids so that when they go up to the mainland, they’re ready for that or if they go?
ABS: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s such a wealth and a beauty of what is available to you in Hawaii right there to begin talking about the complexities of colonization enslavement, race, ethnicity. I mean, it’s not for lack of the richest complicated history. I would say start at home first. Start with what you see first, start telling the complicated stories about the history that you have there. Start talking about, what’s a missionary? How do we think about that? How do we think about our own legacy and connection? Where can we point to and connect?
I would say start there. Thankfully, we’ve got so many different books and opportunities and options, and there’s resources that I would point you to. I think there are resources that are going to be coming out in the follow-up email. This is very different than when I started this work. Right now, there is so many riches in terms of you want to find a book on multiracial kids, I get … Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match got you. You want to find a book about any … We have lots of opportunities.
I think the opportunities is to start in your home first, start little, start in small, tangible ways, which is if you want to prepare your kids for the big world outside, start with kindness and fairness, start with you belong here. You belong to me and I belong to you. Start with those. Here’s how you find belonging. Here’s how you create belonging. Start with those, and that’s going to get you to go really, really far. I think you can do that in the context of what Hawaii offers you.
CT: Thank you. Well, we’re going to do one more question that might speak to, certainly, maybe your experience and the experience of some other parents. We have some folks who, they themselves are identifying as mainland transplants. They have a hard time talking about the subtleties and stereotypes in Hawai‘i, because they’re not from here. They’re recognizing what that could mean. Maybe speaking to navigating that conversation when your position maybe in it is a little shaky or you’re a little unsure.
ABS: Yeah. I mean, I think, I really appreciate that, part of it is, again, the yes and. To take what you know and have learned in the context of the mainland. If you’re living in Hawai‘i, it’s a beautiful opportunity to listen and to listen deeply. What are the stories that you can hear? Part of it is I hear that as a question and opportunity. How can I learn more? Okay, listen. Listen to those who are talking story about what race feels like, about what stereotypes are like, be open to listening and also open that maybe your lens might be different.
That’s what we’re trying to teach everybody, is that my lens is not the only lens by which to understand the world. I mean, I learned that pretty quickly as being like the Black kid in the Academy. At the time that I was there, my lens was different. It’s very different here on the mainland, being one of the only Black people I know from Hawai‘i. That’s a lens that I have that is a beautiful gift and very different. I want to encourage folks to listen. I think there’s a lot to listen to in terms of the complexities of Hawai‘i. I don’t want to collapse it into Black and White. I think we have things to learn about our context that we can share and be in dialogue with each other. Let’s listen.
CT: Thank you so much. Time has flown. Magically, it got dark outside my window. I did not plan for this, as we can tell. We just wanted to thank you so much for joining us tonight. This was incredibly helpful. I know I learned a ton. I’m so excited to continue in dialogue with this with you and my colleagues and with the whole community as well. Thank you so much, everyone, for joining us. We know that time is scarce for many of you, especially after work. We’re so appreciative that you’re here.
You should be getting a follow-up email that, as Dr. Briscoe-Smith said, has some resources. I believe we are also going to make a recording of this available as well to folks, so that you can maybe share if you knew some parents that weren’t able to make it. With that, I’m going to wrap us up. Keala, let us know if there’s anything else. Thank you guys so much for joining us.
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