Kids are always listening. And these days, debates about race, Black history and racism have shifted from books, podcasts and college lectures to everyday, albeit controversial, table talk. 

What do you say when your child starts to ask about the stickier topics they’ve heard so much about? 

As the disagreements persist around critical race theory and more inclusive curricula in K-12 education, and politicians continue to push new legislation to restrict these lessons in schools, it’s critical parents have tools to navigate tricky conversations with kids — bringing big concepts into digestible kid-sized bites.

Critical race theory is more than education on racist people and the history of racism. 

The decades-old academic framework dives into the social construct of race that has led to power structures that benefit certain racial groups. Critical race theory analyzes how racial discrimination has been embedded in social structures, economic policies and laws. Then, it shows how this discrimination has led to disparate outcomes.

It’s college-level sociological thinking beyond the scope of K-12 education, but there’s still a large push to stop the concept and related studies from being taught in K-12 schools. 

Where did the CRT debate come from?

In a short time, critical race theory [CRT] morphed from a niche academic subject to a full-blown political rally cry. The concept term has appeared in school board meetings, statehouses and at political rallies. 

How? 

‘Divisive concepts’ is the language floating within many of the proposed bills. The term originated in an executive order signed in September 2020 by former President Donald Trump, which banned certain types of diversity training in federal agencies and included a list of ideas deemed “divisive.”  

The Trump order said that while America has made much progress, today, “many people are pushing a different vision of America that is grounded in hierarchies based on collective social and political identities rather than in the inherent and equal dignity of every person as an individual.”

Protesters against racism and police brutality march down P.J. McArdle Roadway from Mount Washington on June 7, 2020. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

The ideology, the order continued, is rooted in the false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country; that some people, simply because of their race or sex, are oppressors; and that racial and sexual identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans.

This all came following a summer of Black Lives Matter protests, legislative attacks on voting rights and the publishing of the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project. The project, published in 2019,  aims to tell a story of the country’s history by centering slavery in the story of America’s founding. Trump condemned the project and deemed it progressive propaganda.

President Joe Biden revoked Trump’s executive order, but an Education Week investigation revealed that a web of individuals and conservative organizations have been writing model legislation and supporting state-level bills.

Critical race theory in PA schools? 

More than 35 states since January 2021 introduced bills to attempt to restrict teaching CRT or limit what teachers can discuss in classrooms when it comes to racism, sexism and systemic inequity, according to Education Week, which has been tracking proposed legislation on the topic. In a handful of states, bills have been passed into law.

While the Pennsylvania Department of Education has said critical race theory “is not a part of or taught through any curriculum in Pennsylvania’s K-12 schools,” the debate is still playing out locally.

Demonstrators left signs from an August 2021 protest outside the district’s administration building. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

The controversy has led to heated school board meetings and even the ousting of school leadership. The Mars Area School District was one of the first in the region to enact regulations when in August 2021 its board unanimously voted to ban teaching critical race theory in classrooms.

A “curriculum transparency” bill pushed by Pennsylvania lawmakers made it to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk. Wolf vetoed the bill, calling it a “dangerous and harmful imposition.”  

“Under the guise of transparency, this legislation politicizes what is being taught in our public schools,” Wolf said in his veto message.

Opponents to CRT see it as an effort to rewrite American history and convince white people they are inherently racist and should feel guilty because of the advantages created by systems that favor white people. They also worry about the impact this education could have on the self-esteem of their child

But it’s clear the U.S. school system teaches history from a Eurocentric perspective, said Christel Temple, professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. For decades, many stories from marginalized or minority groups have been minimized or went untold altogether. 

“It even begins with the table of contents,” Temple said. “We [Black people] are peripheral.” 

But it’s necessary to teach youth to think beyond the historical facts they’ve been given.

“Black history is American history and international history,” said Medina Jackson, director of engagement at the University of Pittsburgh’s P.R.I.D.E. program. “When we don’t teach Black history, we are missing vital information about how this country came to be and many societal advances.”

It wasn’t until Temple was a college history major that she recognized the history lessons she learned were something to be turned over in your mind, rather than accepted outright. 

Temple recalled the story of William Tucker as an example. Tucker was the first recorded African-American birth in 1624, five years after enslaved people were first brought to American shores. 

“…You’re going to bypass five years of Africans being in the colonies and then tout the first recorded birth. There are many more, but that’s the first one recorded,” Temple said.

This theme emerges repeatedly: stories throughout history that don’t accurately or fully illustrate the experience of African Americans in the building of America as we know it. 

Pushback to CRT, Temple said, stems from “the desire to conceal negative things that happened in the past to which, you know, they still practice some of those values that allowed the negative things to happen.”

Why teach about race in schools? 

Supporters of more inclusive and diverse curricula in schools say they’re pushing for curricula reflective of all students because it’s critical for kids to see themselves in what they’re learning and learn lessons reflective of all American experiences.

“Children need to learn about themselves as racial and cultural beings, learn about others across differences, and learn about fairness and lack of fairness in society,” Jackson said. 

“They cannot contribute solutions to society’s ills if we don’t fully equip them with the knowledge of what the problems are, how we’ve worked to address those challenges and resistance to oppression for empowerment. We can’t expect them to not perpetuate racism nor can we expect them to actively challenge racism if we don’t educate them on what it is and how it shows up in everyday life and across systems.”

Parents and school leaders find themselves caught in the middle of a debate that at the heart asks: Which history do we acknowledge and how do we teach it to our kids? 

We must become “master communicators with a high cultural competency” to navigate these talks, Temple said. “You know how to be clear. You know how to be unflinching and stand your ground.”

Parents are being bombarded with information and perspectives. 

It can be challenging to navigate discussions that explain race and the ongoing debate to your children in a way that won’t trigger or traumatize but enlighten and encourage. 

How can parents accurately explain CRT, the pushback and other race-related matters in an age-appropriate way? Local experts weigh in.

  • Talk about race with a smile, whenever possible.

Put your stern face away, Temple said, in exchange for a pleasant disposition.

“When we talk about race, you need to do it with a smile,” Temple said. “I mean, you have to let your fifth grader know with a smile that this is OK and the smile does that.”

  • Listen and validate.

“I think it’s very important before a parent would say anything on the matter to really listen and validate the concerns and quite honestly, the pain of the children,” said Father Paul Abernathy, chief executive officer of the Neighborhood Resilience Project and priest of St. Moses the Black Orthodox Church.

Jackson added that parents should never shush their kids’ questions or observations on race issues. Instead, “let them know this is safe to discuss.” If you don’t have answers to questions in the moment, let them know you’ll follow up when you have more information and time.

  • Put it into context.

Once parents have validated concerns and fears, Abernathy said it’s important to let them know they are part of a larger community. It’s “our work as parents to put this pain again in a historical context so that these children honestly don’t feel alone in their pain, but they know that their pain is actually in a broader legacy of many people who understand and have experienced this kind of pain for many generations.”

Rev. Paul Abernathy is the priest at St. Moses the Black Orthodox Church in the Hill District and CEO of the Neighborhood Resilience Project. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Temple said when news of police shootings were impacting her son, together they would make crafts and bake his favorite dishes as ways to celebrate the resilience of Black people.

“We have to give our children a sense of our own culture’s survival, a sense of understanding ancestry,” Temple said. “We get to move on from it and we can cry but we don’t wallow in that misery.”

  • Help them to record their own history.

Abernathy also said to use conversations about race as an opportunity for the kids to see they’re part of a history of resilience and triumph.

“Use this as an opportunity for these children to record their own history. Because this is a story that must be recorded in our history, just as we have recorded the stories of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King,” Abernathy said.

  • Give kids age-appropriate media, picture books, tools and resources to learn and draw their own conclusions.

Use media and books that don’t convey stereotypes and have a variety of characteristics, from voice accents to experiences to interests to physical features, Jackson said.

Curious about resources to keep the conversation with your child going?

Here are resources for kids from birth to 18 to learn more:

  • “Antiracist Baby” by Ibram X. Kendi (Ages: infant to 3)
  • “No!: My First Book of Protest” by Julie Merberg (Ages: 3 months+)
  • “Let’s Talk About Race” by Julius Lester, illustrated by Karen Barbour (Ages 4-8)
  • “Freedom’s School” by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome (Ages 5+)
  • “Still I Rise: A Cartoon History of African Americans” by Roland Laird with Taneshia Nash Laird (Ages 8+)
  • “Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness (Ordinary Terrible Things)” by Anastasia Higginbotham (Ages 8-12)
  • “This Book is Anti-Racist” by Tiffany Jewell (Ages: 11-15)
  • “The Annotated African American Folktales” by Henry Louis Gates (Ages 16+)
  • 100 race-conscious things you can say to your child to advance racial justice

TyLisa C. Johnson is the audience engagement editor for PublicSource. She can be reached at tylisa@publicsource.org or on Twitter at @tylisawrites.

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TyLisa C. Johnson

TyLisa C. Johnson is the Audience Engagement Editor at PublicSource. She’s passionate about telling compelling human stories that intersect with complex issues affecting marginalized groups. Before joining...