Across the country, young children are turning to the adults in their lives to help make sense of racism and policing. The uprisings sparked by Floyd’s death kicked off in May, when many schools had already shut down for the summer, and much of the work of explaining this movement has fallen to families. But as schools prepare to reopen, conversations about police violence may move to classrooms—both real and virtual.
Howard Stevenson, the Constance Clayton Professor of Urban Education at the University of Pennsylvania, helps educators and families address race with children. Families of color have long sought him out as they confront race-based inequities around discipline and curriculum at school, he says. But this summer’s protests have led to a significant uptick in requests from white families and educators. “Since George Floyd died there has not been a week yet when I haven’t spoken to a new school,” Stevenson told me in mid-August. “For us it’s been nonstop.” Adults often have to examine their own assumptions and biases before they can facilitate conversations about police violence, he said—especially given that 79 percent of public K–12 teachers are white.
For students, too, prior experience of police violence will differ vastly between homes, schools, and communities. Some may have witnessed a family member’s negative run-in with police, or live in a neighborhood that’s regularly patrolled. “In a low-income community, school is not the place where young people are learning about the police,” says Micia Mosely, founding director of the Black Teacher Project, a leadership-development program based in Oakland, California. Some students have had bad experiences with the police themselves, even within their schools; the viral footage of 6-year-old Kaia Rolle being restrained by police and removed from her Orlando grade school in February was a reminder that many administrators partner with law enforcement, sometimes to discipline terrified children.
Teaching all young children about police violence requires some understanding of structural racism. Educators have to reject any instinct to lie or sugarcoat, says Francie Latour, who co-directs Wee the People, a Boston-based social-justice project for kids between the ages of 4 and 12. Her organization offers a workshop called “What Is Racism?” to schools in the city and its suburbs, some of which have student bodies that are largely Black and brown and some of which are predominantly white. The workshop is used with children as young as kindergartners. In it, the facilitators start by challenging an idea that many young children have—that racism simply means being unkind to someone because they’re Black.
Instead, Latour tells them, “It’s a big unfairness in the world, and our job is to get really good at noticing the many ways that racism shows up, because sometimes it’s hard to see.” Sometimes it’s about having a freedom denied because you’re Black. It can also mean having some doors open effortlessly because you’re white. The group reads a book called Milo’s Museum, about a Black child who goes to a museum and notices the lack of cultural contributions from people who look like her. It’s a tool that helps young people understand that racism can be embedded in institutions and culture. “Before we read the book, we challenge kids, ‘Okay, we’ve got our binoculars on. See if you can tell us who is racist to Milo,’” Latour told me. “They struggle with it because that’s all they’ve been taught: It’s a deliberate action by a bad person.”