#childsafety | What to do when you encounter racism.

A young black girl playing with blocks on the floor.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by McIninch/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

I am seeking advice on how to push back against racism in teaching settings. I am a young white teacher at a school where the staff and students are mostly white. I have heard my colleagues make racist remarks about our handful of nonwhite students and families many times. I am actively working on my confrontation and communication skills to be better able to challenge these remarks when they happen. I am confident in my ability to push back when my colleagues say things that are openly and explicitly racist. However, I’m not sure what to do when faced with statements that have racist implications but don’t actually mention race.

“As white teachers, we have an obligation to speak up when we witness bias or prejudice in the school system.”

— Katie Holbrook

I constantly think about an incident where an administrator told me (regarding a Black child who was struggling to adjust to classroom routines): “You have to break her like a horse.” I was so shocked that I did not respond, which I hugely regret. To me this statement reads as obviously racist (I’ve never heard white children compared to animals or discussed in such violent terms), but I’m sure that if I had pointed that out, the administrator would have denied being racist and would have become hostile. What can I do to push back against these statements in the future and shift my school culture so that students of color are not spoken about this way?

—Hoping for Change

Dear Hoping for Change,

I’m glad that you feel confident in your ability to challenge racism when you hear it at work. This is so important—as white teachers, we have an obligation to speak up when we witness bias or prejudice in the school system.

I recently attended a training called Speak Up at School: How to Respond to Everyday Prejudice, Bias, and Stereotypes. The training utilized four strategies from Teaching Tolerance: interrupt, question, educate, and echo. In the case of this administrator’s comment, here’s what three of the strategies might sound like:

1. Interrupt: I think it’s racist to compare a Black child to an animal. You interrupt bias by speaking out against it. Of course, as you mentioned, white people often get so defensive when called racist that they double down rather than engage in the conversation with you. I think the well-being of the child is more important than the hurt feelings of an adult educator. But at the same time, you ideally want to have a productive conversation so that the administrator can understand why their comment is wrong. One way to achieve this is through the next strategy: question.

2. Question: What do you mean by that? Keep in mind that your question shouldn’t be rhetorical or aggressive. You genuinely want to better understand their thinking. This is not to suggest that their thinking is correct, but to open up a conversation where you can hopefully help the administrator see for themselves why this phrase is problematic. If it’s obvious from their response that they don’t, you can move on to the third strategy.

3. Educate: There is a long, ugly history of comparing Black people to animals; we shouldn’t repeat this history in schools. While the administrator probably thought that they were “just using a figure of speech,” they should be aware of how this comment contributes to racist treatment of Black children in schools.

In the last strategy, echo, you affirm what someone else has already said to interrupt bias. For instance, if another colleague had pointed out that the administrator’s comment was racist, you could agree with them. Adding your voice as a show of support makes the protest more powerful. Hopefully, if you are persistent, allies in your school will echo you as well.

I understand how the shock of hearing a racist comment can feel paralyzing. I too have felt this way and later regretted not speaking up. In the moment, you may not feel prepared with a pithy interruption or the knowledge to educate, but you can always ask, “What do you mean?”

I also want to acknowledge that speaking to an administrator can be tricky: You may fear reprisal for calling out racist comments, particularly if this administrator is also your evaluator. You could send the administrator an email, which would give them time to think about what you’ve said before discussing the issue in person. You could also ask an ally to support you during the conversation, ideally another authority figure, such as a sympathetic administrator, department chair, or veteran teacher. I do think it’s best to bring it up with the person who made the comment before escalating to a higher authority.

I recommend you peruse the resources from Teaching Tolerance: Speak Up at School, which could benefit your entire school. If you want to lead the charge in creating a more equitable school culture, check out the Anti-Defamation League’s program No Place for Hate.

Thank you so much for writing in, and for working to create more equitable schools. It’s not easy, but it’s right.

—Ms.Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

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My child is going to be starting first grade, and we absolutely love our neighborhood public elementary school. The school is slated to undergo much needed significant renovations and modernizations over the next one and a half to two years, and the school will be temporarily moved to vacant land on a middle school campus. The whole school will be in portables until the renovations are completed. This has caused a lot of controversy in the community, and many parents have threatened, and some are moving forward with, pulling their kids out of the school to avoid this situation.

I have been planning on keeping my child at their current school. As time goes on, though, I’m feeling less than confident with my decision, because I am worried about how the 100 percent portable situation will affect their development. Also, some parents are taking the opportunity to enroll their kids in very expensive private schools. They may get a huge edge on my child if they end up in the same classes in middle or high school. The school is currently a top-rated school, but I worry that so many parents are pulling out their kids that the school quality may be affected if there are fewer students.

My child is a very well-adjusted, sociable child who has been performing at or above grade level all year. Could you provide an opinion on this move and whether I should be considering moving my child?

—Portable Learning

Dear Portable,

Apart from the fact that I’m not certain we should be having school in-person at all this year, I can’t imagine why you would need to pull your child out. I understand that change is different and scary, but there’s no reason why portable school buildings—sometimes called “modulars” or “annexes”—would affect your child’s development. They are a little ugly on the outside, sure, but inside, they look just like a regular classroom. A quick Google image search can ease any concerns about the physical space. Ventilation-wise, they’re actually easier to keep clean than a whole school building, which is a plus in the midst of an airborne pandemic.

In fact, if there’s flight from the school, you may end up with some of the benefits of a fancy expensive private school without the costs. School funding is a complicated mix of federal, state, and local taxes, but depending on how your district allocates and assigns that money, if parents are leaving your school but still living in town (and thus still paying property taxes), the funding for your school may remain but be distributed now to a smaller population. Even if the funding drops, it is always tied to a preset standard for money allocated per student. That means as much or more money per kid, as well as smaller classes, which would absolutely benefit any child.

I’d stop worrying about what all of these other families are doing. Really. You say your public school is top-rated, and you love it. You say you worry these kids will have a leg up later academically. Why? Is it a given that private schools offer better academics? No. Sure, they may offer smaller class size, but with these families’ departure, you may get that anyway.

The only question portables raise for me are logistical. Where are the bathrooms? How do kids get to and from bathrooms? What about when they have to go to specials like art and music? How often are these transitions taking place? How will they be monitored during the transitions for safety and for behavior? How equipped are the portables to handle climate control? These are the questions that I would be asking—not because I don’t think that your child’s school has an answer. I’m sure they do! But those are the concerns I’d have as a parent. Developmentally and academically, your kid will be fine.

—Ms. Sarnell (preschool special education teacher, New York)

My husband is a high school teacher with 19 years of experience (15 years at his current school). I have been a stay-at-home mom for the last five years. For the last seven months, I have been working for a startup/small business. My return to the workforce has been better than my wildest expectations. My problem is that I am working for a medical cannabis grow and dispensary. We are in a state where medicinal cannabis has been legal for seven years and was voted in by a large margin of the population. One of the newly elected City Council members even operates a dispensary. My husband is concerned as to the effects of my work on his career. The dispensary is poised for growth so my involvement could become more publicly known, and I don’t like hiding what I’m doing/pretending I’m not doing anything. My question is: Am I endangering my teacher husband by pursuing this opportunity?

—Hidden Talents

Dear Hidden Talents,

No, you are not threatening your husband’s career in any way. Unless you are engaged in criminal behavior, your career should not and will not impact your husband’s position in his school.

The same holds true if your husband was an attorney, a police officer, a pediatrician, a fire fighter, a pharmacist, a judge, or any number of other occupations that rely upon the public trust. A person’s pursuit of a perfectly legal line of work should not impact their spouse’s career.

Consider this: In addition to teaching, I write novels, tell personal stories onstage, perform stand-up, and publish recordings of those stories on social media and a YouTube channel. The content of my novels and stories is sometimes R-rated and often reveals less-than-savory aspects of my past, including bad decisions, questionable methods, and even time spent in jail.

But my writing and performing career takes place well beyond the four walls of my school, so it has no bearing on my teaching career. In fact, my school district has been exceptionally supportive of my writing and speaking career.

Similarly, your career—as long as it’s legal—has no bearing on your husband’s teaching career. Given that cannabis has been illegal for so many years, its use for medicinal and/or recreational purposes may retain a certain stigma in pockets of the country for several years, but that potential stigma means nothing when it comes to your husband’s profession.

If he’s an excellent teacher, that is all that matters. If it makes you feel better, I also consulted an employment attorney, and he agrees. Nothing to worry about.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

Our son just turned 9 months old about five days ago. For his well visit, we did the 9-month ASQ-3 questionnaire. We are concerned and are not sure if he needs early intervention. His pediatrician says to wait as he has been slow on his other milestones (about a month and a half later than average for rolling over for example).

But I know it might not be smart to wait. Our baby is not making da, ga, ka, ba sounds yet. He is babbling a lot by doing vowel sounds like ooh, eeh, awws and “talking to us,” but no “mama” or “dada” yet. He does not copy or repeat the sounds we make (except when we blow raspberries) and does not follow commands like, “Come here” or “Give it to me,” etc. He also does not play peekaboo or clap your hand games with us. He does like the games and pays attention but does not mimic the hand motions.

We talk, read, sing to him all the time, and he pays attention. I do not know what we are doing wrong. He also cannot crawl forward yet (though he does go backward and in a circle). He can stand well but is not cruising yet either. He plays with toys well. He can feed himself, but his pincher grasp is still in progress and sometimes he still rakes the food instead of pinching it. When he is feeding himself a cracker or biscuit, near the end, his fingers get in the way of him biting it, and he hasn’t figured out yet how to fix his grip. We have been showing him.

He is a very happy, giggly baby and seems really engaged and alert, great eye contact, wants to play with us, have us watch him, etc., but clearly we have screwed something up. We are first-time parents. We also took the M-CHAT autism survey, and that seemed good overall. But he does not play pretend make believe yet (like drinking from an empty cup, etc.), and he is not climbing on things yet—he can’t crawl yet.

I have no idea if he is interested in other children because we are social distancing. But he seems to love looking around at the cats and at what we are doing. Are we overreacting, or what should we do? What games should we be doing with him? Can we do early intervention over video?

—Failed Parent at 9 Months

Dear FPa9M,

Hoo, boy. Let’s make one thing clear: You’re not a failure. You. Are. Not. A. Failure.

You are, however, a little misinformed about how developmental milestones work. With babies, the whole “your child should be doing X by around 9 months” really means “your child should be doing X some time in between 7 and 11 months, and honestly they may not do it, but it’s really fine either way.” Baby milestones are amorphous things. There’s a reason the expression is “you can’t run before you walk” and not “you can’t walk before you crawl,” and that reason is that some babies don’t crawl. To take that idea further, some babies don’t perform certain milestones. Are those babies delayed? Generally, no. It just means they don’t do that specific thing.

Additionally, some of the milestones you mentioned aren’t ones we specifically expect to see yet. A pincer grasp (that is, pinching instead of raking to pick things up) develops between 8 and 12 months, meaning it’s something I’d expect him to be working on but not perfect at. Likewise, babbling or following simple directions are skills that develop between 9 and 12 months. Cruising and pretend-play are outright not expected yet. Especially given that your child has historically been about a month behind, your doctor’s advice to give him time is spot on.

We determine whether a child needs early intervention (which, for the record, can be done via Zoom, but I haven’t heard any practitioners doing it with kids under 2 over Zoom) by following guidelines about how big a delay must be. In New York, where I teach, a child must exhibit a delay of at least 30 percent of their age in a single domain (communication, fine motor, gross motor, cognitive, etc.) or at least a 20 percent delay in two or more domains to qualify for services. Thirty percent of your child’s age is around three months. Is he three months behind in any of these skills? It doesn’t sound like it to me, but if you’re still not convinced, take a look at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for his age and see for yourself.

If you’re still anxious, that’s OK. I understand. Raising a child is hard and the scary part about early intervention services is that they are constantly telling you that the earlier you start them, the better the outcome. That’s true, but only if they’re needed, and it doesn’t sound like they are. What you can do instead is, first and foremost, stop calling yourself a failure. Negative self-talk isn’t healthy for you, and furthermore, you may be subconsciously pressuring your child. That may not affect him now, but it absolutely will as he gets older. He’s developing at his own pace, and even if his pace isn’t textbook perfect, you pressuring him to develop faster sure as heck isn’t helping. Keep playing with your child! Engage him as often as you can! Play lots of games, and try to follow his lead if something seems to interest him. Fundamental to developmental psychology is the idea that babies are naturally learners who want to engage with their environment, and it sounds like your son is trying to do that. But let him engage and learn at his own pace.

—Ms. Sarnell (preschool special education teacher, New York)

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