One night when I was in graduate school, I stayed up late talking with a friend. Our conversation meandered from one topic to another, and I ended up telling her about my family: my parents who came to the U.S. from Jamaica, and the Caribbean traditions that shaped my experience growing up Black in America.
My friend, who was white, listened with interest. “I’m jealous,” she said. “You have so much culture and tradition. I’m just plain old American.”
Over a decade later, I was sitting in a professional development workshop on race and racism. The speaker asked participants to partner up and share stories about our personal experience of our race, within a cultural context.
“I’m having a hard time with this prompt,” my partner, a white colleague, said. “I don’t have any stories. I’m just plain old American.”
The words rang in my ears, and I thought of my grad school friend. “I’m just plain old American.” What did that make me?
When you grow up white in America, you learn that you are simply American. If you’re not white, you learn that you have to qualify your identity: African American, Asian American, Latin American. Children pick this up at a very young age. Non-white children figure out that they are different, they are “other,” they are not the standard; the world was not designed for them. White children learn the opposite—that they are at the center and that others are defined by their difference.
As we now face a long-overdue reckoning with systemic racism in our country, I wonder whether we are finally ready to address the way we raise our children to understand their own race. What would happen if we taught white children that they are not just Americans, but white Americans or European Americans? That they are not the yardstick against which everyone else is measured?
Teaching them to be aware of their racial identity would allow them to better understand the privileges that accompany that identity, and to see how those privileges shape their lives and relationships. And if they were taught how the concept of “whiteness” was created, they could be on the lookout for ways to disrupt and dismantle the toxic racism that robs us all of our full humanity.
Social and emotional learning (SEL) has an important role to play in that education. At Open Circle, the evidence-based SEL program for school-age children that I direct, we work to develop children’s skills for recognizing and managing emotions, empathy, positive relationships, and problem solving. These competencies promote intrapersonal, interpersonal, and cognitive knowledge, skills, and attitudes that support lifelong success. One of the core competencies we focus on, as a necessary foundation for the others, is self-awareness. That self-awareness must include race.
There have already been calls to incorporate a racial lens into SEL, which can actually do harm when it is based on white, cisgender, patriarchal norms and values. “Transformative SEL,” a concept developed by Dr. Rob Jagers of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), elevates the importance of calling out and attending to racial identity within the field of SEL. Based on his work, CASEL says that developing self-awareness with an equity lens can help students and adults “examine what it means to belong to a group or community, including how ethnicity and race impacts one’s sense of self and beliefs,” and “recognize biases and understand how thoughts, feelings, and actions are interconnected.” Also: “SEL competencies can be leveraged to develop justice-oriented, global citizens, and nurture inclusive school and district communities.”
What would happen if we taught white children that they are not just Americans, but white Americans or European Americans? That they are not the yardstick against which everyone else is measured?
These sound like exactly the kinds of citizens and communities we need, now more than ever.
The Center for Reaching & Teaching the Whole Child (CRTWC) also integrates SEL and equity, focusing on bringing SEL skills together with culturally responsive teaching practices. It points out that cultural competency is as important as social and emotional competency when it comes to providing a foundation for academic achievement and lifelong success. That means that an understanding of context is key—whether it is one’s family, community or the broader cultural and sociopolitical environment.
These organizations have led the way in thinking about how SEL should incorporate race and equity. Now we must do the work of transforming these theories into action. Integrating SEL and equity needs to be a priority as we consider how education must change in response to the challenges we face.
Though there are no clear frameworks around how to fully merge these two approaches, Open Circle is working on developing one. It needs to start with funders willing to invest in research and building the capacity of programs for thought partnership and curriculum development. We must take an integrative approach that calls on the leadership, expertise and lived experiences of BIPOC who are not often elevated as the experts in this field, but who have done this work in communities for generations.
In the midst of a pandemic, the challenges are many. But we can’t wait any longer to make talking about race an integral part of our children’s education.
If my grad school friend and my colleague at the professional development workshop had been taught to understand the racial context of their lives, they might have been able to see that they were not just “plain old American.” They are white Americans, and I’m a Black American, and we all grew up within a cultural context, with its own values, beliefs and traditions that shape our understanding of ourselves and our relationships with others.
We are doing white children a disservice by teaching them to think of themselves as not possessing race within a racialized society. We are doing children of color a disservice by teaching them to think of themselves as “other.” Imagine how our society might change for the better if the next generation can be taught differently.