Conversations with Children: Communicating Complex Concepts
by Monica McDougal
I work with kids in a garden at an early learning center in East Nashville. The students I work with are diverse, coming from different backgrounds, races, classes, etc. During my first week facilitating in the garden, a situation occurred that caught me off guard. A white female student pointed at one of her black female classmates and said, “Her hair is weird.” The student’s hair was in twists with beads on the ends. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. I chose to let the classroom teacher who also overheard the comment take the lead. She quickly told the student to be kind and that was that.
I’ve been thinking about this situation a lot and how what was done in the moment wasn’t enough. I’ve struggled with how I responded and how I should’ve and could’ve done more. Recently, I had a chance to work through this situation with my supervisor, Marie, and with the other BHB Fellows, Krysten and Tieranny. I presented the situation to them and talked through my thoughts and questions surrounding the event. Then, we dove deeper into the various elements of the situation and systemic issues at play.
We began our conversation by talking about how white supremacy constructs our society’s beauty standards. This is something that all three of us have become aware of as we’ve gotten older. We know that everything from the advertisements we see to the statements we hear from others have constructed our beliefs about what beauty is. Clearly, we begin learning what these standards are from a very early age which is what led to the incident in the garden.
Our conversation ended up focusing on one major question: How do you communicate the concepts of white supremacy and intersectionality to children?
The issues of white supremacy and intersectionality are huge and complex. These are topics that not even adults fully understand. That being said, white supremacy and intersectionality are at play in our lives and in the lives of the children I work with. When I found myself faced with a situation where a child was exhibiting white supremacy in her language, I froze. Looking at the crestfallen look on her classmate’s face, I knew that comment would follow her throughout her life. She will hear racist comments about her hair, her culture, and her being for the rest of her life. Neither student knew the full implications of that comment, so where do you even begin?
Marie, Krysten, Tieranny, and I spent quite a bit of time dissecting this question. The teacher told the student who made the comment that we need to be nice to our classmates. That’s absolutely true, but it felt like it wasn’t enough. Yes, the comment wasn’t kind, but why wasn’t it kind? We came to the conclusion that maybe the best place to start is to ask the students questions to gain more clarity on what’s going on in their minds.
- Why does that student think her classmate’s hair is weird?
- Does she see how her comment made her classmate feel?
- How would she feel if someone told her that her hair was weird?
- Just because something is different, does that make it weird?
We still don’t have a solution or a full-proof plan, but our conversation was really helpful for me. First of all, it showed me that I’m not the only one who feels lost when it comes to having conversations about complex concepts with children. That was a struggle that we all related to in some way. Also, our conversation created a great dialogue among the four of us about how white supremacy has informed our own thoughts about what beauty is. Finally, speaking with my cohorts reminded me that it’s okay if I don’t know where to begin. We didn’t necessarily know where to begin when discussing this case study, but simply talking it through helped guide our thoughts. That can work with kids too. Just ask questions. Hopefully, by simply starting a conversation, we can get folks thinking about things differently.
Monica McDougal is a 2016 graduate of Washburn University. She is currently a Belle H. Bennett fellow at Scarritt Bennett Center where she is exploring social justice at Plant the Seed.