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Primerrily Talks Race... and “Anti-Racism” curriculum

What we're reading on the Front Porch: Naomi Schaefer Riley opens up about her kids and their "elite" education in racism.

With all the talk and concern about race and racism these days, our young kids are bound to hear, overhear, or see (in media imagery or words) something that sounds confusing or tense. From our kid’s perspective, the biggest issue of the day is, for example, “what’s for snack?” or “how long is recess?” and the biggest non-issue is the color of someone’s skin.

For instance, back in February (well before reheated racial tensions took center stage) my kindergartener was excited to tell me what she learned about Martin Luther King Jr. She talked about his bravery, his leadership, and his famous dream. She then asked, "What does black and white mean?" In Socratic Primerrily style, I asked questions in response to her question:

Mama: "Ah, good question. What do you think it means?"

Daughter: "I don't know."

Mama: "Well hm...maybe, are there any white kids in your class?" [Hint: the answer is yes]

Daughter: "I don't know!"

Mama: "Well, are there any black kids in your class?" [Hint: the answer is yes]

Daughter: "I told you, I don't know! I didn't ask anyone! [pause] So... am I black or white?"

[Hint: With our last name of Choi and my maiden name of Pillinger, you might guess that the proceeding conversation itself is enough for its own delightfully complex post -- which I'll save for another time.]

Reflecting on my kid's declaration of "I don't know! I didn't ask anyone!" -- I love this. At this age, with no external influence, the focus for what makes others notable consist of observations like, "she made me laugh," or "he shared his toy." So how do we cherish and continue this mindset, while also effectively addressing the topic of race, if/when it comes up?

At these young ages, we value referencing biology in race-related talks; in other words, very simply explaining skin pigment which exists in all plant and animal cells (to which your little biologist asks, “what’s a pigment . . . and a cell?” A great opportunity to talk applied science!). We also find simple analogies make for a fun and digestible response: people of different races are like people having different hair color, hair texture, eye color, or attached/detached earlobes (that’ll get a giggle). Sure, some people have brown eyes, black eyes, blue eyes, green eyes… sure, these are differences, but they really make NO difference!

We also admire talks about race in the context of age-appropriate American history. Most famously, a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his determination for America to live up to its founding vision. We echo his dream for judgment not by color but rather by character:

"And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal '. . . I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

We draw from the story of courageous Rosa Parks, employing her agency in the face of adversity. To our young kids, we analogize it to the basic lesson of never bullying others because they look or act different from you (or, for any reason, for that matter). The more basic this understanding is, and the less complex we make it, the better it digests into our kids’ character. In other words, OF COURSE we finish dinner before moving on to dessert; OF COURSE we buckle our seatbelts in the car; OF COURSE the color of someone’s skin, shape of someone’s eyes, or style of someone’s hair has absolutely no effect on how we treat that person . . . we treat people with respect and dignity.

All this to say, the friends on Primerrily’s Front Porch understand there are a number of ways to discuss issues relating to race, ethnicity, and skin color. We may not view all of them as being equally effective. We also may view some of them as being detrimental, as one of our favorite American Enterprise Institute thinkers, Naomi Schaefer Riley, discusses in her recent Commentary Magazine piece, “My Kids and Their Elite Education in Racism.”

Naomi reflects on “the madness of our times” vis-a-vis the anti-racism curriculum at her children’s school -- which, by the way, is not confined within the walls of this suburban New York private school. Public, private, and charter schools around the country are adopting a racialization of education. She explains why this is bad for the individual student (of any racial background) and provokes further divisiveness in our country.

While we respect any individual, regardless of her/his race, who contributes to a thoughtful discussion about race, we find Naomi’s perspective uniquely interesting. She includes an anecdote about how her mixed race children – half-black and half-white – laugh when asked if they experience racism at their school. Does this imply their sense of a loaded question? Does this imply there are no racist behaviors at school? Not necessarily the point here. One individual’s experience does not make a sweeping call for others. Rather, our takeaway is in how her children process their range of experiences at school. Like the words of Martin Luther King: the color of their skin has no effect on the content of their (upbeat and unfazed) character.

"The experience of being the mother of mixed-race kids has only confirmed to me that we are fortunate to live in the most tolerant, open-minded country in the world."

We don’t attribute the Riley children’s story to coincidence. If the school had it their way, every student of the woke’s oppressed and marginalized class would be echoing the calls of victimization and bigotry. And every student of the woke’s privileged racial and gender class would be groveling in guilt and apology. Instead, with the primary influence of their parents, Naomi’s kids are fine… at least for now, she says:

The good people of my community and others around the country are told [by the Woke] that no matter how welcoming they are, how well they treat others, there is nothing they can do to make up for systemic racism. Will they begin to fret over every interaction, fearing that they could say or do the wrong thing?...

The modern agenda of “anti-racism” may mean that otherwise caring adults will treat my children differently, or just keep their distance entirely. So, yes, my children are okay. But I don’t know for how long.

So while there are large-scale consequences from woke philosophy/curriculum that need to be redressed, we can continue to focus on building the characters of our kids. No matter how challenging their external environment gets, we want our kids to know that they own their agency. In other words, they must know how their internal character will dictate how they process and overcome challenging situations and negative people. We admire Naomi’s approach to parenting, character-building, and talking about race.

Take a look at an excerpt from her work below (but we highly recommend the full read here):

...I did start to wonder whether, in their relentless focus on racism (or sexism or homophobia), elite schools have lost sight of their job of simply teaching kids how to behave like adults. Recently, the KIPP academy network of charter schools announced that it is “retiring ‘Work hard. Be nice’ as KIPP’s national slogan.” Why? Because it “diminishes the significant effort required to dismantle systemic racism, places value on being compliant and submissive, supports the illusion of meritocracy, and does not align with our vision of students being free to create the future they want.”

Working hard and being nice may not be the only things schools should require of students, but they do seem like the bare minimum. Asking 11-year-olds to focus instead on combating systemic racism and creating the future they want seems both unrealistic and unhelpful when teaching them to navigate individual relationships with their peers.

But Rye Country Day and schools like it want to give students a political agenda, not a character education...

When I asked my children whether they experienced racism at RCDS, they laugh. Their classmates were never anything less than kind to them. Maybe any aggressions were too “micro” to be noticed. But the parents, too, seemed considerate and warm. And this, perhaps, is what worries me most. In the 13 years since I gave birth to my first child, I have sighed occasionally at the silly things people say to me—“What a nice tan your children have,” “What does their father look like?”—but the experience of being the mother of mixed-race kids has only confirmed to me that we are fortunate to live in the most tolerant, open-minded country in the world. There are parents at our synagogue, our schools, and in our neighborhood who have welcomed my children into their homes, who have fed them and cared for them, and who have treated them like family.

I fear that the message currently emanating from teachers and administrators and politicians and pundits will harm those relationships. The new anti-racism, with its endless cycles of victimization and demands for reparations—as opposed to the model of teaching people to aspire to colorblindness and providing everyone with equal opportunity—requires all of us (and children in particular) to see race all the time. This new model will turn what would otherwise be ordinary, healthy relationships—friendships, even—into dramas with racially defined roles for all the characters.


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