In this episode:
My kid made a racist comment that hurt a classmate. Today we talk about our responsibilities as the people in charge of guiding and raising him, our accountability process, and how we’re responding through a transformative justice parenting lens.
“I can’t think of any time when someone has said or done something racist or ableist to me, and had anyone take responsibility – either from the community, or from bystanders*, or people who did the harm, who were like, “Hey, let’s repair this”
*(oh wait no this happened once, and this bystander still holds my heart.)
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Hello, friends, it’s Ashia. And we’re doing the Raising Luminaries podcast, season two, episode two.
I had all kinds of cool ideas planned for talking about, oh… What are we in, we’re in March? Processing with healthy anger, and maybe even prepping some appreciation and gratitude discussions for April.
But true to form with the work that we do as parents and justice workers, I guess, or people seeking justice and smashing the kyriarchy – we lay these plans and then terrible things happen.
So we have to address and take this moment to revisit what went wrong, and how to not just recover, but how to heal this system a little bit further, so as to hopefully prevent things like this happening in the future.
Okay, so quickly, let’s discuss the topic of the week, which is what to do when your kid says something racist or otherwise hurts another kid.
And I really thought, because of my arrogance, and hubris, I thought I would have a couple more years before we set forth this accountability process that I’ve already created. But I thought I’d have a couple more years before we did this. I thought I also it’d be a little bit more nebulous, because I thought if my kids said something racist, or ableist or otherwise bigoted, it would be a couple levels down. It would be something that they could say like, “Oh, that’s racist because of a meme. And I just haven’t seen that meme yet.”
Or it would be tied deeper into cultural white supremacy, or the kyriarchy. And they just hadn’t drawn the connections yet.
But no, what happened was blatantly racist. Blatantly wrong. Something that we totally should have, and could have, avoided. There’s really no excuse for it. So this makes it a little bit more cut and dry.
So what do you do when your kid says something racist? Quickly, we’re going to just go over what we’re covering today, because it it might go on for a while, this is a long process. We’re going to go over what my kid – my youngest kid, he’s seven and a half, what he said and why it’s wrong.
We’re going to discuss what this process is actually looking like in real life for us, not just the theory. I usually talk more about theory, and examples from my own experience. But this is actually in real time, basically, starting this week.
And then what’s wrong with the current system that prepped us for this conflict to happen, which is part of a transformative justice response- seeing what are the different aspects coming together, what led to the conflict, right? Because it’s not just one person getting up in the morning deciding to be an asshole. It’s a whole bunch of things.
And that doesn’t remove the responsibility from the person who has caused harm or people who have caused harm. It’s just to get a deeper understanding of what’s setting us up in the system that this keeps happening. What we could do instead – small ideas to change the system.
This is early in the process before I’ve gotten full insight from the other family that my kid hurt. But this the starting process.
Then we’ll talk about what we definitely should not do – best, or…worst practices. We’ll talk about the guiding star on who should center, and why throughout the entire process, and then I’ll put in some bonus resources that I used to build my own accountability process, the one that my my family uses. Okay?
So this isn’t really a disclaimer so much as an admission. I am not an expert. Obviously. We’re walking through the imperfect process as we do with all Raising Luminaries resources. This isn’t like, “I did this. It’s solved everything!”
I’m just pointing out the challenges that we are having, and how we’re going through it. So that way, I don’t know, maybe five to 20 years from now we can look back and be like, “Well, that’s a really good example of what not to do. Because Ashia oyally fucked those kids up!”
So this just for for your edification, I guess. And then, quickly, let’s discuss language to get on the same track. So I’m going to refer to “harm” meaning something that one person does to another in this case, where it causes that person to have some lasting damage. So incidences of racism whether they’re verbal or physical, are forums of harm.
My kid said, and I’ll explain it in more detail later, but my kid says something racist to a child of color who has less racial privilege than my child (who is for many people white presenting.)
And this is going to have a potentially lasting effect on this other child. It’s definitely a clear cut sense of harm.
There’s also the concept of “hurt,” where sometimes if someone’s already carrying some some of that harm that someone else has done, sometimes we might accidentally poke that wound, and then cause some hurt. But they’re not doing further harm, it’s like poking a bruise.
In this case, my kid and what he has done is an active case of harm, not just hurting. Hurt can also be as a part of that if my kid is reminding his classmate that racism exists, and he doesn’t have much power over that, at the moment.
I use the term “harm-doer,” or “the person who has done harm” over terms like perpetrator or abuser, because those don’t seem to fit in this case. And also, the label of perpetrator or abuser kind of implies that the person who has done harm is a static thing, and they cannot change. That’s kind of like the bad guy /good guy binary that upholds the scaffolding of the kyriarchy and white supremacy. So I tend to go more with “person who has done harm.”
And then you have the “person who has been harmed.” In many cases and conflicts like this, the harm goes both ways. It’s just that one of the people’s probably done a little bit more harm, or has more privilege and power in the situation. In this case, it’s very cut and dry, there’s a person who completely out of the blue did not expect to be harmed, and then a person who has done harm.
I don’t usually use words like victim, which kind of sucks agency out of the person who has been targeted. Sometimes we use survivor, but in this case, I can use survivor in the person who was harmed interchangeably. Survivors kind of a strong word because it implies that there was physical violence, whereas – it was not any better, but it was linguistic.
So what is our responsibility when we harm others? And that’s going to be the question that we talk about, and basically the underlying theme for most of the stuff that we do for Raising Luminaries. If we’re trying to raise the next generation to be kind and courageous and smash the kyriarchy… And we understand that you can’t force other people to take accountability, you can only take accountability for yourself, you can’t control other people’s actions, you can’t manage the rest of the universe, the only people we can truly take responsibility for, are ourselves. As parents or guardians and educators, we can guide and provide resources to the people in our care. But we can’t actually control them. So this is really about – what is my responsibility as a parent, after this conflict has happened, or after my kid has done this thing? And what can I do based on the responses of the other people in my community? Okay, so, to take this out of the theoretical, let’s talk about what R2 said, and why it’s wrong.
I’m just going to quickly go over the email that I got from a teacher. I put R2 bed, opened up my computer and read this email after he was in bed and it seemed egregious enough that it was worth going back into his room turning the lights on and having a quick discussion with him before sending it back to school the next day.
So here’s a short paraphrase of the email from his teacher.
“So at the end of the day, students were cleaning the classroom and packing up. A student of color raised his dirty wipe and said ‘this is what my bath water or washcloth looks like after I take a bath.’ R2 proceeded to walk over to the boy and say, “Is that why” or “so that’s why your skin is that color” with a smirk on his face. The boy did not respond, but his face showed disappointment. I quietly pulled R2 to the side with the boy and quickly since it was dismissal. And I processed this with both of them. R2 acknowledged what he said. I asked if he understood how that how he made that boy feel. He agreed it was not necessary, kind, or a helpful comment or question and he apologized. I also spoke with the boy’s parents and let them know how it was dealt with. If you wouldn’t mind processing with R2 tonight and reiterating a message of kindness and respect for all that we try to reinforce and teach within our community that would be great. I know R2 is in tune with these values and that mistakes are a part of growing I’ll check in with both boys tomorrow morning.”
Unfortunately the next day The teacher wasn’t able to check in with them because teachers have a lot on their plate. But the in this case, I think the teacher did a really great job. And I’ll go over the things that she did really well and how that placed the ball into our court in terms of giving us everything we needed to take responsibility from there.
So when I read this, R2 hadn’t quite fallen asleep yet. When I did come into his room, I didn’t want to make it a big deal. I mean, it’s a big deal. I wanted to make it a big deal.
But I also didn’t want to like, I wasn’t going to drag him out of bed, get my belt out and start screaming at him for a few hours. I wanted to make sure that he knew that this was a conversation we needed to have, and it was worth waking him up for.
So I asked him. “Hey, so I heard that you said something racist at school today. Do you remember that?” And he said, “Yeah.”
And I said,” How do you feel about it?” And he’s like, “bad.”
I was like, “Okay.” and I asked, you know, “do you realize that you hurt your friend?” And he’s like, “yeah,”
And I’m like “how does it feel to know that you hurt someone?” He’s like, “bad,”
It would have been nice to have an emotions wheel. But we’re trying to get this done quickly. So we can have a deeper conversation later.
And I was like, “Okay, well, I want to talk a little bit more tomorrow about why the comments that you said, hurt him. But what I’m actually really focused on right now at the moment is – do you feel bad because someone noticed and you got caught? Or do you feel bad because you hurt him?”
He seemed to understand that he hurt his friends. He, as far as the previous many conversations I’ve had with him about colorism and racism in the past, he seems to empathize pretty well. At the same time, he’s seven. So he told me he feels bad that he hurt his friend. But he’s also somewhat of an unreliable narrator, I will disclose that.
So my focus, as his parent is to support him, while also decentering him. Helping him decenter himself in this, and understand that we need to focus on the impact and not his intent.
But also, without shaming him to the point where he internalizes the idea that he’s a terrible racist who deserves to be punished. And why even bother from now on, right?
And that’s my unique role as his parent. Basically, me and his his immediate family should be the only people really giving any focus to him. The rest of the, the community should be more centered on the person who was harmed.
So – what are the personal, systemic and parenting issues that have led up to that?
Ideally, it would be great. If that was a community response right now, that’s something that’s up to me to generate until I can get more input from the community. So I’ve identified: personal issues. Just impulse control. He’s seven, right?
Probably maybe two, maybe four weeks before this incident, we had conversations about when I was little, I had darker skin. And I’ve gotten later over the years. And I was raised with a white mom who just like – if she goes outside turns red, just there’s no tanning involved.
So I would go outside, and I’d come back in. And my mom would be like, “Why are you so dirty? How did you get so dirty while you’re swimming?” And then she would take me into the bathroom and scrub my knees and try and scrub what he thought was dirt off of my knees, which was actually just a tan.
So I got the message pretty early on that brown skin was dirty. The default is whiteness. And that was my own personal story. And I was discussing this with my kids. We tell this story in some of a joking way, because I try not to just tell every story about my encounters with both internalized and external racism through a lens of despair and doom and gloom because the kids are just not going to engage. But also because it is kind of funny, like, my mom didn’t know any better. She wasn’t trying to be racist. She knew my dad had much darker skin than she did. But it just didn’t occur to her that people can tan.
So we told this story in a somewhat light hearted way, while also acknowledging that that kind of messed with my brain a little bit. But probably I didn’t go into enough detail about how that actually does – even though it was a story and at the time, I didn’t feel bad. It didn’t make me feel bad about my skin. I just accepted it as a fact.
I didn’t go over the long term ramifications about how that would cause harm that didn’t feel like hurt, but then it would feel like hurt later on.
So basically, the personal issue here is that he’s seven, his brain is not quite wired the way that we would like the most thoughtful person to be. But also, the way that we tell stories at home, he wasn’t really parsing the way that I had intended.
So the systemic issues here are that, in whatever system we have dumped our kids and raised our kids in – Being funny, and thinking quickly and being witty, there is some social value in that. And I feel like not just in his school, but all over the places where we raise our kids – being funny, and quick and witty, is actually more highly valued than being kind.
So even without thinking about it, my kids have absorbed that being charming and quick-witted and funny, is the priority over being kind. Being kind of still a priority. But that’s just the currency in our current society.
And then that other one I talked to have the systemic issue of – whatever we’re doing, we, we still are promoting the concept of whiteness as the default. As brown as being like whiteness with with dirt on top, right? And this is echoed even in the conversations I try and have about a preschool in our city, which was using blackface to celebrate Black History Month. In itself horrible. But to have this conversation with the kids about why it was so deeply hurtful to the black families in that school, in our community, and all over the country who have read about this, I had to discuss the history of blackface. Where many white people do see blackness as a white face with black on top, right?
So he had he had pulled in that message as a default, even while we were trying to dismantle it. And I can try and make sure that the default character in all of his books are brown. I can try and make sure that all of his goals start brown with with white characters also. But I also have to let go of the idea that we can control all of this. And my kid has three very pale grandparents. So he does have much lighter skin. And I don’t know how much of it is, we grew up seeing ourselves as the default, because I certainly didn’t. I saw white people as the default, even though I wasn’t. But my kid does. So that’s something that I have to reconcile. That idea that he does see whiteness as the default.
Another systemic contribution into this is probably, I have to assume some level of.. like when I was younger, and I had white friende (because that was basically all that was available at the time.) And they would make Asian jokes. And you know, you want to be a good sport, you want to be one of the good ones, you don’t want kids to kick you out and ostracize you because there’s nowhere else to go. So you laugh along.
And part of that sense of – they know, anti Asian racism exists. They know, we both think it’s gross. And it becomes like a South Park esque parody that is actually in itself racist, right? Like, “I’m one of the good ones. And therefore I can say this.”
I mean, at this point, I’m old enough, and I and I can unpack it and retrospectively be like, “No, what they said was not okay. And it was okay for me to be uncomfortable with that.”
But I suspect some of that snuck in, because my kids do know that they do know more about racism in this country than most of their classmates. This particular classmate that my son hurt, I suspect he also knew that that kid is educated in anti-racism practices. And I suspect that he probably thought, and this is speculation, because trying to try to ask “why” of a seven year old, I’m just going to have a whole bunch of invented answers. I’m not gonna actually get down to the root of it.
But he was probably like, “I’m one of the good ones. And therefore I can make jokes about brown skin.”
And now, I can say all the time about how I’m like, “But you have privilege, you have power in the classroom, even if you don’t want it and you didn’t earn it.” I don’t know how much of that is sinking in. Clearly not all of it.
So those are the three systemic issues that I identified so far. And I’m hoping to identify more. Because if we don’t identify them, we can’t address them and hopefully prevent them.
Okay, and then there’s just me, there’s just my parenting issues. I am a parent who raises my kids to understand race and critical race theory. How racism intersects with other forms of violence. I raised them to understand their power, their privilege through the lens of many different identities. And I talk about it a lot to the point where like, I actually have to zip my lips sometimes because I don’t want them to think that this is everything. Everything is about race.
I mean, racism is connected everything, but I just don’t want to wear them out, you know? So one of the things I probably did wrong was, I was probably not clear, explicit in that story that I had with my with my mom scrubbing my skin. I was probably not clear and explicit about how damaging that was down the line.
And maybe I wasn’t clear enough about his power? About how specific comments like that hurt kids? I don’t know. Honestly, I’m a little bit baffled. And I very much am open to suggestions and ideas.
Okay, so let’s talk about what does taking responsibility for this look like in real life?
In a perfect world. Justice, transformative justice, restorative justice, community responses would not have to be initiated and carried by the survivor.
We happen to live in a very progressive school district. I know restorative justice is something that they’re trying out and learning about in the school system. Which is probably one of the reasons why our teacher responded so well, and was equipped to handle this.
But throughout this, a lot of it is still reliant on the person who has been harmed, to make a big deal out of this and fight upwards against a lot of different aspects of our school system and our community, where people are just like, “I have other stuff to deal with. I don’t want to deal with this, let’s not talk about it.”
So I’m not going to include any letter templates, even though I do for a lot of stuff. This is something that I feel like, the process is the way. Writing the letters yourself, is the way that you do the work. So it would actually kind of kneecap you a little bit to include any of the templates for the letters that I sent out. And I don’t think that something like this should come from a template, is what I’m saying.
So the timeline of events is:
R2 said this racist thing.
The teacher was the bystander, she intervened.
And then she had a follow up action to inform the parents, both of the person who was harmed and the person who did the harm. Perfect, no notes.
And then that leaves the responsibility to the parents – who engage their children and invite them to talk about this and learn further about it. I don’t know what the response is of the other family, I suspect they’re handling it just fine. All I can talk about is my personal responsibility to engage.
Now, what I could have done, is I could have just deleted the email, right? There’d be no consequences and no repercussions. There’s no incentive for me to actually make this public or talk about it with my kid, even.
So my fear is that this is the biggest break in the system. The current policy, for good reason, is to leave the parties anonymous, where the teacher should not tell each family who the other party was.
And there’s good reasons for this. However, that policy also protects the person doing harm. And it does not put any responsibility for the family raising the kid who has done harm to actually take accountability and make amends, to figure out what they did wrong, or take any action.
So this this particular episode is about – what is the best case scenario for…or what at least am I trying to do, to carry on that process?
So my choice was to respond to the teacher email, both taking responsibility, naming it – naming the fact that it was racist and naming the fact that he had no excuse. Also not putting in any intention because it doesn’t matter what his intentions were.
I have my theories, but it genuinely doesn’t matter. When I’m talking to the teacher, particularly, as the person who connects me to the other family. Taking responsibility, laying out what I am willing to do to continue seeking justice for this, or healing for this, or supporting the kid he harmed. And asking for consent to contact the survivor family.
So this is really important – I explicitly pointed out I want to respect their privacy, but please let them know that if they are willing to connect with me, I am interested in hearing from them and their child, what support looks like.
It’s really important that we make sure that we’re not reaching out to this family so we can make ourselves feel better. We’re not reaching out to give excuses for why our kid did what they did. We’re not reaching out to be forgiven, or to hear ourselves apologize, so we can feel better about ourselves. The only reason we would want to connect with the family and the child who our kid harmed is to find out what that kid wants.
And that’s only because the school’s not going to do that. They don’t have the resources, they don’t have this process in place.
So I am interested in knowing…, I have these plans, I have my own accountability process for how we move forward through a transformative or even a restorative lens. But if the kid my kid harmed doesn’t want me to, that’s what matters the most, right?
So it’s important that when we reach out, we say, “Please honor consent, I don’t want to put pressure on this family. But if they are interested and willing, I would like to hear from this kid on what they want my kid to do, what they want me to do, and what what changes they want in the classroom and the wider community.”
Okay, let me find my place. Okay. So next up, after I respond to that teacher email, as soon as I’m done with that email, I send an email out to community liaisons.
So that’s going to be people in the community who are impacted by this, and who can help inform and guide us in how to respond.
Because through the current punitive model of justice that we have, we pretend that the only people who really matter in this are the person who has done harm and the government. Right? Even a person who has been harmed, they can give a victim statement in court. But ultimately, it’s almost like a crime done to a citizen is a crime against the state. And the state gets to decide what happens to the person who has done harm.
I can’t think of any worse way to suck agency and power away from the person who has been harmed – the person who should be centered the most in this right?
The person who should have the agency and the control to say, “Wes, I want to move forward,” or “No, I want to just pretend this never happened.”
The people who had the power taken away from them in the first place should be the ones to decide how we move forward.
So one of the problems with this punitive model is that we’re not taking into account that there are children who probably witnessed and heard this, right? There are children who might identify closer to my son, who might think like, “Oh, we can say stuff like this.”
Pr even hopefully say like, “Wow, he looks like an asshole.”
There are black children and darker skinned children of color, who saw my kid say this. And that reinforces whatever other messages, or introduces messages about brown skin as inferior, white skin is the default.
So it’s actually important that we pull in the rest of the community, so long as we protect the identities and wishes of the person who has been harmed the most.
So I reached out to our school’s racial justice leaders. We have a racial justice parent teacher group, within our school, and we’re very lucky to have that. So I reached out to the two leaders there and said, “This happened.”
I forwarded the email, and I said, “I’d really like to, if possible, address this in our next meeting together.”
And I’ve reached out to the parents to invite them to this meeting, knowing full well, they don’t have to identify themselves. But they’re welcome to give a statement or lead this discussion if they feel comfortable.
I also contacted my own personal accountability partners and let them know that it happened. And, of course, I reached out to the teacher to ask if that family would be willing to connect with me, with consents, and a clear process for what to expect if they do connect to me being a part of that.
And then I had a discussion with my kid again on how does he want to move forward? Like, how is he going to connect with that other kid and make sure that that other kid is either comfortable talking about it, or follow his guide?
Do we write a letter? Do we stop the class and talk about it? My kids said that he would like to engage. Because if you have the person who has done harm, and they they don’t consent to engagement, you can’t do a transformative process, exactly. You can’t drag him in right?
We can’t be like “You’ve done something terrible. We’re gonna drag you into this and force you to do repair work against your consent.” Because and it’s not repair work, right?
So I got his consent to keep moving forward with the process. And his current plan is to write a letter of apology. At first, he wanted to talk about it the next day at school, but the teacher never brought it up.
So then we talked, “Okay, that didn’t work,” the teacher didn’t bring it up. So that way, he would have a chance to verbally apologize. And he expressed that he wasn’t comfortable just walking up to this kid at a random point in the day, and breaking open these feelings, and I kind of understand that.
So he decided he wanted to write a letter. So we have a plan, he’s going to write a letter unless we hear otherwise from his family, that might not be a good idea.
So there’s kind of four IF’s here. And from here, those are the actions that I’ve taken responsibility for. Reaching out to different people. Naming that we did. Not hiding under the protection of anonymity. Making sure that my kid is interested and willing to engage in the repair process.
So what happens IF family did not agree to engage? If we just basically stopped and the kid who he harmed and his family would have to do all of this work on their own. And that’s actually the case in most situations, right? I can’t think of any time when someone has said or done something racist or ableist to me, and had anyone take responsibility – either from the community, or from bystanders*, or people who did the harm, who were like, “Hey, let’s repair this”
*(oh wait no this happened once, and this bystander still holds my heart.)
Never ever has that happened, right? It but we want to create a better world where it’s not only on the person who has been harmed to make a stink about it.
Sorry, I lost my place.
We are choosing to engage. We are choosing, as the people who did harm, to, if possible, facilitate or support this process. Kind of unusual. Usually, you have some other person doing the facilitation, but we’re the person with the the most power in the situation. And best equipped to do it, so far that I know.
So it is our responsibility. We’re kind of taking on these two roles. If the family of, and the child who might get hurt, agree to engage, we can start a restorative process. We can find out what does healing look like for this kid? What does coming out of this look like for him? How can we support him.
And you know what, they don’t have to engage with us, they could process on their own, they might do a just fine job and even better job. It’s just we wouldn’t call that a ‘restorative community response,’ because the community and the harm doer would not be involved in that process.
If the community does not consent to engage, if the leaders of the racial justice organization do not want to discuss this in the meeting, or they’re not equipped to, then it’s not a transformative process. It’s a restorative process.
So restorative justice focuses on kind of bringing it back to where it was before the harm occurred, if possible. Which is obviously impossible, you can’t erase everyone’s memories. But bringing things back to baseline.
A transformative process must be community-driven, the community must be involved because we have to figure out what caused this original harm to happen. And then make community based changes in in the setup. So that way, this doesn’t happen again, either to the kid who has been harmed or to other kids.
So you have to get consent and agreement from the community, the person who has done harm, and the kid who has been harmed. Otherwise, you can’t have a transformative process.
You can have something else. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that a transformative process is better, or best equipped to handle this. It’s just, if you want to try the transformative process, you need those three consents.
And if no one wanted to move forward with this, it was just me and my kids. That doesn’t mean we’re off the hook. That doesn’t mean like “Oh, we don’t get to do the transformative or restorative process.” It just means that we have to go about things without other people’s input.
That would require personal development, creating stronger accountability. Trying to do our own research without harming other people. It does not mean like, calling all my Black friends and being like, “What should I have done!?” It means doing my own research.
In this case, it would involve – making this podcast, inviting people’s comments and suggestions and ideas. Maybe figure out what conversation did I miss with my kids?
Because I genuinely think that we covered actually, we covered all the conversations! What am I missing? Right? So that would be – what are the things within our sphere that we could actually still do? Because we’re not off the hook just because no one else wants to engage with us.
We are still waiting to hear back from the child who has been harmed. I did get their consent to reach out to them. So I did reach out to them. We haven’t heard back from them yet. It hasn’t been that long.
And the leaders of the racial justice organization are willing to talk about it. I don’t know if they’re willing to spend a lot of time on it. But we do have some engagement so far.
Okay, so let’s talk about – what hinders us in the current system? In the current system that we have now, where everyone is trying really hard. Everyone is doing the best they can. But maybe, we do still live in a society that makes it easy and inconsequential for kids like my kid to say the things that he did, right?
So this system relies on teachers overhearing his comment, having the resources and training to intervene, without causing further harm, and then to contact the guardians without fear that the guardians of the kids are going to hurt them, right?
Luckily, R2’s teacher had these things, but not all teachers have those things. So we have to think about how can we make sure that every teacher has these things? How can we make sure that these interactions don’t only happen when there are no bystanders around intervene?
How can we make sure that when the harm-doer does this, they can immediately… like a light bulb clicks? And they’re like, “Oh, my gosh!” Like, in an ideal situation, my kid would see the other kid’s face, realize he said something horrible, and then be able to come to me and say, like, “What do I do now?” Or go to that kid and say, like, “I am so sorry, what do you think we should do now?”
It also relies on a system where the kid who was hurt would know that he has adults he can trust and come to about these things. And the adults aren’t going to put all of the responsibility on him to solve it.
For me, when things like this happen, I didn’t have safe adults. I had a parent who told me “Punch them in the face,” which just wasn’t good advice. And it would have made it worse for me. And I had adults who just blew me off and told me not to make a big deal out of it. And then I also had adults who would actually, through a punitive model without realizing it, pull me out from that space, and make it so I couldn’t be in that space anymore.
And we think about how many people are hurt, and the only consequences that the person who was hurt – has the punishment of being excommunicated or removed from that space and limited in their life choices.
So another problem with our current system is that we’re relying on the guardians of the kids. Once that email goes out, knowing how to respond and taking responsibility for guiding their kid on how to respond, and how to engage with the community further.
This… doesn’t make it okay, what happened, it’s just as bad, but we happen to be somewhat lucky in the fact that I think both sets of parents do know how to take responsibility for what happened in caring for our own kids.
But that’s not the case for most kids. And we have to think about how to bring guardians a sense of awareness, and capability, and urgency to say like, “Here’s how we need to keep engaging beyond just deleting the email and hoping no one talks about it again.”
In our current system, the power lies mostly with the harm-doers guardians. That’s me, right? The power lies with me to either disclose that, “Yes, it was my kid who did it. And I choose to apologize, I choose to make amends, I choose to figure out what we did wrong so we can prevent it.”
In that, in a system that allows for so much fragility and so much silence, that’s just not going to happen in many cases, I could very easily have deleted the email and walked away mostly anonymous and unaffected, or even deny that it ever happened or said, like, “Oh, I’m sure my kid didn’t mean it like that, or you must have misheard him,” right?
So, in our current system, the person who does harm remains anonymous and really doesn’t face any actual consequences or responsibility to change. We’re just relying on the fact that a seven year old, will both understand that what he said said was wrong, care that it hurts someone else, and then choose to learn from that experience.
And that’s putting a lot on a seven year old. I love my kid, but I don’t know that he could do that on his own.
So there is no venue to ask the person who has been harmed, how they want to process. Schools are not typically set up to ask a person who has been harmed. “How do you want to move forward with this? Do you want us to contact that person’s parents? Or do we think this is going to trigger fragility in their parents and they’re just going to double down?” right, that this is how a lot of bullies are made.
“Do you want us to bring it to a school assembly and talk about it, or do you want to keep intimate?” Right?
“Do you want us to read more books or put something earlier in the curriculum?”
I know that our kindergarten curriculum does have a unit on melanin and color, but they don’t actually talk about racism. So “do you want us to adjust that curriculum?” And what happens for the kids who missed that unit like my kid, because of COVID? What are you going to do?
“What changes would you like to see in the system?”
We don’t have any of that. We don’t let any of our kids develop the public school curriculum on their own.
And then another problem of the current system is that we focus on intention. On not rocking the boat, over focusing on the harm-doer understanding the impact and giving agency back to the person who was harmed. We don’t focus on the responsibility, right? We focus on separation and division and punishment.
So, when we have a lot of people being like, “Oh, I’m sure he didn’t mean it like that.” or like I said earlier, he thought he was one of the ‘good ones’. “He was just joshing around.”
In basically every single racial justice group I’ve ever joined, there’s always one person when we’re talking about a conflict, who’s like, “Yeah, but I’m sure they meant well.”
And I don’t know how this isn’t like public broadcast system news yet. But the impact really doesn’t matter to most people in that room. What matters to those harmed is the impact that happened.
So what can we do instead? There’s so many different ideas. But here’s what we could do right now.
We could make the goal not to just to recover into a restorative process, but to actually transform the entire community, right? Rransformed the way that the school talks about race, talks about whiteness as the default.
I don’t think my kids have ever had a discussion at school where they talk about how whiteness is the default. White supremacy is not discussed in our school system, despite how progressive it is.
How are you going to talk about how that’s a messed up? Theory and myth, if you don’t even point out that it is a theory or a myth.
One of the things we could talk about is the goal to transform whenever conflict like this happens. Whenever someone is harmed.
What if we told kids that “Every time someone hurts you, here’s the channel to take back your power. Here’s the channel to to identify what caused this and have some agency in preventing it from happening to you and other people./;
Again, that system doesn’t exist right now. Right now, there’s something called a complaint form, which no one’s ever going to fill out. Because first of all, most six year olds don’t know how to use the internet, find the city school system complaint form. They don’t know how to read or to fill it out.
And I don’t know about you, but I think most Asian families are just not going to touch anything that says the word “complaint” on it.
So that’s the current, that’s a problem that could theoretically be addressed. Another thing that we could do differently is to model accountability. Like, sure, I could send that email to the teacher, I could talk with the parents. But if I’m not talking to my kid, and pointing out the actions that I’m taking, I’m not modeling for him.
“This is how I want you to behave when when you’re an adult. This is how I want you to respond when a friend of yours has said something racist, or someone you’re in the care of has done something that is harm someone else.”
So another thing that we could do is community responsibility for a survivor-led response, we could pull in more of the community. And I don’t mean like outing everyone, banging drums, and making a really big deal and creating a lot of drama.
I mean, touching base with people who are impacted, you know, through the ripple system of violence, and asking “What part have we all played? What do you need from me? So you can be equipped to respond to the harm like this in the future?”
And then of course, what should we definitely NOT do. Punishment responses. Punishment just isn’t going to get us what we want. It is an infected BandAid on a gaping bleeding wound. So punishing either the kid who reports that something happened to them, punishing the bystander for bringing it to the attention of fragile parents, punishing the kid who did harm. That’s not going to teach anyone how to prevent this in the future. It’s just going to further divide everyone, right?
The punitive response that we have in most American systems clearly isn’t working. Shaming people and saying you’re terrible person – obviously not working.
Addressing that all of us make mistakes like the teacher did? Really great.
I kind of wish she hadn’t said ‘everyone makes mistakes’ it in front of the kid who had been harmed, because as the person who has been harmed, I don’t really like to hear “everyone makes mistakes” directed toward the person who harmed me in my presence. Because it comes off a little bit like an excuse for the person who was harmed me, again with a focus on the intent over the impact.
And then another thing we should not be doing is an adult-centered response, expecting a seven year old to be thoughtful and have the impulse control over someone who has more experience,different cognitive development, or different abilities. We have to take into account who specifically is the person who has done harm? And who are they harming? What intersections of challenges and obstacles do they have in moving forward and how they got there. Because if I’m going to beat up on a seven year old, for not having the wisdom of a 40 year old, we’re not going to get anywhere.
And then also acknowledging that this isn’t about us. So like, this is me as a parent talking about something my kid has done. And I have to remember that this isn’t about me, as much as my ego wants me to have control over this.
My ego is like “Oh, no, this is gonna make me look like a really terrible parent. No one’s ever going to trust me. All of my work, doing anti racism work for the last like, decade is down the drain, because now everyone knows that my kid is a racist, and we need to move and change our name!” is not helpful.
So we actually have to remember, we don’t control our kids, or our people. They have their own agency, they make their own decisions, they’re going to disagree with us on some of our deepest values sometimes.
And we just have to remember that this isn’t about us. This is about the kid that my kid harmed. And then following that, it’s a little bit about my kid. And other than my responsibilities as a parent to support both of those two children, and maybe the family of the kid who is harmed.
None of this is about me, none of my ego has to be in this. I have to set aside any fears that I have, that this will affect me, because the people who matter most in this situation are not me.
So the guiding star that I keep coming back to, and this helpful to come back to especially when that ego and those fears start to pop in – because we’re individual humans doing this work, with our own trauma stories – is who we are centering and why?
We center the survivor, while also trying to minimize harm to all. We tend to treat people who have done harm disposably. Just throw them away. As if exacerbating harm and causing further harm to them somehow gets us justice.
But what we really want to do is lift up everybody, because the way that we protect the person who’s been harmed is by creating a safer world, right? A safer world for them to live in.
So what is the direction of support? You kind of follow it in reverse order of power and agency. So you find out who has the least power and the least agency in this situation. Who’s the person who is most impacted?
And you try and push both the decision making, and the right to say no to having to make decisions, taking the emotional labor off of them, while also give them the power to do whatever the heck they want. And you center that on the person who’s been harmed, in this case, my son’s classmate.
And then around them, center their family. Because you know that… we have to live with the fact that this kid, for the rest of his life, is probably going to remember that comment.
And it’s going to impact the way that he moves through the world. We have done harm and we can’t undo it. We also have to remember that this family who has a black child, and were already well aware that their kid is going to have to suffer these wounds and this racial trauma – they get one more example of how you really can’t trust whitey, right? Even the people you know who lead racial justice organizations can’t be trusted not to raise kids who say really terrible, hurtful, racist things.
And that in itself is a form of causing racial trauma, right? So we center the kid, we center their family. And then we center the other students of color, and the other students who witnessed this, and their families, who they go on to tell. Because this changes our community.
My child’s action adjusts what our community is like, and how free the people in it are.
And then we bring it out to the wider school community – we support the racial justice organizations who are actively fighting every day to prevent these and to heal from these conflicts.
And then of course, we support the teacher who did a really great job. We respect the teachers policies and limitations and obstacles. And then as a parent, as the the pod-support group, for the person who has done harm, it’s my job to support my kid while also holding space for this. Support him and holding himself responsible, support him in helping him generate ideas and options and talking through. Support him in his feelings – he’s also going to live with knowing that he did something that he’s embarrassed of about and ashamed of, and giving him the space he needs to integrate that into who he is, and hopefully do better in the future.
And then we really focus on making sure that everyone has space to feel however they need to feel. And to want whatever they want, while also centering that bull’s eye of the person most impacted, so they get the most agency.
So I’m going to add a couple of bonus resources. This will be on the Books for Littles website. Booksforlittles.com/podcast because RaisingLuminaries.com is still under construction.
But I’m going to add on this podcast episode, a link to the creative interventions toolkit and workbook, which are not focused on families in this kind of thing. But the principles of transformative justice are laid out really nicely for big-deal conflict.
Which means it’s pretty easy to tease out smaller, somewhat lower stakes conflicts like this.
And then also I have a book list about restorative justice stories where the community, the person who has done harm, and the person who has been harmed all have a say in how to move forward and have some agency in that.
So these are the books that I used to discuss with my kids. “Here’s an example of what we could do instead of just locking people up in prisons, and canceling people.” If that makes sense.
And I will end this before the 60 minute cut off. Thank you.
And we’ll be back. I think next week I’m going to have my friend Saunatina over. We’re going to talk about being an awesome allistic parent or ally to neurodivergent folks. And then later in April, we’re going to have Bellamy come visit again. And you can learn how to make friends of color, people who are hoping to burst your white bubbles, I guess
Because that’s a very common question we get okay. Then I thank you for listening.
Stay Curious, Stand Brave, and Do Your Best
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