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Getting Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable [Part 1]

Updated: Oct 16, 2020

By Kristen Elde, who lives in Leeds, MA, with her husband and preschooler

From the introductory handout at Act for Social Justice’s racial justice workshop series: In this workshop series we will look at our own understanding of race & racism and how that impacts the way we talk with our children about race. … Our main goals are for participants to: Gain a deeper understanding of race/racism/white supremacy/racial justice; Build relationships that allow for better communication about the above concepts; Set the foundation to work together for racial justice; and, Establish goals for personal next steps at multiple levels—personal, family, school, community.

Early this year, a Nonotuck Community School parent and diversity committee member invited parents from my four-year-old’s nearby childcare center to join Nonotuck parents for a three-part racial justice workshop. The series was facilitated by Act for Social Justice’s Angela Berkfield and Shela Linton. I could not have been readier.

Although I haven’t done much of what I’d consider racial justice work, I’m an empath and avid reader/defender of social justice topics at large. I feel pulled from deep down to fight oppression. I want to raise my kid with a solid understanding of racial inequity and the need for justice. I’ve been addressing skin color and unequal treatment with my five-year-old for years, guided largely by resources I’ve found online. I often feel like I’m muddling through, unsure my approach is as helpful as it could be.

I was also fresh off a conversation with a white male neighbor that had included sentiments along the lines of: it’s not like I’m a racist and why would I talk to my four-year-old kid about racism? It’s not his fault. The exchange had been uncomfortable for me, and although I’d felt true to myself throughout, I was shake. I was angry and discouraged over my neighbor’s narrow view, and second-guessing parts of my response.

In short, I was craving support—both in my parenting and as a white person who wants to deepen my understanding of white privilege and its role in my life. My goal is ultimately to serve as an effective ally to people of color.

On walking into the classroom where the workshop would be taking place, I found a roomful of parents who in the coming weeks I’d get to know a bit—and learn from a lot. Chairs had been set up in a semicircle. An image of an iceberg representing two forms of white supremacy was prominently displayed—the version that is overt/widely socially unacceptable (hate crimes, swastikas, racial slurs) and the one that’s more covert/socially acceptable (hiring discrimination, mass incarceration, “colorblindness”).

Shela and Angela introduced themselves and their intent with the workshop. We talked about the iceberg metaphor, and we participants introduced ourselves, specifying racial identity, pronoun preference, and what brought us to the workshop. People, most of us identifying as white, mentioned feeling disappointed for a number of things. The lack of racial justice programming at their kids’ schools; family members who make offhanded racist remarks; not knowing where to start in talking with their kids about inequity; and, disconnect in the value they and their partner place on having these conversations.

The session was engaging: participants shared more encounters they’d had around race and difference, as did Angela and Shela, whose deep understanding of the complexities and reach of white supremacy was a gift. 

Everyone paired up with an “accountability buddy” to identify and discuss goals at the personal, family, school, and community levels. We committed to check in with each other on these goals. For example, my buddy, who identifies as white, intended to dig deeper with a relative to try to get at where he was coming from with his racially insensitive comments. I planned to email the principal of a local elementary school with a reputation for its social justice programming (“how are you doing it?”) in hopes of eventually bringing my findings to the administration of the school my own kid would be attending in the fall.

We closed (as we would each of the three sessions) with this quote:

“Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world… We deepen those bondings by connecting them with an anti-racist struggle.”  bell hooks

I left the classroom with a full brain and a full heart, and confirmation that I was most definitely in the right place at the right time. The following insight, offered by our facilitators, was already lodged, and I knew it would stay with me:

As a white ally doing racial justice work, you’re going to mess up. It’s inevitable, and it’s OK—learn from it, adjust your approach, and keep doing the work.

Also: It helps to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Workshop sessions two and three also resonated.

There was discussion of an excerpt from Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and a piece, “Raising Issues of Race with Young Children,” from the anthology Rethinking Early Childhood Education. In the latter, an educator recounts initiating an activity among first-graders that involved acknowledging difference in skin color. An African American girl didn’t want to take part in the activity because she knew her darker color would stand out.

One workshop participant, who identifies as white, shared that, in reading, she’d really felt for the girl who was put in a position that was clearly uncomfortable. It was the same woman who later added that she understood that not acknowledging visible difference had clearly not led to a comfortable existence for people of color at large (read: the “colorblind” approach adopted widely to date, including by my own well-meaning parents in the ‘80s).

Referencing the same anthology piece, I expressed some sympathy for white teachers called on to initiate conversations about race and racism with kids, including kids of color. “It just can’t be easy—especially for teachers who are new to this, who just haven’t really done it before.”

We compared notes about children’s books that reflect race and racial justice (those that do it well and those that fall short). I scored a stellar book recommendation!

My favorite exercise of the workshop was splitting into groups to act out challenging conversations of our choosing. My group sought to explain to a four-year-old and an eight-year-old the significance of the Black Lives Matter sign in their front yard. Two of us were parents and two were kids. We “parents” definitely felt the challenge. Other groups tackled talking to kids about a play their family had attended in which the only person of color had played the “bad guy,” and sitting down with a school principal to make good on the PTO’s desire to bring racial justice programming to the curriculum. All of these scenarios were drawn from participants’ actual experiences.

I found the practice (and the feedback) really helpful, and I got tips from others’ role playing too. Also, something we’d discussed before came up again: the fact that it’s always an option to clarify or “change course.” If we don’t manage to explain our position on something well, or if we find our thinking changes, we can just say so. I’ve done this with my kid and expect to do it plenty more. (“Hey remember the other day when you asked about X—well, I’ve thought about it some more, and actually…”)

The concluding workshop session centered on racial justice action. We brainstormed plans at the personal, family, school, community, state, national, and global levels, writing our ideas on large sheets of paper taped to the wall. It was awesome to see everything that was generated in such a brief period, including: Recognizing my own white privilege and continuing to do personal work/reading/etc; Working to connect my passions with actions I can take; Connect regularly with my partner on our approach to talking about racial justice with our kid; Activism/support for targeted undocumented people; and, Get involved in community organizing activities.

As we gathered for a last sit-down together, one white participant shared how sad and angry ongoing racial injustice makes her feel, which was met with a roomful of nods and yeses. Angela thanked her for bringing feelings into the room. I was struck, too, by another person’s suggestion of opening race conversations that feel hard with “this isn’t easy for me to bring up/talk about, but it feels important and so I’m going to do my best.” I’ll be using that myself.

We talked about ways that we can welcome more people of color, both kids and staff, into the childcare centers our kids attend. Shela offered valuable insight from the perspective of a parent of color in the Brattleboro, VT area. She shared that in her community people of color tend to rely on word-of-mouth when it comes to making decisions about where to send their kids. At the top of the list of specific considerations: would their child be in the company of other kids of color; is the curriculum/programming strong and does it respect and address the unique experiences of kids/families of color; are people of color represented in staff makeup; and further down the list, cost. Shela shared that even when money is tight, parents of color will often make it work if it means sending their kid to a school they feel really good about.

We also talked about our professional backgrounds and how we can drive racial justice progress through our jobs. As we’d done throughout the series, we made connections. Knowing the workshop was about to end, we made plans to keep in touch—and I will be following through.

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