In the wake of the Charlottesville attack, I sat down with Jasen Frelot to talk about his Kids and Race program, which has so far engaged over 500 parents and children in discussions about race and racism. Jasen is also the founding director of Columbia City Preschool of Arts and Culture, an innovative preschool with an anti-bias focus. He is a father, social justice organizer, and early childhood educator with 15 years of teaching experience. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Lexi Potter: First off, could you tell me what is Kids and Race, and why should parents talk to their kids about race and racism?
Jasen Frelot: So, Kids and Race started probably about two and a half, close to three years ago now. … My wife was pregnant with our first daughter, Ruby, and I was nervous—a nervous papa—about the kind of early childhood education that she would get. I had been teaching children for about fifteen years, so I know the kind of things that kids say to each other. And I know that educators, for the most part, don’t know how to respond to it. And I knew it wasn’t the kids’ fault, so I was looking for someone to come and talk to young children about race. I knew about the doll study that came out years and years ago. Do you know about the doll study?
LP: No, can you tell me about that?
JF: So the doll study is this study… [in which] you take different colored dolls… and then they asked children, ‘Which one is the good doll?’ ‘Which one is the bad doll?’ ‘Which one do you want to play with,’ things like that. … The doll study showed that children as young as four, five years old could show bias. And it was both black children and white children that preferred the white doll. … So after that, there’s been more and more studies where it just kept going down, the ages kept going down. Like first it was 5, and then it was 3, and now there’s a New York Times article that came out that said 6 months. [At] 6 months, children are showing signs of racial bias. So the question is like where does this come from and why does it come [about]? I refuse to believe it’s something that’s inbuilt into children. It’s a learned behavior. And we as parents and educators have a responsibility to address this learned behavior as early as possible. As early as early as possible.
LP: So you mentioned that the Kids and Race program got started about two and a half to three years ago. Could you tell me a little more about that?
JF: Yeah. So originally, I was looking for someone to come and speak on racial identity development in young children—a psychologist, or an educator, or someone who had written about it. At the time when we were first doing this workshop, we couldn’t find anyone, at least not anyone in our region. And we found psychologists, but it turns out typical psychology doesn’t have a lot to say about racial identity development. Educational theory doesn’t have a lot to say about racial identity development. Like this idea of not talking about racial identity development as ‘a thing’ has permeated all parts of social sciences. So there wasn’t really an expert that we could go to to have this conversation. So over the course of time, as we were developing the workshop and talking more and more to different parents and things like that, it became clear that I was the person that needed to talk. I have a background in both education and in behavioral therapy, and critical race theory, and I combined those things and created the Kids and Race workshops.
The first one that we did focused upon narrative and counter-narrative. Those are how the stories we don’t know that we’re telling our children have the greatest impact on racial identity development. … It’s unintentional stories. … For example, when a child walks into an elementary school or a doctor’s office, who do they see in positions of authority and who do they see taking out the trash? When they walk into a business, who do they see as the business owner and who do they see as the employees cooking or cleaning? When they turn on the TV, what do they see, and who do they see in charge and in positions of authority? So all of this stuff, no matter what the parent is saying to the child—the parent can be saying all the right things to the child, but if the world that the child is growing up around has racial bias built into it, you don’t have to teach a child to have racial bias. You don’t have to be a KKK member. You don’t have to do these things. Racial bias is just what the child will be brought into.
LP: On the Kids and Race website, you mention that kids ‘are often tougher and more mature than we give them credit for.’ Why do you think we have such a hard time talking about race with kids?
JF: Well, we have this idea that children are these innocent blank slates that don’t notice or see the ills or the wrongs in this world, and like that because of that, they’re these elevated beings that aren’t affected by seeing racism. And that it’s impossible for them to be racist, or to have racist or prejudiced ideas. And I think that that’s for a couple reasons. One is like this silly concept that we have of children as not being fully human, and not being fully able or capable of seeing reality for what it is. Like this idea that—I hear this over and over again in conversations with people—‘My child doesn’t even notice race,’ or ‘My child doesn’t notice skin color.’ Think about how silly that is. Like, we teach our children colors. Our children can see physical differences. It blows my mind.
And then on top of that, we have this idea that having racial bias, or being racist, is bad. Now of course what happened in Charlottesville… yes, it’s bad. But this idea that having racial bias or racial preference is bad stops us from being able to embrace it in ourselves, and to see that reality in ourselves, and to be able to see that reality in our children. Remember, in the doll study, it wasn’t just white children that preferred the white dolls; it was black and brown children that did that, too. These aren’t bad children. These are children that have been taught to prefer white dolls by our racist society. So we’re not racist because we’re bad people, we’re racist because we’ve been brought up in a racist system.
LP: It sounds like it’s about connecting with kids and also teaching parents to move away from thinking about racism in terms of good and bad people, and think about it more in terms of areas for us to grow and change the things that we’ve learned?
JF: Yeah, by and large, it’s all about moving away from simplistic good and bad thinking. I think that both the left and the right love simplistic good and bad thinking. It is something that we really have to let go. We have to embrace our own bias and embrace our own blind spots, and stop being shocked or ashamed that we have them. Like, of course we have them.
For example, if somebody were to tell me that I engaged in something that was sexist—I’m a man—it wouldn’t shock me or surprise me. I would thank them for letting me know, and then do my best to do something different. It’s not my fault that I’m sexist; I’ve been brought up in a sexist system. And after I know about it, then it’s my responsibility to correct it. So one of the things that I say in our workshops is: ‘It’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility.’ It is no parent’s fault that their children are biased. It is no individual adult’s fault that they’re biased. But once we know about it, it is our responsibility to take steps to address those biases.
LP: On the website I noticed you encourage parents to avoid using binary language when talking with kids about race. One of the challenges that the Asian and Pacific Islander community faces is that in national conversations about race, sometimes we get left out. How can changing the way that we talk about race shape our ability to learn about each other?
JF: So in a future workshop that I’m working on, we talk about power and how power plays into conversations about race. What a conversation about power does is it enables us to both acknowledge where we’re empowered and also acknowledge where we’re disempowered. So, me as a Black male, I’m empowered by that… especially in conversations about race, where black men traditionally are the ones that have had the largest voices in a conversation about race. So, in a conversation specifically about race, I have been empowered to speak into that. In a lot of other places, I’m disempowered. If I were to go into a workshop, even if I’m in a position where I’m talking to white men, I’ve been given the authority to speak…. It would be disingenuous for me to go up there and act like I’m disempowered while I’ve been given the authority to speak on the subject—I’m holding the mic.
I think having a conversation about how it is that each community is empowered can help us to be able to get out of both binary speech and oppression Olympics. [It] would be disingenuous to say that the Asian American community experiences the same type of racial oppression as Black Americans. It would also be disingenuous to say that the Asian American community experiences no oppression at all. It would be disingenuous to say that the Asian American community itself isn’t capable of oppression. Having a conversation about power enables us to be able to allow ourselves to occupy those multitudes.
When we talk about race, it’s very easy for it to become a very Black and white conversation. And in a lot of ways, I think that’s appropriate. Because when you look at the history of race in America, it is a very Black and white story, and immigrants, like recent immigrants or immigrant communities, have made themselves successful or unsuccessful based on their ability to move away from the Black community and to associate themselves with the dominant culture, the white community. … Because it’s very clear what it means to be Black in this country.
My whole next workshop is all about this. It’s all about how power, and different types of power, play into the ways that we talk about race,… the ways that we talk about empowerment, the ways that we talk about intersectionality. And hopefully it can get us to a place where we’re not arguing so much, but embracing the power and influence that we do have, embracing the privilege that we do have. Because privilege isn’t a bad thing. Power isn’t a bad thing.
LP: It sounds like it’s about looking at one’s own identity in the context of all of the identities that each of us have?
JF: Yeah, yeah, it’s like being really grounded in your identity, and celebrating all parts of our identity. … I think one of the worst things to happen to this conversation is that the way that white privilege—the term ‘white privilege’—has been framed as a negative. It’s not a negative. It’s neither a negative or a positive, it’s just a thing. … I would much prefer that a white person say ‘Yes, I have it, and I enjoy it.’ And once they are able to settle into their privilege, and not feel like their privilege is threatened or anybody is trying to take it away from them, or anything like that, then I think we’re able to share it a little bit more.
I’m comfortable and confident in my male privilege, and I’m happy that I have it. I’m happy that when I walk into a room, people want to like talk to me and listen to me. That I can walk down the street and not be afraid. I enjoy walking down the street and not being afraid. But now that I know that I have it, I’m like, ‘Well, I want everyone else to have that too.’ It would be much worse for me to go, ‘No, I don’t have male privilege, I’m afraid all the time when I walk down the street, what’s wrong with you?’ Or ‘I’m not afraid when I walk down the street, what’s wrong with you?’ It’s much better to acknowledge and even find a little bit of joy in our privilege or joy in our empowerment so that we’re able to hold it a little bit looser, and share it, and give it away, and transfer it to people.
And recognize how much we have, so that we can look at it. It’s like this really, really rich person that’s sitting on this pile of gold screaming about how poor he is. Like look down, see that you’re rich, roll around in it a little bit, and maybe then, when you see someone without it you can take a handful and give it to someone else. And feel a little bit better about yourself and still enjoy your riches.
LP: It sounds like some of it is about finding gratitude for the things that we do have.
JF: I love that word. Yes. Yes, finding some gratitude. I mean like with this white supremacy stuff that was coming out in Charlottesville, it’s a bunch of white men—privileged white men—who don’t recognize what they have. A lot of them went to college. A lot of them have wonderful lives. I’m sure a lot of them have… really bad lives, but I’m sure a lot of them have really, really good lives, too. And because of the way that conversations around white privilege [go], they’re just steeped in this idea that something is [being] taken away from them. That they’re under assault, that they’re being oppressed.
It’s not just white men that are like this. We see this on the left, too. I mean like when people feel like they’re constantly under assault, or that they’re being oppressed, or this, or that, then what you’re getting is this nasty lashing out. There’s this grabbing hold of power, this tussling. But if we can all just like stop, and look at what it is that we do have, then I think that we’ll be able to have these conversations in a much more generous way. I’m not saying that white supremacy and other forms of not being grateful are the same thing, because they’re not. But I think that extremism is the end point of not recognizing one’s power, and not embracing it.
LP: Your second Kids and Race workshop on power and privilege is coming up on September 16th. What can people look forward to about that?
JF: We’re talking about power, so all of those things about how power plays into conversations about race. Moving this beyond the binary conversation of Black and white, but I think people will be interested in how I move us beyond that binary conversation. I think we have to dive deeply into the binaries to move beyond them. So, you’ll see. [Laughs]
LP: Awesome. So kids can attend the workshop as well?
JF: Oh yeah, yeah. The workshops have two parts. There’s a portion for adults that I lead, and then there’s a portion for children that Benjamin Conrad Gore, who’s helping me with the [Columbia City] Preschool [as director of operations], leads.
To get tickets to the September 16 workshop Kids and Race: Power and Privilege, go to kandr2columbiacity.bpt.me.
To book a community workshop or private event with Kids and Race, visit talkingrace.org.
To learn more about enrollment at Columbia City Preschool of Arts and Culture, visit goo.gl/F3pzym.
To listen to the Kids and Race podcast, visit goo.gl/d7C912.
To follow Kids and Race on Facebook, go to facebook.com/kidsandrace.