It's A School's Job To Acknowledge Race

Jul 31, 2017

A few years ago, commentator Grace Lin joined the Diversity Committee of her child's preschool in western Massachusetts . When one of the members asked dubiously whether race really needed to be addressed with young children, Lin knew the answer instantly.

When I was a child, the way adults dealt with race in my community was by not talking about it.

I remember in fifth grade, after I'd answered a question correctly, a boy burst in saying, “She just knows that because she’s Chin—,” only to be cut off by our teacher.

She shook her head at him, then continued on with the lesson as if nothing had happened. But the message was clear. We were to never mention my race.

I realize now that silencing my classmate was my teacher's way of trying to create racially blind kids, kids who “don’t see color.” But as the only Asian in a classroom of white faces, I did not feel colorless. I felt as if I had this shameful secret that everyone knew, but didn’t talk about. The imposed silence just made me feel something was wrong with me.

And, attempting to teach color-blindness apparently didn’t help at least one of my fellow students, either. Thanks to social media, I recently found myself reading an article from my hometown newspaper. A refugee resettlement center's budget had been cut, making it likely no new refugees would be coming to town. From the comments which followed, it was clear many people were pleased by this.

One comment, however, upset me more than the others. The name of the person who wrote it was familiar; He was one of my fifth grade classmates.

That discovery was one reason I decided to become chair of that Diversity Committee. I convinced the committee to develop at our school something we're calling the Community Book Stop -- a small library that contains books featuring characters of color.

Inside each book we've taped discussion suggestion sheets to help foster conversation between parents and their kids. We've also included blank paper so parents can share their thoughts to help the next reader.

It’s a simple idea, but one I hope will bring the topic of race into the home and beyond. And while I know that seems like a small action considering what's needed in the world, it's from seeds that everything begins. If we’re lucky, this project will nurture a culture in which we can acknowledge our differences, and talk about our problems. Maybe, by doing so, we'll even begin to fix them.

Grace Lin is the author and illustrator of more than a dozen children’s books, including the National Book Award finalist, “When the Sea Turned to Silver.” She lives in Florence, Massachusetts.