Three Henrico County Public Schools parents shared their discussions with their children about race and how parents can be allies Thursday night with a virtual audience of about 40 attendees.
The panel, titled “Community Conversations: Parent Perspectives,” was part of the Henrico County Public Schools Family Learning Series and was moderated by Adrienne Cole Johnson, director of the school division’s Department of Family and Community Engagement. (Although the panel was originally scheduled for Tuesday night, it was postponed to address an internet security concern, according to a media advisory from HCPS.)
From talking with their children about the recent wave of protests for social and racial justice to reflecting on past experiences, the panelists discussed a range of topics.
Panelists Cynthia and Andri Williams-Bey have five children who range in age from 4 to 15, and their son attended Douglas Freeman High School when school officials received a report of the Confederate flag on the baseball field. Andri Williams-Bey said that their son had been disappointed because his classmates could have been involved.
Hearing about the incident from the media before the school sent any communication was upsetting, Cynthia Williams-Bey said. She worried about safety, didn’t understand why nothing was in place to prevent incidents like that, and was disappointed by the school’s response because she felt there had been a lack of a response for African American families, she said.
Back-to-school discussions are leaving out the dangers of racism and how to keep children safe beyond COVID-19, she said, especially now as lynchings are happening in broad daylight.
“Right now, I feel that the conversation is just solely surrounding COVID, but as an African American family with African American children, our conversations and our decisions are not just based on COVID — it’s COVID and the pandemic of racism… If I send my children to school, am I going to have to worry about my child being that next child that turns up in the gym rolled up in the carpet, and no one can give answers? Am I going to have to worry about some maniac that’s a racist going into the school grounds and just shooting up the place? That’s what I’m worried about, am I going to have to worry about another bombing or something like that?”
Panelist Kristin Rosengren, who is white, spoke about her allyship and the work of unlearning racism.
“Part of it’s doing the work. Part of it is listening and reading and changing the words I use and the media I consume. Part of it is, frankly, putting my privilege and my money where my mouth is,” she said. “I try to contribute to causes that are led by Black people and people of color so that they have the support.”
The role of allies
Newsha Dau, an Iranian American and parent of a Short Pump Elementary School student, said that the former principal, Sarah Slaughter, helped celebrate the school’s diversity.
“Dr. Slaughter really did a great job of highlighting a different country every month,” Dau said, “that helped us be more proud and share different tidbits about our country, and she made sure that we did international night, which was a really big deal for my daughter,” who proudly wore an Iranian outfit.
Dau helped explain the protests after George Floyd’s death to her 10-year-old daughter, she said, and explained graffiti on the Robert E. Lee monument.
“We sat her down and explained the source of the protests from both sides,” Dau said, “and the fear that we think is the basis of a lot of police behavior and power, which is another source of the anger that the police have often, and the different reasons for why people are protesting and why they’re angry against the police.”
Dau’s daughter surprised her at the beach a few weeks ago, she said. Her daughter was playing with two white girls when a group of Black girls came over and showed her minnows they had picked up.
“Once they left, the two white girls said to my daughter, ‘Our grandfather says that we don’t like Black people,’ and my daughter was very taken aback and they asked her, ‘Well, do you care about Black people?’ and she said, ‘Yes, of course I do.’”
When Dau later saw her daughter upset and asked what had happened, her daughter answered “racial injustice.”
Rosengren also talked to her son about his role as a white man when a friend of his was discriminated against and told that he needed to go home.
“As a young man who is white, he has privilege and power and he has to use it,” she told him. They spoke about his role and what he can say when he witnesses racism.
‘On the front lines’ of racial change
Parents should advocate for their children because sometimes they are the solution, Cynthia Williams-Bey replied when asked what advice she would give to other parents and guardians.
“Don’t allow anyone to label your children,” she said. “Don’t accept the first diagnosis even when it comes through them giving your children IEPs [individualized educational programs]. Make sure that you’re really advocating, getting second opinions. Do not let up.”
Be aware, Andri answered, giving redistricting as an example of a situation that can affect parents and children.
“A lot of times, you’re fighting a battle,” he said, “but that’s not even the fight you need to be fighting — there’s something going on in the background that’s covert, that you probably don’t even have any knowledge of.”
Cole read a statement from a Black male panelist who was not able to participate once the meeting moved to Thursday. He grew up in a primarily Black community in the Washington D.C. area, went to a predominantly white, all-boys high school — where he was an outsider until the freshman class came together through shared experience — and then attended an HBCU in New Orleans, according to his letter.
“The choices I made dictate the person I have become no matter the experiences, along with my own biases and prejudices,” the man wrote. “I tell my boys the same thing: their choices and experiences will define them, and if you don’t expand what you know or who you know, your experiences and options in life will limit or propel you into your future. Racism in America can move to a more positive direction, and we are on the front lines to making it happen, one conversation at a time.”
Cole shared several parent resources for discussing racism after the panelists spoke, such as age-appropriate books. She also shared HCPS resources: the HCPS Department of Equity, Diversity, and Opportunity; Virginia Inclusive Communities; and the Henrico County Council PTA.
The next meeting in the series is scheduled for July 20 and will focus on schools, Cole said.
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