Ep 168: Having Race Conversations

Episode Summary

Matthew R Kay, author of Not Light, But Fire, shares his vast wealth of knowledge on how to have productive discussions about race. As an educator and speaker, Matthew is well-versed in what to avoid and what to move toward in conversations.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

You know you have to discuss race….but you’re not sure where to start. With everything going on in the news and centuries of history to cover, there’s quite a bit to talk about. You might feel like you’re unauthorized or just woefully unprepared. What if you say the wrong thing, or your teen asks a question you don’t know the answer to? With all the uncertainty, it can be tempting to just skip the topic of race altogether.

But if we don’t encourage kids to think critically about racism, they may grow up ignorant to prejudice in their community. They might not be able to identify microaggressions, or might not think about a certain language before they use it. Plus, with all the information floating around on social media these days, kids might just learn about race from unreliable sources when they could be having a productive conversation about it with a trusted parent!

To help us crack the code to race conversations with teens, we’re sitting down with Matthew R. Kay, author of Not Light But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom. Matthew’s one of the founding English teachers at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, as well as the founder of a Philly slam poetry league! As a teacher, he’s had countless conversations about race in his classroom–leading him to learn what works and what doesn’t.

Matthew and I are discussing how you can create a safe space for kids to open up about intense issues like race. Plus, we’re talking about how you can keep the conversation in check so it doesn’t go off the rails, even when you and your teen have some differences of opinion.

Creating a Space for Talks About Race

When it’s time to get into a tricky topic, it’s pretty easy to declare your home to be a safe space for teens to open up. But talk is cheap! If you really want to make teens feel comfortable being vulnerable, you’ve got to go beyond just your words and provide a safe space with your actions, says Matthew. 

One of the most important steps to creating a comfortable environment is making sure everyone feels listened to. In our interview, Matthew explains how teens often come to him saying they feel like adults just don’t listen! With our endlessly busy lives full of errands, work meetings and carpools, it can be hard to find the time to really listen to what teens have to say. But if we really want teens to feel comfortable sitting down with us to discuss race or other heavy topics, we’ve got to put in the work to let them know we’re really listening, says Matthew.

But what makes a good listener? Matthew and I dive into the art of listening in the episode. Although we might think we are just naturally endowed with our listening skills, there are actually concrete steps we can take to become better at receiving and digesting information. Matthew encourages parents to police their own voice, meaning making sure that in a discussion between you and your kids, you’re not the only one talking! 

In Matthew’s classroom, creating rich relationships between the students is a priority–and one of the ways he ensures that everyone feels comfortable sharing. It’s hard to be vulnerable with somebody you don’t know! That’s why he sets structures in place to make sure kids really get to know each other before they dive into complicated discussions or sensitive topics. As a parent, you might want to practice a similar strategy, he says. By building that relationship beforehand, you can create a safe space and allow teens to feel that they can tell you anything.

In the episode, Matthew and I discuss ways you can make teens feel comfortable when it is time to actually have that serious talk. It can be helpful to ensure that you and your teen are sitting or standing at the same eye level, Matthew explains. This creates an equitable balance of power between the two of you, and prevents your teen from feeling as though you’re passing judgement on them! Matthew also shares why you shouldn’t ask kids to “sit down” before diving into the discussion in the episode.

Once you feel you’ve created the comfortable space teens need, having the conversation is another tricky task entirely! But with some tips from Matthew, you can go into the conversation feeling confident.

Conducting a Race Conversation 

It’s easy for things to get heated when talking about race–especially if you and your teen have differences of opinion. But if the two of you can keep the discussion more scholarly and less emotional, Matthew says the two of you can learn from one another. In his classroom, he tries to keep these kinds of talks more research and inquiry based, instead of just having kids blurt out opinions. This helps teens get into more productive and deliberate discussion instead of just throwing around baseless claims.

Matt also really encourages sequential discussion, meaning that every talk you have with your teen builds on the last. This gives teens (and parents) time in between to think critically about these nuanced topics. It allows them to fabricate sophisticated perspectives instead of coming to simple conclusions! Matthew believes that one of the biggest issues with our school system’s approach to education about race is this lack of sequentiality. We throw kids disconnected discussions about Martin Luther King or police brutality, but don’t give them the tools to make a timeline!

When starting up a talk about race, Matthew emphasizes really paying attention to the prompt you choose to spark the discussion. If you ask kids a complex question that requires them to provide examples to prove their point, they’ll be forced to look past black and white answers. Plus, if you can push them to examine the other side’s viewpoint and perspective, you might just find that they’re able to consider the layers of complexity that lay behind issues of race, says Matthew.

This is a helpful technique that helps us avoid the common tendency to shift things into an “I’m right, you’re wrong” argument, Matthew explains. Too often, parents and teens both fall into a pattern of trying to convince the other to believe in their own point, making it into a win or lose situation, when it shouldn’t be! In the episode, Matthew doles out some tips to keep you from falling into this pattern.

In the Episode…

I’m so grateful that I was able to sit down with Matthew today to get some tips on having conversations about race. It’s something so many of us are eager to do, but find ourselves struggling with just how to do it. On top of the topics discussed above, we also talk about:

  • What “house talk” is and how to use it
  • How you can give more meaningful compliments
  • Why you shouldn’t rush through conversions about race
  • How to get quiet kids to speak up
  • Why we should talk about “The Jefferson Dismissal” 

If you enjoyed listening to this episode, there’s more great stuff from Matthew on notlight.com, including articles, information about his book and ways you can contact him directly. Don’t forget to subscribe and we’ll see you next week!


Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Paraphrase what your teen has said to show you understand them:

“So what I hear you’re saying is…”

-Matthew R Kay

2. Use high-grade compliments to build a connection:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: I read through this book Not Light, but Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom. And this is, it sounds like something you’ve been really thinking about and working on for a long time in your own classroom and I wonder what inspired you to write this book or to put all these ideas to get other and why was this the time to do it.

Matthew: Well, I have been having race conversations with my students for my whole career and I happen to before the book came out, I’ve been leading a few professional developments at our school’s conference that we run. And when Stenhouse (Publisher) was looking for someone to write the book, they called my principal and my principal happened to know that I had done a professional development on it so, he asked me if I’d be interested in writing the book. And so just very good luck.

Andy: So, talk to me a little about the book or how’d you decide what was important to talk about or how to set it up and what to include and all that.

Matthew: Well, I was just trying to make something useful because a lot of the stuff that’s out there, at its core about convincing people to have conversations about race in the classroom and not as much about how. And so I wanted to get past the why and actually spend very little time on why and to focus on how and so because I figured especially, if you’re living in these times right now and you still need the why, there’s nothing that I can say to you.

Andy: And if you’re picking up a book about it, it would seem like you’re probably already convinced.

Matthew: Yeah, exactly. So I figured I kind of skip that step and get into here are some practical things that have worked for me and some things that I’ve done that have not worked. And so maybe you can make a different mistake and not make the same one.

Andy: I found some really interesting things in this book, man. And one of them, I thought you talk about this idea of creating a safe space. Teachers are always trying to say, “Hey, this is a safe space. We can talk about whatever we want in here.” And a lot of times that isn’t actually true or just saying the words that doesn’t just magically make it a safe space. And I wonder why do we think that we can just hand wave and magically create that atmosphere and what are we missing.

Matthew: I think that why we do it because this is something we’re told to do and we know how we want kids to feel in the classroom, but we don’t know exactly how to do that, right? And I think that we’ll know we want them to feel safe around us, ready to be vulnerable, all of those things. And we think that just telling them that we’re good people, we’ll accomplish that. I mean, I think that’s important. I don’t want to poo-poo the idea of you telling your students, “Hey, I’m not homophobic, I am not a rapist, I’m not,” those are things that are important for kids to hear. So, I don’t want to be dismissive of it, but that’s only about 10% of the work. Those things are easy to say, but what are you doing to make sure that beyond just saying it?

Andy: Because yeah, we deal a lot with parent issues and I see this all kinds of families as well, where parents are like, “No, no, no. I told my kid you can talk to me about anything, you can tell me anything, it’s okay.” It’s like we want to create that safe space where kids feel like they can bring up any issues and talk about anything, but just saying it doesn’t make it happen. It’s actually kind of work to create it. So, how do we do that or how do we actually create a real safe space instead of just saying that it is one?

Matthew: So yeah, you don’t have to things that I suggest in the book, but that’s starting place. It has to be an environment where kids know that they’re going to be listened to and an environment where you’ve worked on some of the relationships that are in the space so that the level of the relationship matches the level of the conversation. You can’t have rich conversations amongst people who don’t have rich relationships. It has to be equal or close to equal. It won’t be all the way, but you have to have somewhat…if you’re going to go there, then you have to have enough of the relationships between the kids that are ready to go there. I’m not going to be vulnerable with you if I don’t know you. And a lot of times we skip that part. We just assume that kids are going to want to do the hard work of investigating their privileges or investigating any of those kind of things. We assume that they’ll do that because we tell them to. And there’s certain amount of things that we can do to make sure that that is an easier process.

Andy: What are some of those things?

Matthew: Well, I talk about in the book of activities, high grade compliments and those kind of activities. So, making sure that kids, you set up structures for them to get to know each other for the relationship part. And then the listening part, just breaking listening down into a set of discrete skills that can be practiced.

Andy: Well, yeah. Because we all say, “Oh, I’m a good listener.” Nobody’s says they’re a bad listener. Everyone thinks, oh yeah. Oh, I’m good at that. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I do that. Yeah. Sorry, what was that? And it’s not easy actually. And we can feel it when we know people who are really good listeners and it feels really good to talk to them. Whereas we know people who are not good listeners, but it’s kind of difficult to assessing yourself.

Matthew: Yeah. And it’s one of the more important things. When you ask kids what makes you feel safest in the classroom, one of the first things they say is when I feel listened to. It’s not a minor skill. If kids feel listened to, they feel safe. If they don’t feel listened to, they don’t feel safe. It’s one of the basic things that will lead to the outcomes that you want out of any meaningful conversation.

Andy: So, you talked about breaking that up into more kind of specific skills. What does that look like or how do you see that?

Matthew: Well, in the book, I talk about listening patiently, listening actively and policing your voice. Those are the three skills that I use in the book. And just working those as things that the kids are aware of. How am I listening right now? How can I do better at listening?

Andy: And by talking specifically about those skills, and then you kind of give them names like that. And I like how you do that in the book. And then you can bring that up, like policing your voice and people can notice when they’re not doing that. And by kind of talking about it and putting names on it like that, you sort of start to bring awareness to it in a really cool way. So, what does that mean, policing your voice?

Matthew: It means making sure that you are not taking up all the space in the room, making sure you’re not the only voices speaking, making sure that voices that need to be centered end up being centered in the conversation.

Andy: Because you obviously get those few kids in the class who are really kind of outgoing or aggressive or something like that, who are sort of like, and it’s easy to dominate the discussion as a teacher. And then a lot of people don’t get heard. You talk about something called a high grade compliment, which I thought was a really cool concept from your book. Can you explain what that means and how we do that?

Matthew: Yeah, it’s an idea I took from a colleague, and he used to do this in his classroom for the kids to take a chance to share something that they appreciate about each other. They share it publicly. It’s just a way for the kids to build relationships with each other and make it…it’s a little bit harder to level a bunch of accusations and stuff like that when you just had those kind of interactions.

Andy: But so what separates a high grade compliment from a low grade compliment or just an average compliment?

Matthew: Yeah. The other ones are I like your shoes or you have a good smile. And a high grade is more I appreciate what you did for me that time where you helped me with blah, blah, blah, those kind of things. You model it and then we practice it and go ahead and do it. Just minor compliments are good, but then when you compliment someone’s character or show appreciation for something they’ve done then-

Andy: That’s something about who they are, the way they behave instead of a surface level characteristic. And you also said a little bit about how it affected you kind of, or yeah. You said that you really appreciated it when they did some certain things. So instead of just saying, “Hey, you’re really nice” or “You’re really friendly,” a specific thing that they did and how that made you feel good.

Matthew: Oh, yeah, yeah. How it made them, yeah, yeah. When you’re given a compliment, it’s like, when they did the thing, how did that make you feel, how much do you appreciated those kind of things.

Andy: Yeah. Yeah. That’s cool. And I think parents can always do more of that. We get so much of the time where telling our teenagers what they should do better or what they need to improve on. And that’s valuable and stuff as well. But I think we often neglect those, taking the time to voice just what we appreciate about them and how they’re doing things that make us feel really good. So, you talk about something in your book, a term that you refer to as house talk. What is that and how does that work?

Matthew: House talk is the kind of relationships that we want. So that’s why we do the high grade compliments and all that stuff. House talk is the way you speak with family. That makes a difference in how you speak with friends and colleagues and stuff like that. And so, you do those kind of activities because race conversations require those kind of relationships, not actual family relationships, but as close as they can be within a classroom setting. And those aren’t natural so, you have to make them happen so that the kids can trust each other and stuff like that. And so you do those kind of activities to make sure that they do that.

Andy: And do you label things as house talk when they’re discussing them or…

Matthew: Yeah. Well, I don’t know how often I use that phrase with kids, but it’s just how I describe the relationships.

Andy: I love how you broke down the high grade compliments in your book. You had kind of four notes about it and one is a proximity. You ask them to sit across from the recipient eye to eye and yeah, not standing over a seated classmate because you want it to be really equal body language. I thought that was cool. And you’re just really focusing on the tone of voice, speaking earnestly and making it about the other person rather than about yourself. Yeah, I love having you in my math groups, you help me on my projects is good. But then sometimes then people will launch into a story about because I always struggled with math and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and start making it about yourself instead of keeping it focused on the other person. Yeah, I think these are really good points that you have in here.

Andy: On page 43, you talk about if a teacher is too heavy handed, he risks provoking a you need to sit down response where many students either sink deeper into the seats and prepare to cry or prepare themselves to operate as if under threat to fight or fly, to forcefully mark out their territory. There’s also a temptation to disengage entirely.

Matthew: Oh, when you give someone bad news and you’re like, “Okay, I need you to sit down,” like someone died or something?

Andy: ”Brace yourself.” Yeah, yeah. Totally.

Matthew: And so that’s what I mean. Sometimes you’re going into a conversation and you’re like, we might oversell or when you say you need to sit down or say something like that, or be-

Andy: We need to talk about something serious here. We need to have an important conversation.

Matthew: A lot of times we’re going to lose the kids before we even start because you’re going to engage the part of them that says, “Nah, I don’t want to be a part of this. I got enough going on with my life right now. I don’t want to do all this.” And so we want to pay close attention to the mood that we set before we get into a conversation.

Andy: But then, we also don’t want to catch people off guard and get into some topic that sort of people aren’t prepared for or something. What’s the balance or how do we kind of prepare them, but not trigger too much of that sit down response?

Matthew: Well, that is the balance though. I mean, there’s no easy way. I did add a few things in the book, but that is the balance. We want to make sure that we work on our ability to discern what is important, when is a moment for us to prep them and how to prep them. We’re in a world right now that want to trigger a warning in front of just about everything. That can backfire.

Andy: You might be offended. Look out.

Matthew: But that can backfire because sometimes we provoke that, because we oriented that way, we provoke that kind of response when sometimes that wouldn’t have been a natural response. A kid would’ve been cool, but because you told them that they were going to be offended, they got offended or you told them they were going to be hurt. So they got hurt. Sometimes, how we prime kids for conversation really matters. And sometimes that priming can go overboard or not be enough. And that’s where the challenge is.

Andy: Yeah. It’s like when you get a toddler who scrapes their knee and then they look up to mom or dad to see like, “Are you worried about this,” and then if you are, then they start crying. But if not, then they kind of just are like, “Okay, it’s no big deal.” Our own attitude towards something really kind of sets the tone, or it influences the kids in the rooms a lot. You’re talking about Silverman and Hansberg in this section of mindful orientation and that’s sort of, I guess, orienting them to the conversation as you’re kind of getting into it.

Andy: And then you also have this section about effective summary, which I thought was really cool and helpful. And a lot of what I saw you doing in your examples in the book were you summarizing what kids were saying, but you were also putting it into better words or sort of toning things down in certain ways and focusing on sort of the essence of their argument instead of parts that might make the conversation go in directions that you don’t want it to go. Can you talk a little bit about summary or how you use summary like that to really keep a conversation on track?

Matthew: Yeah. You just want to make sure that you do keep it on track. Especially in whole class conversations, you want to make sure that you have a lot of power and you’re re prompting. Once a kid says something, you have a lot of power on what the next thing is. Do you take a little part of what they’re saying and redirect it to the rest of the class? Do want to turn up certain parts of what they said and turn down certain parts of what they said, depending on what they said to kind of keep things scholarly? I’m always trying to keep things scholarly and I’m not trying to take the emotion out of things because emotion’s good, but I want to keep it scholarly. And if it goes to a place where it stops being scholarly, then I want to try to tone that part down and turn up the part where there’s research and inquiry and all those things that we want students to be doing and turn down the part that’s just like, I’m just sharing my opinion just based on nothing.

Matthew: That doesn’t have, right now, that’s kind of overvalued both in the world and in classrooms where people are just sharing their opinion. It’s based on nothing and I want your classroom to not be. And sometimes people do that, have a good heart. They’re like, “I want student voice,” and all that kind of stuff, but I think they’re misguided when we’re in a place where we just have the open sharing of opinions that are not based on anything. No one gets smarter doing that. No one gets better.


About Matthew R. Kay

Matthew R. Kay is an educator and author of the book, Not Light, But Fire. He is a proud product of Philadelphia’s public schools and a founding teacher at Science Leadership Academy (SLA). At SLA, he teaches an innovative inquiry-driven, project-based curriculum. He is also the Founder and Executive Director of Philly Slam League (PSL), a non-profit organization that shows young people the power of their voices through weekly spoken word competitions. The PSL is the only season-long, school-based slam poetry league in the United States.

Matthew lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Cait, and his daughter, Adia Sherrill & Bennu Jane.

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