The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds Podcast

Discussing Racism and Modeling for Your Children with Nicole Lee-Part 3

November 20, 2020 Traci Dority-Shanklin Season 2 Episode 5
The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds Podcast
Discussing Racism and Modeling for Your Children with Nicole Lee-Part 3
Show Notes Transcript

Diversity, equity, and inclusion expert, Nicole Lee, joins Traci Dority-Shanklin for the third and final installment of their conversation about talking to your kids about racism, Black Lives Matter, and the controversies around "skin tone agnosticism."

  • 01:08 - Teaching Children About Race
  • 03:16 - Being Polite: Growing Up in a Post-Civil Rights Society
  • 05:03 - How Children Pick-up Meaning
  • 08:51 - Skin Tone Agnosticism
  • 12:12 - The Cultural Issues of the Melting Pot Theory
  • 15:58 - Having the Hard Conversations
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Talking Racism and Modeling for Your Children with Nicole Lee-Part 3

Narrator  0:03  

This is The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds podcast with Traci Dority-Shanklin. If you're interested in labor and union benefit funds, well, you've landed in the right place. We are a go-to source for all things union benefit fund related. And we are going to bring you interviews with key decision makers and fund professionals that guide these plans. They'll share their insights, experience, unique perspectives, all the latest developments, and tips to unlock the mysteries of multiemployer benefit funds. Time is short. So, let's get started.


Traci Dority-Shanklin  0:37  

Hi, and welcome back to the show. For those of you just tuning in, we have been speaking about diversity and the Black Lives Matters movement with diversity, equity, and inclusion strategist and human rights advocate, Nicole Lee. Nicole has dedicated her career to advocating, educating, and bridging solutions for minority groups, especially in a corporate environment. I divided this conversation into three parts because it is powerful and packed with valuable information for individuals and companies. 


Traci Dority-Shanklin  1:08  

So, please join me for the third and final part of my conversation with diversity expert, Nicole Lee, where we discuss talking to your children about racism. As a Caucasian mother of a Haitian daughter, this episode was deeply personal to me, I learned a lot and I hope you do too. So, I think that - that is a good pivot though - to talk about how we go about repairing some of the stuff that's going on right now and teaching our children about race in a way that sets them up to be - to live in a society that is all-inclusive?


Nicole Lee  1:46  

That is a big part of my work. That was also this - this part of my DEI work was actually born in Ferguson as well because I ended up going into schools - just meeting with administrators, and I went into schools that were like the unaccredited kind of really broken-down schools. And I also went into posh private schools. And one of the things I noticed is that all the kids were afraid. None of the kids had been able to escape just the real uncertainty or the insecurity that had come from that situation. And so, I really started looking at how we talk to our children. 


Nicole Lee  2:26  

But one of the things I'd love to tell you a little bit about, Traci, is one of the things that I did was I interviewed parents, and I interviewed parents about what they were talking to their children about. It was a research area where I thought there was a little bit of gap - that we don't always talk to parents about what conversations they're having with their children. And so, I interviewed parents - I interviewed folks that had children that were six months old; I interviewed folks that had 32-year-olds, and all in between, and I interviewed parents of color. I interviewed white parents, and something was a thread I saw throughout that I found to be really important is most of us - if we were born, even in the 60s - 60, 70s, 80s, right? Most of us have no model for how to talk to our children about race because our parents didn't talk to us about it. 


Nicole Lee  3:16  

We grew up in a time where, especially the post-civil rights folks, we grew up in a time where we were told that it was much more polite, much more appropriate, never to mention race, right? To not have that be a part of the diet, so politics, religion, and race, we just don't talk about them. And if we did talk about them, we were shushed, right? So, small children - so often, adults tell me about situations where they just said, "Oh, hey, like there's a black person," or they said, you know, "Why is that person's eyes look different," or whatever they said, and they were immediately shushed by their parents, right? And so, then when it comes to talking to our kids, we really don't have a lot of models for that. And so, I raised that, because I think it's so important, most of what we do in parenting has been modeled to us, right? We've seen how people parent, so if these conversations have not been modeled to us, it's much more difficult to have them. That's the first thing I would say. 


Nicole Lee  4:11  

The second thing I'm gonna say is, they're so important to have the conversations. And if this is not new-fangled, like flashy, innovative research, this is time-tested research, right, in the last 30, 40 years that sociologists have done and psychologists have done on what children need developmentally. Our children need for us to be having conversations with them about race and gender, and other forms of identity at a pretty young age. Younger than most people are prepared. In fact, research shows us that children as young as three-months-old are differentiating and can see the difference in race. Now, do they have meaning behind it? No. Do they - are they making meaning? Not really. Meaning starts around three and four. But even the issue with that is if we're not talking to our three and four-year-olds, where are they getting meaning from? 


Nicole Lee  5:03  

They're picking up cues. And so some of the cues that we're giving in society, just frankly, still are rife with issues of racism and ethnic phobia. And so if we're not talking to them, they're getting all of this input, if you will, they're getting all of this data, but they don't know what to do with it. And so often, you know, folks think that oh, when a child, you know, let's say, like a middle-schooler between 12 and 14, when they make a mistake around race, whether they use a racial slur, or they write racial slurs, oh, it must be because the parents were just these horrible people. And in my work, I've actually found that that's not the case either. But often, what I do find is that parents that were not having conversations. And a convers - and when I say a conversation, I'm not saying, when a child says something about race, or when issues of race come up, that we tell our children, "Up, just treat everybody the same." The "Just Treat Everybody the Same" crowd is actually in the same crowd in terms of how their - their children are able to articulate race as frankly folks, this is what the research shows, as folks that have - that say negative things about race, right, because there's so much in our society that children are picking up. If we're just telling them to treat everybody the same, they actually don't know what to do with that. 


Nicole Lee  6:16  

We have to have specific messages to them around race that say what our values are. So, if your value is that, you know, everyone is equal then one has to articulate. I believe we are white, right, if you're a white family, we are white. And so, articulate that, and a lot of folks get nervous and uncomfortable, but this is really important for identity formation, we are white, and there are people who are not white in our society, we call them "black," or however you want to say it. And they have not historically or even currently been treated in a fair way, and our family doesn't agree with that. That's many more words, right? That's many more senses and even more - more concepts than just saying, "Hey, let's treat everybody equally." But that's something that a child can - can hear, and then ask questions and get clarity around. And so, we are in some ways at a disadvantage because like I said, in the beginning, we actually weren't taught to have these conversations. But we're at a disadvantage at one of the most pivotal parts of parenting right now in our society, which is to be able to have the conversations. 


Nicole Lee  7:24  

So, one of the things I tell parents to do is - you have to get comfortable often first. If you're not comfortable talking about race, you're gonna have to take some steps to get comfortable, so then you can articulate some of these concepts to your children. Often times people say to me, but it's so much it's so hard for a child to understand. This is why it's important for you to get educated first because once you're educated, then you can figure out what's the age appropriate way for me to describe this. And yes, you can have age appropriate conversations with children that are very young about very tough issues. And, you know, when I receive pushback from clients on this, one of the things I asked them is, would you prefer for someone else to teach your children these really important lessons? Because someone will. Absolutely someone will, and it may not be your values.


Traci Dority-Shanklin  8:13  

Yeah. So, when we started this conversation, you kindly corrected a - not corrected but said that there was a question that I had written for you that wasn't necessarily something that you were a proponent of, which is this, this concept of skin tone agnosticism. And I just realized as I'm talking to you that part of that is my, you know, the mirroring that I have done in the way I was raised, which was very much what you just said, is you just don't talk about race. We don't - "everybody's the same," and let's not talk about it.


Traci Dority-Shanklin  8:51  

And we're going to accept everybody, you know, for who they are not what they look like, kind of, you know, dialogues. So, can you just explain why you feel that this idea of skin tone agnostic is not a positive concept that we instill in our children? Because I think that it would be really very helpful for me and others.


Nicole Lee  9:15  

Sure, no, absolutely. So, in my mind, you know, in terms of what I've seen in both the conversations and the research, in some ways, this notion of since skin tone agnosticism comes from a really good place. It comes from the notion that we want to see people for their personalities. And if we lived in that sort of society, right, if that sort of society existed on the planet, then then that would be something we would need to consider. But we don't. And it's important that we're parenting for the society that we're in. And I don't mean that by we parent to the lowest common denominator of society, not at all. I actually think that we parent for the society that we're in while we're envisioning with our children and helping them to have the skills to envision a better future, right? And so, you know, skin tone agnosticism is similar to color blindness. When we promote this, what we're actually doing, is not preparing our children for the fact that that is not how this society functions. We are not helping them increase their empathy, right, for so - so if we treat - if we say everyone is equal, we should treat everyone the same. Well, then when we do encounter racism, what do we do with it? What do we do with it when we encounter racism from people we like, right? Or from people that we respect? Teachers, adults, leaders? What do we do? 


Nicole Lee  10:38  

Well, often what happens with children in particular is that they - they really abandon whatever allegiances they had to the person who's experiencing the racism, or the homophobia, or the sexism, because they have again been taught that doesn't really - that that's not a factor here. Some folks say, well, quite seldom, everyone, everyone is equal, then they should be able to say, "Wait, that's not fair. That's not right because everyone's equal". And yet often, that's not really how it's interpreted. It's interpreted that as well, you must not - there must be again, going back to meritocracy - there must be a reason why you're being treated poorly. The - so that's - that's with empathy. 


Nicole Lee  11:16  

The other thing it does is it does not allow them to think; it does not allow our children to think strategically when and the inevitable things that happen in our society happen. So, if they happen to them - if everyone's equal, then when our daughters, you know, are treated in a sexist manner, there's a lot more steps that they have to get to before they can say, "Hey, this was an unfair thing that happened." And because we do live in a society still, we are sending unconscious messages to girls that they are not as good as in so many aspects. Frankly, not having a firm understanding of sexism exists actually feeds right back into that very sexism if that makes sense to you. So, we are in a society where girls are not always valued. So, then one's opinion on what's happening to them surely can't be of value. So, really preparing them, again, with the empathy, but also, being prepared to think critically when things happen is so important. 


Nicole Lee  12:12  

Also, there's a cultural issue. We - our country, I don't believe in the melting pot theory at all because I don't I don't believe in assimilation. Assimilation has not worked in our society. We have taken folks land; we have killed people; we have taken children away from their parents. And yet, assimilation has never worked, even though that was something that was frankly, government policy for quite a long time. Assimilation is also cruel, right? So, it doesn't work, and it's also cruel. Folks should not have to give up their cultural identity, whether that be African-American cultural identity, Asian-American, Irish-American cultural identity, in order to fit in to a supposedly broader culture. And we all have things in common. And if we really care about diversity, we want folks to be able to keep that. So, this notion of skin tone agnosticism, it comes with so much baggage of what is incomplete in our society; what we haven't been able to deal with both historically and currently. And so we want to, again, prepare children for the world that they're living in, and make sure that they are kind individuals. And a kind individuals, in some cases is going to need to be able to point out racism and point out homophobia, etc, when they see it. 


Traci Dority-Shanklin  13:23  

This leads me to how can we have a difficult conversation with our relatives about race? I mean, many of us have relatives that are looking at race through a lens of ignorance. This can be an interesting dynamic because we're having a conversation with people we love and respect, but there may be a disconnect.


Nicole Lee  13:44  

It's so interesting because we often times people say, "Well, when this next gen - when - when the generation - the older generation dies out, then we - we won't have racism anymore." And yet, actually, we know statistically and through a lot of research, that's actually not true. And there - there are different ways that new generations express, if you will, racism, and certainly what we saw in Charlottesville just a few years ago, we had any doubts before, we shouldn't have them. We know that racism happens inter - intergenerationally. It is so important for folks to engage with their family even though it's difficult and uncomfortable around issues of racism. It's especially important when we - because many of us have this multiracial family - really standing up and being very firm, not cruel, but firm about what we're willing to tolerate especially around children. 


Nicole Lee  14:42  

I teach on this a lot, especially around children, it's - it's essential. It's essential that we be very, very clear. I will say even in my own family, I have had to be very clear about homophobia, and what I will allow it to be said in front of my children, and that said, and yes, I have ruffled some feathers. And I love my family dearly. I think that they are, you know, they're just amazing, and I love spending time with them. And it's always, you know, it feels bad because none of us want to be the one to bring up the thing, right, that makes it uncomfortable. But what I have to remember is actually what's made it uncomfortable in the case of my family is homophobia. And it's not something that I will allow to go without being corrected in front of my daughters. Because again, I'm modeling for them, that it's not just about standing up for yourself, it's also about standing up for others, and standing up for others, even if the quote unquote, other isn't in the room, we still stand up. And so, you know, in those times, and I teach a class right around the holidays about this, about how to have these hard conversations. Often times, you know, folks are just - there's dynamics and families that make this difficult, but a part of being the adult is overcoming those dynamics, and just being really clear about what is okay and what is not okay.


Traci Dority-Shanklin  15:54  

So, is that a conversation that you have within companies?


Nicole Lee  15:58  

Oh, no. Yes. Yes. about having hard conversations? Yes. Because they're important in companies as well. We can't create inclusive and equitable companies if we're not willing to have the hard conversations. And so, I do teach on how to have hard conversations; how to be the person that brings the hard conversation; how to be in it. Even people will say, well, if someone says to me, I've said or done something inappropriate, like microaggressions is a big thing that happens in companies, which are, you know, small communication exchanges, whether it be verbal or something else that can really be quite racially insensitive or even racist. And so, I talk in companies about so if someone says that this is what you've done, how do you manage that information? So, not just about how do you manage information that you want to give? But how do you manage information you don't want to receive, right? And it's so important because the more we're able to flex this muscle, this communication muscle, is having tough conversations mode of work. Again, this is actually what makes those diverse teams so great. It's not just - just by being the great, but it's about being able to negotiate through some of these hard conversations.


Traci Dority-Shanklin  17:13  

Well, Nicole, thank you so much. Thank you for your time. Thank you for your insights. Thank you for what you do. And for all the valuable lessons that you taught me on - on this call today. 


Nicole Lee  17:26  

Thank you so much for having me. This has been a real pleasure.


Traci Dority-Shanklin  17:29  

This concludes my three-part conversation with diversity, equity, and inclusion strategist and human rights advocate Nicole Lee. Thank you for joining the conversation where listeners connect with leading experts throughout the financial and investment world.


Traci Dority-Shanklin  17:44  

And that's it for this week's episode of The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds podcast. We love to hear from you. And if you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, head over to, and let us know. 


Traci Dority-Shanklin  17:59  

Thank you for joining us and we look forward to next time.


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