How can we embrace race? Learn from this couple advocating for change

In 2016, Melissa Giraud and Andrew Grant-Thomas created EmbraceRace, an online collection of resources for parents, educators and kids that has grown into a community of people who care about race, justice and the future of our democracy.

Lisa Selin Davis is the author of "Tomboy: The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different." She has written The New York Times, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and many other publications.

(CNN)Years before George Floyd's murder by police officer Derek Chauvin in the streets of Minneapolis propelled people around the world to protest systemic racism, Melissa Giraud and Andrew Grant-Thomas had been working on similar goals, in a different way.

Married since 2002, they've been teaching families, educators and community members not just to talk about race, but to understand the dire reasons they need to come together to fight racism.
Giraud, who has worked as an educator and National Public Radio producer, is the biracial daughter of immigrants. Grant-Thomas, a Black man of Jamaican origin, born on the Fourth of July, is, as he put it, a "longtime racial justice guy."
    As parents of two daughters, ages 9 and 12, together they created EmbraceRace, an online collection of resources for parents, educators and kids, in 2016. It has become a blossoming community of people who care about race, justice and the future of our democracy.
      CNN: What prompted you to start EmbraceRace?
        Melissa Giraud: In 2015, when our kids were in preschool, they were confronting some of the same things they would have confronted 50 years ago — things we confronted as kids — who's valued at school, who's in charge and who's not, who's represented in ads, books and movies.
        We really wanted to find support, but articles for parents tended to be about how to talk to White kids about school shootings or Charlottesville. They didn't discuss how to do it for kids from targeted groups.
          We thought, if we're having a hard time, having worked in racial justice for years, other parents must really be struggling to find resources. That's when we started to imagine EmbraceRace.
          Andrew Grant-Thomas: It became more apparent to us, in the context of President Trump and the way the conversation around race escalated, that our friends and teachers, other parents and we ourselves needed community as much we wanted resources. That's what EmbraceRace became.
          CNN: Why focus on parenting specifically?
          Grant-Thomas: We thought about it two ways. We wanted to protect our brown-skinned girls, to fortify them for a world that often doesn't value girls of color and support their possibilities for making change and influencing people.
          We haven't paid enough attention to how we nurture the rising generations to really make our multiracial democracy sing. We need to devote resources to this piece of the puzzle if we're to have a different conversation in 20 years about the status of race in this country.
          Giraud: Although racial bias and inequity is systemic and not simply about interpersonal interaction, we also create the systems. If you want to create better systems, you need to nurture better agents.
          CNN: Can you talk about the "myth of racial innocence"?
          Grant-Thomas: A lot of the existing work around kids' racial learning is for educators, mostly middle and high school educators. But children's sensibilities and attitudes about race start forming way before middle school.
          At three months, six months, kids are able to distinguish hair texture and skin color and begin to show some preference toward the skin tone of their primary caregiver — for understandable reasons. That's not racism, but racial discernment begins very, very early, and will turn into more sophisticated, suspect discernment.
          A lot of parents, especially White parents, say, "I don't want to stain my kids' innocence by introducing this conversation." But children aren't racial innocents for long. And, actually, our kids have much less of a problem talking about race than we do — until we teach them that race is taboo. What if we deliberately engage kids on race early, while their attitudes are relatively malleable?
          Giraud: This is a real deficiency in the racial education of so many Americans. You can run the country, a company or university without knowing anything about how race works.
          The reality is so different from the story we all hear: "We're a meritocracy. If you just work hard, nothing will hold you back." There are a lot of adults who think that "You're either a racist or not a racist," when the truth is we're all operating within racialized systems that favor some and disfavor others. Our kids need to be able to embrace that complexity.
          CNN: What role does segregation play in both racial ignorance and racial discernment?
          Grant-Thomas: Most of our homes, schools and social circles are segregated. The 2013 American Values Survey found that 91% of White Americans' friendships were with other White people. Black Americans' friendships were only a bit more diverse. Latinx folks did a little better. Asian Americans had the most diverse circles.
          If we're not learning about each other through direct, intimate experiences, we're more likely to accept whatever skewed stories about race reach us through popular culture. If parents and other adults aren't inviting conversations about race, or are actively squashing them, and if there isn't any color difference in the home, then there isn't much occasion for kids to show that they're registering race.
          CNN: You mean that race doesn't come up because people's lives are so segregated?
          Grant-Thomas: I guarantee you that fewer Black or Latinx families are insisting that their 3-year-olds don't see race, in part because they don't have the privilege of squelching the discussion, and in part because non-White people move through more diverse settings by necessity. And they're more open to recognizing the racial references their kids do make.
          Giraud: A kid of color operating in a community or household where people don't talk about race, despite the obvious racial hierarchy you see, might think, "They think my race is so bad that they don't want to talk about it."
          So many times growing up, people would start to ask me about my race and they then would stop short as if they didn't want to insult me. They had learned not to talk about it. They had also learned that "White is normal."