Raising race conscious children: having tough conversations

let's talk about race

I have a new blog obsession, one that was recommended to me by Families for Justice, a local group I started working with to bring conversations about race to our community. The blog is called Raising Race Conscious Children, and is one of the best resources I’ve come across for learning how to talk about race, gender, and sexuality with young children. While I’m not a parent, I do, in a sense, have kids – my kindergarten students, every day for eight hours, all year long. Tough conversations arise when I spend time with my kids, and I’ve started going to this blog for inspiration and advice on how to work through these tough conversations.

The blog authors publish articles on all sorts of topics that arise when you spend time with young children, such as “Momma, why aren’t there more boy teachers?” and “Black is not a bad word: Why I don’t talk in code with my children.

For example, check out this post on what happened when the author’s seven-year-old daughter encountered an act of sexism on her soccer team. A boy cut in front of her in line and said boys should go first. He also later told her it would be embarrassing if a girl beat a boy while playing soccer. Her daughter got upset and told him it wasn’t nice.

On the way home, instead of shying away from the topic, her mom asked her daughter to explain what happened, and told her she was proud of her for standing up for herself. But the mom felt some unease when she realized that she didn’t explain the root cause of this interaction – that the boy wasn’t just being mean, he was being sexist.

So that night, the author “circles back” and brings it up with her daughter again. She does some courageous things in the conversation, including defining the word “sexism” for her daughter, and explaining that this probably won’t be the last time she’ll face a situation like this.

And instead of being fearful or upset, her daughter responds with courage too, and connects it to Rosa Parks standing up for what she believed in.

The author’s experience was a powerful one, and confirms my belief that we need to talk about these issues with our young children, instead of pretending that they’ll go away if we ignore them long enough. The conversations are tough, but necessary, for bringing social justice transformation to our families, classrooms, and communities.

My favorite line from the article:

“I don’t know if I found the right line that day, but I definitely grew. I grew in respect for my daughter and her ability to analyze what’s really going on. And I grew in my clarity that supporting our children in naming the truth of their own experiences isn’t likely to make them small or afraid. It’s much more likely to make large and courageous their capacity to act with agency in the world.”

What happened when I defined sexism for my daughter

On talking about race in kindergarten.

A few weeks ago I went to a community event that was intended to start a conversation about race among teachers and parents. The topic was how children understand race, and I wrote about what I learned here. The biggest thing that stuck out to me was the need to TALK about race. Don’t pretend it’s not there, don’t be “colorblind,” but bring it up, discuss it with kids, make it an issue because it already is an issue in society, whether we like it or not.

This is easier said than done, though. As a parent, I imagine it is super challenging, because you want to get it right the first time, and in a concise and developmentally appropriate manner. And as a public school teacher, it’s challenging because I want to do those things, and also not offend anybody either. The topic of “race” is not built into my sanctioned curriculum, but it is a real-world issue that my kids face on a daily basis. And within my classroom community, I want kids of all colors to feel valued and important. I want them to know that it’s okay to be different, and in fact being different is a good thing. I want them to notice diversity, and talk about it, and learn why it’s important.

Eventually, I want my kids to know that some people don’t think diversity is a good thing, and that we have systems in our communities that are unfair, that racism and prejudice and bigotry exists. They’re going to face it in one form or another, whether we like it or not. And I want them to know that they can, and should, do something about it.

Of course, I teach kindergarten, so I have to figure out a way to fit all of that into lessons that a six-year-old can understand, and remember. I’ve put together some ideas on how to teach these topics over the past few years. I’m not sure how good I am at it, but I’m doing the best that I can, and I thought I would share what I do each year!

(P.S. I don’t claim original credit for any of these ideas. They’re taken from other teachers, books, magazines, and classes. I also follow several Pinterest boards on this topic, here, here, and here.)

Talking about race in kindergarten

We started off by looking at pictures of children from around the world, and sharing our observations. What does their hair look like? What does their skin look like? Can you see where they live? Do they look the same or different from you?

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Then we start a discussion about our skin color. I make sure to stock up my classroom library with tons of books about skin color, hair, and being yourself. There’s a really good list here if you’re searching.

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Several of the books teach that while skin is often called “black” or “white,” we are all actually various shades of brown. For example, we read the book The Colors of Us by Karen Katz. The book talks about a girl whose community is filled with people of many different skin colors. Instead of using the words “black” or “white” to describe their skin color, she uses different words for shades of brown. We compared our skin colors to each other’s, and each kindergarten then picked out a skin-color crayon that most closely matched their skin. (Skin color crayons are available here.)

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After making a list of the colors we are, we use the crayons to draw portraits of ourselves, and hang them in the classroom for all to see. After we take down the posters, I make them into a big book that is a popular choice for Read to Self time.

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We also read a book called It’s Okay to Be Different, by my favorite author Todd Parr. The message in this book is that we are all different, and instead of ignoring this fact, we should celebrate it! Some excerpts from the book:

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I’ve also had the kids do a similar skin color comparison activity using paint chips of various shades of brown.

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Then we share how our beautiful skin made us feel. The kids really enjoy repeating the lesson, and I hope that it contributes to an overall positive sense of who they are.

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We also read the book I Love My Hair by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley and share why we loved our own hair. I then take a picture of each kid’s hair, as well as their faces, to create a matching game. The game is available as an activity throughout the day. This is a great way to help kids pay attention to detail and truly notice the differences among each other.

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That at the end, we take a photo of our beautiful skin.

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This is by no means an exhaustive list of ideas, and I find myself tweaking it each year. There are lots more ideas available online if you want to teach/talk about skin color. I also want to do more reading on how to incorporate anti-bias education in more subtle ways throughout my curriculum, particularly how to teach about social injustices around race and skin color. But this is a start for now!

Here are more resources that I’ve came across:

How children understand race

I was able to be part of a great discussion last night at our local children’s museum on how children understand race. The event was called “Difficult Conversations,” and invited parents, educators, and community members to learn and discuss how children learn about race.

The event started with a speaker, Erin Winkler, who is a professor of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She had a jam-packed presentation with so much fascinating research on how children learn about race, how stereotypes about race are formed, and what educators can do about it. After the speaker, the audience members broke off into discussion groups to talk about their experiences with race as parents and educators of young children.

I was furiously scribbling notes throughout, since this information is directly relevant to my kindergarten students’ lives. As a matter of fact, it’s directly relevant to ALL children’s lives, and that was one of the main points of the evening – all children develop racial biases, no matter how hard we try to teach them that “everyone is the same on the inside.” Instead of pretending racial bias isn’t an issue, let’s discuss it, and begin the work that is needed to change it.

I want to give you everything that Dr. Winkler shared during her talk, but in the interest of time, space, and respect for her academic work, I’ll stick to a few highlights that really spoke to me. (For more on her research, listen to her interview on how children understand race or read any of her publications.)

We can begin with this:

not all stereotypes are created equal

This idea was fascinating to me. Yes, stereotypes exist about everyone. Even white people. But the stereotypes that are assigned to some groups are more harmful than those assigned to other groups. For example, a stereotype of a white woman might be that she is high-maintenance, or bossy, or lets her children run wild. But a stereotype of a black male might be that he is dangerous, or untrustworthy, or violent. Which of these stereotypes will be more harmful to someone who is trying to get a job, or secure housing? Enough said.

As for when stereotypes begin to appear, there’s this:

children racial bias

I’ve read research on this before. At 3-6 months, infants categorize by race, meaning they stare longer at a person of a different race. At two years old, children use racial categories to explain behaviors. For example, if a child sees a white person doing one thing and a brown person doing another, she may attribute the reason they were doing that action to the color of their skin. It doesn’t mean they have bias towards one race over another yet.

At three to five years old, kids begin to express bias based on race. Now, Dr. Winkler made it clear that this is NOT because kids are hearing it from their parents. So interesting, since many teachers (including me!) believe that their students learn prejudice from their families. Instead, she explained that children at this age are still using race to categorize, and therefore attribute certain behaviors to certain races. This is because their little brains can’t hold on to too many nuanced ideas at the same time. Not much we can do about that.

But – and here’s where a potential solution comes in – kids learn from external factors as well. Society teaches them early on that race is a category that matters, more so than left-handedness or hair color. They see people in society separated by race, and they make assumptions based on this information. Who lives in a certain neighborhood, who appears in Disney movies, who is talked about in school curriculum. And while the ideas kids are forming are still just stereotypes at this point in time, this next part made it clear how we go from stereotypes to racism so quickly in our society:

racism definition

This was such a clear and concise definition of words that are often used interchangeably. While stereotypes and prejudice exist at a personal or social level, racism is a systemic problem that results from prejudice plus certain groups having more power than others. This is both bad news, and good news. The bad news is that racism is a large, system-wide problem. The good news is that we can combat racism by identifying and combating all the levels below it (stereotypes, in-group bias, prejudice, group social power).

The last part of the talk was the one that excited me the most – what we can do to fight against racism. Usually, discussions on racism and social injustice in education are tough, because you leave feeling powerless to make an actual difference. Yes, we can teach multicultural curriculum. But Dr. Winkler, and many others, warn that multicultural curriculum needs to be more than just teaching about “heroes and holidays.” Many teachers (with very good intentions) teach about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Cesar Chavez, but ultimately deliver a message that says “hooray for these heroes, now racism is over.”

In addition, many teachers teach that we should all be colorblind. “We should focus on how deep down we are all the same!” and other such messages are taught in lots of classrooms. I’m guilty of this myself, as I have done the eggs-are-the-same-on-the-inside activity, and many similar lessons in the past.

Instead, teachers need to teach students to value diversity, and identify racial bias when it is present. We learned about a fascinating study called “In blind pursuit of racial equality?” (Apfelbaum et al., 2010). In it, one group of students was taught a central message that downplayed racial distinctions, instead promoting the idea of valuing how similar we all are. (In other words, let’s be colorblind.) The other group of students learned that race is important, because racial differences make us special.

The results? The kids in the first group were much less likely to recognize subtle racism, and explicit racial bias, in a follow-up story.

Conclusion?

value diversity

Instead of teaching kids to ignore color, we should instead teach them to value the diversity of all humankind, and celebrate it. To me, this is true anti-bias education, because it doesn’t ignore differences among our students. Instead, it encourages kids to notice differences, and speak up when injustices occur.

I’m very excited to explore how to teach this with my kindergarten students. I have done some teaching on valuing diversity in the past, and plan to post some resources and ideas for how to do it very soon. I am always hoping to strengthen my understanding of anti-racist and anti-bias education. Here are a few quick links that I find really helpful: