What I could have said: Addressing racial stereotypes in kindergarten

Happy October! Last week I had the privilege of guest-posting on one of my favorite blogs, Raising Race Conscious Children. You can check out the original article here, and then spend some time browsing their other articles. It was an immense pleasure to contribute to the knowledge they have there, for parents, educators and others who are interested in talking about race with children!

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It was just another moment in kindergarten, when the teacher (me) is ushering, begging, pleading that all the energetic and excited little bodies stop what they’re doing and come to the carpet for a story. There was a lot going on, including a little girl asking for a bandaid for a non-existent wound, a little boy getting his snack out when I had clearly just asked everyone to come to the rug for storytime, and a dozen other conversations among five-year-olds. When I looked over at one group of boys, they were pulling the corners of their eyes up into little slits, and saying “Hahaha!” and “You look Chinese!”

Two other boys, including one fifth-grade mentor who helps in my classroom, started to do it too. When you’re little, it’s fun to make your body contort in different shapes and show other people what it looks like. And if it makes someone laugh, chances are other children will join in too.

But an innocent moment between friends was tainted with racist undertones – and I didn’t know what to do.

I like to think of myself as well-read and well-intentioned when it comes to talking about race with children. Race, skin color, and culture is something we talk about often in my kindergarten classroom, and I even recently started working with a racial justice group who leads conversations about race with local parent groups. But in the moment, when I was worried about a million other things, including getting my class to the carpet in a somewhat efficient manner so we could move on to the next lesson, I wasn’t sure what to say to my little group of boys who were unknowingly making stereotypical comments about a group of people.

Here’s what I said: “I see what you’re doing with your eyes to make them that shape. There are many things that make a person Chinese, and the shape of their eyes is just one aspect of being Chinese-American.”

Not a terrible answer. I’m glad I didn’t say “Don’t do that!” or “[gasp] What a mean thing to do!” without giving any explanation about why such a gesture is harmful towards others.

I’m also glad I didn’t ignore it, telling myself that “kids will be kids.”

But I wondered, what would I have done differently if I had more time, or had made more time, to address the encounter? If I would have stopped, taken a breath, and decided to make it a teachable moment?

Because these teachable moments, the chances that we as teachers have to notice racism, call out stereotypes, and teach our children how to be more accepting and honoring of all others, are more important than any math lesson we need to teach, or tests we need to give.

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As quoted in this New York Times article, “It’s the children whose parents [or teachers] do directly address race — and directly means far more than vaguely declaring everyone to be equal — who are less likely to make assumptions about people based on the color of our skin.”

If I would have prioritized it, maybe I would have said “Let’s stop and talk about this.” And then held a conversation with my small group of boys, or perhaps with my whole class, about the meaning of the word “stereotype,” and the cultural and historical context of how Asian Americans have been treated in our country – including using the shape of (some) people’s eyes to belittle or dehumanize them.

Or we could have read several books with protagonists from Asian countries, and discussed the fact that people whose ancestors come from many Eastern countries can have many different physical features.

Or maybe I could talk about how pretending to “be” someone of another race or ethnicity by changing one small thing about your body, temporarily, is dishonoring of who that person is as a whole human being.

No matter how I moved forward with the conversation, it would have been better to spend more time on it, to help my young students really understand the power of their actions, and to help them learn to navigate our world of race and racism with grace and acceptance. But I forgive myself, and all other parents and teachers who don’t know what to say, because these moments are teachable moments for me too – and I’ll use this one to better inform what I can do next time.

Raising race conscious children: having tough conversations

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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: