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

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: Children’s books to read

One of my main goals as a kindergarten teacher is to help my students be comfortable in their own skin (literally and figuratively). Thus, every year we talk about race. To be more accurate, we talk about skin color. I am a big proponent of having this conversation with young children, because as research shows, kids notice it already. While many adults want to pretend that they “don’t see color,” kids already begin to notice differences in skin color when they are infants. I believe it’s important to discuss and explore our differences, instead of focusing only on how we are all the same. So every year, I teach an All About Me unit that includes discussions and explorations of our skin color.

To jumpstart these conversations, I read aloud many of the great children’s books that have been written about race and skin color. I decided to compile a list of the books that I find most helpful, because every year I go back to try to find them. I encourage you to read them with your students, or purchase them for your home! (And for more information on what we do after reading the books, click here or here.)

Books on Race

  1. Happy to Be Nappy by bell hooks
  2. Shades of Black: A Celebration of Our Children by Sandra Pinkney
  3. Chocolate Me! by Taye Diggs
  4. I Like Myself! by Karen Beaumont
  5. I Love My Hair! by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley
  6. The Colors of Us by Karen Katz
  7. Skin Again by bell hooks
  8. A Rainbow All Around Me by Sandra Pinkney
  9. Shades of People by Shelley Rotner
  10. Black is Brown is Tan by Arnold Adoff
  11. All the Colors We Are by Katie Kissinger
  12. It’s Okay to Be Different by Todd Parr
  13. The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler
  14. Let’s Talk About Race by Julius Lester
  15. I Am Latino: The Beauty in Me by Sandra Pinkney
  16. Colors of Me by Brynne Barnes