Anti-Blackness in preschool classrooms: Combatting conditioning early to save our kids
We need to go beyond outdated constructs that only pick apart cultural devices such as songs, books, and print.
By Salaam Green
“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” – James Baldwin, Author
American axiom would posit that if a 3-year-old becomes highly interested in another 3-year-old on the playground, chances are high that they will rush over and begin to play with the other child regardless of the color of their skin or gender. But according to research from “Stages in Children’s Development of Racial/Cultural Identity & Attitudes” by Louise Derman-Sparks, at as early as 6 months, infants begin to discriminate based on skin color cues.
Around 1-2 years old, children are beginning to interact with other children on the social and cultural norms applied in the constructs of their own family culture. During early childhood, children are learning categorically through their senses, and this hyper intuitive nature lends to children quickly forming ideas about such things as texture of hair, color of skin, and overall appearance of other children in contrast to their own selves. As young children begin to learn about differences, it becomes even more important for educators and parents to both adopt developmentally appropriate curriculum that isn’t biased against Black culture.
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In a recent reported article by K5 Education News, teachers Benjamin Gore and Jasen Frelot have created a space for an anti-racism preschool coming to Columbia, Seattle. The early childhood program will focus its curriculum more than once a month on stories of present and past people of color. “We’re looking to create the confidence that when these kids go into predominately white schools that they can bring counter narratives to the school,” said Gore.
Trained professionally as a Master’s level Early Childhood Educator and a proponent for eliminating the racial and gender bias in education, I found this premise promising and wroughtfully overdue. We need to go beyond outdated constructs that only pick apart cultural devices such as songs, books, and print. This simply touches the surface of how people from varying backgrounds live, heal, and make their lives in this world.
“I think it’s really important that they see there are so many other ways they can accomplish things than being a white princess.” — Taryn Coe, a parent in one of Gore and Frelot’s workshops
As a former child development specialists, and Early Childhood program administrator for over 15 years, my experiences with birth-5 aged children has shown me that each child’s own curiosity helps shape the path towards learning. Tobeka G. Green, President and CEO of The National Black Child Development Institute (NBCDI), a national advocacy and policy organization who published the resource “Being Black is not a risk factor”, explains: “Research shows that babies as young as six months old notice differences in the way people look and behave.”
Curiosity coupled with genuine playfulness around the aspect of “skin color” can help children in the early stages of development become aware of racial themes to powerful effect.
Mia*, one of my toddler students with long brown braids and a straight cut bang, was a smart Black girl who garnered a fondness for playing in the dramatic play area of the classroom. One of my other students, Richey*, was a white, fun-loving male student who frequently enjoyed playing alongside her in the same area. One Friday, as I watched the toddlers zoom around and play, I also heard Richey describe Mia’s hair along with this interesting exchange.
Richey: “Mia, your hair is not like the princess-books.”
Mia: “‘Cause it’s Mia hair.”
Richey: “No, that book we read is a princess and she is white, (holding it up to her) look at it, see.”
Mia: “I don’t want that book”
Richey: “I cut your hair and put on the (pink) scarf. You can be long pink hair then.”
Mia: “No, Richey. No one cuts my hair, my mama said that—move!”
This exchange not only hit on the interweaving of race, ethnicity and bias, but also privilege, class and sexism. Admittedly, as an early childhood teacher I had a sleuth of Disney books, and though they were alongside other books that represented multicultural standards, Richey grew a fondness to Disney specifically. I moved the book in question out of the book center, but knowing that it would take more than a book to reposition the kids’ understanding. It was time to re-think multi-cultures within the early childhood setting where I was teaching.
Gradually bringing in systematic anti-racist prompts to be examples of people from varying backgrounds became a surprising challenge. Many of the preschoolers decided to not choose the dolls of color to play with or didn’t spend time reading many of the diverse books on their own. A few white parents expressed that they didn’t want their children participating in the multicultural learning center, interjecting that they believed more time needed to be given to science and math learning centers overall.
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However, it made such a difference in explaining to these young minds, already ripe with so many contexts, the importance of valuing culture outside of trite normal patterns. Some ways that I engaged young children in my classroom with anti-racist materials and curriculum was through books and storytime. One of my preschoolers’ favorites included one of my childhood favorites as well, Ezra Jack Keats, A Snowy Day. Keats represents Black culture in a early childhood picture book including photos of a young Black boy’s day playing in the snow with joy. I also used family take-home activities with A Snowy Day guide to attempt to enhance family engagement.
Green sums up the importance of beginning early fostering anti-racism learning opportunities and environments of anti-bias education by saying, “We live in a world filled with rich traditions, cultures, and routines. It’s never too early to start helping your child appreciate diversity. By modeling respect and care for others in our communities, we can help children embrace differences while recognizing the many things we all have in common.”