“But, I don’t see color”: The need for early childhood teachers to integrate anti-racist perspectives in the classroom
Terry Husband is an Assistant Professor of Early Childhood and Elementary Literacy at Illinois State University and the author of ”Read and Succeed: Practices to Support Reading Reading Skills in African American Boys” released in November 2013.
Recent data from the U.S census reveal that early childhood classrooms continue to become increasingly racially and ethnically diverse as we journey through the 21st century. This demographic imperative requires early childhood educators to equip children with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to interact productively and constructively with individuals from a range of different racial backgrounds. Yet and still, many early childhood educators are reluctant to teach young children about race and racism in ways that are both developmentally appropriate and critical largely on the basis of both developmental and political concerns (i.e. “their too young”…”I don’t want people to think I am a racist…”, etc.) While color-blind perspectives and approaches may provide “safe” spaces for early childhood educators, they, nonetheless, create “dangerous” spaces for early childhood students. With that said, here are some reasons early childhood teachers should engage children in frank discussions of race and racism and to move beyond color-blind instructional approaches and toward color-conscious approaches:
- Children are constantly being bombarded racist and stereotypical information via media and family interactions—Whether we like it or not, children are constantly being bombarded with racist, sexist, and classist information from the media and their family and community interactions. In many cases, this information is not being challenged or disrupted. Over time, this unchallenged information becomes truth in the lives of many children. Therefore, children will benefit greatly from early childhood teachers who are willing to discuss issues of race and racial justice in the classroom.
- It is more difficult to challenge racist and stereotypical beliefs the longer they have existed—Studies show that the longer a particular belief pattern exists in a child’s mind, the more difficult it becomes to change this belief pattern. Therefore, waiting until a child is in 5th or 6th grade (as is often the case) to discuss issues of racial injustice will make this task even more arduous. In other words, it is much easier to help children develop an awareness of and sensitivity to issues of racial injustice than calling into question the beliefs of a teen who has come to accept various racial stereotypes as truth.
- Not attending to racial difference indirectly contributes to racial injustices in the classroom—Teachers who consciously choose to avoid attending to blatant issues of injustice (e.g., religious, sexual, racial, etc.) are indirectly contributing to this injustice. While this may seem like a harsh statement, it is quite true in most cases. For example, imagine that a 5th grade student outside of my classroom is bullying a kindergarten student. Instead of getting involved in the situation as a professional, I decide to simply close my door and continue to teach my lesson. Several of the children in my classroom watch as I consciously choose to ignore the issue that is taking place outside of my classroom. Not only did my actions indirectly contribute to this issue of bullying, but I also sent a message (indirectly) to my students that it is perfectly “okay” to ignore issues of injustice in the world around us. This is similar to what happens when teachers consciously choose to ignore issues of racial injustice in the world around them.
- Racism is still a very real and pervasive issue in schools and the larger society—While we have made tremendous strides a society, racial injustice still continues to be a very “real” and “present” issue in the lives of people of color in and out of school. Therefore, we will not be able to defeat this giant unless we are first willing to suit up for the battle. In the words of James Baldwin, “everything we face we may not be able to overcome, but everything we overcome we must first be willing to face.”