Angry, disheartened, and heart-broken after George Floyd’s murder, I vented by re-sharing a post on Facebook acknowledging that my white privilege allows me to do all sorts of everyday things (walk to the store, for example) without fear of dying. A wise colleague challenged me, saying in essence, “and what are you going to do about it?” What can I do about it? So much activity that has become public is just not in my wheel-house. I fretted for an hour or two and then it dawned on me…you give what you have to give. What I have to give has to do with 1) teaching 2) learning 3) children and 4) writing. So here it is, the initiation of my attempt to “do something about it.”
When I look at the “poles” of the polarization our society suffers at the moment, I see both personal and cultural history. No white supremacist was born that way. No bigoted “Amy Cooper” either. Nor any entitled misogynist or anti-semite. In a newborn baby there is only potential. As Richard Rodgers wrote for the musical, “South Pacific,”
You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught
Indeed, children most often develop their values and perspective on life at their parents’ knees. By the time they themselves are parents, those values are deeply ingrained. Unless something happens to interrupt the flow…some aggregate of experiences and perspectives that strike the growing psyche as wrong. That children spend so many hours outside of their homes at school and daycare and still grow up not having had those interrupting experiences and perspectives tells me that we, as educators, are missing the boat.
Children who go to school where there is not a concerted, intentional, daily effort to teach them how to become interdependent in a community, how to listen to peers (not just authority figures), how to have cognitive conflict without emotional conflict, how to negotiate difficult social situations, how to find and use their voices in advocacy for each other and for causes they care about will continue to live emotionally delineated lives…right or wrong, black or white…and will continue to rely on the dichotomy of doing what they’re told or exactly the opposite, without thinking.
White children who go to school with only white children, where “diversity education” consists of only Black history month or the like will not learn to take the perspective of all other people, even if they learn to take the perspective of the people around them. These are the children who are in danger of living as if there were no other people in their society. Since we fear what we don’t know, when these children are old enough to venture into the world on their own and encounter people they’ve never seen before. they may respond with fear. That fear is steel to the magnet that is white supremacism or culturally ignorant social agreement (i.e., folks who comfortably agree with each other and act on false assumptions). This is a travesty, in my opinion; had their education been different, they would have been better prepared for the world as it is. And there is no way a child will buck a racist family culture if he hasn’t been “carefully taught” otherwise. All these are dangers all children in homogeneous educational settings face. The difference is that black and brown children have no shortage of images of white people in their lives. The fear they grow up with comes from a different place. Perhaps a place of knowing, rather than of ignorance?
So how can an early childhood setting with only white children set the foundation for a more enlightened education? I propose a few ideas, but this is really a conversation that should happen at your school, with your colleagues, on an ongoing basis. Teachers are intelligent, creative, and thoughtful. If teachers understand the long-term goal…children who are supported to live in the world as it is with all its wonderful differences…and they engage in dialogue, they will come up with many more ways to make this happen than I can in this post.
- Make a collaborative commitment to the solution.
- If you can, create greater diversity (not just by skin color, but by other attributes that represent your community) in your school population…children, teachers, admin, etc…. If not, be sure that people of color are represented in those you bring to school for special days, for story reading, for gardening together, and so on.
- Take a careful look at the classroom environment, from the child’s perspective.
- Are all kinds of people represented in toys, dolls, books, pictures, etc?
- Try to adopt a new lens. What is the world that the children see through your classroom like? Is it diverse, rich, and open to them? If you are truly wearing that lens, opportunities to enrich the classroom environment and experiences will become apparent.
- Use books and stories about children of color, with plots with which the children in your class can identify.
- Do not shy away from hard conversations. Children are philosophers. If you cultivate a culture of conversation (in which the children are in dialogue with each other, not just the teacher), they will bring up topics that interest and/or disturb them. The five-year-olds I’ve known have brought up death, theology, current events, natural disasters, bullying, fairness, and bigotry. The key is an adult who is listening and working to help the children articulate and hear each other. Much is learned from such conversations (and they’re so much more compelling for the children than “What do you know about a pumpkin?”).
- Talk about rights. Children have rights. Ask them to co-construct an image of what those rights might be. Make reference to their understanding of their rights when they read or hear about the rights of others being violated.
- Work on inclusion. Borrowing from Vivian Paley, we had a policy that “If they want to play, then find a way.” That is, if a child wants to join a group in play, she must first approach and ask to play (a formality, since the answer is supposed to be yes) or ask what the group is doing. The children in the group are expected to tell the newcomer what’s happening and tell her how she can participate. She can negotiate that. For example, if they say, “We’re playing house. You can be the baby” and she doesn’t want to be the baby, she might say, “I want to be the mommy.” The group might say, “We already have a mommy. Do you want to be the BIG sister?” and so on until both sides agree. What the newcomer can’t do is come in and take over the play in a way not agreed upon with the group. In the beginning, we would walk children through this process in context. In no time, they would be doing it on their own. This gave courage (and a strategy) to the child wanting to join in, and it gave the group awareness of their right to the theme of their play. As a result, there rarely was exclusion among the children. No one was left out. The children did not learn that power comes from exclusion; rather, when they created “clubs” in play, as 5 and a half-year-old children will do, they worked to get as many people to join as possible.
- Encourage advocacy. Many schools have outreach programs in which the adults come up with a project (collect pennies for breast cancer, for example) and have children and their families participate in that project in the name of outreach. But I think that developing a sense of advocacy will have longer-lasting educational value. If you are having daily conversations with (not at) children, things will come up that the children think are unjust. That is the time to ask, “Would you like to do something about that?” Ask them to brainstorm possibilities and together come up with a plan. Adults will most likely have to facilitate, but let as much of it belong to the children as possible.
- Here is a resource for books that support conversations about race and racism, shared by Laurie Kocher on Facebook (thanks, Laurie!). https://www.embracerace.org/resources/26-childrens-books-to-support-conversations-on-race-racism-resistance?fbclid=IwAR2VeHjrZP2ThjIfGvjz0GtDFCEv1pBpx3DMYJ37BruYvoEE-f0_EIOOAPc