Antiracist Activism for Teachers and Students/Points to Consider for Teaching Anti-racism/Anti-Racism in Early Childhood
Anti-Racism in Early Childhood
The National Director of the Anti Defamation League, Abraham H. Foxman has said, "Children are born into this world without prejudice, but can learn prejudice as easily as the alphabet or tying their shoes; getting to children as early as possible is important when you want to instill them with positive images of themselves and others” (Anti-Defamation League, 2001, How Can We Stop Hate Before it Starts? section, para. 0). Therefore, while it is important to educate adults about racism, raising children who will be anti-racists is an essential step towards achieving real change in our society. Incorporating anti-racist curriculum in early childhood education provides children with a foundation to fight for social justice later in their lives.
Some parents and educators argue that it is inappropriate to educate young children about racism. They oppose anti-racist education in early childhood on the grounds that concepts such as prejudice and discrimination are too complex for young children to understand, that educators “shouldn’t be forcing their political issues down the throats of young children,” and that the “early years are for playing and having fun, not solving the ills of the world” (Davidson & Pelo (2000) p. 1). It has also been argued that addressing racism in school actually results in an increase of racist incidents (Dr. R. Jones, personal communication, April 10, 2008), and that anti-racist education detracts from primary subject education (Davidson & Pelo (2000) p. 1).
However, those in support of anti-racist curriculum in early childhood emphasize that children are not color-blind and that noticing differences is biological. By six months, infants recognize color differences, by two years children are aware of physical aspects of identity including skin color and gender, and by age five, children begin to recognize group ethnic identity as part of their developing sense of self (Hofheimer Betman, & Stern-LaRosa, 2000, p. 18-23). Children are, therefore, naturally aware of differences and to ignore difference in the classroom counters their curiosity to learn about others.
In the Classroom
A classroom environment rich in possibilities for exploring diversity provides children with opportunities to develop ideas about themselves and others, allows them to initiate conversations about differences in a safe environment, and provides teachers with a setting in which they can introduce activities about diversity (Stern-LaRosa, 2001, Talking to children about diversity: Preschool years section, para. 7). Teachers are an integral part of a child’s development, and can be key figures in shaping children’s perceptions of differences. They are influential role-models who have the potential to teach children to be anti-racists.
The formation of children’s attitudes towards difference is a social process in which the family, school, and media all play major roles (Derman-Sparks, 2006, p. 15). Thus, in our racialized society, children are constantly exposed to racism, but the school is a place where these views can be challenged (Lee, 2006, p. 4). Because children absorb societal beliefs, it is important to teach them during their development to appreciate differences rather than allowing them to internalize society’s racism.
Children’s experiences in early childhood shape how they will approach differences throughout their life. The preschool years lay the foundation for children’s development of a strong sense of self, empathy, and positive attitudes towards difference and social interaction skills. The racism that exists in our society has the ability to sabotage their healthy development in these areas. Through anti-bias activities and the help of educators, children can learn to resist racism (Derman-Sparks, 2006, p. 193). Even young children have the ability to be anti-racists; what children learn in the classroom can be transferred into action to combat the injustice they encounter in the world around them.
Working from Sonia Nieto’s “Levels of Multicultural Education Support,” we find that the best classroom for children to practice anti-racism in is one that could be characterized as embodying “Affirmation, Solidarity, and Critique” (the fifth and final level of multicultural education support). Although anti-racist activism is a desirable component in all strains of life, one finds that a classroom in which “students work and struggle with one another” (Nieto, 2006 p. 26) is most conducive to anti-racist activism.
Vehemently anti-racist and anti-bias curricula strive for the development of a student who will actively promote social justice. Through activities that build a strong sense of self, empathy, a positive attitude towards people different from oneself, and healthy social interaction skills, students may be guided towards the path of anti-racist activism. The Anti-Bias Curriculum, developed by a multi-ethnic group of early childhood educators, promotes the following goals:
- To nurture each child’s construction of a knowledgeable, confident self-concept and group identity.
- To promote each child’s comfortable, empathic interaction with people from diverse backgrounds.
- To foster each child’s critical thinking about bias.
- To cultivate each child’s ability to stand up for her/himself and for others in the face of bias (Derman-Sparks, 2006, p. 193).
These principles should be a topic of discussion and a part of primary activities, but also relevant to students’ role as activists, because, as Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope point out, “Multicultural education, to be effective, needs to be more active” (Nieto, 2006 p. 26).
An integral part of anti-racist activism among young students involves awareness about the seriousness of the issue. It is therefore necessary to discuss and define principles and ideologies regarding race and prejudice with children from a young age. Sandra Fitzpatrick emphasizes the importance of starting with concrete examples and working towards the more abstract when working with particularly young students. She suggests role-playing and contextual conversations to help children grasp the concepts of race and prejudice. For example, the Dr. Suess children’s book, “The Sneetches” is particularly useful in explaining that what is on the outside doesn’t matter (Fitzpatrick, personal communication, April 24, 2008). Once students have a grasp on what prejudice is, and how it can hurt people, anti-racist activities can begin. Activism can happen right in the classroom, around the community, or in larger society.
Fitzpatrick recommends an activity for the classroom that can take place throughout each school day over the course of the entire year (and hopefully will spread to other reaches of their lives). She explains the concept of prejudice to the students, and then tells them that they are all “prejudice detectors;” each of which has the power to point out prejudice whenever it may occur. She has noticed kindergartener’s observations range from students pointing out basic sexist gender-roles within playtime activities, to students recognizing prejudice in themselves outside of the classroom, a fairly astute observation for even mature, practicing anti-racists (Fitzpatrick, personal communication, April 24, 2008).
One kindergarten teacher worked with her students to paint over a wall in a park that had racial slurs written on it. She stopped the group one day while walking through the park and asked them, “‘Do you know what is written on this wall? It makes me very angry.’” She proceeded to talk with the students about what they meant and, as a class, they decided to paint over the words (Derman-Sparks, 2006, p. 194). Caryl Stern-LaRosa and Ellen Hofheimer Bettman even suggest designating a wall space where students can write, draw or paint “graffiti with a harmonious and unifying message” (Hofheimer Betman, & Stern-LaRosa, 2000, p. 282).
Activism projects like the ones described above can be especially helpful in sparking discussion among young students. Teachers will undoubtedly have to help fill in gaps in these slightly more complex issues, but age appropriateness is key in advocating anti-racist activism among young students.
One activity Louise Derman-Sparks recommends involves “flesh-colored bandages… a material of considerable interest to young children” (Derman-Sparks, 2006, p. 195). One day, while attending to a minor scrape, she said to the children, “Look at this—it says on the box that these bandages are flesh-colored. That means they are the same color as our skin. Let’s see if it really is true.” Each child then received a bandage on his or her arm, and they noticed that the bandages matched very few of the students’ skin tones. The next day, they invited members of other classrooms to participate in the experiment. Noticing that the bandages were, indeed, not a universal skin color, they opted to write a letter to the company. The children dictated what they wanted to say, Derman-Sparks added a description of their experiment, and the letter was mailed to the company. They also got parents involved, sending letters home about what they were doing. A few weeks later the class received a box of bandages with a polite note reading, “Enclosed find some transparent strips which are more flesh-colored” (Derman-Sparks, 2006, p. 196).
Although teacher-led activities are a great way to get students into the habit of speaking out against prejudice, when the students themselves lead, it becomes more than just an activity. It becomes activism. Local educators Tara Karr and Sandra Fitzpatrick have seen remarkable cases of anti-racist activism within their classrooms.
Tara Karr, a pre-school teacher at Gorse Child Study Center, has found that her students are also capable of responding to those precious classroom events we call “teachable moments.” This year she has a set of twins who are particularly vocal in reacting to other students’ comments about the families made of “scary brown people” in stories or the “impossible” family structures that have two moms. Karr has found that when the twins reply with, “What is scary? She is saying only good things to her daughter,” or “There doesn’t always have to be a dad, family is the people that love you,” the entire class jumps in for a student-led discussion about skin color, or what makes a family, etc. (Tara Karr, personal communication, April 25, 2008).
One year in Sandra Fitzpatrick’s career as a kindergarten teacher at the Three Rivers School, the gym classes hosted a “jump-a-thon.” The children were to raise money outside of school, and the students who had raised the most would win prizes. At the end of the competition, it was the students who came from wealthy families who had raised the most money, and therefore won the prizes. Fitzpatrick describes the students in her class who had not won prizes as “devastated,” and those who had won prizes were equally concerned. Having learned about prejudice earlier in the year, the class decided to take a stand against the biased system. They chose to return their prizes, talk to other classes in the school about the event, and make a video explaining why the system was unfair that they then sent to the American Heart Association, who had sponsored the event (Sandra Fitzpatrick, personal communication, May 5, 2008).
Throughout history, people who have tried to change this country have always faced some sort of opposition. It only follows that there should be some resistance to anti-racist education and the activism it encourages. Fitzpatrick counters that, “We can’t be afraid to try. Your fears are your fears, not necessarily the children’s. Opportunities are vast for this kind of work, be sure to take advantage of them but keep your own issues in check” (Sandra Fitzpatrick, personal communication, May 5, 2008).
- Anti-Defamation League, (2001). How Can We Stop Hate Before it Starts? In The Miller Early Childhood Initiative of a World of Difference Institute. Retrieved May 2, 2008, from http://www.adl.org/education/miller/miller_printable.asp.
- Davidson, F., & Pelo, A. (2000). That’s Not Fair! A Teacher’s Guide to Activism with Young Children. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.
- Derman-Sparks, L. (2006). Activism and Preschool Children. In Lee, E., Menkart, D., & Okazawa-Rey, M. (Eds.), Beyond Heroes and Holidays (pp. 193–197). Washington, D.C.: Teaching For Change.
- Derman-Sparks, L. (2006). Education for Equality: Forging a Shared Vision. In Lee, E., Menkart, D., & Okazawa-Rey, M. (Eds.), Beyond Heroes and Holidays (pp. 13–17). Washington, D.C.: Teaching For Change.
- Hofheimer Bettman, E. & Stern-LaRosa, C. (2000). Hate Hurts: How Children Learn and Unlearn Prejudice. New York, NY: Scholastic.
- Lee, E. (2006). Anti-Racist Education: Pulling Together to Close the Gaps. In Lee, E., Menkart, D., & Okazawa-Rey, M. (Eds.), Beyond Heroes and Holidays (pp. 3–12). Washington, D.C.: Teaching For Change.
- Nieto, S. (2006). Affirmation, Solidarity and Critique: Moving Beyond Tolerance in Education. In Lee, E., Menkart, D., & Okazawa-Rey, M. (Eds.), Beyond Heroes and Holidays (pp. 18–29). Washington, D.C.: Teaching For Change.
- Stern-LaRosa, C. (2001). Talking to Children about Diversity: Preschool Years. In Talking to Your Child about Hatred and Prejudice. Retrieved April 31, 2008 from http://www.adl.org/issue_education/hateprejudice/Prejudice3.asp.