A few years ago, I, like several other teachers during this time of year, prepared for a Black History Month and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. unit. I had placed additional photos of him and Rosa Parks (a few hung throughout the year) in different areas of the classroom along with other activists such as Angela Davis and Harriet Tubman. Given that this was a Pre-K and Kindergarten blended classroom, my goal was to create an inquiry-based environment. I wanted my students to observe, wonder, and ask who these people were to begin a conversation about social justice and racism in the most organic way possible.
And then I got what I asked for.
One of my younger students, who I will refer to as "Aiden," approached the board and pointed to a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He said to me, "Ms. Natalie, why is there a picture of a black guy on the board?" I reminded him that the "black guy" on the board was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and that we would be learning more about his life during the next couple of weeks. To that, Aiden said, "Ok, but just so you know, my dad doesn't like black people."
Shocked, I took a moment to regain my composure. How was I supposed to reply? And how was I supposed to explain what he just said to the black students standing next to him who overheard the remark? The look on their faces said it all. An expression of awkward indignity and discomfort fell over them. For a moment, the entire classroom fell silent, a rarity in early childhood education settings.
You see, it isn't always easy to talk about racism with young children. At times, we avoid these necessary discussions because we may
- Feel uncomfortable with the discussion ourselves
- Assume young children will not be able to understand the complexities of racism
- Have not acknowledged our own privileges or racism
- Exist in a problematic "color blind" universe where "we are all the same"
However, given the political climate surrounding discrimination and racism, it is crucial to begin these conversations at early ages in order to cultivate true social progress and nurture a generation of change agents.
Below are a few different discussion topics that helped me navigate issues of racial inequality with young children, and which also fostered a discussion around Aiden's dad who apparently, "doesn't like black people".
Believe it or not, children do understand what discrimination is, and have more than likely experienced some form of unjust prejudicial treatment on the playground. Phrases such as, "this game is for boys only", or "you're too little to play with us" aren't new to most young children. Therefore, discussing discrimination based on skin color is certainly a concept in which they have the tools and ability to understand. Additionally, reading books such as "Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." by Doreen Rappaport, and "Separate is Never Equal" by Duncan Tonatiuh are helpful in giving young children the opportunity to look at the very real history of racism in America.
I noticed early on in my teaching career that several of my students of color had a preference for white dolls. I wasn't surprised when I saw it, as I myself had always felt othered by my big curly hair and brown skin. Thus, I began to bring in dolls of different cultures and colors, in order to begin discussions on how Eurocentric Beauty Standards can be harmful and problematic. I also read books such as "Big Hair Don't Care" by Crystal Swain-Bates, and "Happy to be Nappy" by bell hooks and Chris Raschka as instruments to deconstruct images of beauty most often associated with popular yet unrealistic Disney princesses.
Equality and Justice
Young children are excellent observers and advocates of fairness. Thus, I used notions of fairness to begin conversations about equality and justice. Reading "Who was Rosa Parks" by Yona Zeldis McDonough gave my students and I the chance to explore what true injustice looked like in the 1950's, why it was an issue, and how important it is to continue to advocate for social change. Moreover, the book and discussion allowed us as a class to become activists in our own way by challenging inequities we would see in our school environment and community. Students were encouraged to speak up when they felt discriminated, witnessed discrimination, and openly converse about why they felt situations were unjust.
Granted, these are just three of many ways to begin or continue conversations about racism. However, the bottom line is this: As adults, it is essential that we listen to the questions and concepts children bring up and explore the experiences they have had around racism. More importantly, it is crucial that we as adults have the strength to engage in discussions which motivate us to show vulnerability. Being honest over being afraid takes a great deal of courage, and is an inspiring lesson to pass on.