No, Elementary Students Are Not Too Young to Talk About Race - ASCD
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November 25, 2020

No, Elementary Students Are Not Too Young to Talk About Race

Instructional Strategies
Technology

When our son was in 3rd grade, a poster his school displayed at the entrance to recognize and celebrate Black excellence during History Month became fuel for controversy. The poster featured a poem written by Mississippi teacher Jovan Bradshaw to teach her students about Black history: "Dear students. They didn't steal slaves. They stole scientists, doctors, architects, teachers, entrepreneurs, astronomers, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, etc. and made them slaves. Sincerely, Your Ancestors."

The principal saw that students were, in her words, "fighting" over it and removed the poster under the superintendent‘s guidance. Later, the superintendent went on a blog and wrote that the poster "was not bringing the community together in a spirit of inclusivity and celebration." Many members of the school community were outraged that a poster humanizing people who were stolen into slavery could be divisive. Despite requests from families, the school refused to hang the poster back on the wall, and the superintendent, in other interviews and at school board meetings, dug in further that he made the right decision.

As the buzz surrounding the poster grew amongst students, some teachers decided to address the situation in their classrooms. Our son's teacher was one of them. When she opened the discussion, our son raised his hand to discuss what he knew about the horrors of slavery. One of his peers made a cruel joke about slavery, and while the teacher said it was inappropriate, the lack of response from his teacher and peers continued to bother our son.

What also troubles us is that students in other classes did not have a chance to discuss the message behind the poster and why it was taken down simply because teachers weren't comfortable leading a discussion on the topic because they could not predict responses and were unsure of how to handle potential conflicts. It's also possible they felt the situation was too controversial and complex for young students when, in fact, the opposite is true.

A Central Conversation Point for Families of Color

In today's highly politicized environment, many people are quick to pacify any situation where others might take offense by refusing to take a stance on controversial issues within and beyond the classroom. It's as if we, as educators, are concerned that students, families, or administrators may interpret our opinions as politicized or that we have ulterior motives to brainwash our students into beleiving what we believe. However, teachers make a strong political statement when they choose not to discuss the daily atrocities Black people and people of color in the United States endure.

The narrative that children are too young to talk about race and racism is false. As parents of three Black boys under the age of 9, talking about race and racism is a weekly, if not daily, occurrence. Research shows that children can critically engage in these conversations with thoughtful reflection, ideas, and questions (Rogers & Mosley, 2006). Infants notice the difference in the melanin in people's skin (Sangrigoli & De Schonen, 2004). From there, children's understanding of how others see them and how they see themselves is shaped by others' perceptions of them. Just like adults, young children can internalize stereotypes and form negative opinions about who they are if we do not give them the words to unpack their feelings and experiences while building their own capacities to develop counter-narratives to refute these damaging beliefs (Derman-Sparks & Edwards, 2010).

Children also begin developing prejudiced ideas about race as early as age 2 (Hirschfield, 2008).

For many children of color, not talking about race is not an option, as their safety, health, and many other aspects of life will be affected in a racist world.

As teachers, we have a moral obligation not to underestimate our students' capacity for humanity, feeling, and understanding. So, when conversations come up in the classroom, whether they're about the atrocities of the Middle Passage or a poster's removal, we must feel comfortable setting up and moderating them. When Black children share their perspective in these discussions, as our son did, we must amplify, not silence, their voices. Not only do they bring lived experience to these conversations that white peers do not have, these interactions also develop and solidify children's understanding of power and privilege, how we tell stories, and who we omit or devalue (Ryan & Grieshaber, 2004). This becomes even more important when state curriculum often only shows stereotypical narratives of Black people as slaves, freedom fighters, athletes, or entertainers, as if they did not make valuable contributions in other fields.

In the words of Angela Davis, "It is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist." Inaction is complicity. When we don't reckon with our histories, we don't make room to begin the healing process.

What Can We Do?

Engage in identity self-reflection. Many teachers ascribe to culturally relevant pedagogy to help them move to a more inclusive classroom. However, what precedes teacher practice is an interrogation and critical reflection of one's one identity, background, and histories and interactions with folks from racial/ethnic and cultural backgrounds that are different from their own. The majority of elementary teachers are white women from predominantly middle-class backgrounds, and what they choose to include in curriculum and instructional practices is heavily influenced by their own lives and realities (Coopersmith & Gruber, 2009). Teachers must move beyond projects that promote colorblindness, such as "All About Me" posters. Elementary school hallways often show colorful self-portraits of children with similar facial features except for the color of their skin. Instead of these superficial ways of recognizing diversity, teachers must take steps to acknowledge diversity in intentional and authentic ways.

Increase representation with multiple perspectives. People of color are not a monolith. Teachers must move away from the single story of Black American history told from a slavery and deficit mindset. We must center and highlight the excellence in Black and Brown communities globally, nationally, and locally and read books written by authors of color with stories of characters of color as the protagonist. Often, the truths and experiences of marginalized communities are often told from a deficit perspective or ultimately left out in the curriculum. Being a culturally responsive teacher is about including multiple perspectives in your classroom, pulling from the funds of knowledge of all your students' families, and engaging students to be critical consciousness (Ladson-Billings, 1995). When students of color and their families challenge conventional narratives, we must listen and find ways to support them. It is okay to feel uncomfortable and vulnerable but not okay to forgo learning partnerships.

Notice name and talk about race outside the classroom. Beyond formal classroom settings, children use the idea of race during pretend play and insinuate messages about power and privilege (Ryan & Grieshaber, 2004). As educators and parents, when we witness these kinds of conversations, we must intervene and facilitate conversations to help children understand the magnitude and context of their words and actions. When Abigail was a kindergarten teacher, one of her students, who is African American, made a comment about how her skin was better than Abigail’s because it was lighter. This was an opportunity for Abigail to ask her student where that idea came from, why that student believed it, and how ideas like that are harmful to people with Abigail’s skin tone. Though the student’s comment was hurtful on a personal level, Abigail approached it from a teaching perspective to teach the student a valuable lesson.

Talk about race at home with white children. When your child notices differences in skin color or the texture of peers' hair, do not "color silence" them by ending the conversation or making your child feel bad for discussing it. Instead, use the opportunity to answer their questions honestly, counter colorblindness, and address stereotypes that may be beginning to form (Tatum, 2017). First, it’s important to acknowledge that your child is asking a great question and that you’d like to have a conversation. If it is a question rooted in a stereotype, you want to explain what a stereotype is and why the stereotype exists. Then, you want to point out how the stereotype is harmful and why it isn’t true while providing counterexamples using books or TV shows. We think of books as both mirrors and windows for our children.

Discussing race and racism with children is not always an easy task. As adults, we all have a desire to protect children’s innocence for as long as possible, whether that’s leaving Tooth Fairy money under their pillow after we suspect they no longer believe or ignoring racism because we know it’s something they’ll have to learn eventually. When we shield children from racism, we miss a valuable opportunity to equip them with the tools to identify and call out racism and other forms of hate when it occurs. Silence, in any form, is complicity.



References

Coopersmith, J. & Gruber, K. (2009). Characteristics of public, private, and bureau of Indian education elementary and secondary school teachers in the United States: Results from the 2007–08 Schools and Staffing Survey: First look, Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, US Department of Education.

Derman-Sparks, L., & Edwards, J. O. (2010). Anti-bias Education. Antibias education for young children and ourselves, 1–10.

Ladson Billings, G. (1995). But that's just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory into practice, 34(3), 159–165.

Ryan, S., & Grieshaber, S. (2004). It's more than child development: Critical theories, research, and teaching young children. YC Young Children, 59(6), 44.

Rogers, R., & Mosley, M. (2006). Racial literacy in a second grade classroom: Critical race theory, whiteness studies, and literacy research. Reading Research Quarterly, 41(4), 462-495.

Sangrigoli, S., & De Schonen, S. (2004). Recognition of own race and other race faces by three month old infants. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45(7), 1219–1227.

Tatum, B. D. (2017). Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?: And other conversations about race. New York, NY: Basic Books.

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