Brown Kids Can’t be in Our Club

By Rita Tenorio

Illustrator: Peter Zuzga

photo: Peter Zuzga

I sat down one day with seven of the children in my first-grade class. It was early in the year and we were getting to know each other. We talked about how we were alike, how we were different. “Our skin is different,” one of the children said. I asked everyone to put their hands together on the table, so we could see all the different colors.

One of my African-American students, LaRhonda*, simply would not. Scowling, she slid her hands beneath the table top, unwilling to have her color compared to the others.

It was a reaction I had seen before. I teach at La Escuela Fratney, an ethnically diverse school in a racially mixed working-class Milwaukee neighborhood. My students typically include black kids, white kids, and Latinos. They have many things in common. Recess is their favorite time of day. Friendships are a priority. They want to “belong” to a group and they are very conscious of where they fit in a social sense.

And they all “know” that it is better to be light-skinned than dark-skinned.

Even though my students have only six or seven years of life experience by the time they reach my classroom, the centuries-old legacies of bias and racism in our country have already made an impact on their lives. I have seen fair-skinned children deliberately change places in a circle if African-American children sit down next to them. An English speaker won’t play with a Latino child because, he says, “He talks funny.” On the playground, a group of white girls won’t let their darker-skinned peers join in their games, explaining matter-of-factly: “Brown kids can’t be in our club.”

As teachers, we have to acknowledge that we live in a racist society and that children typically mirror the attitudes of that society. Between the ages of two and five, children not only become aware of racial differences, but begin to make judgments based on that awareness. They do this even though they may not be able to understand, in an intellectual way, the complexities of race and bias as issues.

Teachers have a responsibility to recognize the influence of racism on themselves and their students. And we can help children learn the skills and strategies they will need to counteract it in their lives. At Fratney, our first-grade teaching teams have put those ideas at the center of our practice.

Are They Too Young for This?

Many people would say that children at this age are too young to deal with these serious issues. I too had real questions at first about what was actually possible with young children. Can you have “real” conversations with six-year-olds about power, privilege, and racism in our society? Can you make them aware of the effects that racism and injustice have in our lives? Can they really understand their role in the classroom community?

The answer to all of these questions is “yes.” Even very young children can explore and understand the attitudes they and their classmates bring to school each day. They have real issues and opinions to share, and many, many questions of their own to ask. In this way they can begin to challenge some of the assumptions that influence their behavior toward classmates who don’t look or talk the same way they do.

Children at this age can explore rules and learn about collecting data, making inferences, and forming conclusions. They can compare and contrast the experiences of people and think about what it means. They can, that is, if they are given the opportunity.

At Fratney, which serves 400 students from kindergarten through fifth grade, we discuss issues of social justice with all of our students. During the past several years, those of us teaching first grade have developed a series of activities and projects that help us to discuss issues of race and social justice in a meaningful, age-appropriate way.

We strive to build classroom community by learning about each other’s lives and families. We ask our students to collect and share information about their families and ancestry. For example, we might talk about how they got their names, how their families came to live in Milwaukee, which holidays they celebrate and how. And at every step we help the children to explore the nature of racial and cultural differences and to overcome simplistic notions of “who’s better” or who is “like us” and who isn’t.

These activities include:

Me Pockets

This is always a class favorite. Each child takes home a letter-sized clear plastic sleeve, the kind used to display baseball cards. We ask students to fill the pockets with photos, pictures, drawings, or anything else that will help us know more about them and the things that are important in their lives. They return the pockets within a week and put them into a three-ring binder that becomes the favorite classroom book to read and re-read.

The individual pockets reflect the cultural and socioeconomic diversity of the families. Some students put lots of photos or computer images in their pockets. Others cut pictures out of magazines or make drawings. Our experience is that every family is anxious to share in some way, and family members take time to help their children develop the project.

If someone doesn’t bring their Me Pocket sheet back, the teachers step in to help them find pictures or make the drawings they need to add their page to the binder.

I’m always amazed at how quickly the children learn the details about each other’s lives from this project: who has a pet, who takes dance classes, who likes to eat macaroni and cheese. The children know there are differences among them, but they also love to share the things that are alike.

“Look, Rachel has two brothers, just like me.”

“I didn’t know that Jamal’s family likes to camp. We do too!”

Each of the teachers also completes a Me Pocket sheet. The students love looking at the picture of me as a first grader, seeing my husband and children, and learning that chocolate cake is my favorite food.

Partner Questions

Each day we take time to teach the social skills of communicating ideas with others and listening to another person’s perspective. We use this time to “practice” those skills with role-playing activities and problem-solving situations they or we bring to the group.

For example, we might ask such questions as: What is the meanest thing anyone has ever said to you? Why do you think some people like to use put-downs? The children take a few minutes to talk about this with a partner. Afterwards some are willing to share with the whole group.

We might then role-play the situation as a group and look for ways to respond, such as speaking back to insults.

“Someone Special”

By the end of October, during the time of Halloween, Día de los Muertos, and All Souls’ Day, we learn about how people remember their ancestors and others who have died or who are far away. We set up a table and students are encouraged to bring in pictures or artifacts to display. They bring a remarkable variety of things: jewelry, a trophy won by a departed relative, a postcard that person sent them, or perhaps the program from a funeral. And they bring many, many stories. Again, the teachers also participate and share stories of those who have gone before us. We get great responses from our students, and from their families.

Let’s Talk About Skin

Another important conversation I have with my students focuses on the varieties of skin color we have in our group. Usually when we begin this discussion, some children are uncomfortable about saying “what they are” or describing the color of their skin. In particular, children with very dark skin—like LaRhonda, who would not even put her hands on the table—are often reluctant to join in. Meanwhile, the white kids often boast about being “pink.” Though we’ve never talked about this in class before, there is definitely a strong implication that it is better to be lighter.

Many children are amazed that this topic is put out on the table for discussion. The looks in their eyes, their frequent reluctance to begin the discussion, tell me that this is a very personal topic.

As part of the lesson, we ask the students if they have ever heard anyone say something bad or mean about another person’s skin color. The hands shoot up.

“My mom says that you can’t trust black people.”

“My sister won’t talk to the Puerto Rican kids on the bus.”

“Mara said that I couldn’t play, that I was too black to be her friend.”

They continue to raise their hands and this conversation goes on for a while. We talk about ways we’ve heard others use people’s skin color to make fun of them or put them down. We talk about what to do in those situations.

As we continue to discuss issues of race, we teachers often introduce our personal experiences. I tell them about the first time I realized that black and white people were treated differently. I share my experience being one of the few Latinas in my school. And we try to ask questions that really intrigue the students, that invite them to try and look at things with a different perspective, to learn something new about the human experience and be open-minded to that idea: Do people choose their colors? Where do you get your skin color? Is it better to be one color than another? Lots of our conversations revolve around a story or a piece of literature. (See the sidebar, right, for suggested readings and classroom resources.)

With a little work, we can expand this discussion of skin color in ways that incorporate math lessons, map lessons, and other curricular areas. We’ve done surveys to see how many of our ancestors came from warm places or cold places. We ask children to interview their relatives to find out where the family came from. We create a bulletin board display that we use to compare and learn about the huge variety of places our students’ relatives are from. We graph the data of whose family came from warm places, who from cold, who from both, or don’t know.

Skin Color and Science

Our class discussions of skin color set the stage for lots of “scientific” observations.

For example, I bring in a large variety of paint chips from a local hardware store. The students love examining and sorting the many shades of beige and brown. It takes a while for them to find the one that is most like their own skin color.

In the story The Colors of Us, by Karen Katz, Lena learns from her mother that “brown” is a whole range of colors. Like the characters in the story, we take red, yellow, black, and white paint and mix them in various combinations until we’ve each found the color of our own skin. Then we display our “research” as part of our science fair project.

In another exercise, inspired by Sheila Hamanaka’s All the Colors of the Earth, students are asked to find words to describe the color of their skin, and to find something at home that matches their skin color. Then we display the pieces of wood and fabric, the little bags of cinnamon and coffee, the dolls and ceramic pieces that “match” us.

As we continue these explorations, dealing concretely with a topic that so many have never heard discussed in such a manner, students begin to see past society’s labels. It is always amazing to children that friends who call themselves “black,” for example, can actually have very light skin. Or that children who perceive themselves as “Puerto Rican” can be darker than some of the African-American children.

Writing About Our Colors

As children begin to understand the idea of internalizing another’s point of view, they can apply that understanding by examining different ideas and alternatives to their own experiences. As they learn to express themselves through reading and writing, they can learn to challenge stereotypes and speak back to unfair behavior and comments.

Once students have had a chance to reflect on skin color, they write about it. Annie wrote: “I like my skin color. It is like peachy cream.” James wrote: “My color is the same as my dad’s. I think the new baby will have this color too.” And Keila wrote: “When I was born, my color was brown skin and white skin mixed together.”

When LaRhonda wrote about mixing the colors to match her skin, she said: “We put black, white, red, and yellow [together]. I like the color of my skin.” How far she had come since the day she would not show us her hands.

Tackling Issues

These activities have an impact. Parents have spoken to us about the positive impression that these activities have made on the children. Many children have taken their first steps toward awareness of race. They are not afraid to discuss it. They now have more ways in which to think about and describe themselves.

Yet these activities are no guarantee that children have internalized anti-racist ideas. So much depends on the other forces in their lives. We are still working on making these activities better: doing them sooner in the year, integrating them into other subjects, deepening the conversations, finding other stories or activities to support them. Each year’s group is different, and we need to incorporate their experiences and understandings. I learn something new every time. They challenge my consciousness too.

We rely on our schools to be the place for a multicultural, multiracial experience for our children. We want to believe that learning together will help our students to become more understanding and respectful of differences. Yet so often we do not address these issues head-on. It is unlikely that sensitivity and tolerance will develop, that children will bridge the gaps they bring to school from their earliest days, without specific instruction.

Personally, I want to see more than tolerance developed. I want children to see themselves as the future citizens of this city. I want them to gain the knowledge to be successful in this society. Beyond that, though, I want them to understand that they have the power to transform society.

When students see connections between home and school, when lessons challenge them to look at the issue of race from multiple perspectives, we take the first steps in this process.

Rita Tenorio teaches first grade at La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee. She is a Rethinking Schools editor and founder.

*All students’ names have been changed.