Race and Respect Among Young Children

One Teacher’s Journey

By Rita Tenorio

When Angela came to talk to me, she was close to tears. With a sympathetic “witness” on each side, she said, “Matt called me a name. I don’t like it.”

Matt was summoned for a quiet conference. “What did he call you?” I asked Angela. “Brownski,” she said, “He’s making fun of me.”

Matt came to his own defense. “Well I was just teasing,” he said. “I mean, I wasn’t talking about her color or anything.”

Unfortunately, blond, blue-eyed Matt was talking about Angela’s skin color. When he didn’t get his way with the puzzle they were sharing, he used this seemingly innocent word as a put-down. He knew he’d get a reaction from Angela and counted on the power of his light skin to win the argument. He hadn’t counted on Angela speaking out.

In my 20 years of teaching I have learned that, contrary to what adults often believe, young children are not “colorblind.” Instead, they have an unstated but nonetheless sophisticated understanding of issues of race and power. One of our most important roles as teachers, I believe, is to recognize racism’s effect on children, address the issue directly, and give students the beginning skills and strategies they will need to combat racism in their lives.

In this instance I encouraged Angela to tell Matt why she was angry. I also reminded Matt of our classroom rules and our prohibition against name-calling and putdowns. Matt apologized, both seemed satisfied, and they went back to their puzzle.

The issue was resolved — for the moment. Questions remained, however.

Would Matt react differently the next time he wanted his way? Had Angela become more assertive in responding to insults?

While I felt that Matt’s put-down reflected a deeper problem, I had handled it the same way I would have handled any squabble.

Most important, I hadn’t resolved the more fundamental question: What was my role in exploring these issues with young children? What should be my next step?

Dealing with issues of race is perhaps the most complicated issue I have encountered as a kindergarten teacher. For many years, the problem didn’t seem to “exist,” but was glossed over as part of the view that “all children are the same, black, white or brown.” In the last eight years, coinciding with my development as a teacher and exploration of issues such as “whole language” and heterogeneous grouping, I’ve struggled to develop a better understanding of anti-racist teaching. Some of the factors that have been crucial in my development have been the support of my colleagues, a district-wide curriculum reform, and my involvement in a new two-way bilingual school that embraces an anti-racist teaching philosophy.

As Janet Brown McCracken states in her book Valuing Diversity, “curriculum is what happens” in the classroom every day. What may seem innocent “pretend” play among young childhood is actually a rehearsal for later activities in life. Thus, I’ve learned to observe children’s play and intervene when necessary to counteract the discriminatory behaviors. Interactions where children put each other down or where children reflect the discrimination that is so prevalent in our world provide opportunities for strong lessons in counteracting stereotypes and racism. They are as much a part of the curriculum as teaching a science lesson or reading a story.

The first year of my teaching I came across a quote that asked, “How much must a child trust himself, others, and the world in order to learn?” Throughout the 20 years I’ve worked with children and their families, I’ve always felt that trust was a key component to success. The changes I’ve made in designing the curriculum in my class have deepened my respect for the notion of trust. I’ve come to understand that feeling “safe” in school includes the students knowing that the teacher understands and respects their experience and background.

The ‘Best’ Environment

As a kindergarten teacher I had been trained to provide a nurturing environment in my classroom. I wanted to provide a safe place where children could believe in themselves, become more independent and organized, plan and think through a task, and acquire the social skills needed for success in school.

As I began my career, I gathered ideas and activities; attended workshops on art, music, games, and stories; and planned a variety of lessons. I thought I was giving students the best curriculum possible. Even in those early years, multicultural education was part of this curriculum. Moving from holiday to holiday, we learned about cultures all over the world. I changed bulletin boards and literacy activities to correspond to the holidays, and proudly integrated the activities into our daily lessons. We learned about our “differences” and celebrated our “similarities.” I insisted that “we can all live together” and forbid words or actions that would “hurt” anyone.

My message was that everyone would be treated fairly and equally in our classroom. I made sure we were all going to be the same. It worked. At least I thought it worked.

My classroom was filled with active, playful, well-disciplined children. I held high expectations for all the children and by all obvious measures they were growing and learning in ways that pleased both me and their parents. Yet over the years I became uncomfortable with my approach.

Seeing the Flaws

In the late 1980’s I, like many teachers, was influenced by the whole language philosophy and research on the benefits of heterogeneous groupings.

Whole language helped me understand that my curriculum, while framed in a multi-sensory approach that included both academics and play, lacked choices. My plan was just that: mine. The day’s activities were only minimally influenced by my students’ interests and talents. Further, writing was not an integral part of the literacy process. And while we had many fine children’s books in the classroom, I was still locked into the district’s basal reading program.

As I learned about heterogeneous grouping, I saw other flaws. I still had students “tracked” for math and reading instruction, with children grouped according to their skills. While all children improved, the “top” group got furthest ahead while the “low” group struggled.

Most important, even in my fair and “equal” classroom environment, I still had frustrating conflicts such as the conflict between Matt and Angela. Sometimes it centered around a verbal put-down, other times it involved body language — such as when white or lighter-skinned children would get up and move if a brown Latino or African-American child sat next to them.

Life on the playground could be even rougher, and certain students would be isolated or ridiculed if they were different.

Even the children’s “make believe” stories were at times defined by race. Comments like, “You can’t be the queen, there are no Black queens,” caught me off-guard. Equally disturbing, more often than not the children accepted these hierarchies without complaint.

While I knew that kindergarten children were too young to intellectually understand the complexities of issues such as racism or prejudice, their behaviors showed the influence of societal stereotypes and biases. Throughout my career I have had children who vehemently believed that Indians all live in “teepees” or, even worse, that there were no more Indians “cause the cowboys killed them all.”

I had wanted to believe that children arrived in kindergarten with an open mind on all subjects. But the reality is different. Children mirror the attitudes of society and of their families.

Researchers have found that between the ages of 2 and 5, children not only become aware of racial differences but begin to make judgments based on that awareness. Having watched on average over 5,000 hours of TV by age 5, it is no wonder that some children believe all Indians are dead. Television’s influence is further compounded by the segregated lives many children lead prior to coming to school.

Taking the first steps

I began to reshape my kindergarten to be less teacher-centered and more heterogeneously grouped. It felt good to get rid of the workbooks and replace them with quality literature and the children’s own stories. I was particularly amazed at how much the children liked to write in their journals and how quickly they learned to read the familiar stories they helped to choose.

Issues of bias, the children’s personal interactions, and multicultural education were more complicated. When it came to changing the curriculum and countering tracking, the key to success was reinforcing and building upon the knowledge the students brought with them to school. Yet on issues of race, if I merely supported the children’s natural “instincts” and knowledge I would end up reinforcing stereotypes and prejudice. I wasn’t sure how to resolve this contradiction. I only knew that the transition in this area would not be so easy.

In the early childhood area where “color-blindness” was the prevailing attitude, there were few resources for dealing with racism and bias. Nor did I have a breadth of personal experience in dealing with the issue; in particular, in deciding what was appropriate for young children.

Many colleagues shared my concern as we, like others in urban districts in the late 1980s, struggled with systemwide curriculum reform. I found necessary support and ideas from networking with other teachers. Further, my individual transition was supported by systemwide changes as the Milwaukee Public Schools initiated a curriculum and adopted as their first of 10 goals that “students will project anti-racist, anti-biased attitudes through their participation in a multilingual, multiethnic, culturally diverse curriculum.”

A New School

Other developments helped spur my thinking. In a unique opportunity, I was part of the founding staff of a new two-way, English/Spanish bilingual school called La Escuela Fratney. The language component, while important in its own right, was part of a broader framework that had at its core a multicultural, “anti-racist” curriculum. We wanted our students to not only learn about the history and culture of the major ethnic groups, but to also understand racism’s influence on all of us. Here was my chance to forge an entirely new kindergarten curriculum.

I found several important resources to help in this transition. One was the opportunity to work with Enid Lee, an African-Canadian educator who specializes in anti-racist education. Her insights helped me redefine multicultural education and try to incorporate an anti-racist perspective into every subject. Another valuable resource was The Anti-Bias Curriculum by Louise Derman-Sparks and the ABC Task Force, which includes not only curriculum ideas but provides concrete examples of ways to deal with interactions among students.

Both Lee and The Anti-Bias Curriculum taught me an important lesson: that it is not the awareness of racial and cultural differences that leads to prejudice and racism, but how people respond to those differences. I realized I needed to do two things. First, I had to immediately respond to unacceptable behavior by the children, such as racist put-downs or slurs. Second, I had to develop a curriculum that included anti-bias lessons that help students recognize and respond to stereotypes and prejudice.

Taking a Stance

My goal of an anti-bias curriculum was helped by our vision at Fratney, where we have adopted schoolwide themes that give teachers a chance to proactively address issues of race. For example, during the first theme (“We Respect Ourselves and Others”) we strive to build the kindergarten community by learning about each other’s lives and families. Our reading lessons include literature that reflects the culture and experience of the students. A favorite activity is making a big puzzle on which each piece has the name of student and the describes “something that I’m very good at.” Because the makeup of our kindergarten population includes Latino, African-American and white children, the value of various cultures is underscored.

Together we define our classroom rules and discuss what “fairness” means to each of us. Playground problems become the topics for class discussions or role plays during which students hear from each other how they might more peacefully resolve their disputes. We learn about people who have worked for fairness and equality. We practice the use of I-messages to respond to name calling — in which a student might say, “I feel bad when you call me names so please stop,” rather than respond with another put-down.

The other themes, “We Send Messages When We Communicate,” “We Make a Difference on Planet Earth,” and “We Share the Stories of the World,” offer the same potential for development.

I find such an approach helps to increase children’s awareness of themselves and of their peers. Much more difficult has been the process of immediately intervening when children are mean to each other or say stereotypical or inappropriate things. It’s much easier to let a remark slide, rationalizing that the children don’t really understand what they’ve said or that it might lead to a discussion that we as teachers are not entirely comfortable with. During the Gulf War, for instance, many students used very negative terms when referring to the Iraqis. Another year, certain children used the word “fag” as a deliberate put-down.

For me, some of the most “teachable moments” in multicultural/anti-racist teaching have come in responding to children’s negative remarks. First, I put a stop to the behavior and make clear that it is inappropriate. Then I try to explain why it is inappropriate and acknowledge the “victim’s” feelings.

Often the remark is unrelated to the conflict at hand, and I try to help the parties focus on the real problem. The child who told her classmate that “there are no Black queens,” for instance, needs to understand not only that her remark is incorrect, but also that she has insulted her friend. Next, she had to see that the real issue was that she wanted to wear the rhinestone crown and sequin dress that were part of the playhouse scenario. Beyond that moment, it’s good to have discussions of the queens throughout African history, perhaps using a piece of literature like Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, by John Steptoe, or Ashantito Zulu, by Margaret Musgrove.

Some of the stereotypes at Fratney are related to our two-way bilingual program and the fact that some students are hearing Spanish for the first time. I remember once when an English-speaking student named Sean said about Miguel, a Spanish-speaking student, “I don’t want to sit next to him. He talks funny.”

One response might have been, “Miguel is very nice Sean. In our room we take turns sitting next to all the kids.” But such a response would not have addressed Sean’s nervousness or curiosity about a different language. It may have merely caused Sean to be less verbal about his feelings while still avoiding Latino classmates. In my view, Sean’s remark was really a question to the adults as he tried to understand and get used to an unfamiliar situation

A more appropriate response might be, “Miguel doesn’t talk funny, Sean. He’s speaking Spanish like the other people in his family. You and I are speaking English. In our classroom, we’ll be learning a lot about both languages. It’s fine for you to ask questions about what Miguel is saying, or say that you don’t understand. But it’s not OK to say that he talks funny. That’s a put-down to all of us who speak Spanish.”

Another constant source of comments is skin color. A child may say, for instance, “Jonathan is too brown. I’m glad I’m lighter than him.” One response from the teacher might be, “We’re all the same. It doesn’t matter what color you are.” While meant to promote equality, it doesn’t address the child’s views that “being lighter is better.” In addition, it might send Jonathan a very negative message. Such a comment from a child indicates that they are quite aware that we are notall the same.

I’ve found it difficult to respond to these types of insults, particularly because an historical explanation of slavery and why society views light skin more positively is inappropriate for this age. Yet it’s important that the teacher intervene immediately to contradict the notion of “brown as bad.” It’s also appropriate to give Jonathan a chance to share his feelings about the comment.

The teacher might use this incident as the basis for a unit of study about skin color and people’s perceptions related to this issue.

Most important, dismissing or ignoring negative remarks confuses students and sends them the message that the teacher doesn’t really believe their stated view that “everyone is equal.”

The Journey Continues

My role as teacher continues to be one of providing that safe, nurturing environment and preparing students for their experiences ahead. I strive to move children from the extremes of, on one hand, being afraid to do much of anything, or, on the other, of being completely impulsive in their behavior. I want them to view kindergarten as a place where they can take risks and feel success. All of this remains a challenge. And at times I’m discouraged by the enormous influence that the larger society has on their awareness and biases.

I know that I must also be willing to take risks and make mistakes. I must be open to the experiences of our children and their families. I must recognize and respond to the students’ negative behaviors. It’s a struggle, but I believe it’s a worthwhile one. We must provide each of our children a world where they are truly valued.

Early childhood educators hold an incredible amount of influence over the minds of the children they teach. As the popular cliché goes, “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten.” For today’s students, “all they need to know” goes beyond the traditional formula of playing fair and putting things back in their place. It includes developing the skills and strategies to counteract the racism in their lives.

Rita Tenorio, a Rethinking Schools editor, taught kindergarten for 18 years and is currently program implementor at La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee.