By Madeleine Rogin
These are all examples of biased statements that young children make as they discover the world around them: how they are alike and different from others, and what this all means, in the context of a culture and society that is riddled with bias.
The belief that children are “colorblind” when it comes to race has been overwhelmingly disproven by research, but also by life, if we care to notice.
In my experience as a teacher and parent, I’ve observed that young children spend a lot of time sorting and categorizing the world around them. They are also asked to do this on a daily basis. A teacher may ask a child to pick out all the squares from a bin of shapes, in order to teach something about attribute sorting and categorizing. Or a parent may ask a child to find the match for all of their socks, praising her for her organizational skills and attention to detail. “Look how you’ve sorted and organized — well done!”
Yet, when this same child applies this same thinking to the people in her classroom, or in her community, she is often silenced for being impolite. “No, that’s wrong,” a teacher may say when a student assumes two children of color are related simply because they both have brown skin. A student may be silenced for simply noticing the different skin colors of the students in the classroom. “That’s not important,” she may be told. “What matters is what’s on the inside, and being nice to everyone.”
Just because a young child stops talking about differences does not mean she stops noticing them. She continues to notice but is left to draw her own conclusions about these differences. And these conclusions will more often than not be misguided and biased, because of the world we live in.
Consider a white kindergartener who lives in a mostly white neighborhood and attends a mostly white school. The neighborhood next to the school is more mixed, and less affluent than the neighborhood where the child lives. On their daily drives to school, the child notices some homeless people, the majority of whom are black. He begins to think that in order to be homeless, you have to be black. And although his parents might be horrified to learn that he’s made this association, they don’t know and can’t guide him because he’s learned from them not to talk about these kinds of differences. When he points at a black child and observes that he’s “dark” his parents shut it down. “That doesn’t matter. Everyone’s the same on the inside,” they tell him.
And because of this enforced silence, the child isn’t able to link what he observes to a deep understanding of the legacy of racism, and systemic injustice. By the time this student enters the upper grades and begins to learn about racism and oppression, he places all of this learning in the context of “history” lessons, because no one has told him that this still matters, that these systems are ongoing. Meanwhile, he has developed biases about blackness, biases he hasn’t been encouraged to recognize or counter. If it doesn’t matter what’s on the outside, and racism is a problem of the past, than the fact that the homeless people near his school happen to be black must be their own problem — a matter of laziness, of personal failure — rather than a result of continued oppression.
To put it even more simply, it is very confusing for a young child to be told that race doesn’t matter in this country when it clearly does and always has.
How do we engage with young children around this topic, a topic that often makes us feel uncomfortable, worried, and anxious ourselves? How do we teach our children and our students that yes, we are all human, and, yes, we are all different, and these differences are important to understand and appreciate? How do we keep children from developing biased, misguided ideas about others?
It’s amazing what happens when you open up a conversation with a group of young children about differences, without stigma or fear. When you let them ask their questions and say out loud what they think, and when you give them correct information, they immediately begin to incorporate this into their developing understandings, and form, deeper, more respectful bonds with one another.
For example, when I first gather my kindergarten students and ask them where they think skin color comes from, they tell me things like, “your cells,” or “your heart,” or “your mom, just your mom.” I tell them the facts: skin color comes from melanin, the sun, and where your ancestors are from — whether that place is cool or hot. And, I let them know that skin color doesn’t determine if someone is good or bad, smart or dumb, what they like to do, etc.
I let them know that everyone has skin color, not just those with darker skin. This works against the tendency for white children to think of their skin as ‘normal’. And I talk about how skin can mix and create different skin. I show my students photos of my family, me, a white mom, a black dad, and our two daughters, who are half white/black. And I answer all of their questions about being different but being in the same family. “My kids say I’m vanilla,” I tell them. “And they call their dad chocolate. They say they are milk chocolate.”
The author and her two children.
When I started this teaching in my classroom, I was amazed by how the students gained a new appreciation of their own skin, giving their skin poetic names, carefully choosing skin color pencils for their self portraits, and how they treated their friends with this same attention and respect, asking them what color pencil to use when drawing pictures of one another, not assuming they knew or pointing at the kids of color in the room as the only ones with skin color, or with a race.
And, the biased statements I used to hear about brown skin faded away. Students stopped saying things like, “brown skin is burnt.” White students stopped assuming that the children of color were related in some way, and stopped assuming that a black parent automatically went with a black student. They were being given the opportunity to air these assumptions, to be corrected, to see examples that went against their tendency to sort and put “like” with “like”, and they responded with a deeper appreciation and understanding about skin color and race.
Simultaneously, I talked explicitly about the dangers of excluding others because of differences. I used puppets to act out scenarios of exclusion, such as when the zebras tell the lions only zebras can play their game, and I asked the students to help solve this problem. “You can’t say you can’t play!” they scolded the zebras.
This mattered deeply when we began to talk about racism. The students were no longer confused about what skin color is, and who in the classroom was white, black, or brown. The white students no longer singled out the students of color in the room as if this story, about racism, only applied to them.
They’d also had practice thinking about this problem, of racism, in the context of the beloved puppets in their classroom, and felt invested in a deeper way. And I let them know that racism is not solved, and we have to continually fight against it. We learn about people, both living and dead, famous and not, who work toward racial justice, and we think of ways we can help solve this problem ourselves, such as educating our school community about the dangers of bias.
I apply this same technique to all of our conversations about difference. We talk about all the different ways to be a girl and a boy. When they assume a character in a book is male, I challenge their thinking. “He’s wearing pants,” they tell me. Or, “He has short hair.” We go back through the book together, to check if the character is given a pronoun, and, when we discover there isn’t one, we ask ourselves if girls wear pants, too, or have short hair, too. And, gradually, they begin to correct one another for making these kinds of assumptions. “You can’t tell by looking!” they’ll remind one another. Or, “there’s lots of different ways to be a girl.”
After receiving complaints from several black families at my school that their children’s hair was being touched repeatedly by other students, and realizing that simply telling them to stop was not fixing the problem, I decided to teach a unit on hair. My students were deeply curious about this difference, and needed information, so I gave it to them. We learned about hair in the animal world, and what purpose it serves, and our own hair, how it is different and the same. We talked about different textures of hair, and different ways hair needs to be treated depending on its texture, and, yes, I told them the importance of keeping their fingers out of each other’s hair. And, hair touching ceased.
The repeating refrain in my classroom is, “Same/Same/Different.” Each time we learn about a difference, we also learn about something we share in common. We all have skin, it has the same function for all of us, and it comes in many different beautiful shades. The same is true for hair, family structure, religion, gender, etc.
The important thing is to treat everyone with respect and kindness, and to stand up for ourselves and others when we see any form of injustice. Talking about our differences doesn’t divide us, or make my students wary or fearful of one another, it bonds us together as a community, and allows us to be more respectful, more inclusive, kinder, and nicer. When we stop making assumptions about one another, when we stop developing biased ideas about our differences, we gain a deeper appreciation for the humanity in all of us, in all of its variety and diversity.