Anti-Bullying: Talking about Race with Young Children

Anti-Bullying: Talking about Race with Young Children

     One of my graduate students shared a poignant story about discussing race with a group of kindergarteners. She, a White woman, was working in a classroom with all White children and decided to introduce them to Kawanzaa as a winter holiday celebrated by African-Americans.  This eventually  led to a discussion about skin color in which she explained that people who are described as “Black” don’t really have black skin, and people called “White” don’t really have white skin, etc. The children compared the differences in their own skin color. Meanwhile, the White teacher’s aide was very disturbed by this discussion and went behind the teacher’s back and told the principal about it. The teacher was reprimanded by the principal who said, “We don’t talk about skin color in our school.”

     Wow. I understand that people who advocate this “color blind” approach are hoping that de-emphasizing racial differences will lead to equality. But because I work primarily in very diverse urban schools, this story surprised me because of it naivete. Research shows that children not only notice racial differences at very early ages, they also begin to show bias for people with lighter skin. The problem is that if we don’t talk about bias in our society, children will be unprepared to deal with it when they encounter it. In a recent study, for example, the researchers found that “exposure to colorblindness can actually reduce individuals’ sensitivity to meaningful racial differences. And as a result, when discrimination does occur, individuals with a colorblind mindset often fail to see it as such.” Here’s a description of the study from PR Newswire:
     “In their experiment, the researchers explored the effects of promoting a colorblind approach to diversity among 8- to 11-year-old students. First, students reviewed different versions of a multimedia storybook, half received a colorblind version and the other half received a value-diversity version. In both stories, the narrator championed racial justice, but the colorblind version encouraged minimizing race-based distinctions, whereas the value-diversity version encouraged embracing these differences. (“We need to focus on how we are similar to our neighbors rather than how we are different” vs. “We want to show everyone that race is important because our racial differences make us special.”)
     After the storybooks were read, the students listened to three stories featuring varying degrees of racial bias: a control story in which a White child was marginalized by his White schoolmate’s contribution to a school science project; an ambiguous story regarding a White student’s exclusion of a Black student from his birthday party; and an explicitly biased story describing a White student’s unprovoked assault of a Black student in a soccer game. After the stories, students were asked to describe the three events and their responses were video recorded.
     The results found that students who had read the value-diversity version of the storybook were more likely to detect evidence of racial discrimination. In the colorblind condition, on the other hand, the frequency with which students detected discrimination dropped significantly, even in the scenario that portrayed overt evidence of racially biased behavior.”
     This decline in sensitivity has potentially severe consequences, according to the researchers. The students are less prepared for understanding the bias that prompts discriminatory behavior, such as bullying, and they lack strategies for confronting such bias.
     Even preschoolers can understand the concepts of fairness, stereotypes, and bias. We need to openly discuss issues of race, gender, ethnicity, and other forms of social discrimination so that they are prepared to stick up for children who are bullied, and challenge other types of unfair behavior. If we don’t take a proactive approach, then we are letting our children simply learn the bias in our society at large.

                    You’ve got to be taught
                    To hate and fear,
                    You’ve got to be taught
                    From year to year,
                    It’s got to be drummed
                    In your dear little ear
                    You’ve got to be carefully taught.

                    You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
                   Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
                   And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
                   You’ve got to be carefully taught.

                   You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
                   Before you are six or seven or eight,
                   To hate all the people your relatives hate,
                   You’ve got to be carefully taught!

                  (From the musical, South Pacific by Rodgers and Hammerstein)

Below are some resources to help teachers begin to implement anti-bias activities. Also see my post on persona dolls. What other anti-bias activities have you done in your classroom?