Young children are ‘too young’ to understand race, racism and discrimination; you don’t want to ‘put ideas in their heads’; young children ‘do not notice differences, it is not an issue, it is more adult ideas and certainly you can’t say they are racist at such a young age’.
‘They are innocent’.
These are some of the most persistent myths I’ve heard over 14 years of researching issues around race in early childhood as well as teaching and working with teachers and practitioners both in higher education and in everyday practice.
Research with young children shows that reality is the exact opposite of these persistent myths. By the age of two, children can become aware of racial and ethnic differences and use these to define themselves and others; from age three, they can develop negative attitudes and prejudices towards others (see e.g. Aboud 1988; for reviews see MacNaugthon 2006).Important to note however is that children are not a homogenous group and so racial awareness and prejudice can be developed at different phases of each child’s lifecourse. Both explicit and direct and implicit and indirect discrimination and racism have been evidenced in early childhood research e.g. by children excluding others in their play, adopting discriminatory and racist attitudes (see e.g. MacNaughton and Davis 2009; Connolly, Kelly, and Smith 2009; Konstantoni 2013; Konstantoni and Emejulu 2017).
Racism in early childhood is real and it has concrete life implications which affect children disproportionately, depending on their social, political, cultural, economic, geographical and other positionings.
Despite such evidence, race and racism are often considered taboo subjects in early childhood, either swept under the carpet or seen as ‘somebody else’s problem’ and treated with silence and discomfort (Konstantoni 2013; Konstantoni and Emejulu 2017). This is not to say there are no educators introducing anti-racist education in the early years; however, despite a wealth of resources and actions in anti-bias and anti-racist pedagogies in early childhood (Lane 2008; Derman-Sparks and Edwards 2020) we still have a long way to go. As long as practitioners say that they ‘don’t see any difference’ and they treat ‘all the children as the same’ and as long as they do not move beyond the ‘we are all friends in nursery’ slogan, then early years remain complicit with adopting approaches that do not promote anti-racism.
The early childhood field is a complex political and ethical terrain with immense potential to educate against racism. Discrimination and racism both exist, and can be un-learned, in early childhood. Silence about race and racism does not protect children from noticing or perpetuating racism.
We all have an important role to play in our fight against racism. The early childhood field is particularly promising, fuelled with hope for a better way of doing life together. Young children, parents/carers, practitioners, policy makers can be protagonists in promoting a social justice and anti-racist world both in the now of children’s everyday life experiences but also equipping us with resources, criticality and reflexivity for an actively anti-racist future world.
Child-centred philosophies and practices offer many rich resources and possibilities to promote anti-racist pedagogies, for example by staying tuned and culturally responsive to children’s lived everyday experiences, where learning is guided by children’s interests and life stories which connect their homes and their communities. A focus on children’s lived experiences also sheds light on the complex and interacting ways racism operates through children’s racialized, gendered, class-based and other intersectional positionings. Froebelian pedagogy in particular can actively support practitioners in their anti-racist work through Froebel’s notion of ‘Freedom with Guidance’, where practitioners are tuned into children’s worlds and experiences, make connections between children’s lived experiences and the wider world and sensitively intervene in children’s play with critical and open questions with an aim to understand, challenge, reflect, support and extend children’s views, storylines, attitudes and experiences.
However, do child-centred approaches go far enough?
What if our early childhood space is only occupied by white children and adults? What if our own biases and privileges do not allow us to detect racist attitudes, experiences, cultures and systems? Are we equipped to challenge everyday, institutional and systemic racism and discrimination in our early years spaces?
That is why child-centred pedagogies need to be in active conversation with proactive anti-racist and sustainable pedagogies. Pedagogies which seek to dismantle racism, patriarchy, sexism, ageism and ableism, pedagogies which actively question and disrupt white privilege and promote a sustainable and socially just way of living between humans and non-humans.
Academic and activist voices urge action and offer hope. Peter Moss encourages the early childhood profession to consider alternative narratives, challenging dominant discourses. bell hooks encourages us of pedagogies of hope and Greta Thunberg urges us for that hope to be followed by action:
‘[…] and yes we do need hope, of course we do, but the one thing we need more than hope is action, once we start to act, hope is everywhere, so instead of looking for hope, look for action, then and only then hope will come […]’
Children are not only perpetrators of exclusion, racism and discrimination; they are also activists with their own ways of, and resources for combatting exclusion and discrimination. Such young children, armed with a strong sense of fairness and justice, have always inspired me. More research needs to highlight their stories of hope and activism. There is so much inspiration and learning to be gained by seeing how young children navigate politics of power during play to challenge exclusion and racism, how they stand up against injustice, how they are positioned as, and seek allies in order to disrupt exclusionary storylines and how they actively change and create alternative narratives towards a more just world.
Those of us working within the early years community need to start by educating ourselves, to reflect and check our privileges / disadvantages and to critically examine our practices and resources. It is never too early to work with children to be able to enable them to fight against racism and injustice.
‘Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better’
– Maya Angelou
Indicative resources to promote anti-racist education in early childhood:
Brown, B. 1998. Unlearning Discrimination in the Early Years. Oakhill: Trentham Books.
Derman-Sparks, L. and Edwards, O.J. 2020. Anti-bias Education For Young Children and Ourselves. Washington, National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Knowles, E. & Ridley, W. 2005. Another Spanner in the works. Challenging prejudice and racism in mainly white schools. Stoke-on-Trent, Trentham Books Limited.
Lane, J. 2008. Young Children and Racial Justice. London, National Children’s Bureau.
Pacini-Ketchabaw, V. 2014. Postcolonial and Anti-Racist Approaches to Understanding Play. In: The SAGE Handbook of Play and Learning in Early Childhood. Brooker, L., Blaise, M. and Edwards, S. (eds), SAGE: London.
Teaching for change: https://www.teachingforchange.org/anti-bias-education
Persona Doll Training: http://www.persona-doll-training.org/
The media initiative: http://www.early-years.org/mifc/characters.php
Image credit: K. Konstantoni