Let’s Talk! Talking about Race with Children

Please welcome guest blogger Anna Forgerson Hindley of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.  As the Supervisory Early Childhood Education Coordinator at the NMAAHC, Anna Forgerson Hindley’s work focuses on positive identity development, interrupting structures of racism and prejudice, raising healthy, courageous and compassionate children in a highly diverse and inequitable society and introducing African American history to young children in age-appropriate ways. She holds a Master’s degree in Museum Studies from The George Washington University.


The beginning of a beautiful friendship: NMAAHC + SEEC

As the head of the early childhood education initiative (ECEI) at The National Museum of African American History and Culture , I am thrilled to connect with SEEC as a guest on this blog. Our two organizations have a special relationship full of mutual respect from which we continually learn from each other. SEEC’s nearly 30 years of teaching young children in museums and philosophy of learning through objects has shaped how we design programs for children at NMAAHC. In turn, as SEEC increasingly commits to anti-bias education, we have been able to support their efforts through trainings and by being a resource when questions emerge about racial identity, race, history and bias.

SEEC educators are masters in using objects, art and community spaces to broaden children’s understanding of the world. They were eager to visit NMAAHC when we opened last fall to explore learning opportunities for young children yet had questions – thoughtful, important questions – they sent to me.  The following question is just one of the many they submitted but is what I am asked most in my work. If you are reading this, you likely have a young child – or many young children – in your life. Whether you are a parent or an educator or both, you may have grappled with this same questions.

  • How do we talk about race with young children?

This question and the follow-up professional development I led for SEEC staff last February inspires what I share with you now.

2016AK11_410

The National Museum of African American History and Culture’s contemplative court offers visitors a quiet space for reflection. Copyright NMAAHC.

This is a personal, lifelong journey

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Frederick Douglass, Abolitionist

Part of NMAAHC’s mission is to be a place of healing and reconciliation and to provide space to have constructive and respectful conversations about race and identity. As I have developed the early childhood education initiative at NMAAHC, I have deeply considered what this means for our youngest visitors – and continue to think about every day!

The work of early childhood education has the power to affect what society will be in the future. We can help build strong children who will grow to make the world more equitable, just, and kind. Never doubt that the work you do – as a parent or an educator – is important and POWERFUL!

While it may be easier to build strong children than to repair broken men, it does not mean the work we do is easy. In fact, when we commit to respecting and embracing differences and acting against bias and unfairness and focus on positive identity development for all children, the work is often hard, at times emotional, and requires us to look at our own identity, bias, and baggage.

All of us must reflect on these things so we can begin to peel back the layers to get clearer about our experiences throughout our lives and the assumptions we make now. The following questions may help as you reflect:

  • When were you first aware of your race?
  • What do you remember from childhood about how you made sense of human differences? What confused you?
  • What childhood experiences did you have with peers or adults who were different from you in some way?

Once we reflect on where we have been, we can start to understand the assumptions and potential bias we hold. As a white educator, I have the responsibility to continually examine and think critically about race, justice and my own privilege. I encourage you to take time to reflect on yourself before you start to think about the children in your lives. Be kind and honest with yourself, knowing this is a lifelong journey.

2017NMAAHCLet'sTalk-9937

Participants at the NMAAHC’s educator workshop, Let’s Talk! Teaching Race in the Classroom, unpack their own racial identity and reflect on where they are in their journey. The work is serious but it is also constructive to have a sense of humor and connect with each other. Photo credit: @keredding, http://keredding.com/ Redding Photography.

Teaching race with young children

My friend and mentor, Julie Olsen Edwards, explains that the notion of race is a social construct designed to fraudulently divide people into groups ranked as superior and inferior. The scientific consensus is that race, in this sense, has no biological basis – we are all one race, the human race. Racial identity, however, is very real. And, in a racialized society, everyone is assigned a racial identity whether they are aware of it or not. Young children are not immune to this.

At NMAAHC, our programs explore, celebrate, and uplift differences while simultaneously seeking ways to connect with the ways we are similar. Part of this is to support understanding and the development of each child’s healthy racial identity, although we do not always directly discuss race. Talking about racial identity and race looks different at different ages. The conversation must be layered throughout childhood in age appropriate ways that connect to what is happening developmentally.

Children are not colorblind. Talking about race with young children honors who they are as learners but the conversation looks vastly different for a one year old than it does at five. I recently sat down with Julie Olson Edwards and Candra Flanagan, coordinator of the student and teacher initiative at NMAAHC and my thought partner, to think about what this means for the different stages of early childhood.

Knowing that infants recognize race at 6 months of age, it is appropriate, and beneficial, to talk about how we are different while uplifting the message we are all the same. We all play but some of us like blocks and some of us like books! We all have bodies but all our bodies look different! This age is a time to celebrate the diversity of humanity and create a healthy, positive emotional framework when discussing identity.

Between two and half to five years of age, children are sorting, organizing and classifying to make sense of their world and their language is expanding rapidly. Children are able to begin to understand the complex social construct of race when we introduce skin color and where it comes at this age. We get our skin color from our biological parents. There can be different shades of skin color in the same family. Every person’s skin is different and every family is unique – isn’t the diversity around us beautiful!  At this age, children begin to recognize justice and fairness in their own lives so purposeful and thoughtful conversations and explorations allow children to construct personal meaning about these concepts. Although conversations about fairness and justice at this age are appropriate, children need to have a solid sense of identity, race and self before talking about racial injustice.

14983118842_75c87618be_o

14960526726_80e9a884ab_o

Prior to opening, the NMAAHC’s early childhood education initiative facilitated programs in communities around DC-MD-VA. These toddlers attended the program, “I AM…creative!” and created their own collage using photographs of all different children and historical images. The style of art was inspired by the artist, Romare Bearden.

By 5, 6, 7 years of age, children are able to have conversations about injustice and being treated unfairly based on identity (race, gender, etc.). Before you enter this conversation, reflect and center the goal to respect and embrace differences and prepare children to act against bias and unfairness. If you are an educator, consider the following questions: Who is in the classroom? Who is the only? Who are the few? And who is the teacher in relationship to the students? Inherent in labels of race is hierarchy and built in power dynamics. If the previous layers of honoring difference and establishing sameness, celebrating all the different shades of people, and an understanding of where skin color comes from are not in place, jumping to a conversation of racial inequity and injustice may leave children confused or worse.

Photographer

Participants at NMAAHC’s early childhood family day create self-portraits. Photograph credit: Leah Jones, NMAAHC.

Other points to consider:

  • Keep practicing. You are going to make mistakes. Pick yourself up. It is going to feel really awful because it is most likely that your mistake will be at the expense of someone else. It will certainly be in front of others. Apologize. Make amends. Keep practicing. Keep going. I practice this every day and still mistakes. Recently I coauthored an article with Julie Olsen Edwards about inclusivity in museums and interrupting racism with children. One of the main examples I use is a book that I happen to love – but also happens to strongly reinforce gender stereotypes. I was so focused on one aspect of identity (race), I unintentionally forgot to consider the importance of intersectionality. Learn from your mistakes and keep going!
  • One does not equal all. For young children, how we as adults speak impacts how children view and understand self and others. Generalizations, even if they say only things that are positive or neutral, communicate that we can tell what someone is like just by knowing her gender, ethnicity or religion. Thus, hearing generalizations contributes to the tendency to view the world through the lens of social stereotypes. Another pitfall related to generalizing, which often occurs in classroom settings, is when a child is asked to be a spokesperson for their race, culture, gender or religion. Let me say this in a different way, do not single out a child to speak for all girls, all Muslims, all Chinese Americans, the entire Latinx community, etc. This is particularly damaging when a child is asked to share without even volunteering to speak.
  • It’s not just black or white. The United States is a highly diverse nation full of people from every race, culture and ethnicity. This is one of the strongest characteristics of this country and is one worth celebrating. Yet, particularly in conversations about race, we often are stuck in a binary of white and black. However, many children in our lives identify as biracial or multiracial or those who do not identify as black or white. Biracial and multiracial children can feel conflicted or confused by the “this group” v. “that group” mentality when they identify with both groups. As adults, we are in the position to positively (or, unfortunately, negatively) impact the lives of young children. Which brings me to my final point,
  • Each child has a tribe. Whether we are parents of young children, educators of young children, or both, we are part of our children’s tribe and it is important for the tribe to communicate. Educators, it is not only respectful but necessary to have conversations about anti-bias education with the families of the children in your class. Parents, your child’s well-being includes the development of a positive sense of self and a healthy racial identity. Ask your children’s caregivers how they plan to support this for your child. The more we can come together as a tribe around our children, the better we all will be for it.
Family Day & Jerry Pinkney

Families attend NMAAHC’s StoryTime with children’s books author and illustrator, Jerry Pinkney. Photograph credit: Leah Jones, NMAAHC.

While this is hardly a comprehensive list, hopefully it either helps you begin or inspires you to keep going so we can achieve together what we hope to see for the young children in your lives – a fairer, more inclusive, and equitable world.  As with any complex subject, there are countless questions, things often get murkier before they become clearer, and a single blog post certainly isn’t going to have the space to get as deep as we’d like. Yet every journey consists of many steps so let us embrace this moment as our next step towards creating a more equitable world.

Author’s note: I would like to acknowledge Anti-bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves by Louise-Derman Sparks & Julie Olsen Edwards. The framework and goals of anti-bias education is central to the work we do at the NMAAHC in early childhood education. In particular, Julie’s experiences, vision and teachings have guided me in my understanding and her words and wisdom are peppered throughout this article. The reflection questions I have shared are adapted from the anti-bias Stop & Think exercises. I would also like to thank Candra Flanagan for being my thought partner and for her work with students in 3rd – 12th grade. Her editing, perspective and friendship has profoundly shaped my work.