Anti-Racism in Early Childhood Education, Part II
Blythe Keeler Robinson
President and CEO, Sheltering Arms
“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin
Our nation continues to grapple with racism or the unfair treatment of people of a different race. Over the last month, we saw the serving of food to white children in a childcare center while the black children watched and waited. We learned about the fatal shooting of 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a traffic stop. We watched the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd and the indictment of the suspects in Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting death.
The topic of racism is still very timely and relevant. In February, Sheltering Arms hosted Dr. Iheoma Iruka, Founding Director of Equity Action Research Coalition, FPG Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as we talked about anti-racism in early learning environments. With an overwhelming response from the audience, we brought back the conversation in April for Part II – this time, answering “What Now?” People wanted to know how they could play a role in helping our community heal and address this topic for the betterment of ourselves and our children.
Here are some of the questions from the audience and the responses from my chat with Dr. Iruka:
How do we respond to children’s curiosity about race?
“Children are scientists. They are always learning and are primed to be curious. It’s up to us as adults to engage them in conversations with us. They notice our gestures, our tones, what we do and don’t say. Start by talking with them and being honest with them.
“It’s important for us to be more racially literate and ask ourselves the questions, ‘What does it mean for students to have different skin tones?’ and ‘What does it look like to have different physical abilities?’
If we don’t talk about it, then we set it up for students to naturally not want to have these conversations.”
One resource we referenced is Dr. Iruka’s book, Don’t Look Away: Embracing Anti-Bias Classrooms.
Learned behavior and racial/ethnic socialization. What can families do to have these conversations?
“Families have a language. Engage in discussions about race and white privilege. What are some of the privileges that I have? What are some privileges that I don’t have? Parents and adults should then explore their lives. Where do you go shopping? Who do your children see as important to their community? Who are your doctors? What kind of books are on your bookshelf? Who are your children seeing while they read? In the first five years, those are the most important stages. It’s up to white parents to educate their children as well and have conversations about power and privilege. It’s about being real and checking ourselves. Check our biases and see the ways that we react in real time.”
What can teachers and early childhood educators do?
“Both educators and families are leaders in the conversation of equity. There needs to be a place where white supremacy is challenged. We need to create a space where families gather information and shape the agenda on important topics like police brutality, racism and inclusion. We can’t just sit on the sidelines and make Twitter statements.”
I added that it’s a process. As part of our Race & Equity initiative, Sheltering Arms is doing several things to address racial equity and white supremacy. We are conducting four-day trainings with our staff on racial literacy. We have mandated reporters where we require our team members to say something if they see or hear something. We’re starting to incorporate the anti-bias framework into our mission, and our leaders are participating in United Way’s 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge.
How do we address the bias of staff?
“Have them engage in self interrogation. You can also have the do the implicit attitudes association test on the Johns Hopkins website. Perhaps host a book club featuring books that challenge racism, and invite them to participate in forums like this one.”
We wrapped up this conversation with ideas on how to make early childhood education more equitable that include mobilizing the workforce, inviting white leaders to talk about the systems that are in place and addressing issues around equitable funding so that resources can be provided to all students and teachers. Some of these require changes to policies or the creation of new ones.
As a community, we have a role and a responsibility to check our own biases, to learn from conversations like these and to address systemic racism. It’s for our children and their future.