Author: Riana Hensel
Academic Year: 2013-14
Description: During my second year of teaching I had an experience that galvanized my commitment to addressing race and racism with young children. I was on a team of three teachers working in a Reggio Emilia inspired preschool classroom with three and a half to five year old students. Olivia, a four-year-old in head-to-toe pink and light-up sneakers, drew, wrote and read at a level much higher than her peers. One day she had been diligently working on a piece of writing when I said, “Olivia, you are one smart cookie.” She looked at me and replied, “I know, it’s because I’m white.” “Pardon?” I asked,
hoping I had heard her wrong, “It’s because my skin, it’s white.” I was momentarily stunned and then launched into a period of deep reflection and work that began my journey as a teacher fighting for social justice in the classroom. I wasn’t sure how to proceed so I consulted with my teaching team, my mentors at the school in addition to looking for external resources. Although the school had a heavy anti-bias focus and was initially supportive of my concerns, they did not endorse all of my efforts to address the issue. I felt unprepared about how to proceed with this work in the classroom, and found myself needing to seek outside guidance including anti-racist training for teachers. When I asked for the school to reimburse me for the training or pay my wages for the day even though I wasn’t at school, I got no response to my lengthy proposal. I found myself not only paying for the training but also losing my compensation for the day so I could attend. The training was invaluable in boosting my comfort level in addressing the challenging subject of race in my classroom. This experience solidified my personal commitment to discussing race with children, but left me with many questions about how to do this as a teacher and especially about how to get support from those around me while doing so. I hope that examining my questions with experienced teachers will further bolster my commitment and provide me with the wisdom of their experiences so I can be better prepared to address race and racism in my future classrooms.
Racism is prevalent in our contemporary society, because, as Tatum (2003) states, “racism is so ingrained in the fabric of American institutions, it is easily self perpetuating. All that is required to maintain it is business as usual” (p. 11). Racism is also present in our schools (Kailin, 1999; Kozol, 2005; Paige & Witty, 2010). According to Kose and Lim (2010) “ample evidence suggests that K-12 schools oppress or marginalize students of color, students living in poverty, students with disabilities, bilingual or English language learners, and students who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender” (p. 197). In the face of this institutional oppression, it is critical that teachers address these issues with the students in their care.
A challenging aspect of doing anti-racist work in Early Childhood Education (ECE) is the assumption that race is an issue that is not appropriate to discuss with young children in addition to beliefs that children are too young to understand and perceive concepts related to race and racism (Troyna & Hatcher 1992). According to Van Ausdale and Feagin, (2001) “most white adults, including many scholars, believe that very young children are incapable of seriously understanding the implications of race and racism,” despite their findings and the findings of others demonstrating the contrary (p. 2). Race and racism are issues that I see as essential to address for both my future students as well as myself as a social justice educator. As race is an issue that is sometimes challenging to address (Hinton 2004), I aim to investigate the practices of current teachers in the field who are effectively engaging in anti-racist work to see what helps and what hinders their ability to address this topic with their students. It is my sincere hope, that my research project will arm me with the necessary tools for myself and other novice teachers to enter the profession with the confidence and courage needed to address issues of race and racism in the classroom.