Race and racism in society is as important as ever; I am writing not only as a British South Asian who has experienced racism, but as an ally against white supremacy and anti-Black sentiment that perpetuates our consciousness.
Structural racism is insidious, and we need to look at ourselves and think about the messages we perpetuate. The racism that comes through our thinking, language and gestures shows the undercurrent of white supremacy in the ways that we perceive the world.
This was written to respond to the systemic racism in education as a profession.
It is great that some people are more aware and doing what they can to ‘be anti-racist’, but this needs to continue - it’s a movement, not a moment.
There are many problems with systemic racism in Early Childhood settings, and I hope to provide some suggestions and links for your own reflective practice –I can’t tell you what to do, it is your journey and up to you to educate yourself, but I hope this helps on that journey.
Reading articles on racism may be uncomfortable, as it is an upheaval of what we know, and what is normal, and this is because ‘normal’ is inherently racist. I want to ask questions that may not be answered here, because this is a point of introspection and individual responsibility when it comes to looking after our children and being ‘players’ in a wider world. You need to ask yourself questions, consider who you are and what your call to action is for change.
Often as Educators we are seen as though we are already doing ‘the good work’, yet this topic brings about a space for deep introspection. When you set up and manage your classrooms ensure representation is embedded and not an ‘add on’. White, cisgender heteronormativity cannot be the default.
Classroom changes need to look beyond book corners and skin colour paints. Colleagues shared with me the lack of thought behind some small world people resources as the shop only provided white people. The representative resources already exist, unfortunately it is not mainstream, but this needs to change. Audit your dressing up clothes, food items and hair related products for your role play areas – ask parents to donate items. Tune into and value the voices in the classroom that come from wider communities. Consider the characters and stories that are shared – what message is being shared around skin colour, femininity and hair when using Frozen characters for example?
Development Matters and the EYFS People and Communities ELG explicitly reference “similarities and differences between themselves and others, and among families, communities and traditions” if we decipher the curriculum through this lens we may see that we should already be exposing children to a variety of cultures to provide opportunity for discussion with children. Presumably these statements are based on the research that expressions of racial prejudice peak by age 4 or 5 (Aboud, 2008). However, often we only hear about wider cultures and practices through celebrations: Eid, Diwali, Hannukah, Chinese New Year, this ‘add-on’ doesn’t provide the deeper discussion of cultures and values that encompass the everyday for the children that celebrate these festivals. What are you doing to ensure that all communities are represented and respected? And how do you incorporate these communities into your usual practice and provision? How do you ensure that your practice provides a wider perspective?
There needs to be deeper consideration of how curricula can be decolonised, ensuring key figures are discussed and explored. It is not enough to teach the history of enslavement and civil rights (which are important stories that represent the struggle so many marginalised communities have experienced) it is about countering the narrative that to be non-white is not normal.
"Cultural capital" needs to include key public figures, artists and musicians, but also everyday heroes that children may see in the community. We want our children to have a foundation of curiosity, knowledge, and respect for differences, so that they don’t absorb the idea that the lives of black, and other people of colour are only about struggle.
Acknowledging cultural capital means noticing, celebrating, and valuing difference. Most schools celebrate white men- Samuel Pepys when learning about the Great Fire of London, Pablo Picasso, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong in the recent Moon Landings celebrations. Where are the Black people? Are we giving an accurate representation of history if the only figures we see are white men? What about Mary Seacole, Steve McQueen, Katharine Johnson, Ai WeiWei, Anish Kapoor?
To question my own biases when planning curriculum drivers, I have begun to ensure a set of questions are on the top of every curriculum document:
- Have you addressed sustainability?
- Have you shown a variety of families/gender roles?
- Have you included characters and perspective from a variety of backgrounds, especially those who are under-represented?
- Have you included stories that show a range of emotions for discussion?
- Is there an opportunity for cultural capital?
Cultural practices are often forgotten and seen as an ‘add on’. An example might be a discussion of eating with hands vs. eating with knives and forks - some things that might be seen as a norm in one culture is the opposite in another. Have you made space for this in your classroom and your own understanding of your children and their cultures?
Reflection and Response
Are you prepared to discuss race, or answer a question on race when it occurs in the classroom and ensure you have done best for that child?
Ensure you are prepared to talk about skin colour, culture, religion so you’re not scrambling for words when a child asks a direct question about these things. Have you spoken to families to ask them how they have approached discussing skin colour? How are you ensuring families feel confident to discuss race?
Ultimately as practitioners we are familiar with constant reflection, but it takes more to look closely at the implicit bias that we perpetuate. Don’t be afraid to talk about it, but make sure you research and read up - educate yourself. Make lifestyle changes that involve taking on these wider perspectives beyond your early education practice.
What do your leadership teams look like? In predominantly white areas there may be little diversity, but is there diversity in the content that is taught to children? Are staff aware of the wider world and implications of their bias? Are staff considering the possibility of providing only a white view of the world to children? Is there a consideration from leadership teams to reflect on systemic racism in schools and settings, and how could this be tackled? Could your schools consider mandatory staff training on Black history, global non-white-led history and open discussion of unlearning of implicit bias (by consultants who specialise in this area)?
Are you questioning decisions that perpetuate anti-blackness and racism in your school? If you are white, do you stand up for your underrepresented colleagues, who may not have the privilege to stand up for themselves?
When Early Childhood Education institutions are questioned, the inherent tokenistic nature of BAME representation is revealed. When representation is conceived through a lens of empty diversity that leads to tokenistic representation in chairs and boards, then what message does this send, and what actual intervention does this make in challenging implicit bias and institutional racism?
The government response to including Black History and minority ethnic representation into the curriculum was that it is up to teachers to do this (see petition response). Where in Initial Teacher Training is there a discussion of systemic racism and bias and how practitioners can support BAME families appropriately? In Early Childhood academia, a privileged position to be in, majority of academics are white and therefore research continues to remain whitewashed.
A large part of the wider work to tackle racism is to look at our institutions and policies. Our institutions are built upon racist ideologies and anti-blackness. There are petitions to change how our curriculum looks at a wider policy level but these are often rejected. There needs to be a whole government strategy, that needs to be continually lobbied by all Early Education influencers and those in positions of power who are allies in this movement.
Blogs and Articles
Laura Henry-Allain’s article in Nursery World
Kate Moxley’s podcast discusses blackness in Early Years with Liz Pemberton and "The Early Years Orchestra" episode with Jamal Carly
US based article writing about racism in preschool
Nursery practitioner David Cahn writes about allyship and racism in Early Years
Talking race with children and families
Social Media Accounts to Follow
Black Nursery Manager Instagram @theblacknurserymanager
The Conscious Kid Instagram @theconsciouskid
Jamal Carly Instagram @Jamal.Carly
JossyCare Instagram @JossyCare
Laura Henry-Allain Twitter @IamLauraHenry
Aboud, F. E. (2008). A social-cognitive developmental theory of prejudice. In S. M. Quintana & C.
McKown (Eds.), Handbook of race, racism, and the developing child (p. 55–71). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.