Antiracism education and young children: Best ways to teach anti-bias

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The national discourse across the U.S. and the world means many teachers and parents will be having discussions with young children about racism and equality.

Joy Dangora, Ph.D., an assistant professor of early childhood education at Endicott College in Beverly, MA, has some advice. 

She says young children notice differences everywhere. Though parents may find children’s utterances specific to the differences they observe among people off-putting at times (my five-year-old is the first to publicly question anyone not wearing a mask in public), it is important to realize that children’s acknowledgements of human differences are not only natural, but desirable.

“A sincere curiosity to know more about the diverse world in which we live should be celebrated and cultivated,” said Dr. Dangora. “Encouraging children to notice and appreciate racial and cultural differences is one way to promote an antiracist worldview.”

Additionally, said Dr. Dangora, we should not wait to engage children in conversations and experiences centered on the examination of differences. Research suggests children as young as six months old not only notice racial differences including skin color and hair type, but they also begin to form racial biases (e.g., demonstrating a preference for interacting with members of their own race). Lack of exposure to people of other races is believed to contribute to this phenomenon.

So, what can we do to help our children appreciate diversity and combat racist views? Dr. Dangora emphasizes the following three points to students in her education courses:

1. TALK: Talk about race and encourage children to notice, name, and celebrate the beauty in their own physical features as well as those of different races. Help children use precise and affirming language to describe differences and encourage them to express their understandings in ways that make sense to them (e.g., drawing, painting, singing). I have used a color wheel and various children’s books (e.g., Shades of People by Shelly Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly; Skin Like Mine by Latishia M. Perry; The Colors of Us by Karen Katz) to support young children in their efforts to appreciate different skin tones and express their understandings.

2. PLAY: Encourage children to play with those they understand to be different from them. Make explicit the ways in which your own life is enriched by friends, family, and colleagues who identify differently (racially and/or culturally) from you and invite children to do the same.

3. READ: Rudine Simms Bishop coined the metaphor mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors to explain that books offer children invaluable opportunities to affirm their own identities and experiences as well as introduce and appreciate the identities and experiences of those less like them. Evaluate the books you make available to children. Do they have access to books that represent a wide variety of races and cultures? Are the racially and/or culturally diverse characters in these books portrayed in racist, biased, and/or stereotypical ways? For more information on how to evaluate children’s books for bias the ADL’s Assessing Children’s Literature page.

Parents can also read and discuss antiracism books specifically (e.g., Antiracist Baby by Ibram X. Kendi) to help children begin to understand important concepts including race, racist, and antiracist.

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