“Racism” in First Grade

Today I took little dude to a 5-year-old birthday party. Most of the kids in his pre-K class were there. About twelve to fifteen adults were native Spanish speakers; three of us were white; two were African American.

At the same time, Laura was on birthday party duty with CM, attending the festivities for a classmate. The 7-year-olds were supervised by a room full of about 50% white, and 50% Middle Eastern, Latino/a, and African American.

Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In our San Francisco world, “normal” means racially mixed company.

Perhaps this feeds my dissatisfaction with CM coming home from first grade on Friday all prepped for MLKJ day with a new vocabulary word: “racism.”

It’s not that the topic isn’t important. It’s not that MLKJ Day isn’t a crucial time to talk about issues of race and the struggles our country has had and continues to have. But I wonder if MLKJ’s memory might not be better honored by my first-grader celebrating the diversity that she lives in every day (her class is, at most, 1/3 white) rather than giving her a category for people whose destructive prejudice have marred, and continue to mar, the social fabric of our country?

So that’s my honest question for debate as we honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. today: is his memory best honored by teaching our young children about the full darkness of racism upon which King shone his light? or is it better honored by celebrating with our young children the reality that he saw and that they are, in many ways, living into?

I am aware that questions of race strike deeply at the heart of many people’s identity. So please be aware of that and, as you my awesome readers often do so well here, let’s make sure we keep the conversation civil and constructive even if/as we disagree.

15 thoughts on ““Racism” in First Grade”

  1. Daniel, I, too, have wrestled with this idea as I’ve taught K for 17 years. I’ve not focused on the word racism, though children will focus in on what they will (often it’s the fact that he was shot). A few thoughts stand out:

    I’d rather them learn about the ugly parts of our history in the safety of our loving class community, if not their own families, than society at large, where they can question and dig and wrap their heads around the ideas. Especially now, as a mom of a racially diverse family.

    Sorting ourselves by eye color or hairlength and proposing separation based on characteristics of appearance show the absurdity of prejudice that the children see clearly.

    I’ve taught in an area in which I drove past KKK grafitti on my way to school and where children were not permitted to be seen by our African American school nurse. If I didn’t expose them to kind, loving, gentle African Americans, no one would. And there remain prejudices everywhere, even in SF.

    After having taught in the Middle East, where I couldn’t eat in restaurants with men, drink water in public (hazardous when you’re so covered in black in 100+ degree weather), etc., my thoughts while teaching MLK in a world where globalization is a constant focus, return to this, my limited experience of limits based on who/what I am, suggesting that prejudice and overcoming it appropriately is a very real concern for which our children need to be gently and slowly prepared.

    This year, in the conversation about the assassination, when a child asked about who shot MLK, I mentioned that he was a white man. A child murmured, “Of course he was white.” It seemed to indicate that she understood the concept of racism even if I didn’t teach the word, and struck me in contrast to our country’s expectation that most violent criminals are not.

    Do we want our children to know that there are racists, molestors, murderers, bullies, con artists, or other people practicing evil amongst us? No. Do we want them to be prepared to handle them appropriately so that they might be safe and protect others? Yes. Thus we walk the thin line.

    1. Wendy, great thoughts here. I very much appreciate the balance you’re bringing to the table.

      Racism is pervasive, even here, no doubt. I suppose I’d like it to be something our children encounter as strange when they meet it. More on this below…

  2. Ok. I see your point. This week and next we will celebrate MLK and Civil Rights in my 1st grade class. I choose to not teach the word “racism” and instead taught “equality.” Mostly bexause positive conncepts are easier to teach Innocence is a precious thing but children are being exposed much sooner to things these days.

  3. I agree with you in that we should always err on the side of visionary progress over problem solving. However, we do need a word to describe the problem. The emphasis should be on celebrating diversity, but honest discussion of the hurt is important too.

  4. it’s both/and. certainly, seven is young to understand many things, but children know what unfair looks like.

    i wish we’d talk more about privilege. no one thinks they’re racist, but how many white people believe we’re living in a “post-racial america”? civil rights for black were achieved by the realities of white privilege persist in pervasive, insidious, and often unseen ways.

  5. Do government schools need to be cautious when discussing Dr King? And that is why the discussion is related only to racism? When we explore Dr King’s vision it is far reaching. When he said, “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up the mountain and I’ve looked over . . .”
    He was not just borrowing biblical imagery to make a point. He actually saw something that I have trouble seeing. I want to hear more.

    For example, it would be great to study Dr King’s eschatology, but our public schools might have trouble with comments like, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”

  6. My observation, having raised my family there and moved away, people in the Bay Area know they are untypical, but they really don’t know how untypical they are. How little regard there is generally for social liberalism.

  7. I don’t see how we can celebrate the diversity your children experience every day (if only this were the case in the rest of the country!) without also acknowledging the dark paths this country had to pass to get there and the long way we still have to go to achieve anything resembling a culture and a nation where our differences are not the means by which we judge one another. As a parent of bi-cultural children, I understand very much the desire to shield kids from those darker parts of our history. At the same time, I should be worried more about shielding them from the realities they are likely to face later in life. These are very difficult issues. Thanks for starting the conversation.

  8. Kids notice all differences, including race. They are also prone to generalizing. That makes racism a more natural inclination than we are comfortable acknowledging, as parents and as a society. Talking about equality is important to combat that inclination. Telling kids stories from the civil rights movement (MLKjr, Ruby Bridges, lunch counters) is a great way for them to “see” it and learn from it.

    1. Your comment reminds me of a piece CNN did replicating the famous doll tests where children had to identify “good” and “bad” dolls based on the hue of their skin. I would assume that most of these kids’ parents were not racists as we would imagine it. But ethnic privilege still speaks most powerfully. Here’s a link if anyone’s curious: http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2010/kids.on.race/

    2. You are absolutely correct! We need to talk openly about racism AND equality with young children. Hiding the past won’t make the future better. Kids need to know WHY Dr. King was so motivated, why a nation rose up and demanded that its citizens be treated equally. WHY did so many devote and indeed give in some instances their lives to the quest for civil rights for all Americans?

  9. I propose a difficult hypothesis: this kind of worry (“Do we need to expose our kids to ugly concepts like racism as early as first grade?”) is one only white parents could have.

    Reading blogs by parents raising non-white kids in the US, I find it impossible to not notice that non-white kids learn about racism at a very young age, because they have no other choice. Racism is sadly still a reality (even in cities in which there are, for example, wonderfully multicultural and multi-ethnic schools) and because kids live in that reality they fare better when they have words to name these unfortunate/ugly/scary concepts.

    I don’t think we are doing our kids a favour when we avoid exposing them to ugly things just because we can. It reminds me of the psychologists who have found that kids find it helpful to see their parents fight IF they also see the resolution: they learn that people fight, and then find a solution, and it is OK to get upset. Our kids are better served by learning about the full realities of the world including how we deal with them so we don’t get stuck in the muck or the ugliness.

  10. Thanks, everyone.

    I think there is agreement here–and I share it!–that we not try to sugar-coat or deny the persistence of racism or the dark history of our country.

    Some other thoughts are dancing right beyond my ability to bring them down into words. More anon, perhaps…

  11. First of all, racism is not dead and buried in the U.S. however happily situated one child, one school, one neighborhood, one city.
    Also, the white child enjoying all this “diversity” is also enjoying white privilege when she leaves town and her “diverse” classmates are not.
    To deny this is a violence.
    Finally, the struggle against racism is a noble part of U.S.American history. When I teach it, my white students invariably feel guilt and shame. I invariably tell them that they are not required to personally identify with the perpetrators of the worst part of our shared history, but can vaunt the heroes who opposed them, instead. This is not the same thing, however, as refusing to acknowledge the white privilege that ultimately makes life easier for white people in this culture.
    But again, it would be a violence against the people who have personally inherited the legacy of that struggle to deny it to them. Portraying MLK as anything less than a courageous martyr in the face of real evil–watering such a history down to “celebrate diversity”–strikes me as sinful.

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