This blog message was contributed by Eva Dierickx (AP, Belgium).
- Teacher, why is that girl so dirty?
- Miss, that pencil is not flesh coloured. It’s brown.
- He is not black, he is a negro.
- Soundous has been lying in the sun for too long.
- I am not yellow, I am light brown.
- ‘Dad!’ shouts Hannes, an adopted black preschooler, when the black helper of Saint Nicholas enters the classroom.
When young children make such statements, we are inclined to pass over them (‘she does not know what she is saying’), to blame the parents (‘they must have picked it up at home’) or to quickly and generally condemn these statements (‘you cannot say that, that is not nice’). We assume that children will grow up to be unprejudiced adults if we do not talk about ‘it’. Contrary to what we believe, young children are not ‘colour-blind’. Not only do young children already notice differences in skin colour, they also associate these with ‘better’ or ‘worse’. Even in preschool classes young children often make friends or exclude class mates from activities based on skin colour (Boudry & Vandenbroeck, 2006; Swanson et al., 2009, Winkler, 2009).
Research has shown that five-year-old children with a ‘different’ skin colour are not only aware of this difference, but are also conscious of the prejudices and racism that go with it (Husband, 2012). It probably does not surprise you that such realisation strongly affects the development of the identity and self-image of these young children (Swanson et al., 2009).
What can teachers do about this?
Talk about it!
By making every skin colour in all its varieties discussible, you acknowledge the singularity and identity of each child. Moreover, you offer children language that enables them to think and talk about racism themselves. After all, as parents and teachers we are an example of how you can deal with diversity in a positive way, without shame, but with self-awareness.
Children’s books are a good line of approach to frankly and respectfully discuss skin colour, prejudices and racism. ‘Frog and the stranger’ by Max Velthuijs (1997) is a good example of a children’s book that explicitly touches upon hatred towards foreigners. After reading the book you could have a short conversation to allow the children to put into words why the remarks ‘the Rat’ gets are so unkind. To conclude such a discussion, you could reflect upon the fear of the unknown together.
Some more examples:
Give correct information, adapted to the age
Turn spontaneous statements and questions into meaningful learning moments. Recognise diversity and identify unconscious prejudices and stereotyping. Only then can you move past them. Of course, every situation and every child is different.
Let us go back and take a look at the first example given in the introduction.
“Teacher, why is that girl so dirty?” (confusing a black skin colour with dirt is a common misunderstanding among white young children).
The white teacher, ashamed, quickly replies with a “shhhht!”
The child in this example will be left with questions and maybe wrong ideas about the girl’s black skin colour, but won’t express these next time.
The following response would have been better:
“Darling, that girl is not dirty at all. She is as clean as you are. Her skin has a different colour. Just like people have different hair colours, people also have different skin colours.”
Show everyday diversity on a daily basis
Explore the corner filled with books, look around in your classroom. Can all children recognize themselves in the books, puzzles, dolls and pictures on the wall? Are there different shades of skin colour available for the children when they paint portraits? Do you always go visit a white doctor, baker and grocer or do you also present positive role models with a different skin colour? Do you also show brown and black knights and princesses or all they all blond and white?
Even if the childrens in your class primarily/only have a white skin colour, it is important to constantly show diversity. Our classrooms are often one of the first images children get of society. Therefore, it is imperative that this is a correct and just one. In this way you enable children to judge open-mindedly and make their own choices (Boudry & Vandenbroeck, 2006).
Although this step may be obvious, I invite you to re-examine your themes, from this perspective, throughout the entire year. This is the result of my google-search for ‘firemen’.
All firemen (and one sexily dressed woman) have a white skin colour. I had to scroll down for a bit to find a black fireman. If I were to search for a couple of pictures to decorate the welcome corner after a long day of work, I would probably pick some of the first pictures and leave it at that. However, with this selection I unconsciously also communicate a message about who can have this occupation…
When young children exclude others, or make statements amongst each other that are based on prejudices (or sex, culture…) you ought to always react. For by not reacting you implicitly spread the message that this behaviour is accepted widely (Winkler, 2009). Your role as teacher is thus crucial!
Do not only disapprove of the behaviour, but discuss, in a patient way, why such statements or acts can come across as hurtful.
Explore differences and similarities
Solidarity arises when young children feel like they ‘belong’. Children get this feeling in two ways. On the one hand, through the respectful approach of their differences. On the other hand, through the recognition of similarities. For example, in the form of maths exercises in which graphs make clear who likes spaghetti and who rather likes fries, or in an expressive activity in which we work together to visualise what the children love.
To make clear to children that racism and stereotyping are not a normal, but a harmful and dangerous part of society, we have to do more than just talk. Show children that it is important to condemn social injustice and to not accept it.
For instance, an American preschool teacher wrote a letter, attached with drawings and ‘signatures’ of her students, to a manufacturer who claimed to produce ‘skin coloured plasters’, when these were only soft pink… (Husband, 2012)
Finally, stay enthusiastic
All small initiatives and gestures are important to make clear to young children that black children are not worth less than anyone else and that white children are not worth more. I was therefore happy to see that you, my colleagues, eagerly shared and liked the image above on one of my favourite Facebook groups.
- Boudry, C. & Vandenbroeck, M., (2006). Spiegeltje, spiegeltje… : Een werkboek voor de kinderopvang over identiteit en respect (tweede druk). Amsterdam: Uitgeverij SWP Amsterdam
- Husband, T., (2012). “I Don’t See Color”: Challenging Assumptions about Discussing Race with Young Children. Early Childhood Education Journal. (39) 365-371
- Kuh, P., Leekeenan, D., et al. (2016). Moving beyond anti-bias activities: supporting the development of anti-bias practices. Young Children.58- 65.
- Winkler, E., (2009). Children Are Not Colorblind: How Young Children Learn Race. Pace(3)3. 1-8
- Wanless, S. & Crawford, P., (2016). Reading your way to a culturally responsive classroom. Young children. 8-15.
2 thoughts on “‘That pencil is not flesh coloured. It’s brown’: talking about skin colours in the classroom”
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Madison said she was also frustrated that there wasn’t a brown color in her crayon box that properly represented the color of her skin when she drew pictures of herself.