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How to Teach Kids About Race

by Madeleine Rogin

Madeleine Rogin

A Change Leader for Ashoka’s “Start Empathy” Initiative and Changemaker Schools, Madeleine Rogin has been an educator of young children for the past 13 years. She currently teaches Kindergarten and Dance at Prospect Sierra School in El Cerrito, CA, where she serves as the Diversity and Inclusion Representative. Read more »

Sorry, Madeleine Rogin is no longer taking questions.

For years I attempted to teach about Martin Luther King Jr. to my five- and six-year-old Kindergarten students without talking about racism. There were many reasons for this. I had fears and insecurities about how to talk about racism with young children. I didn’t know what was developmentally appropriate to share with five- and six-year-olds (do I talk about the violence surrounding Dr. King’s death, for example?) And, at the same time, there were themes that Dr. King and other civil rights activists personified for me that I deeply wanted to share with my students and children: themes of courage, social justice, and using peaceful means to make change.

So each year when it came time to celebrate Dr. King’s birthday in my classroom, I talked in a general sense about his dream of inclusivity. I read books about his life and rushed through or skipped over parts about segregation and his assassination. I recognized that I was not leading my students in a conversation that created deeper understanding about the themes I cared about, but I didn't yet know how to change this. And, inevitably, ugly truths would start to slip out. A student would call out, “He was shot!” and the murmur on the playground and in the corners of the room would be about the violence surrounding his death rather than about his life work. A white student would point to an African American student and say, “She couldn't have sat on the front of the bus,” and the African American student would sit quietly, looking at me, waiting for my response. I would close the book and say cheerily, “and isn't it great we can all be together now!” and, because I didn't know how to proceed, and how to include all the voices in the room, I would stop the conversation.

As I thought about my own discomfort around talking about race and racism with my students, I began to examine the conversations I had about race with my own young children, two girls ages 4 and 7, who are multiracial--I am white and their father is Ghanaian. We have books in their bedroom library about skin color, including The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler, All the Colors of the Earth by Sheila Hamanaka and The Colors of Us by Karen Katz. We had also intentionally bought baby dolls with brown skin and often talked about our different skin colors (they had named my skin, ‘vanilla’, their dad, ‘chocolate’, and their own skin ‘milk chocolate’ at a very young age.) But I realized, when my older daughter brought home a book from the school library about an African American singer in the 1930s, that I had not talked to them explicitly about racism.

We sat on the couch together as she read the book to me. When she got to a page that had an illustration of a group of white people standing in front of a theater holding signs that read “Whites Only” she paused, looked up at me, and said, “It was people with your skin who did this.” I froze, watching her eyes studying mine, and had no idea what to say. I wanted to say, “No, no it wasn't me! My ancestors are Jewish, and they weren't even there!” But I knew I couldn't say that. She was drawing a connection between my skin and the skin of the people who had oppressed people who looked like her, and I knew better than to dismiss that or deny it. At the same time, I realized instantly why it is so hard for white people to have these conversations, because of the feelings of guilt and discomfort that arise and silence us. I eventually said something like, “Yes and it was unjust and unfair.” She went on to say, “You’re lucky because you could have gone into that theater.” By then I had taken enough deep breaths to be able to say, “But it wouldn't have been right to go in there or anywhere else where people with brown skin couldn't go.” And as we read the rest of the book together, I pointed out the photos of people who protested segregation, and the array of skin colors of the protesters, and told her that’s where many mothers with my skin color had been - standing up against the injustice of these laws.

I learned that it is impossible to teach my daughter or my students about who Dr. King was without also telling the ugly truth about racism. I learned that my daughter was asking me to help her make sense of this story and that in order to support her development I would have to engage in conversations about skin color and racism.

Many white parents avoid talking about race in an effort to develop a sense of “colorblindness” in their children, thinking that a colorblind child is a more inclusive child. Yet, young children notice difference all the time. At a young age, they are busy sorting and categorizing their environment by a single attribute, or putting “like” with “like.” They often point out differences amongst each other. When they are silenced or pick up on the idea that pointing out differences is not okay, they begin to think there must be something wrong or bad about these differences. Children are asking us to help them understand their world, and giving them support in understanding race is not only essential to their development, it is, I have learned, an essential part of teaching them language that will combat patterns of bias and prejudice that continue to occur.

It helps to find out what is developmentally appropriate for young children to know. They do not need to know about Dr. King’s assassination. In fact this information can be too distracting or scary and is not, I have learned, necessary to communicate the essential themes. A great book to read to young children is The Story of Martin Luther King Jr. by Johnny Ray Moore. This book focuses on Dr. King as a child, noticing the injustices around him and wanting to change them. It does not discuss his death at all. What does matter is that young children have support in understanding race, through listening to stories and engaging in conversations about skin color. Now, I begin my year with a unit on skin color that extends through February. A wonderful book to read to children that explains melanin and where skin color comes from is All the Colors We Are by Katie Kissinger and Wernher Krutien. When given the opportunity to talk openly about skin color, children are full of questions and eager to gain new understandings. I now find my classroom to be more unified and inclusive than it was before.
It is also essential to make the themes of peaceful change and justice meaningful to children in a personal and relevant way. In Kindergarten, we honor changemakers: people who use peaceful means to make big changes. We begin with The Lorax because he stood up for the trees. Next, we study Dr. Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work replanting trees in Kenya. We ask our students to consider the following questions when learning about changemakers: What was the problem he/she was trying to solve? Who was involved or affected? Why was it hard to solve the problem? Was the problem solved? We ask families to honor their own changemakers and we invite families in to present them to the class. We go out into the community to plant trees and recognize that we are being changemakers.

Now, when it comes time to introduce Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists during Black History Month my students have had weeks of practice using language around social change, peace, and courage by asking questions about why it’s hard to make change and why it’s important. When they learn about the problems that Martin Luther King Jr. faced, they are able to focus on the injustices and the methods he used to solve them, rather than singling out each other in conversation and fixating on a single part of the story. Now, all students in my class have a voice in the discussion and when the ugly truth slips out about Dr. King’s death, I can point to our wall of changemakers and remind my students that Dr. King did not act alone, and that there many people who are still working today to stand up against injustices and make peaceful change.

As a teacher and a parent, I have learned the importance of facing my own fears around talking about race and racism and am now able to guide my students and my daughters through an experience that is developmentally appropriate and successful in communicating the themes that matter the most to me around Martin Luther King Jr. and Black History Month: the themes of courage, justice, and making peaceful change. My students tell me, “Changemakers change things that aren't fair” and “Changemakers make the world better.”

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