I’ve spent nearly two decades as an early childhood teacher teaching hundreds of students. Often, my preschool was the first time parents left their children. Building trust was a dance we did together. Student, parent, and teacher. The goal was to prepare each child for life beyond the preschool walls.
Every parent loved their child and worried about them. Would they build healthy friendships? Would they learn to be independent? How would they manage their emotions? Would they fall behind academically? Together we brainstormed ideas to build skills in these areas.
Amy Cooper was once a preschooler who grew up to call the police on a birdwatching black man. She used the blackness of his skin to threaten his life. Derek Chauvin was once a preschooler. He grew up to kneel on George Floyd’s neck for nearly ten minutes while other former preschool boys, who grew up to be police officers watched. Together they ignored his begs for mercy as he took his last gasps of life.
Tabitha St. Bernard-Jacobs wrote an article titled, “After Amy Cooper and George Floyd, Will White Parents Do The Work?” She says, “White parents need to teach their kids to be actively anti-racist and they need to do it early and often. Racism doesn’t start with a knee on a Black man’s neck, as was the case with George Floyd. It starts in homes, schools, and workplaces across this country.”
If we are not teaching anti-racism, are we by default teaching racism?
This year, for the first time, my former preschool students were old enough to vote in our election. “What did I teach them that informed their choice?” I wondered.
At preschool we talked about kindness, listening, sharing, making mistakes, and trying our best. The teaching team worked to create a culture of compassion and community. I believed they would each grow into decent, kind, loving human beings.
What I have since learned is you can be good and have racism in you. You can be loving and have racism in you. You can like me, be married to a black man, and have black daughters and have racism in you.
What if I had the wisdom to begin to talk about racism in preschool? What might I have said to a three-year-old, so four years later, their seven-year-old self could understand more? What might they know at the age of eleven, fifteen, nineteen?
St.Bernard-Jacob’s article continues, “If education about racism does not exist in your home, you are, by your actions, letting your kids know that fighting racism is not a priority for your family. You are letting your kids know that racism is a problem for other people to solve.” She continues, “If this is the case, please, when Black folks are killed by police, when white people weaponize their whiteness, spare us the public shock and horror.”
When I look through the yearbook pictures of students’ I taught I cannot imagine one of them making the phone call Amy Cooper did. I cannot imagine one of them standing back while someone is murdered. I cannot imagine one of them causing harm to someone because of the color of their skin.
And yet, as their teacher, I did not do enough to lessen the impact of racism while they were in my classroom. In the thousands of conversations with preschool parents, rarely if ever, did I talk about how to raise racially literate children. And what does that even mean?
If I could go back in time, as a preschool teacher, in addition to talking about kindness, I would also talk about advantages. What they look like, what kinds there are and how we can use them to be helpers. In addition to talking about listening, I would also talk about and notice differences. We would talk about where ideas come from and how to know if an idea is worth keeping. I would spend less time reading books about naughty cats or curious dogs and more time reading books about children and families which broaden our window into the world.
If it is possible education can lead to the eradication of racism, when do we start? What do we say? Tabitha St.Bernard-Jacobs has been teaching her black children about race since they were two years old.
Maybe, if our white parents and teachers had taught us about racism, instead of having a whole lot of shocked grown-ups like me, saying, “What? This is America. This is still happening?” We would have more grown-ups practiced in seeing racism. One of its deadly tricks is taking away our ability to see.
Maybe, instead of needing book groups and safe spaces to unlearn and unpack our surprise, distress and shame. We would have wise grown-ups, who know our shared history. We would have brave grown-ups who are adept at righting the wrongs. And compassionate grown-ups who understand we are not done until all parents no longer need to begin talking to their two-year-old about racism.
Here’s the link to Tabitha St.Bernard-Jacobs Article. She has written quite extensively about this topic and shared resources like gifts, toys and books which promote a wiser racial lens: From Christian Cooper to George Floyd: A Letter To White Parents (romper.com) and Anti-Racist Kids Gifts, Toys & Books (romper.com)
Some additional links to groups working on racial justice education: