Thursday, November 6, 2008

The First R

One strategy for organizing homeschool teaching is by unit.  Say my child is very interested in the planets.  I could spend 6 weeks focusing all our time and attention on planets, using this subject to incorporate reading, math, writing, science and history.  While I don't usually work with my kids this way, I do tend to obsess about a subject, essentially doing my own Unit Study on the present topic of interest.

An ongoing preoccupation is race, currently race and children.  To that end, I've just finished the book, "The First R: How children Learn Race and Racism" by Debra Van Ausdale and Joe R. Feagin.

The book is written by two researchers who, apparently for the first time ever in the history of child psychology, decided listening to preschool age children in their normal everyday lives might be a valuable way to learn what they know and experience in regards to race.  

This revolutionary approach requires that their writings carefully explain, review and refute the traditional ways of procuring information from children, so that academia will be soothed enough to read the results.  And, in order to report their findings, introducing the new approach requires lengthy explanations of their methodology.  In short, one of the adults hung around the kids without interfering in their games and conversations (unless physical harm was at risk) until all the kids deemed her fun, but non-threatening.  At which point, the kids either treated her like one of them or completely ignored her.  Then, she spent a year carefully recording their conversations and interactions.

From a stylistic perspective, I found the book rather schizophrenic, just for the combination of the dry academia speak and the riveting stories about the children. In the end I found I enjoyed the book as the stories and their thoughtful analysis easy won out over the drone of rebuttal and citations.

Before I share a few of my take-aways, I want to review the basics of the set up.  These are preschoolers 3-5 years old in a center that uses an anti-bias curriculum and has a mixed race staff who are dedicated to the idea of anti-bias. The school had a desirably low staff to child ratio.  The kids themselves are a mix of races, from a variety of countries, more than a few from bilingual families and a mix of socio-economic levels.  Debra Van Ausdale established herself as the "non-sanctioning adult" and spend about a year watching the kids, their parents and the staff.

Here's what I learned:
- children "see" color starting at a very early age, and they are very astute at determining the power structure in regards to skin color
- children frequently experiment with all the "forbidden" subjects outside of adult supervision: race, ethnicity, gender, potty talk, sex talk.  And they are quite skilled at creating pockets of supervision-free space.
- even in preschool there is a kid code of honor - don't tell the adults everything.  This manifested either as Annie saying "Jenny hurt my feelings" rather than reporting that a specific racial epithet was used. Or, telling the specific insult, but not reveling which was the guilty child.
- adults totally underestimate and even discount children's understanding of pretty much everything regarding race and culture
- children not only understand the racialized structure of our society by the time they reach 5, but the white children seemed regularly to feel they actively needed to keep children of color in their defined boxes
- all children exclude based on color of skin, ethnicity or culture, but only white kids use racial epithets; kids of color never insulted each other this way
- the anti-bias dedicated staff at this preschool often let discrimination by other adults slip, mostly for the fear of the conflict confronting it would cause (and these are people trained to recognize and handle such issues)

Based on these ideas, I've made a few internal shifts.  First, I'm following the hunch that my kids really see race and power structures in our society and have from a very young age. Second, I've accepted the hints that racialized play happens A LOT when Rosie is with other kids, especially when they're white.  And that she's unlikely to bring it up with me or answer direct questions about it.

So will our lives change, based on this book?  Yes.  For my part, I'm yet again more committed to my own personal growth in understand what racism looks like in me and recognizing the multitude of ways I benefit from white privilege.  Our family continues to focus on connecting with our local, diverse neighborhood.  Books and blogs now regularly include sources where we can see, learn and understand how race, ethnicity and culture are at play in our country. 

With the kids, I now assume they are experiencing prejudice on a regular basis.  I've amped up my telling of stories about "some one I know" to make sure communication lines are open. We're aggressively pursing ways to make sure both children spend lots more time in groups and friendships full of families of color. I'm working out the 5 and 7 year old version of Stereotype 101 and Race 101, so my kids have to vocabulary to express what they see around them.  

I'll close this post with the last few sentences of the book.
It is not a mystery where children this young get their ideas: We adults are a primary source. And they are champions at showing exactly how masterful human beings can be in perpetrating racial-ethnic hatred, discriminations, and inequalities.  Attempts to change their behavior, however, may be ineffective until we adults change our won. Watching children at work with racism is like watching ourselves in a mirror.  They will not unlearn and undo racism until we do.

1 comment:

Carrie said...

Sorry for the rampant comments, I opened up Google Reader for the first time in ages :) I've often wondered what my pre-schooler thinks about race and racism. Honestly I'm not sure he's noticed, although this book would imply he has. He's never mentioned anything or asked about anyone being different. Other than girl parts and boy parts :) I wonder how best to bring it up?