Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Dr. Matin Luther King Jr.
Every day children thrill me with their brilliance. Every day I am astounded by their kindness, resilience, and curiosity. Every day I am absolutely certain that the little ones we are raising are fully equipped to shift the tides of oppression, repression and disrepair that pervade this world.
And then there are days where I am also reminded of the presence of that invisible person who has been filling children’s headset with divisive language and exclusionary behavior. Dominant culture has an astounding way of making itself a part of anything that doesn’t actively resist it. I find often in conversations with “progressive and open-minded” educators there is a major resistance to talking about race, gender, class, or any other harmful divisions that exist in our culture. Many of us are too attached to our visions of children as innocent and loving beings to see that by ignoring their curiosity about power, status and society, we are giving them the lesson that the status quo is to be upheld. We are afraid that by talking about skin color, we are teaching children to discriminate, rather than recognizing the importance of actively sharing our values of equality.
Over the last few weeks I have been reminded of my “difference” three times by the fair-skinned little ones in my class. Their world is so homogenous that my brown skin and curly hair is often their only deep experience with someone who looks different from them and their loved ones. In each of these instances the children have communicated their impression that whiteness is the default for normal and kind people. I do not believe that this is because of biases overtly expressed by their families. Rather, in the invisibility of dialogue about economic disenfranchisement and its connection to skin color, power and privilege, we have told these children that most people worth knowing are white, middle class, English-speaking, able-bodied Americans.
Luckily, I get to collaborate with a team of compassionate, and thoughtful teachers. At our team meeting last week we decided to begin unpacking some of the questions and comments we were hearing from the children. Our dialogue led us to discover that while children are curious, and developing some misperceptions about race, they are incredibly entrenched in harmful narratives about gender and power. Both boys and girls in our class have internalized commercial ideals of femininity and masculinity. In order to unpack these concepts some more we will be using a two month unit of “Princesses and Superheroes”, in which we will make space for the children to express their thoughts on gender and power as well as challenge them to create me narratives, and retell traditional ones in ways that are meaningful and respectful to the autonomy and those around them.
I am looking forward to using art and playful inquiry to add texture, weight and color to the stories that dominant culture tries to make invisible.
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