Teaching Young Children About Racial Justice

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As a white parent of a white son, I feel a strong responsibility to teach my child about racial justice. I believe the last thing this country needs is another entitled white man. In our neighborhood, we also regularly see Black Lives Matter protests, and we respond by chanting “justice and peace” as we go by at a social distance. Over the past six months, our family has focused on the story of Moses. We use a Bible that has drawings representative of the people pictured (i.e., Jesus isn’t blonde-haired and blue-eyed), and the story of slavery and freedom has been a helpful lens for conversations about racial justice.

Parenting is filled with so many ethical quandaries and difficult conversations. Washington, DC is also an epicenter of what’s happening politically and culturally in our country, which poses both opportunities and challenges.

I am also lucky to have some wonderful friends and supporters on my parenting journey. My friend Yazzmine Holley-Anderson is an incredible Montessori teacher, mother of a preschool-age daughter herself, and lifelong Washingtonian. She is also a black woman who has a black daughter. We have a beautiful friendship, and I loved how my son took to her wonderful teaching around civil rights, as evidenced by the passion he developed for Rosa Parks. Yazzmine has a wealth of knowledge to give, and I interviewed her to share her knowledge with the DC Area Moms’ community.

An Interview with Yazzmine Holley-Anderson

What is your framework for teaching young children about racial justice, and how does it relate to Montessori philosophies?

We want our children to be tolerant and acknowledge the differences around us. Identity is important, and we should respect how people identify themselves. We previously heard the rhetoric that everyone is the same and not to treat people differently. However, everyone IS in fact different. It’s not equitable to say otherwise, and when you can acknowledge the differences between people you are able to see who they really are and make stronger connections.

The Montessori pedagogy permits children to first identify with themselves, then with the environment, and lastly others in the environment, thus Montessori goes hand in hand with intersectionality.

Here’s my then two-year-old son playing the “Rosa Parks Game” after learning the story of this heroine. We built a “bus” and made a game out of saying that people who were different from us (e.g., different heights, skin and hair colors, ages) could all come and sit next to us.

How do you go about starting a conversation on racial justice with a young child who is just two or three years old?

It starts with a conversation on how children can celebrate the differences within their home or environment. Start with conversations about their favorite colors, foods, etc. Then you can move into a conversation about physical attributes, including race. For this, you can share how our skin is different and how everyone has melanin, and how where you live and how close you are to the sun determines how much or how little melanin you have. This is also a gentle way for kids to know that race matters.

After this conversation children can do self-portraits. You can tie that in with Sensorial Montessori material where children learn about a gradation of colors; for example, light red may look pink but it’s still red, breaking down the gradation of colors. 

Another conversation can be about the difference between right and wrong. How should we treat people, and should we treat people differently because of the way they look, speak, or dress? And how do friends interact with one another? We have to inform our children that being kind is as easy as sharing, controlling our tone of voice when speaking to others and that giving people personal space offers respect for others as well as yourself. 

From there you can segue into the Civil Rights Movement and speak about how, a long time ago, people were treated poorly because of the way that they looked. I would introduce three different Civil Rights heroes once a week and start off with a quote from that person and then express what happened. You can also go a step further and role-play real-life scenarios that are similar to what our Civil Rights heroes endured.

In addition to conversation, what are some of the parenting choices you can make that encourage children to celebrate who they are and racial justice? As a black woman with a black daughter, what are some of the things you are doing? 

In teaching a black child their importance, I feel that representation is everything. I enforce this by reading books that have life-like characters that include us. I also have books that embrace the differences of everyone, highlighting what makes us all unique. Some of my favorites are Be Kind, I Am Enough and Hair Love. I also purchased dolls and stickers that have people of color represented, and I’ve noticed there is still a need for more diversity in the toy sector. Considering diversity and representation also extends to movies and shows.

One example of how important representation is for us extends to my daughter’s love for mermaids. I had a challenge finding the mermaid shoes she wanted, as the only ones I could find had a white face, and I debated whether or not to buy them. To this day I feel that I should have contacted the manufacturer to gain representation for us. Additionally, my daughter did receive a white mermaid Barbie as a gift. I was fine with that, as she has diversity within her life and has other black dolls. 

What advice do you have to white parents of white children like myself? 

Conversation and representation are important. With white children, make sure that you let them have friends from different cultures, backgrounds, races, abilities, and socio-economic statuses. As parents, we need to have a high level of comfort building relationships across barriers. If we don’t start ourselves then our children can’t. 

I’ve struggled with how to speak with my son about Black Lives Matter. I believe he isn’t ready for the topic of police brutality or learning about the shooting of Breonna Taylor. But, I also want to do my part and not overly shelter my son. What are your thoughts on talking with preschoolers about the movement?

I would simply share that the Black Lives Matter Movement is important at this time to remind us that we should not take people’s happiness, lives, and importance for granted because of the color of their skin, differences in lifestyle, or personal appearance. 

I previously took my children to many of the protests in DC. However, with the pandemic and some aspects of the protests, I have kept a distance. I’m struggling with guilt about this. I have taken my children to the outskirts of some of the larger protests and to Black Lives Matter Plaza. I know this is a very personal choice, especially with the pandemic. What are your thoughts here?

I made a conscious heart-wrenching decision at the height of the pandemic and the social injustices that kept recurring to not actively march during the movement. Instead, I participate in policymaking and offer community support. My daughter and I are practicing healing justice, exercising personal practices that allow us to recognize the pain and abuse that our people are suffering through. We work on calming ourselves to not let our anger fuel our fire so much that it limits our truths.

Also, we need to do our own self-care. We are living in the epicenter of so much going on politically. It is important that we allow our children to just be children and not expose them to everything that’s happening. We don’t want to run the risk of over-saturating our children, and we can also turn to books like Mixed: A Colorful Story and The Human Race. 

Speaking of other parenting choices, as kids get older what are your thoughts on some of the racial justice issues parents should think about around schools for their children in the city?

I would advise parents to actively engage with the administration of your child’s school to offer relief and aid in the school’s efforts to support families of students during this time of social distance learning, virtual injustices, racial injustices, and equitable opportunities.

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