It’s Never Too Early to Talk About Race

Feast for 10, a children’s book by Cathryn Falwell, recently found its way into a lesson at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Cooperative Nursery School. The book, focusing on counting skills, follows a family through the relatively mundane task of grocery shopping and preparing a meal—from one grocery cart to 10 hungry people.

But when the group of predominantly white 3-year-olds listened to and asked questions about the story, none commented that the family in the book was black.

Is this seemingly color-blind attitude a good thing? Not necessarily.

For Shannon Nagy, the preschool’s director, the key to addressing race is talking directly about it––and starting young.

“Young children are hard-wired in their brains to notice difference and to categorize it,” Nagy said. “So it is vital during early childhood to put some context around making sense of differences.”

The book NurtureShock reiterates this in the chapter “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race.” Authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman found that some parents choose not to discuss race with their children, assuming they are making them extremely tolerant and “color-blind” by not pointing out obvious differences. But according to Bronson and Merryman, all children will inevitably stereotype and categorize people based on race, much to their parents’ dismay.

This is why Nagy said her teachers at LPCNS focus on openly acknowledging and discussing differences in the classroom, especially through children’s literature.

“I think it is important to address issues of tolerance in a context of meaning in the preschool setting with the relationships they have, the materials and activities they interact with and the literature they are exposed to,” Nagy said. “There isn’t an age when this isn’t important and appropriate.”

Emily Cresswell, an LPCNS teacher, said she and her colleagues routinely find ways to acknowledge and discuss differences, despite the school’s relatively homogenous classes.

Discussion of race often begin when the children notice differences amongst themselves, Cresswell says. Other times it happens while reading illustrated books about children from diverse backgrounds. The school also takes care to present diversity in teaching materials. They might include dolls of different skin tones, puzzles that depict people with physical handicaps, and photos that show various kinds of families.

“Children are going to be drawing their own conclusions anyway,” Nagy said. “So it is best to try and influence those conclusions now.”

Butler is a Wisconsin college student majoring in English and journalism. 

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