I have a 9 year old nephew, who loves comics. Recently, I approached my sister about adding new comics to his reading list. Because I am all about the blerd life, I poured through #BlackComicsChat on Twitter for suggestions, and I ended up with some good comics that feature Black characters.
Excited, I ran the idea by Sister, who flatly said, “I don’t force race.”
Perplexed, I thought, she doesn’t understand.
I explained further, “There are no direct racial messages. I thought Nephew would like them because they have Black characters.”
She repeated, “I don’t force race.”
I am so confused right now.
Feeling crushed (and really confused), I left it alone. I sent him a gift card instead of the (fabulous) comic book subscriptions I had originally planned. That conversation got me thinking about racial awareness, particularly related to the need for diversity in books and learning spaces. Not all Black parents have the same point of view or experience. (No monolith here.)
Let’s jump into the research a little. Most child development research indicates that children can distinguish skin color difference as early as six months. Between the ages of 2 and 3, children begin to question skin color differences and learn to attach meaning. Yes, children see color. However, what can begin as seeing skin color can become seeing race as children attach meaning to the differences they see. I approach this process from the point of view that “race” itself is not a biological construct, but a social one that is reinforced by history, social norms, and public policy. At this stage of child development, an intentional focus on racial diversity in learning spaces and books is critical to the creation of a positive racial identity in young Black children.
Why racial diversity in the physical learning environment (home, day care, preschool) is so important
Schools are places of social and cultural reproduction. Even the youngest children are confronted with messages (both positive and negative) of the existing social structure that reinforces racism, class bias, and sexism. In her work, Raising Black Children Who Love Reading and Writing, Dr. Deidre Paul notes, there are two curriculum in schools – the overt curriculum referring to what is explicitly taught to children and the hidden curriculum or the messages about society, power, race, class and gender. The hidden curriculum is taught subtly and implicitly through knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, rules and practices.
My awareness of this reality fuels my passion about diversity in daycare and preschool. This is my daughter’s first group learning experience, so the messages she receives about who she is and her ability to learn will prove foundational to her self-esteem and her excitement about learning. Here place matters, too. If your child’s daycare (or preschool) is in a middle-or high income suburban area, you’ve got to be even more vigilant about diversity, because those settings are less likely to have it. Not all areas, but most. (For more, check out my post on diversity in day care settings.)
Why racial diversity in children’s books is critical to child development
Books are a great way to frame racial differences as inherently positive. Through reading racially diverse books, parents can help children understand that there should be an acceptance of people across lines of race and ethnicity. All parents can use diverse books in this way. For Black children, it is critical for children to see themselves in their books. It reinforces who they are and their experiences. My emphasis on racially diverse books is not only about exposure to different experiences. I hope the message to my daughter is that Whiteness is not the “default” experience for everyone. And, that’s okay. Other racial and ethnic groups and their experiences are different and indeed–wonderful. In my opinion, seeing black and brown characters doing ordinary things de-centers “Whiteness” in an important way. But, it is important to note that not all books featuring black characters are good children’s books. The message matters, too.
There will always be people who will never believe that diverse books matter to Black kids or that diversity in learning spaces can shape the very experience of learning. But to those folks, I would say, never underestimate the pervasiveness of racism. Its reach touches every institution we interact with – including the ones we rely on to educate our children. Its destructive tentacles run deep.
For additional resources, check out:
Raising Black Children Who Love Reading and Writing by Dr. Deidre Glenn Paul
Different and Wonderful: Raising Black Children in a Race Conscious Society by Dr. Darlene Powell Hopson and Dr. Derek Hopson
*Italicized text represents references.
Posted: February 10, 2015