A Moment with Dr. Moore

July 21, 2021

Time to Reckon with Race

This year, Sesame Street introduced two new stars. Elijah and Wes are father-son muppets who appear in the “ABCs of Racial Literacy,” a series that defines racism for young viewers and discusses reasons why it’s wrong. In the first episode, father and son told Elmo, the fan-favorite muppet, why their brown skin is different from his red fur. “Melanin is something that we each have inside our bodies that makes the outside of our bodies the skin color that it is,” Elijah explained. “The more melanin you have, the darker your skin looks, and the color of our skin is an important part of who we are. But we should know it’s OK that we all look different in very many ways.”

These words reflect widespread belief that it’s high time to reckon with race. Though Sesame Street has always pressed for inclusion, it’s now urging children to stand up against racial bias. And the show is an ideal backdrop for my talk on how anti-racism work is changing early childhood education. Our profession has long thought about how to nix prejudice early on. Still, the murder of George Floyd and the social movement it inspired have sharpened our focus on issues of race, ethnicity, equality and equity. Like folks in many other fields, we, as early childhood educators, are responding to the moment.

Education leaders have begun to think about comprehensive ways to teach through an anti-racism lens. Colleges are holding online events for educators on how to reimagine teaching with racial justice in mind, and school districts are expanding their curricula on race. They’re all approaches based on the belief that the early childhood setting is a microcosm of society where we can lay the foundation for a more inclusive future.

Calls to fight bias are ringing out on both the local level and in the larger community beyond it. The national mood affects all children since even those with safe, loving homes sense the current tensions around race. “Our children, though they are young, are aware of what’s going on,” says Chanita Coulter, a preschool teacher in Charleston, South Carolina. “I remember that even my younger students, at four or five years of age, knew who Trayvon Martin was and what happened to him.” So, Coulter believes in having open discussions with young students and not shying away from current events.

Last month, she took steps to encourage these discussions by co-founding Reflective Pages, a nonprofit that aims to help educators build multicultural curricula and get children to voice their emotions. “I think it is important that students of color actively participate in conversations that affect their families and communities,” Coulter says. “Students are well aware of the social issues and sometimes have a hard time expressing their feelings and opinions.”

Even infants who can’t yet speak perceive racial differences, and the Corlears School for young children in New York recognized this by recently hosting parents at an event on raising babies to value anti-racism. It featured a discussion of how educators are using Ibram X. Kendi’s board book Antiracist Baby and passed on Corlears’ top five tactics to make inclusion a family value. “As we all strive toward a more inclusive society, now is the time to examine the causes of systemic racism,” said Head of School David Egolf, “and how we as parents, guardians and educators can raise our children to be agents of change for anti-racism.”

Children aren’t born with bias hardwired into their brains. Instead, they’re like small sponges soaking up information and grappling with what they see. So early childhood teachers need to give them a safe place to explore and learn without the prejudices that often poison the larger world around them.

One of the ways the world reveals itself to young learners is through TV, where they’ve likely seen two outlooks on race in recent times. One showed the mass protests that resulted from the murder of an unarmed Black man. The other featured Elijah in his Sesame Street debut and broadcast the message we want our children to absorb: “Things on the outside—like our skin color, our hair texture, our noses, our mouths and eyes—make us who we are,” Elijah pointed out. “Many people call this race. But even though we look different, we’re all part of the human race.”

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