Breaking the Cycle: How Early Education Can Help Combat Systemic Racism

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More than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, the United States is still operating under the shadow of systemic racism, which affects the lives of people of color in many fundamental ways. Systemic racism affects the ability of individuals and families to avoid or pull themselves out of poverty and incarceration, secure safe housing and stable employment, and live their lives without the shadow of constant surveillance, among other things.  

To tackle the daunting problem of systemic racism, we have to start with early education. Young children can be socialized and taught to reject internalized racism and create a more equitable country for all as they grow.  

Here’s how early education can make a positive difference in dismantling discriminatory systems.  

Exposure to Diverse Perspectives, Cultures, and Experiences  

Many students don’t get much, if any, exposure to diverse cultures and perspectives in their formative years. In the American early education system, the stories and activities typically center around white perspectives, cultures, and experiences, with little attention paid to other types of narratives or exploration of different cultures.  

Exposing children to different ways of thinking and living is important in setting the stage for future learning and anti-racism. When children learn about the rich diversity of the world in a school setting, it helps fight back against the racist narratives they are exposed to on a daily basis outside of the classroom.  

Incorporating curricula featuring people of different races and discussing anti-racist topics in an age-appropriate way is the first step toward creating a mindset of equality. Children will have the opportunity to develop greater empathy and understanding that will guide their thoughts and actions.  

Representation in Teaching Staff 

White students typically have mostly white teachers, and even students of color often miss out on having a teacher of color. Having diverse, positive role models with such a major influence on young children’s lives is critical to developing an anti-racist mindset and inspiring students of color to dream big like their white peers.  

Many schools employ very few non-white teachers. Increasing staff diversity helps children learn to appreciate and respect the guidance of people from different backgrounds. Kids learn from the world around them, and it’s important to ensure representation in that world from the very beginning.  

Teaching Critical Thinking Skills & Encouraging Students to Challenge Assumptions 

Children naturally believe what their parents tell them and make assumptions based on their narrow experience of the world. Although this tendency is often channeled and encouraged to create “obedient” children who will go along with the status quo (and perpetuate systemic racism), it’s a harmful practice that leads to a cycle of discrimination.  

In the early education space, teaching critical thinking skills through problem-solving and collaboration helps to encourage independent thought and different perspectives. Teachers should also help children constantly challenge their assumptions and seek out more information, even if it results in “disobedient” children.  

Introducing Concepts of Privilege and Power  

Many adults don’t understand the roles of power and privilege in systemic racism. This lack of understanding leads to a lot of harm and perpetuates the systems that oppress people of color.  

By talking about these concepts early in an age-appropriate way, we can help children gain an accurate understanding of privilege and power so they can help create a better world.  

Overcoming Obstacles to Anti-Racist Programs 

Ensuring that children get access to a high-quality, equitable education is the best way to help break the cycle of poverty that keeps so many families from improving their lives and the lives of future generations. So, why haven’t more schools successfully implemented anti-racist initiatives?  

Typically, objections come from parents, educators, and other members of the community who have internalized the tenets of systemic racism and are resistant to change. They want to control the narrative for children and uphold the status quo. This is exactly why it’s so important to expose children to different perspectives and experiences from the very beginning.  

Often, the rationale given for resisting anti-racist education is that the material is “age-inappropriate.” However, it is very important to start building children’s understanding of these issues from an early age, and there are ways to do that in an age-appropriate way.  

Teachers, especially white teachers, often do not have the knowledge and skill to help young children learn these skills. For that reason, teacher training and education programs are needed to help them build the knowledge base they need to lead age-appropriate activities and discussions.  

Prioritizing the Implementation of Anti-Racist Programs in Early Education 

Systemic racism is a major factor in many of society’s biggest problems and in order to address these issues, we need to prioritize anti-racist programs in the classroom. Empowering teachers with racial justice resources and training while fighting against discriminatory policies is critical for reaching these goals.  

Although systemic racism is a complex problem, we cannot wait to start implementing these types of programs. The earlier children start learning to think critically and challenge racial discrimination, the more likely they are to continue fighting for justice when they encounter it in the real world.  

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