Education Politics/Community

Teaching Kids About Discrimination and Equality: Thoughts from a Midwestern White Woman

The other day at dinner, Alister, 5, turned to me and said, “Mommy, guess what?  I learned about the guy who made everything fair today.”

I stared at him, puzzled.  “Which guy is that?”

“The guy who made it so dark skinned people can do the same things as white people.”

Ahhh. Dr. King.  “You did?  What did he make fair?”

“Um.”  pause  “Well, he made it so everybody could eat at the same place and use the same bathroom and stuff.”

I suppose that’s a start.  I started telling him about all the things Dr. King spearheaded in this country, trying to frame my statements in a way his 5-year-old mind could comprehend.  And then, as I listened to him differentiate between “dark skinned people” and “white people”, I realized my child no longer viewed everyone as simply “people”.  He had been made aware of the social construct of race, something that prior to this lesson he had never once recognized or mentioned.

I began to ponder the advantages and disadvantages of teaching about discrimination and the pursuit of justice and equality.  On the one hand, it is necessary.  Children need to learn about the history and experiences that shape who they and those around them are.  Some are raised in atmospheres of hatred and judgment.  Where else will they learn empathy and tolerance if not at school?

On the other hand, I began to question whether or not we are merely perpetuating the sociocultural compartmentalization of people based on skin color.  If children don’t learn that some have historically viewed (and still do view) people as inferior, will they naturally come to those conclusions on their own, or will they continue to view people as simply part of one collective — that is, people?

These notions of mine are merely philosophical — a product of my mind’s tendency to explore the endless what-ifs of our universe.  There is no easy answer, for the answer lies not in one thing but in many: psychology of human behavior, evolution of morality, religious and social preconceptions, life experience.

Take me, for example.  What do I — a Midwestern white woman — know about discrimination and equality?  This is something I struggle with frequently, particularly as it applies to teaching racism and prejudice in the classroom.  How do I preach to my students about the need to confront discrimination both in our past and present when I have never experienced the horror of Jim Crow and the physical and psychological toll of living in the South (and the North) pre- (and, yes, post-) Civil Rights era?  I feel like a fraud.  A white, privileged, northern fraud.

So what could I possibly know about teaching discrimination and equality to my own children — children who are not practically adults like my high school students, but rather children whose young minds are so absorbent and impressionable that one poorly articulated example could wreak havoc on their senses of right and wrong for a lifetime?  Moreover, what do I know about if, how, and when teachers should teach primary students these heavy, sensitive subjects?

I posed my dilemma on my personal Facebook page the night of my conversation with Alister.  I am lucky to be blessed with open and honest friends there, people who are willing to share their perspectives, trepidations, and mistakes.  I truly believe the first step in doing right by our children, whether they are our biological kids or our school kids, is in talking things out with others.  If life experience is a key factor in teaching understanding, it certainly takes a village full of endless life experiences to do those lessons justice.

And yet my questions remain.  I don’t think I’ll ever get the answer I’m looking for when it comes to teaching about discrimination and equality — to knowing whether we are doing more harm than good in planting these notions in their little heads where none existed before.  I suspect my questions stem from my own fears about teaching these critical subjects properly.  But I suppose we have to — for them and for all of us — we have to teach them that different doesn’t mean bad.  We have to teach them to understand.  We have to teach them to love.  We have to do something, for doing something is far better than nothing, even if that something is imperfect.

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What are your thoughts about teaching discrimination and equality to kids?