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Are children colour blind and inherently ‘not racist’?  

[supplied by Nicole Barlow]

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Dr Ryan Al-Natour. Image: supplied

I explore this in my presentation ‘Transitioning ‘not racist’ to ‘antiracist’ frameworks in early childhood education’ at the Early Childhood Voices 2020 Conference.

There are two common views among early childhood educators that need to be challenged.

The first is the view that children are apparently naturally colour blind when it comes to noticing differences in skin tone and colour. This confuses me. I wonder how early childhood educators who are skilled at creating art and painting learning activities can also declare that children ‘don’t see colour’.

Adults tend to echo these harmful views to convey themselves as people of good, moral character. This is called colour blind racism. If this is the basis for teaching diversity and difference in early childhood education, then it is not difficult to identify how the racist status quo is maintained.

The second view is affirmed in some education materials for teaching diversity and difference. It suggests that if you have friends of a different background, you are ‘not racist’.

This approach makes me cringe as a scholar of colour. I have witnessed several instances where people have informed me that they are ‘not racist’ because they have a friend who is ethnically different from them. Think about what usually comes after an expression of ‘I am not a racist, but…’ (it is usually followed by a tirade of racist statements).

The focus on performing ‘not racist’ is usually about one’s reputation. If this message is delivered to children, it is destructive. A person’s reputation is upheld at the expense of maintaining the racist status quo.

What does the research tell us?

Noonuccal academic Dr Karen Martin reminds us how we tend to ignore the perspectives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, families and communities.

Yorta Yorta academic Dr Sue Atkinson’s research highlights that not only do children see ‘race’, but colour blind racism severely discriminates against Indigenous children in early childhood settings. It is crucial that non-Indigenous educators (both white settlers and settlers of colour) consider this when upholding antiracism.

An antiracist approach is very different from the ‘not racist’ framework as it focuses on children developing racial literacy and growing up to be actively antiracist.

This might mean that educators need to engage in conversations about critical race theory, identifying how racism comes in many forms, and teaching diversity and difference with an intention to set children up to be antiracist – which is very different from being ‘not racist’.

Even though early childhood educators are increasingly accepting multicultural frameworks, the focus on being ‘not racist’ and assuming that children are ‘colour blind’ is still prominent.

Any antiracist educator would tell you that developing racial literacy among teacher education students involves introducing them to an uncomfortable reality that involves challenging several populist ideas that sustain racism.

Sometimes, this discomfort stems from a number of normalised assumptions that early childhood education students might bring to their pedagogies. What usually happens is a resistance and defensiveness that can develop during antiracist teaching.

There can be a realisation that racism is not confined to history books, but is a reality for children of colour, and more severely for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. There can also be a realisation that racism in early childhood environments is not just about bullying or individual prejudice, but is also structural and institutional.

If a recent study has indicated that several early childhood books either ignore or stereotype minority and Indigenous experiences, then institutionally racist practices are unfortunately a normalised part of several early childhood centres.

Deconstructing these narratives of ‘not racism’ and colour blind racism is exhausting though necessary.

For some educators, the realisation hits: teaching diversity and difference is not about affirming how ‘cute’ children are to not notice difference in the way adults do. The ‘feel good’ approach not only affirms a harmful ‘not racist’ narrative, but also operates as the building blocks for abhorrent forms of racial literacy.

Yet usually in the midst of this exhaustion, it is common for educators to then ask ‘well, what do I do?’, throwing the ball back into my court.

Developing racial literacy is definitely a starting point. If teachers are to challenge stereotypes in their teaching, shouldn’t they at least develop their knowledge of the many multilayered stereotypes and how they can challenge them? For this to occur, educators need to be actively antiracist and pedagogies need to follow.

Centralising Indigenous perspectives and pedagogies in any early childhood curriculum is important. Resources such as the KooriCurriculum and Possum Skin Pedagogy are available for educators. This is not a revolutionary idea as these resources are available to all staff; non-Indigenous educators need to take the initiative to incorporate them.

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