Dear ECE, We Need to Talk about Racism

As conversations about diversity and equity reach a fevered pitch, caregivers and teachers of young children are at the forefront, nurturing the littlest inhabitants of our human ecosystem. Income and racial inequality rule, health disparities are rife, racial bias rears its ugly head, and a rising tide of suspensions among Black preschoolers evokes thoughts of the school-to-prison pipeline.


Megan Madison, a doctoral student at Brandeis University, is leading this discussion at NAEYC’s Diversity and Equity Education for Adults Interest Forum.  A former preschool teacher at the Carole Robertson Center for Learning in Chicago, she works as a trainer at Border Crossers, empowering educators to be leaders for racial justice in their classrooms and communities.

Here’s her letter to the early childhood community.


By Megan Madison

We need to talk about racism in the early childhood field because it is stealing Black childhood. A reality that’s neither fair nor inevitable. Rather, it is the logical consequence of a system of racial power, privilege, and oppression that we have inherited, and continue to reproduce through policy and practice.

That’s a lot, I know. So let’s break it down.  First, some basic facts:

  • Due to the cumulative stress that Black women in the U.S. endure, the infant mortality rate for their children is somewhere between that of Mexico and Romania. That’s about twice the rate of white babies who do not live to see their first birthday.
  • As for the Black children who make it past infancy and into our early childhood programs: we are pushing them out at alarming rates. According to 2014 data from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, while Black children represent fewer than  one in five preschool students, they comprise almost half of preschoolers who receive multiple out-of-school suspensions.
  • In large part, this disparity is driven by the fact that Black preschoolers don’t even get to enjoy childhood in the imagination of the adults entrusted to care for and educate them. Researchers have found that they are perceived to be older than their chronological age, and a recent study found that even pictures of the faces of Black five-year-olds are enough to put white adults in a “threat-conscious” state of mind.

If those statistics aren’t enough to compel us to take seriously the impact of racism in early childhood, perhaps this will: Racism doesn’t just steal childhood from Black and other children of color, it undermines the healthy development of white children. The racial bias we observe among early childhood caregivers, educators, administrators, researchers, and policymakers begins early.

White children as young as three and four exhibit levels of implicit racial bias consistent with what has been found among adults. A majority of white children show a significant degree of pro-white, anti-Black bias by age six. Nor are infants excluded. A recent experiment conducted by Monica Burns and Jessica Sommerville at the University of Washington found that white 15-month-olds were already taking race into consideration when choosing their playmates.

Alright, so now that we’ve addressed the stealing-childhood piece, let’s talk about inevitability, or the lack thereof (I’m assuming the unfairness piece is self-explanatory). As the folks at the National Equity Project put it, “oppression and injustice are human creations and phenomena…and therefore can be undone.” In other words, all the statistics cited above have unnatural causes. They are not coincidental. They are not aberrational. They are, instead, outcomes that have been produced, and are reproduced, every day—by regular people, who are part of a larger system of racial inequity in which early childhood policy and practice are clearly implicated.

Race is what social scientists call a “social construction”—a fluid, man-made system of dividing up and ranking people (with white people on top, and Black people on the bottom). While it has absolutely no biological basis, the system has very real implications for our lives. In the U.S., this system has a unique  history. This social construction was used to rationalize a deep tension during the nation’s founding, as the ideals of freedom and equality butted up against the reality of slavery. Race was invented to ensure the political and economic gain of the people at the top.

By no means do I think we should invalidate people’s very real racial identities, or opt for a “colorblind” approach that foolishly ignores the consequences of the system. We can’t presume to solve the problem of racism by simply not talking about it.

So we need to start the conversation. Racism extends far beyond individually held prejudice and acts of discrimination; it’s a system of power, privilege, and oppression. Let’s think of it like the layers of an onion, with a developing child in the middle. Here, racism gets internalized—into kids’ bodies, minds, and souls.

For white kids, we’re talking about the internalization of a sense of racial superiority that impedes their ability to develop a more accurate, grounded sense of self and form honest, equitable, and authentic relationships with others. For kids of color, we’re talking about the internalization of a sense of inferiority, which happens when they fall prey to the harmful messages about their racial group that saturate the world around them.

Moving outward to the next layer of the onion, we’re talking about interpersonal racism, the realm of microaggressions—racial slurs, jokes, and various types of bias. Then we get to institutional racism. The place where it gets baked into the “business-as-usual” of, say, the criminal justice system, child welfare, health care, and yes, early childhood education.

Despite the goal of a particular policy or practice, the impact perpetuates racial inequities. And then we get to ideological racism: the ideas, beliefs and stories about race and racism that are so pervasive in our society that we rarely question them. These are the narratives that obscure what’s really going on by explaining away the vast disparities we encounter every day. And finally, there’s historical racism, or the ways in which oppression over time, on the part of the nation and individuals, affects life in the present.

However you slice the onion, it’s an oppressive process that dehumanizes everyone. Ending racism is less about identifying and rooting out “bad apples” than understanding the ways in which we’ve all been socialized by, and implicated in, this unfair system. We all have a stake in dismantling it, and we all have a part to play—although those stakes and those roles differ significantly.

While the statistics are grim, I’m thoroughly convinced that we’re in a time of great opportunity for advancing racial equity—globally and within the U.S. I have never seen so many early childhood folks eager to engage in a conversation about race, racism, and young children. This is not a coincidence. The Movement for Black Lives has catalyzed a growing recognition that racism isn’t over, that pretending we don’t see race isn’t the answer, and that you—yes, you—have the capacity and responsibility to do something about it.


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4 comments to Dear ECE, We Need to Talk about Racism

  • Diana Hill

    I admire your work. I am looking for resources that address teacher discourse as supportive
    or marginalizing young children. What are actions, facial expressions, words that a teacher uses that support a child’s creation of identity, and how are micro- aggressions expressed in the ECE classroom

  • Janet

    I disagree, as a Head Start teacher children are not concerned about race nor are we as teachers.

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