Negative stereotypes and the danger of students learning not to talk about race
by Sarah Halter Hahesy
I am a White educator of third grade students in Brookline, Massachusetts. I teach in public school within a very wealthy and somewhat diverse population. Our minority enrollment is 41% (mostly Asian, and only 3% Black). I am also the mother to a one-year-old boy. A few years ago, I took a class called Empowering Multicultural Initiatives (EMI ) that changed my life. This class challenged me to confront my White privilege and find ways to have courageous conversations about race.
This year, my third-grade class worked with a kindergarten class to discuss the life of Martin Luther King Jr. The kindergarten teacher and I collaborated to teach the background of MLK and read the children’s book, The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson, which is a story about a White girl and a Black girl whose houses are separated by a fence. By the end of the book, the two girls brave the fence and become friends.
At one point in the story, I stopped and asked if the fence should be there. A kindergartner (who is White) piped up and said,
“The fence should be there because Black people are evil.”
I responded: “The media often portrays Black people as ‘bad.’ But, in fact, people of all races sometimes do ‘bad’ things. And it is just as likely that a White person does a ‘bad’ thing.” I was trying to convey the fact that crimes committed by Black people are over reported. I could tell that the little boy didn’t believe me.
This example made me realize how subconsciously children pick up on biases, prejudices, and stereotypes. I was grateful that the kindergarten student shared his thought out-loud. By third-grade, students have already learned not talk about race. It felt good to tackle a stereotype head-on.
As an educator, my next step is to follow up this experience by finding books about people of color that fight stereotypes. I am appealing to the Raising Race Conscious Children parent community for any and all resources. Please post all resources/ideas in the comments section below.
As a parent, this experience reaffirms my commitment to having conversations about race with my White son as early as possible.
Sarah Halter Hahesy is a long-time educator who is committed to having honest and frank conversations in the classroom. Sarah is mom to a one-year-old boy.