The primary, but not sole, intended audience for this blog is other white people in early years, especially those on edutwitter and social media who are part of our campaign-y set. I would consider myself a proud part of this crowd, and I firmly believe we have the power and responsibility to make our field the best it can. While I understand and support the efforts of responding to the latest barrage of the DfE, I do feel we will always be held back as a sector until we take stock and learn to apply an antiracist, intersectional lens to our lives as well as the work we set out to do.
We all must fully understand, foreground and work to undo and stop the daily harm we as a sector have perpetuated and are perpetuating against children of colour and their families, especially Black children of colour and their families. Part and parcel of this will also include reckoning with how we perpetuate and have perpetuated racism within our sector, amongst colleagues and coworkers at all levels.
While I am certainly not suggesting there aren’t countless white children, families and educators who are also being failed by this current system, they are being failed in a different way, and I am absolutely saying that we will never have the sector we dream of, that truly best serves our shared humanity without truly understanding and tackling the specific ways we have racistly failed to properly serve communities of colour in the past and presently. One can’t build anything worthwhile if they have something skewing their vision and I want us to start examining what we claim we don’t notice is in our eyes.
We as a whole have not had these discussions for many reasons, but a primary one, and the focus of this blog, is our unexamined and deeply held sense of racial superiority. I can already feel some brains and hearts starting to disengage, but I hope you stay with me.
The idea that white people have internalised racial superiority is rarely discussed in public, “mainstream” discussions. I imagine for most white people reading this, the term internalised racial superiority brings up images of explicit, hateful white nationalists who publicly and proudly state their racist beliefs for the world to hear that “we” simply have nothing to do with.
Well, I have internalised racial superiority. How could I not? I was born and spent those foundational first 1001 days of my life (and everyday after) in a racist society. While I was born in the USA, do not fall for the trap of thinking that the UK is substantially different. If the phrase ‘racist society’ makes you stop engaging, what else should we call a societies built on genocide and slavery, hundreds of years of legal, explicit white supremacy, current day racial discrimination and disparities in every institution?
Among everything else in my early childhood, the play, the relationships, the family issues, the love and everything else, my earliest synapses were getting wired in this “normal,” everyday racial inequity. Here is Alison Gopnik in 2009 explaining the groundbreaking and relatively recent research in the tremendously powerful and breathtakingly swift learning that all babies are engaged in all of the time:
“Now every month there’s a new study that shows that babies and young children compute conditional probabilities, that they do Bayesian reasoning, that they can take a random sample and understand the relationship between that sample and the population that it’s drawn from. And children don’t just detect statistical patterns, they use them to infer the causal structure of the world.” (emphasis added)
I want us to consider what this means for us, not other white people, but specifically you and me, our own lives and experiences. What does it mean for me as a baby and young child to have detected statistical patterns and inferred causal structures of the world in a society where Black and Brown communities are statistically over-represented in poverty, negative & stereotypical depictions in the media, service jobs and more while under-represented in positions of power, wealth and status? What does this all mean for me and how I view myself, others and how I act in this world? What does this all mean for you?
With no real discussions about the realities of race and racism during the formative years of my life, I can only conclude that I have developed (flawed, wrong) racist explanations of why the world is the way it is. You must have too. Let’s stop pretending otherwise.
While I do know better now, and am committing to continue learning, unlearning and acting with others to tackle these issues – we all know how powerful our early years are. Our sector knows more than most how powerful our childhoods are, and the lifelong impacts they can have.
Though I obviously can’t remember anything from 0-3, my brain was clearly taking in and building itself with the evidence of the world around me. This is where my (and your) internalised racial superiority was bred.
While it was bred in early childhood, it’s been nurtured for many years since then. The cincher to this delusional pact of whiteness that we all hold ourselves in that for the entirety of my childhood I was never encouraged to think of myself as being part of a race. Race was just something the adults in my life at least did not talk about. I’ve always been able to consider myself as “normal.” In this short clip, Akala brilliantly explains how the actions of Jimmy Saville for one example, are never used to tarnish all middle-aged white men (while the actions of Asian or Black people somehow carry weight for everyone in their communities.)
While “race” has no scientific basis, whether we like it or not, we live in a world that has been shaped by centuries of very powerful people and institutions insisting otherwise to justify colonialism, slavery, genocide, discrimination and oppression (and as a consolation prize of sorts for non-ruling class whites). That we might have been born in a time where the idea of talking about race might be “impolite” in “mainstream” circles, and oh let’s just all be nice to each other, it is absurd to pretend this history (along with documented current day discrimination and racist policies) does not have an impact on our current day.
When I talk about internalised racial superiority, this is part of what I am talking about. That at a very deep level that inequality in general, and racial inequality specifically feels “normal.” That it might be a shame things are like this, but my personal situation has nothing to do with others. That all I need to do is be “nice” to others and I can go about my life as a “good person.”
I don’t remember much of my preschool years, but I do remember elementary school. As I got older, just like anyone else white, I saw people who look like me represented in all facets of life and in every possible medium. If I saw any non-white characters, in television shows or books, especially in the 80s and 90s, they were almost always “sidekicks” or minor characters and they were usually completely one dimensional.
In class I remember being taught Christopher Columbus was a genius who “knew the world was round” and I remember a teacher having us do some nonsense with a paper boat and basketball to demonstrate something about horizons. I remember celebrating Thanksgiving by making “Pilgrim” and “Indian hats” out of paper. I was taught the United States was the greatest country on earth, and one single man named Martin Luther King Jr gave a wonderful speech and helped us make it even better.
I also remember learning racist jokes, seeing Black classmates treated wildly different (though I did not realise this at the time), and I also remember that there were no adults in my life to help me make sense of any of this until much later.
But let’s bring this back to us as adults in early years.
It is my internalised racial superiority that makes it so tempting to think there are “normal,” “standard” ways of doing things whether in our communities or in our early years settings.
It is my internalised racial superiority that has made it so tempting to think I somehow know how to best serve, care for and educate “all children” without having to know anything about their backgrounds, family and community history or individual experiences.
It is my internalised racial superiority that makes it so tempting to think I am here to “save” “these” children. What of course is rarely stated is that they are being “saved” from their families and communities, and not this system and government that clearly could care less about them.
It is my internalised racial superiority that if I were working in an all white or majority white setting that would make it so tempting to think “yeah this all might be true, but it’s so complicated… and we’re all white here anyways so I don’t actually have to engage or bother with this stuff!”
It is my internalised racial superiority that makes it so tempting to think that it’s actually the right move to not talk about such horrible issues with young children as they are so innocent without considering the possibility that Black families and other families of colour have no choice but to have talks about race and racism with their children.
It is my internalised racial superiority that has made it so tempting to think all white early years panels and conferences are acceptable, as if the only experts in our field are practically all white.
It is my internalised racial superiority that makes it so tempting to believe that that being born and socialised in a racist society somehow doesn’t have an impact on my pedagogy.
It is my internalised racial superiority that has for far too long put avoidance of uncomfortable or awkward feelings and discussions over doing what’s necessary to work across race to make this sector what it could be.
It is our internalised racial superiority that illuminates the hard but obvious fact that as a white person I, writing about stuff such as this, am much more likely to be heard by other white people than any person of colour, especially black people.
If it’s not clear I think most, if not all of the above applies to anyone white reading this as well. I couldn’t decide if I should write the above as I, your, or our. Part of me being white is that we rarely ever have to seriously consider ourselves as part of a racialised community, and none of us have much experience talking about these things publicly.
None of this is to say I am am deliberately, consciously trying to be racist each day. Rather, I am trying to tell some of the truth about how growing up racialised as white in this world has impacted me on a deep level. I can, have and continue to try to learn and do better – but it requires honesty and a willingness to deal with reality. It also honest relationship and communication with people across racial lines. I know first hand that a well-intentioned white person by themselves will go right back into the Matrix.
I imagine many people reading this feel quite uncomfortable and might be feeling I am implying we are all inherently and hopelessly “bad” people. Nothing could be further from the truth and quite honestly the idea of people being simply “good” or “bad” is useless and honestly immature.
While I write this from a place of love and respect, I am learning that this discomfort is necessary. Not only will it not destroy us, if we can learn to sit and reflect on it, we can wake up parts of ourselves we might not have known were asleep.
Obviously, no one is inherently or hopelessly “bad” either. We have been born into a sick culture though, and it’s on us to take personal responsibility to reckon with how both it’s impacted us and how we we have kept it going through our actions and inactions. I think if we are honest and committed we can manage this conditioning and have a healthier connection to others, to say nothing of ourselves.
If this article (or previous resources from others recently) has resonated with you at all, I know first hand how deep you will feel an urge to READ EVERYTHING and DO EVERYTHING NOW.
I more than empathise, but I would strongly encourage you to give yourself both some grace as well as some humility. Wanting to take action is one one hand admirable and humane, but speaking from personal experience and observations from others, at least some part of this initial motivation will be driven by white exceptionalism. Or in other words, when we start to learn the enormity of these issues, we, perhaps quite understandably, feel a psychic urge to do anything possible to consider ourselves as “off the hook” or somehow not implicated in this sick system. While we all probably feel this urge, if we don’t find a way past it, we are guaranteed to eventually put our personal feelings of “yeah yeah but I am the one different white person on earth because XYZ” over the real goals of a truly top notch, antiracist early years sector and collective liberation in general.
A lifetime of living in this society mostly built for us might also give us the false impression that we will have a quick handle on how to “fix all this.” White supremacy is real, it is immense, it is centuries in the making and if world history is any evidence, if I or you have any hope of doing even the smallest thing about it, we are going to have to settle in for a long haul. The other truth is that we are complete novices at tackling, much less talking about racism – and it can’t be said enough we have a life time of listening and learning ahead of us. The fact that it took footage of another cold-blooded murder of another Black man, and the subsequent uprisings in the US to make this space for many of us to consider these issues for perhaps the first time just underscores how sick this culture we’ve been born into is.
One last small lesson learned from experience, we do not need to run to any Black or Brown people in our lives to share how much our minds might be blown, or how bad we feel, or honestly anything we might be learning or processing. It won’t be news to them, and honestly reason we haven’t been having these conversations across race earlier is they have had to navigate dealing with white peoples emotions for a lifetime. I think true friendships and/or working relationships across race are important and very possible, but I don’t think unintentionally blaring “I AM WOKE NOW” is a good entry point into any new relationship, especially at this time.
If you don’t have any white people you can talk with about this at this moment, contact me! (and also think about why you don’t have any white people to talk with, and remedy that!)
We can always choose what sort of lives we want to live. We can choose to take personal responsibility for learning, unlearning and dealing with the reality we might be beginning to peek into. It is uncomfortable and there is no way around it. We are going to have let go of parts of our ego and self-image that’s tied up in a superficial understanding of what racism is. We are going to have to deal with accepting the fact we are going to “do things wrong” even now, be able to learn from these mistakes and keep trying anyways. There is no “face to save” before we decide to take this seriously.
But through this experience I am convinced we can gain a healthier understanding of ourselves, others and humanity in general. To paraphrase James Baldwin, through this process we can lessen the distances between ourselves and our deepest hopes and fears and desires.
True meaning, purpose and belonging in life is a rare commodity for anyone these days. While it materially benefits many, this system trivialises and diminishes all life and has conditioned us all to have a ghastly, butchered view of human nature which plays out for us all at the intersections of race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, nationality and more. It is tempting, especially for privileged groups, to say this is all an inevitable part of human nature but anything worthwhile in this world has been created and fought for by people who have refused to go down this slippery slope.
What it will take to transform our early years sector into something that truly reflects all of our deepest hopes and ideals, that heals and supports all of our shared humanity will take a level of work and dedication that perhaps none of us can truly imagine at this moment but I have no choice but to think it’s worth finding out.
If you want to talk to me in the comments below or via DMs on twitter or instagram, please reach out. If any people of colour want to call me in on any of the above I will gratefully listen to and receive the feedback. If any white people have any honest questions, comments or good faith arguments I will happily take those as well.
This is by no no definitive statement on anything, and I do not want to come off as I don’t have a lifetime of learning and unlearning ahead of me, this is just a small attempt at keeping some momentum going. I am indebted to so many people for teaching and helping me learn. In terms of recent relationships and conversations, Liz Pemberton, Jamel Campbell, Joss Cambridge-Simmons, Kate Moxley, Kerry Payne, Joe Benge and Elaine Bennett have been invaluable people in my life.
Other people on twitter I respect and have learned so much from: @Muna_Abdi_Phd, @IjumaaJ, @BLoveSoulPower, @IamLauraHenry, @Valerie_JKD, @trussleadership, @Penny_Ten and many more.
White Supremacy and Early Years Resources
Our Children, Our Workforce: Why We Must Talk About Race and Racism in Early Childhood Education by Ijumaa Jordan and Kelly Matthews
Pre-K Teach and Play podcast episode 43: A Lesson In Humility: Diving into Anti-Racist Early Education Practices and Policies with Ijumaa Jordan
“Ijumaa, why is play an equity issue?” Guest Blog By Ijumaa Jordan
A Collaborative Inquiry into Becoming Anti-Racist by Theressa Lenear and Ijumaa Jordan
Dear White Teachers: You Can’t Love Your Black Students If You Don’t Know Them by Dr. Bettina Love
Liz Pemberton’s (The Black Nursery Manager on instagram) Anti-Racist Workout Plan – Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
Supporting You To Raise Antiracist Children by Laura Henry & Emma Worrollo
Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad