Maybe two years ago I was in my morning program for 2 year olds at a primary school in a practically all BAME community in Leeds. I had an British-Asian boy on my lap and we were enjoying some book about farm animals. It was clear to me as well as a line manager casually observing things that while this boy was engaged, he didn’t know that a “cow goes moo” or that he was unwilling, uninterested or possibly unable to repeat different farm animal sounds.
After the book my line manager said as much, with a very “what a shame” tone to her voice. This moment has stuck with me. Truly not to call her out to make myself look better online, but it really encapsulates the complex problems of racism in education, and specifically Early Years.
The truth is the children in our school do not perform exceptionally well under the current DfE testing regime. While they make “accelerated progress,” our “GLD” percentage is quite low and working through the National Curriculum in higher year groups seems tough for teachers and children alike. I think all, but especially us white, educators need to be on constant guard on internalising “deficit views” of children and families from backgrounds other than our own. I think it is more common than we like to admit, for both understandable and absolutely illegitimate reasons.
Yes this one boy did not know farm animal sounds, or have the vocabulary or communication skills of the “average two year old”, but he was and still is an intelligent, self-motivated learner. He was fascinated with keys and absolutely determined to figure out how to use them for himself. He was an exceptional assistant when I was tidying up or doing other things around the children’s centre, who for his age demonstrated a keen sense of observation and understanding what I was doing.
The various DfE testing regime measuring sticks we hold up to our children can get in the way of seeing their true intelligence and humanity. While I will happily blame the DfE for everything in the world, this is one issue that is bigger than them.
This is not to say a 2 year olds communication skills and vocabulary aren’t crucial, or that even I as a white man don’t have valuable information on early childhood development to share with families from a variety of backgrounds but a major, if not main trap for early years educators here is a lack of curiousity or empathy about what the realities for other families are like.
I grew up in the US as a middle-class white guy. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up and then immigrate to the UK from Romania, Somalia, Bangladesh or Ghana. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up Black or Asian and British. Though yes we are all humans, we do have very different experiences that inform so much of our daily behaviour and lives.
I feel I am getting dangerously close to some social justice internet discourse that I honestly do not like or find useful. I think there is a lot of truth in otherwise BS criticisms of online social justice discourse where people who are privileged end up wallowing in our feelings and spending more time policing language online than looking to effect any change in our immediate communities.
While we need to be honest with whatever feelings come up as we begin to or continue to learn about some basic facts about world history, wallowing in these feelings obviously simply isn’t worth anything to anyone! We do require space and support to truly come to terms with things we might be new to learning, but the real truth is this won’t be even the beginning of our journey – if anything it is the pre-pre-preparations!
Back to the issues in EYs, no one wants, much less listens to advice from someone they don’t have a relationship with. While I will happily explain to anyone, from any background at all why water play is important for any child – I would be an idiot to think anyone I haven’t built a relationship with would or should listen to me for a second.
This cuts across race, and I can think of BAME colleagues in the past who do this as well, but there are specific and damaging ways that white people fail to see the realities that many different BAME communities live in. We have been socialised and honestly miseducated on basic facts of history that make it very hard to see things right in front of our eyes.
The fact that the vast majority of us can live our lives choosing whether to think about the ways race and racism effect us is a huge privilege. We get to pretend we are “normal” when in reality we are products of the same world history as BAME people. There are very specific reasons why we are even called “white people” in the first place (that yes, we need to learn so click the link!)
I am going to end this blog going in a very blunt direction.
Historical and current day racism mean BAME communities are under-represented in positions of wealth, power, and status and over-represented in low-wage work, poverty, prison and more.
When people are being honest with themselves, there are only two logical conclusions to be made from this clear reality:
- Things are like this because Black and other BAME people are either genetically or culturally inferior.
- Things are like this because of historical and current day racism.
Unfortunately the vast majority of white society opts for cop-out of:
3: This makes me uncomfortable so lets just start saying racism is all about interpersonal prejudice and bigotry and no, let’s not look too closely into world history.
(EDIT: I hope it is abundantly clear that option 1 is not an acceptable choice, but it is one people drift to secretly if these issues aren’t properly and publically addressed.)
Young children of all colours come into this world, observe what is around them, and have no choice but to internalise the world as it is “normal.” It is sad to say but there is no way that any of us can escape this. It gets many white peoples backs up but I strongly believe we all inevitably internalise a sense of racial superiority, no matter how much we want to deny it. I think for most of us it is VERY subconscious. I hope I am being clear that I am not “calling out” anyone else as an explicit, overt white supremacist. To be quite honest this can be summed up in as “oh he doesn’t know the farm animal sounds” as if that is somehow the best measure of a 2 year old’s intelligence of his family’s “home learning environment”
“Loving all children” is and will forever remain essential, but it has never been enough.