I was prompted to write this piece because it has become evident in the current climate that there’s a need to address racism as it impacts on all members of our communities including our youngest children. It is also a response to a growing call for information and education on tackling racism in schools and early years settings.
I would like to begin by saying the BAME community is not a homogenous group and people can only speak for themselves, which is what I will do in this document. I am using examples I have witnessed myself, to support thinking and questioning of how issues like these may manifest in early years settings.
My response is a snapshot on some of the issues around cultural insensitivity, which translate into racism when seen in the context of the power dynamic, in schools and Early Education and Care EEC settings. They are based on my experiences and observations. They are in no way exhaustive examples and whilst the specifics may not necessarily be relatable or seem immediately relevant, I hope that they serve to illustrate the type of the issues that need to be considered and unpicked.
I would say, first of all, teachers and educators need to identify and begin to challenge their own bias’ and assumptions. For example, I often hear people talk about the communities they work in as deprived, disadvantaged, and impoverished, on the basis of a socio-economic metric – but what does it mean?
Well, it probably means that there has been limited investment in housing and the physical infrastructure of the area, and parents are not paid sufficiently well for the family to live on. But what are the implications for the child? Well, these are profound, because when they enter schools and early years settings the label of disadvantage is seen before the child is. Consider the language that feeds perceptions and fuels stereotypes of what living in a “deprived community” means, particularly if you are not white.
Consider, for example, the impact of the perceptions of an early educator or teacher making a home visit to a family where there are few toys, the walls are crawling with damp, and the furniture is an eclectic mismatch of cheap hand-me-downs. There are no visible books, there is a large screen tv in the corner. The parents communicate hesitantly in broken English. What is your initial perception?
What if I were to tell you that the parents are a medical doctor and a university lecturer, from say Libya, recently arrived in the UK, and that they have recently transferred to the community having been separated from one another for over a year, as they struggled to get from their war-torn home to sanctuary. They speak 5 languages between them, but not yet English with sufficient confidence to communicate with an authority figure (That’s you, by the way). The large TV allows them all to sit down as a family and share time with their extended family, who are scattered globally as a consequence of war in their home country.
Do you think that in your 15 minutes, half-hour, or maybe hour-long home visit, that you will have created a safe and trusting relationship with the mum, to enable her to describe her journey, fears, motivation, and aspirations for her child? Or express the resourcefulness and resilience that they as a family have had to develop in order to get to safety? Or to describe the deep-seated sense of shame and embarrassment, the sense of fear, she feels at being judged, after all, she and her family have gone through?
As teachers write their notes about the meeting, what do they say? What did they notice? What questions did they ask? What did they not ask? Why? What assumptions do they make?
These issues will all impact on the child’s future.
The child comes into your school setting and apart from attending parents’ evening, and school events, no one ever has a conversation with that mum again. The judgements made on that initial visit follow the child through school and are the lens through which the child is perceived.
Not all settings have asylum seekers or refugees in their community, but teachers may have made a home visit to a family who is currently going through a temporary upheaval, but the image they are presented with, fits with preconceived ideas of who “they” are.
The perception of the black/brown mum who is stressed by ‘life’ – can easily fulfil the stereotype of the angry black woman when she is seen through that lens she is animated and uses her hands in “an aggressive” manner; as she talks she repeatedly looks at her watch (impatient) and is “loud”. She and the child don’t share the same last name, so you fill in the blanks.
Subsequently, her little boy goes on to be a child who is restless and aggressive “always in trouble” due to his conflicts with other children.
Who is this mum? Well, actually she is working full time and studying, she was short-tempered because she has deadlines to meet and isn’t sleeping well, she doesn’t share her child’s name because of the complexity of changing your name in the business world, where your name and reputation are intertwined; and besides, it’s part of her identity.
Who is the child? Besides being the child who regularly snatches from others, gets into conflict with, and hurts, the other children?
Well, if you step back and analyse his behaviour, and try to understand it, you might observe the source of his conflict is cultural. The kerfuffle in the home corner where he snatched the doll and made “Jane” cry was because she, and the other children, insisted on putting the baby doll in the cot to sleep. But in his family babies are rocked to sleep and aren’t abandoned by being placed in a cot to settle themselves to sleep.
The tussle in the kitchen was because he was making holiday sweets, stirring the large pans, but then the girls tried to get involved. In his family, men make the holiday sweets that he was preparing, and the girls shouldn’t have even been at the stove.
He is already stressed on arrival at the setting because no one removes their shoes, and replaces them with slippers on arrival, as he does at home. Nothing is familiar, the smells, the snack, and ‘they’ can’t even say his name properly. The ‘Kh’ sound at the beginning of his name in his language doesn’t exist in English.
He is the only boy with “his face” in the setting. And the other children tease him because his hair is long, saying he “looks like a girl” – but culturally long hair is a tradition until he has it cut in a transition ceremony when he is seven years old.
He quickly earns the label, “naughty”; comes to detest the 3 hours a day that he attends the nursery, and the label becomes self-fulfilling. He fails to meet the social and emotional markers and by the time he reaches reception he has not made good progress across the Early Learning Goals (ELG).
The cultural insensitivity is beginning to impact on his academic progress and his attainment is being judged to be below age-appropriate expectations. His cohort is involved in the Study of Early Education and Development (SEED) project DfE 2020 and his data is used as a part of the evaluation process as evidence of the effect of early education on children’s outcomes. He becomes a part of the data set about underachieving black boys.
As another example, consider the way you talk about seemingly benign issues, like sleep when a child confides that they still sleep in their parents’ bed. Maybe hold back from humiliating them by saying things like: “but you should be a big boy and sleep in your own bed”. In some communities, a shared family bed is a cultural tradition. In fact, my 30+-year-old friend, in rural Ghana, will only stop sleeping in her mum’s bed when she leaves home to get married. It is also not necessarily evidence of poor social and emotional development but perceived as such.
Think about how in some African communities it is “I” not “we” that is important and the spirit of Ubuntu: “I am because we are”, is a guiding principle, and sharing is a necessity.
I have seen this represented in a group of children sharing one sweet, each placing it in their mouth, enjoying it, before passing it on to the next child. The pleasure and satisfaction of the sweet are enhanced by the shared experience. This is quickly converted into shame and trauma at being told not just that the practice is culturally different, or even unacceptable, but that “No! That’s dirty, we don’t do that here”. I have witnessed this, and events like this, in many other guises.
Or, consider that when a child is being spoken to that they avert their eyes as a mark of respect and humility, rather than the common perception that they are being defiant or disrespectful.
Maybe teachers need to bite back the comment about the young girls with their baby sibling on their hip – “babies raising babies” – and consider that, in some cultures, learning how to do so is a valued, important part of socialisation.
If these issues and issues like them are not addressed in our early years settings how much distress will continue to be experienced by our little people? How much trauma and alienation? What is the financial cost of subsequent interventions and lost potential?
Besides thinking about the cultural relevance of practices there are other things teachers and educators can do beyond the usual “inclusive” practices, about appropriate books and resources, and celebration days:
- avoid the insidious hair patting adults seem compelled to do with afro hair.
- please reconsider your use of such phrases:
- “I don’t see colour, I treat every child the same”.
- “But you’re white,” said to a dual heritage child invited to attend a BAME event.
- “So is that really your mum or are you adopted/your step mum?”
- that’s what XXXX (other) people do…
Think about the cultural hypocrisy in the scenario: “Those poor women having to cover their heads, wearing a hijab, is such an oppressive item of clothing,” said the school leader in the crippling pair of Louboutin heels!
Do not ask parents or children to speak on behalf of anyone but themselves. If they share experiences of holidays or cultural traditions, remember, the way that they interpret the event in their home is personal to them; it’s not how “everyone” does it.
Question your own culture and heritage and how it impacts your perceptions. Talk to other people about family traditions and recognise how, even in your peer and friendship groups, or even extended family, there may be huge variance about how you accommodate these differences.
In my experience one of the hardest things to define is “English culture” and yet everyone assumes they know what it is, and that experiences of it are the same.
Teachers and practitioners need to consider how the clothes people wear and the mannerisms they adopt inform how you view and relate to them. Along with the decisions and judgements that they make about children and their behaviours. How much are they informed by your own bias and assumption?
Norms of behaviour are not universal, they are bound by history, culture and a specific social context, childhood itself is a social construction. We are all experts in our own lives; we can never be experts in the lives of others. However, some cultural norms are more powerful than others and consequently valued more highly.
Practitioners and policymakers, need to question the values they use, where do those values originate? And how do they impact on all of our communities?
I hope that I have illustrated how examples of cultural insensitivity, bias and assumptions, feed into systemic beliefs, facts and truths, that are insidiously woven into racist systems and structures and include what have been described as
“invisible assumptions and values that turn subjective perspectives and understandings into apparently objective truths” (Moss 2018)
Listen to our Podcast series on race, ethnicity and cultural diversity in the Early Years here .
Culture and Early Childhood Education, Jessica Ball.
Cultural diversity in the early years, Jennie Lindon
Understanding Racism, Jane Lane.
At a crossroads in racial equality, Jane Lane
People to follow on social media if you want to diversify your feed and explore how to challenge your thinking and understanding on race, ethnicity and cultural diversity.
Liz Pemberton – The Black Nursery Manager on Instagram
Jamel Carly, Educator, Consultant & Author, on Instagram
Jossy Care, Super Manny on Instagram
Puzzle Huddle on Instagram
Here We Read, Diversity & Inclusion Expert on Instagram
Woke Kindergarten on Instagram
The Conscious Kid on Instagram
Elementary Adventure on Instagram
Naturally Curious Children on Instagram
Vanessa Belleau Highfifteen on Instagram
Layla F Saad on Instgram,