Race and Racism in the Early Years

This piece talks about the discussion around racism in education and argues the need to recognize the early years as a critical site in the production, and disruption, of racism in later life.

This piece is also available in Early Years Educator, December 2018 issue. You can buy the full issue here.

I open this article stating my ‘racial ambivalence’ positioning. I see race as a socially constructed myth based on implausible pseudo-scientific meanderings and superstition. However, in 2018 we are not in a post-race society, we are not free from racisms, despite many arguing as such. The problematic nature of the post-race argument is clear when we consider the inconsistencies between racial rhetoric and racial experience where, for many racialised minorities, ongoing racial injustice means that conditions have remained unaltered or have worsened under the current political system. A racial ambivalence positioning complicates race as both real (as a social tool) and unreal (as a scientific category).

In the past few years, increasing attention has been paid to the role of black educators in the UK’s education system. At university level, we see panel discussions asking ‘Why isn’t my Professor Black?’, where Dr Lisa Palmer said, for BME students and staff “campuses often resemble colonies”, and this “coloniality reveals structural and institutional racism.”. Figures published last year show there are no black academics in senior management in any British university.

Lower down, the 2017 Runnymede report reveals evidence of everyday racism in schools, twice the proportion of BME teachers reported they had experienced discrimination in the workplace in the last 12 months (31 per cent) compared to their white counterparts, and almost two thirds (64 per cent) of BME respondents felt that their opinions were not valued by school management in comparison with 53 per cent of their white peers. In Bristol, there are just 26 black teachers out of 1,346.

So, in light of increased discussion around race in higher education and in schools, talking about race in the early years feels long overdue.

I believe this is partly due to the status of the profession, the early years is still regarded as ‘just childcare’ and the important research  in academia rarely pierces through to public discourse.

Perhaps more importantly, there is a widespread notion that ‘children do not see race’ and are ‘colour blind’ to difference, an understanding of how colour blindness works addresses the myth of meritocracy, suggesting those who achieve in education earn their way on individual merit, ignoring the structural disadvantages in place.

I argue, that although many practitioners insist on ignoring race, they are submerged in a system in where race structures both how education operates and the subsequent outcomes of education.

If we believe children do not see race, we must ask when they do see it, when exactly do young children realise the conditions of their world? the education of our youngest children is a political act, the early years from birth serve as an important site for the political socialisation of people within a democratic society.

We know that children are gendered from birth, is it too much of stretch to argue they are racialised in the same way? When we, as adults, are silent about race, we reinforce racial prejudice in children. Encouraging dialogue and conversation about difference is important in countering racialised narratives.

Angela Davis wrote “When people call for diversity and link it to justice and equality, that’s fine. But there’s a model of diversity as the difference that makes no difference, the change that brings about no change”.  I find this quote instructive, diversity is employed widely as a buzzword for a variety of issues, and often tacitly. We need to stop clouding the conversation with such rhetoric and start talking about how racisms are produced and disrupted in the early years.

When we fail to name the ways in which racism is operating within the early years, educational inequity is left to be understood as resulting from individual deficit, meritocracy focuses our attention away from systematic inequities and toward individual success and failure.

In other words, it’s 2018, racism exists, and we need to start talking about it in the early years.

Useful Links:

A New, ‘Post-Racial’ Political Era in America

British universities employ no black academics in top roles, figures show

Nasuwt – Pervasive culture of racism persists in schools

Gary Younge on Angela Davis

Black Teachers in Bristol 09/18

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