Racial Equity for Early Childhood Professionals: Four Takeaways - Early Learning Nation

Racial Equity for Early Childhood Professionals: Four Takeaways

Because we can’t take our Early Learning Nation Studio on the road during this time, stay tuned as ELN recaps Top Takeaways from important conversations, panels, town halls and virtual events from the Early Learning field. Read them all and join the conversation! And visit our Early Learning Nation channel on YouTube for interviews with leaders from education, child development, business, politics and more.

ELN took great pleasure in covering the recent ZERO TO THREE virtual conference via live tweeting and Top Takeaways. Watch for more Top Takeaways and upcoming interviews with select participants!

One of its highlights of this year’s conference was the issue-intensive session titled “Infants and Toddlers Face Racism, Too: Science, Practice, and Policy.” To judge from the lively stream of comments in the Zoom chat (e.g., “We can provide the best services possible for children and families… and people will still die if we don’t also change the systems,” noted Cat Tamminga of Minnesota), the conversation provoked a great deal of reflection.

Kandace Thomas, executive director of First 8 Memphis, moderated, introducing the topic of historical trauma and its meaning for child development. Here are our takeaways:

1. Culture is part of human systems. Cynthia García Coll (formerly Brown University, University of Puerto Rico) began by citing a June editorial the scientific journal Cell that declared,

Science has a racism problem. And it is not limited to scientific discoveries and their attendant usage. The scientific establishment, scientific education and the metrics used to define scientific success have a racism problem as well.

Professor Coll noted that the vast majority of social science studies focus on so-called WEIRD (White Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic) subjects, even though they account for just 12% of the world’s population. Her remarks traced the history of the science of child development, moving rapidly from Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud through Arnold Gesell, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky and Urie Bronfenbrenner. Despite the efforts of these thinkers to put a scientific gloss on their cultural biases, she said, “Not all stages are universal. Poverty and racism matter.” For Professor Coll, a new theoretical framework recently published by Nicole Vélez-Agosto et al. is worth considering:

In our model, culture has the role of defining and organizing microsystems and therefore becomes part of the central processes of human development. Culture is an ever-changing system composed of the daily practices of social communities (families, schools, neighborhoods, etc.) and the interpretation of those practices through language and communication. It also comprises tools and signs that are part of the historical legacy of those communities, and thus diversity is an integral part of the child’s microsystems, leading to culturally defined acceptable developmental processes and outcomes.

👉 Read more: The Irving Harris Foundation’s Diversity-Informed Tenets for Work with Infants, Children & Families

2. Race is different from culture. Marva Lewis (Tulane University) cited the Aspen Institute’s definition of structural racism:

A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “color” to endure and adapt over time. Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead it has been a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all exist.

Professor Lewis summarized her influential findings on how “hair combing interaction” plays a key role in establishing secure attachments for African American children. These brief encounters facilitate such core parenting behaviors as positive verbal interaction, loving touch and responsive listening. Playing off of Selma Fraiburg’s classic 1975 study Ghosts in the Nursery, she said this approach addressed nappy haired ghosts in the nursery.

Professor Lewis urged early childhood educators and researchers to account for people’s multiple social identities. Her advice for white professionals: Leverage your privilege in the service of social justice.

3. Diversity must be taught. Kang Lee (University of Toronto) presented his finding on how babies perceive race. Presented with photographs showing faces of different races, newborns do not seem to discriminate, but three-month-old infants show a preference for looking at someone the same color as them.

Professor Lee also chronicled his investigations into “they all look the same” bias—that is, difficulty distinguishing between two faces of the same race, but different from the observer—finding that it starts at about 9 months. The cause, he found, is lack of exposure to individuals of other races. His prescription: increase ecological diversity. Situated in environments where people of different colors are the norm, children will seek out diversity. Situated in a homogenous environment, they are less likely to seek out diversity. He compared it to dietary preferences; given a steady diet of the same flavors, children fail to develop an appetite for new foods. And the same goes for the racial identity of heroes and villains in children’s literature.

4. It still takes a village. Iheoma Iruka (recently of HighScope, currently with the University of North Carolina) introduced us to her RICHER for combating racism:

  • Re-educate about history
  • Integrate rather than just desegregate
  • Critique everything
  • Humility of privilege
  • Erase racism
  • Re-vision new ways, approaches, theories, teams, etc.

Professor Iruka recommended Eddie Moore, Jr.’s 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge, which has been taken up by numerous United Way chapters to promote steady consumption of books, podcasts and other media to nourish understanding of issues related to power and oppression in our society. The result, she promised, would be “villages of protection, affection, correction and connection.”

👉 Read more: Steps to Sustainability: Fundamental Reforms to Our Systems of Child Care and Early-Learning Programs

Afterwards, conference participant Lisa Matter, who runs a professional development initiative for the Colorado Department of Human Services, told me, “The session reinforced the urgency of taking part in systemic change alongside advancing the lives of individual children, families and caregivers. Appropriate for a conversation about diversity, it showcased a genuine diversity of perspectives.”

To read more:

Article: Leading by Example on Race to Mitigate Impact of Racism on the Health and Well Being of Children

Article: Geography and Race, State by State, Can Determine the Fate of Both Mother and Baby

Article: Top Takeaways from the Black Lives Matter for Families Conversation Hosted by Common Sense Media and the Commonwealth Club

Article: The Connection Between Maternal Health and Infant Health: Asking the Difficult Questions

Article: Facing Facts, Finding Solutions in the Race Against Black Postpartum Depression


Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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