Make Space for Race

"Many educators, including myself, have failed to make the children we work with feel seen—because for many years, we have not acknowledged race as a fundamental element of identity.  We need to make space for race.  But how?" Read more...

By Heather Bryant, M.Ed., Director of Innovation and Impact | Jan 15, 2018
Make Space For Race

Children need five things from adults. They need to feel safe, seen, understood, valued and capable. But many educators, including myself, have failed to make the children we work with feel seen—because for many years, we have not acknowledged race as a fundamental element of identity. We need to make space for race. But how?

I was a classroom teacher for 15 years before moving into school administration. I am white. The vast majority of children who were in my classes were not white. If I were grading my conversations about race with my students, I’d give myself a C+. At best. I spent all of my years teaching very young children. We covered the usual topics of self, family, community – but never in a deep way. We learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his dream. We made a colorful dragon out of boxes and marched through the halls for Chinese New Year. We made tamales and learned about Las Posadas.  Our diversity curriculum fell into the predictable categories of holidays and celebrations.

I imagine all of the children in my classes felt loved and respected. But I hate how I missed it on truly honoring racial identity. I honestly didn’t know how to address it. I didn’t want to draw attention to race and worried I might say the wrong thing. Back in the day (and it was way back, trust me) the message was, “Kids are kids and teachers don’t see color.”  I was told on more than one occasion that young children didn’t notice race. Ugh. What a mistake.  We now know from research that children as young as three months old make discriminations of faces of people of different races and show preference for own-race faces over other-race faces.

I take solace in the fact that we continue to evolve. When we know better, we do better. But, truthfully, none of these changes are coming soon enough.

While students of color are expected to make up 56 percent of the student population by 2024, the elementary and secondary educator workforce is still overwhelmingly white. A staggering 82 percent of public school teachers identified themselves as white in the most recent U.S. Department of Education Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), a nationally representative survey of teachers and principals. This figure has hardly changed in more than 15 years; data from a similar survey conducted by the Department in 2000 found that 84 percent of teachers identified as white. The research is clear:  diversity in schools, including racial diversity among teachers, can provide significant benefits to students.

We need more diversity among teachers.  But in the meantime, white teachers need to learn how to speak about race—something that many white people have little experience with, according to research. In social media, for instance, white people tend to speak publically about race less often than people of color.  While 68 percent of black social media users and 54 percent of Hispanic users report seeing at least some race-focused content on their feeds, only 35 percent of white users do.

My guess is that white people don’t talk about race as frequently because we have the unearned privilege of not having to think about race—and, as a result,  we are deeply uncomfortable talking about it. One great way to open the door to conversations about race is through children’s literature. There are some wonderful children’s books available now that address identity with beauty and integrity. Here are five that are must-reads that will begin to illuminate the path forward on making space for race in the classroom:

1.       Let’s Talk about Race by Julius Lester and Illustrated by Karen Barbour (ages 4-10). This book begins: I am a story. So are you. So is everyone. This is a wonderful way to start and normalize conversations about race. Lester’s prose is simple enough for young children but powerful in the way it challenges racial narratives by encouraging us to look under the skin and learn each other’s stories. When we understand each other’s stories, we realize that we are all deeply connected in this web of humanity.


2.       The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler and Illustrated by David Lee Csicsko (ages 3-7). Written in rhyme with bright engaging illustrations, this book celebrates all of the shades and hues of our skin while sharing a strong message about what skin is not: “It’s not dumb skin or smart skin, or keep us apart skin; or weak skin or strong skin, I’m right and you’re wrong skin.”


3.       Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh (ages 7-11)  This brilliant book tells a monumental story many of us have never heard. Ten years before Brown vs. Board of Education, Sylvia Mendez and her family helped bring an end to segregated schooling in California. This story, using Tonatiuh’s gorgeous illustrations, tells how one family organized and activated communities to fight for equality. This book could lead to rich discussions about inequality in our communities today.


4.       I’m New here by Anne Sibley O’Brien (ages 4-9)  Three children from different racial and cultural backgrounds  join a new school where they don’t speak the language and the routines are unfamiliar:  “Back home I was part of the class. I knew just what to do. I fit in like one of many starts in the night sky. Here there are new ways. I cannot see the patterns. I cannot find my place.” The story lends itself to conversations around culture, immigration, and belonging.


5.       We March by Shane W. Evans (age 3-11)  This book follows a young black family as they wake early and move through preparations for the August 28th, 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The simple prose and stunning illustrations make this book accessible to even very young children. Questions that easily flow from this book are, What is justice? What is equality? What is freedom? Why do people have marches? Would you like to be in a march? What is something you would march for?

If you’d like to explore more good recommendations to build up your library of racially inclusive books, check out the following sites:

We Need Diverse Books

A Diverse Book List for the Under-Five Set

The Conscious Kid

Social Justice Books

The Pirate Tree

The Coretta Scott King Book Awards

The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation 

As educators, our influence on children is enormous and the repercussions of that influence are real.  It’s a huge responsibility. Part of that responsibility is making sure that children feel safe, seen, understood, valued and capable. In order to do that, we must challenge ourselves to open up space for honest, messy, and courageous conversations about race. When we don’t have those conversations, we are failing our students. And the cost of that failure is just too high.