PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

'The Capacity for Connection'


You state in What If All the Kids are White? that it's not enough to teach white children to respect diversity, that educators should help them develop identities that resist "racial superiority and racial entitlement." What are the characteristics of healthy white racial identity? 
A healthy white identity encompasses many aspects: (a) understanding and valuing oneself as a person; (b) being aware and appreciative of the histories, cultures and societal positions/roles of one's immediate and extended family; (c) realistically appreciating one's own skills and interests and how they can be used to contribute to many communities -- family, school, neighborhood and the larger society.

A healthy identity does not rest on feelings of superiority, "power over others," the need to compete and be "best," or possession of more material things than others. Instead it is seeing oneself as a part of the whole, not the center, and as unique, but not "special."

Building a healthy white identity makes it possible for children to open their minds to the richness of cultures, groups and countries other than their own, thus enhancing their cognitive development. It enables children to thrive in a diverse world where the capacity for connection, sharing and interdependence is essential for the survival of the world's environment as well as its people.

You encourage early grades educators to bring activism into their classrooms. How does involvement in activism, or democratic practice, advance white students' identity development? 
Engaging in democratic practice helps children identify themselves as part of a group rather than simply functioning out of individual self-interest because they have to be aware of others' points of view, balance their own needs with those of other members of the group and negotiate and cooperate with a wide range of other individuals. Children develop these skills by practicing as they learn to connect with, learn from and respect peers who are different from them

Being involved in activism involves caring about and feeling empathy for others; taking responsibility; and devoting time, energy and skills to addressing injustice. These dispositions and activities enhance children's confidence, sense of efficacy and abilities to connect with others, all of which enrich and strengthen healthy identity development. Integrating democratic practice and activism into the classroom, which can begin as early as preschool, fosters healthy social-emotional development as well as providing the learning essential to participating in the building and maintaining of a multicultural, non-racist, democratic society.

You also recommend that educators incorporate stories about white anti-racists into classroom explorations and note that resources in this area are scant. Why might educational publishers pay so little attention to these narratives? Why are they important for white children to know? 
The bigger question is why do publishers pay so little attention to ALL narratives about resistance to inequities and work for social justice. There are hundreds of inspiring stories about activists of all racial and ethnic groups, social classes and genders engaged in work around racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism and unfair labor and housing practices. Only a very few have ever been included in children's books and history texts.

In our estimation, these stories have been ignored because they expose the system of racism and privilege and challenge the myths of meritocracy and "opportunity for all" that are embedded in all curricula throughout our educational system. Like the tale, The Emperor's New Clothes, stories that reveal inequities and describe resistance movements expose the fault lines in our society that many would prefer to ignore and give rise to hope that they can be challenged and changed.

These stories are crucial for all children, because learning about social activists provides a hopeful counterbalance to information about the many problems in our society. These stories show how ordinary people can overcome their fears and limitations and grow into a life of activism and create communities where they can thrive.

For white children in particular, these stories offer a way of balancing the negative role that white people have played in maintaining a system of racism with concrete stories about people who have worked and continue to work to dismantle that system.

You stress in the book's introduction that explorations of whiteness and white anti-racism should not displace traditional anti-bias/multicultural focuses on peoples of color. How might educators create new spaces, in this era of increasingly standardized instruction? 
Explorations of whiteness cannot be separate from and must not be seen as competing with other anti-bias work. The foci on whites and people of color are both essential components for nurturing people who can build a culturally democratic and non-racist society.

The question of how to do any and all anti-bias/multicultural work in the current test-driven climate of accountability is daunting. Right now teachers are under tremendous pressure to teach to tests that assess a narrow range of knowledge and skills, which at first glance often appear to be distant from children's lives and from anti-bias work. However, teachers who understand the broad implications of anti-bias/multicultural work can develop ways to incorporate these perspectives into lessons for a wide variety of skills and information.

For instance, examples to teach mathematics principles can be developed around social justice issues, such as rates of unemployment and disparities in incomes. Critical reading skills can be honed by critiquing biased and incomplete news reports.

Children, teachers, parents and administrators can also challenge the tests themselves – as is happening in many communities and several states. They can hone their mathematical, research and literacy skills by learning about and publicizing how the tests undermine education, disadvantage particular children and school systems and, in many cases, increase rather than decrease disparities in educational outcomes and opportunities.

The title of your book -- What if All the Kids are White? -- hits on a demographic trend in U.S. schools today: schools are becoming more racially isolated. Only 14% of white students, for example, attend multiracial schools. How might such isolation affect white students' ability to develop healthy racial identities? 
First, white children in all settings learn stereotypes and absorb assumptions of superiority. Ironically, in more racially diverse educational settings, assumptions of white superiority are often reinforced by "ability" grouping and tracking. Thus, simply being in more diverse school settings is not a guarantee that white children will develop non-racist attitudes and behaviors, unless their teachers intentionally work with them on these issues.

At the same time, creating a classroom culture that promotes a healthy white identity is more challenging in racially isolated settings because there is no or little potential for cross-group friendships, experiences and discussions that might help white children question stereotypes and misinformed ideas and develop the skills for cross-cultural interactions. Racially isolated settings also make it more difficult for white parents and teachers to concretely understand how racism affects the lives of people of color and bestows unearned privilege on whites.

Nevertheless, being in a racially isolated setting is not a reason or excuse for not doing anti-bias/multicultural education. The seven learning themes we suggest and explore in our book can effectively be implemented in all white educational settings.

It is also vital to keep in mind that even if white children are in racially isolated neighborhoods and schools, that does not mean that their larger community does not include racial and ethnic diversity. Very few communities in the United States are only white. If they have the commitment, teachers and parents can find ways to make diversity an ongoing theme in their children's learning and lives.

Your book focuses on young children. What principles might generalize to older students? 
All of the learning themes are relevant to white children of all ages and also to white adults. So, too, are the general teaching principles. What will change are the specific activities as well as the depth to which issues can be explored. Many of the activities we suggest can be adapted for older children and be integrated into many of the subjects of the academic curriculum. We can imagine some very exciting courses in statistics, science, social studies and literature that are built around the learning themes. We would love to see educators of children in higher grades take up this challenge!

Louise Derman-Sparks is a long-time faculty member at Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena, California and the co-author of Teaching/Learning Anti-Racism. Patricia G. Ramsey is Professor of Psychology and Education and Director of Gorse Child Study Center at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts and author of Teaching and Learning in a Diverse World.