OPINION: We need to teach young children about systems of oppression

A teacher teachers a group of kindergarten students.
Aarushi Phalke PO ’24 argues that children must be educated on racism and oppression from a young age. (Courtesy: woodleywonderworks via Wikimedia Commons)

Identity-based education is not a divisive or complex topic to shy away from; rather, it creates space for students to name discriminatory experiences as unjust instead of internalizing oppression. Students need to be given the tools to name discriminatory experiences early on in their education. 

Research has shown that children begin to note racial differences that shape their social interactions as early as preschool. Learning about white supremacy cannot wait until children have grown up, because by then, unnamed white supremacy will have already shaped their development. 

White supremacy was interwoven into my own grade school experiences. In kindergarten, it was the food I ate that my white peers labeled as weird. In elementary school, it was the blonde club during recess that barred the dark-haired girls, who were mostly people of color, from drawing with the blonde white girls on the pavement. 

These interactions did not make sense to me, and at such a young age, the only explanation I could come up with was that I needed to be different because no one gave me any other reason. I determined my brown body to be the culprit of my exclusion.

At no point in elementary school was I taught about racism. I was taught to embrace differences between cultures, not realizing that there were some differences that weren’t socially acceptable, like the food I brought for lunch.

An argument against teaching about racism is that it is too complicated for children to understand and that it could be scarring. But nowhere does that argument take into account that racism is already visible to children in many ways through the interactions they have and the media they consume. 

Teaching about racism or choosing not to do so has no effect on whether students will experience it or not — it’s about whether they can name their own experiences as unjust and whether discriminated against students blame themselves or their oppressors for their experiences of racism. 

I found it difficult to name why I felt bothered when othered in social situations growing up (such as when I was excluded from drawing on sidewalks or when I was pressured to sit away from my peers when eating my lunch) because I was not given the tools to identify those situations as unjust. I took this sense of being wronged and placed the blame within myself rather than recognizing these moments as instances of racial prejudice. 

Education about racism needs to coexist simultaneously with positive identity-based education, because otherwise, it will function under a process of learning and unlearning, which, when used for identity-based education, has harmful consequences.

This process of learning and unlearning is not always harmful and already exists in many K-12 pedagogies as concepts get more complex. Take a K-12 approach to teaching about the atom, for example. 

When I was in middle school, I learned that atoms are the smallest bits of matter in the universe. Then, in ninth grade, I learned that atoms are actually composed of smaller bits of matter —neutrons, electrons and protons — with electrons at specific shells around the center. It was not until tenth grade that I learned that atoms can be better understood using an electron cloud model.

This process of learning and unlearning what I understood to be the atom was fine, because having partially false information about the atom in my head had zero consequences for how I behaved and understood myself in relation to others. 

However, we cannot use this process of unlearning when it comes to topics related to identity. 

As I got older, I learned from my teachers about racism as a thing of the past: there was racism a long time ago, but nowadays, people are treated the same regardless of their race or ethnicity. I assume this false information was taught to me in hopes that I wouldn’t discriminate and that I would treat others with respect. 

However, this introduction to race served to gaslight my experiences of racism. This notion that racism no longer exists relieved students from worrying about whether they’re prejudiced, which only furthers white supremacy.

It wasn’t until high school, where I was exposed to texts centered around BIPOC experiences, that I started learning about systems of oppression. This education gave me the tools to name my own experiences and, therefore, gave meaning to them instead of devaluing my sense of self.

I’m not proposing we suddenly teach young children the horrors of oppression by and within the United States all at once, but K-12 education shouldn’t rely on false notions of equality that need to be contradicted later, because those false narratives have real consequences on how we act today. And early education definitely cannot ignore topics of race altogether. 

Much more qualified and knowledgeable people have created strategies and plans on how to teach racism to children — clinical psychologist Howard Stevenson gave insight on effective techniques to teach racism to kids. We should follow their guidance when planning what this education will look like.

As we continuously critique our education and how it is being taught, I hope to see our education shift to center BIPOC experiences. We need to teach children this as early as possible, which may need to start at the home or with individual teachers taking initiative, but I hope that within our social reckonings, we turn to our youngest to do better.

Aarushi Phalke PO ’24 is from Portland, Oregon. Her current goal is to one day make a perfect bowl of noodles.

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