Early Childhood Education

Race and Ethnicity in Early Childhood Education


Early childhood professionals working with young children in diverse settings have come to realize the salience of race and ethnicity in the lives of their students. It is important for teachers, caregivers, and parents to understand the impact of race and ethnicity in order to facilitate positive identity development, especially for children of color. This is particularly salient in the United States, unlike other homogeneous societies, because race matters as a sociopolitical construction and immigration policies are being constantly contested. Helping children of color and English language learners deal with prejudice and discrimination is a responsibility for all Americans.

Sometimes the terms race and ethnicity have been used interchangeably although they refer to different categories. Race is a complicated sociopolitical construct created by human beings and no longer defined by biology. In traditional sociology and anthropology race was associated with phenotype, or biological characteristics of hair texture and color, skin color, head shape, and other body features. Historically race had also been associated with intelligence and determined by blood quantum. These categorizations have led to stereotyping, racism, and discriminatory practices by individuals and institutions.

Ethnicity is expressed by cultural beliefs, values, language, and communication patterns brought by immigrants from throughout the world. Ethnicity has roots in countries of origin and reflects heritage, but it has evolved over generations in the United States. For example, a first-generation Asian American may speak the language of origin (Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Hmong) while a third- or fourth- generation child may not speak the language or know very much about the culture of his or her immigrant grandparents. Some African Americans prefer the term black, which has roots in American slavery, while others may call themselves African, having recently emigrated from an African country. American Indians and native Hawaiians fall into the category of indigenous peoples, and would not be considered ethnic groups.

In American society today, interracial, interethnic marriage has become common so there are a growing number of biracial, mixed-heritage children who may be struggling with their self-identity. It is important to let them self-identify and choose positive attributes from their family race and ethnicity rather than adopting a color-blind perspective. The salience of race, ethnicity, or native origin depends upon individual perceptions, group affiliation, and how one is constructed by others in their community. Children of color are more likely to be constructed as “other” in a race-conscious society. Children whose first language is not English are more likely to be considered “foreign” even if they were born in the United States.

Racial inequality continues to be a problem in American society. The State of America’s Children 2005 produced by the Children’s Defense Fund reports that black, American Indian, and Asian families have higher percentages of poverty compared to whites (whites 11.2%, blacks 33.1%, American Indian and Alaska Natives 31.6% and Asians 14.3%). Non-Latino black and Latino women are less likely to have prenatal care, while infant mortality before their first birthday for blacks is more than twice that of white babies (14.4 vs. 5.8 deaths per 1,000 live births). Inequality between white children and children of color exists in the number of children immunized, the number of children in foster care, and the number of children who are uninsured. In terms of education, there are more black and Latino children enrolled in Head Start (year 2003-2004) than white children (black 34.3%, Latino 37.2%, white 29 5%). And in terms of achievement in math and reading at the fourth-grade level, more black and Hispanic students scored below grade level compared to white students (Reading: white 61%, black 88%, Hispanic 85%. Math: white 53%, black 87%, Hispanic 81%). These statistics indicate that there is inequity in access to services and support for achievement by race.

In early childhood education, issues of racial identity development, antibias curriculum, and cross-cultural peer relationships are of concern. Consistent with Piagetian theory, the content of self-concept is linked to cognitive maturation and young children often identify themselves in terms of membership to certain groups defined by physical characteristics. Awareness of skin color and classification of others in the environment are common, but personality traits and psychological criteria associated with race develop later in middle childhood. In addition, children of color tend to have higher and earlier racial awareness than their white peers. Biracial children rely heavily on parental beliefs about the salience of race and modeling from family and communities of color.

A large body of research over several decades embodies the well-known findings that European American children prefer their own racial group and African American children also share that preference, sometimes misidentifying themselves as white. Research indicates that dark-skinned children are devalued as members of society and, contrary to common belief, there is little empirical evidence that cross-race friendships or voluntary associations are naturally made. Often these contacts are initiated by teachers or other significant adults. Children as young as three years old are not color blind and racism or negative meanings attached to racial difference is learned from environmental norms (school and home). A variety of research on black and white racial identity has presented stage theories of identity development that span a lifetime but little has been done on other racial groups such as Asian Americans or indigenous Americans (native Indians and Hawaiians).

In the future, early childhood professionals need to become cognizant of the research on white privilege since an overwhelming majority of teachers of young children in the United States are white and middle class. Resources for parents and caregivers on raising children in a multiracial, multicultural world, and on teaching tolerance have provided insight to real life incidents of racism and discrimination. Much more needs to be done by researchers and practitioners to assure that children of color develop positive racial identities and all children learn to value human differences and social justice for all.

Further Readings: Helms, J. E. (1990). Black and white racial identity: Theory, research, and practice. Westport, CT: Greenwood; Holmes, Robyn M. (1995). How young children perceive race. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications; Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant (1986). Racial formation in the United States from the1960s to the 1980s. New York: Routledge; Pang, Valerie Ooka (2005). Multicultural education: A caring-centered, reflective approach. 2nd ed. Boston: McGraw Hill; Ramsey, P. G. (1986). Racial and ethnic categories. In C. P. Edwards, ed., Promoting social and moral development in young children: Creative approaches to the classroom. New York, NY: Teachers College Press, pp. 78-101; Ramsey, P. G. (1987). Young children’s thinking about ethnic differences. In J. S. Phinney and M. J. Rotheram, eds., Children’s ethnic socialization: Pluralism and development. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., pp. 56-72; Reddy, Maureen T. (1996). Everyday acts against racism: Raising children in a multiracial world. Seattle: Seal Press; Sheets, Rosa Hernandez, and Etta R. Hollins (1999). Racial and ethnic identity in school practices: Aspects of human development. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; Tatum, Beverly Daniel (1997). Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? New York: Basic Books; Van Ausdale, Debra, and Joe R. Feagin (2001). The first R: How children learn race and racism. New York: Roman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Susan Matoba Adler