What if I said racism, sexism, ableism, classism, homophobia exist in policy and practice in Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) settings? Might you feel that that statement is ‘a bit over the top’, ‘a load of nonsense’ or perhaps a bit ‘shocking’, or even ‘true’? What is your response? The reality is that none of us can escape the fact that these oppressions affect us all, whether explicit or implicit, conscious or unconscious. It is easier to recognise explicit racism, sexism and other ‘isms’ and we are often horrified to witness or hear of them. But implicit bias can be more insidious in many ways. Remarks, jokes, comments, slights entangled with unconscious bias can have detrimental effects on adults and children’s lives. Implicit behaviours are often shrugged off with comments such as, ‘you are over reacting’, it’s only a bit of crack’, ‘I was only joking’, ‘you can’t take a joke’, ‘I wasn’t talking about you’. People are hurt by these behaviours, it is real, and it is not ok; neither is it healthy to learn to think you are better than or superior to others. As Early Childhood educators we tend to see ourselves as caring, kind and supportive. As such it might be hard to accept that there might be some truth to this statement. Research has long shown that policies, practices and behaviour in early childhood programmes can be and are discriminatory or biased in some or many ways (Robinson and Jones Díaz, 2016). The reality, unfortunately, is that discrimination, expressed as racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and homophobia are part of every level in our societal structures including ECEC.
None of us think of ourselves as racist, sexist, ableist, classist or homophobic but how sure are we about that? Most of us are confident we are not discriminating against others but is it enough to think that and say that? There is an important difference between ‘non’-racist or non-sexist (who in their right mind would admit being ‘pro’ racism or sexism?) and being actively anti-racist or anti-sexist. Being ‘anti’-discriminatory means you proactively try to make a difference for those experiencing oppressions in society. It is not enough to be nice. Albeit an important starting point, it won’t change the systems that maintain and continue stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination and racism, sexism, classism, ableism and homophobia. Becoming more aware of our unconscious and conscious bias both personally and professionally means we are in a better position to support children and families in our services. We sometimes address diversity through a multicultural lens, celebrating the cultural ‘dishes’, the ‘dress’ and the ‘dance’. But this work is not just about culture or Black versus White, it is much deeper and broader. It is about the intersectionality of our social identities, for example: you can be a Traveller girl/woman with a disability or a boy/man with gay parents, girl/woman, mixed race influenced by two cultures and religions.
What has all that got to do with young children? Children are not born with discriminatory ideas. Children notice and show preference for difference and learn bias at a very early age, long before primary school (van Ausdale & Fegan, 2001). Parents are not necessarily the ones instilling racist attitudes or negativity towards difference. Children learn from many sources including the media, their peers and unspoken messages in imagery. Children experience hurt when they are ‘othered’ and are targets of negative words or actions. We know that if children are unhappy, they will have trouble feeling good about themselves and learning.
As early childhood educators we are lucky to have Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Charter and Guidelines (DCYA, 2016) we can use to support our thinking and our practice. We can also access Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DEI) training. Although only 15 hours, it is still a very good start to exploring concepts, approaches, equality proofing and dealing with challenging situations. The Guidelines and the training support an Anti-bias approach that actively supports anti-discriminatory practice with and for all children. The beauty of the Anti-bias approach is that it asks you as the adult to address these complex issues starting with yourself. In fact, it is a necessity to critically think and engage with these issues as the adult before we can meaningfully engage in a transformative curricular approach. So how to start? The first stage is to become familiar with how racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, classism work in society at a structural and individual level. Build your knowledge base for your own development and then venture into what you can do for and with children. The best place to start is with yourself. This is not always easy because we sometimes have to unlearn what we have understood all our lives and that can be challenging. It is also not about being defensive or about guilt, it is simply about finding out how these issues affect all of us and what we might do to change things. People tend to shy away from talking about difficult topics, especially racism and sexuality issues, because they often feel they don’t know where to go with them. Sometimes people say there was no racism in Ireland before we had immigration into Ireland, so we have no experience of talking about these issues. The fact that we have never recognised or addressed racism against Travellers in Ireland is an indication of our lack of understanding of racism and how much we need to learn. Talking about these issues adult to adult can be difficult, but not talking about them means we are not being fair to the children we work with.
One of the things we have begun to do in practice is to fill our rooms with materials, including a variety of skin tone paints and dolls, books and images reflecting difference. This is a very useful starting point. The physical environment in ECEC is really important, but it will not address the challenging issues that we sometimes feel are not relevant to young children. How we work with the materials, the conversations we have with children, the conversations with parents are the real beginnings of making a difference. The DEI Charter and Guidelines (DCYA, 2016) provide a good foundation on which to build your knowledge, equality-proof your materials, use critically reflective questions with your team, which will support you to build on or begin to embed an Anti-bias Approach in your setting. The tragic death of George Floyd in the USA and the Black Lives Matter movement has offered all of us an opportunity to take stock and think about our relationships and how we are addressing DEI in ECEC. It starts with each and every one of us continuing to reflect on our values and attitudes, and critically questioning our role in building the type of society we wish for all Irish citizens.
Colette Murray lectures on the Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) Degree Programme in TU Dublin email@example.com and is Coordinator of EDeNn www.edenn.org. She has more than 30 years’ experience in the Early Childhood Education and Care sector in both national and international contexts. Colette has worked as educator, trainer, lecturer, advocate and researcher. She has advocated for a comprehensive Diversity, Equality and Inclusion approach in ECEC practice, training and policy, introducing the Anti-bias Approach to the Irish ECEC sector. Colette coordinated the National Preschool Education Initiative for Children from Minority Groups (2011-2013). She is interested in transformative and emancipatory practice in education and care. Colette has written and published primarily on social justice, diversity, equality and Traveller issues.
Department of Children and Youth Affairs. (2016). Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Charter and Guidelines. Dublin: Government Offices.
Murray, C. & Urban, M. (2012). Diversity and Equality in Early Childhood: An Irish Perspective. Dublin, IRL: Gill & Macmillan.
Robison, K. H. & Jones Díaz, C. (2005-2016). Diversity and Difference in Childhood: Issues for Theory and Practice. London: Open University Press.
Van Ausdale, D. & Feagin, J. R. (2001). The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC.