Using Literature to Combat Racism in Young Children

This post was originally published in December 2019. Links and resources have been updated.

Racism is a pervasive problem in the United States that affects children at all grade levels. It can occur in ways teachers interact with their students and in the ways that students relate with each another. It can also be evident in the educational access and funding that our English learners (ELs) have in U.S. schools. This topic profoundly affects the lives of our students; teachers of ELs need to be aware of this so that they can properly advocate for their students.

Research by Mahzarin Banaji, a renowned Harvard University racism and prejudice expert, found that “even though they may not understand the ‘why’ of their feelings, children exposed to racism tend to accept and embrace it as young as age 3.” Teachers need to expose children to learning opportunities that acknowledge race and ethnicity, and prioritize preventing racism through social justice with culturally relevant teachingKaren Nemeth, a U.S. expert on early childhood development, remarked in an email to me that “Parents and teachers have powerful influence over the ways children learn to express judgements about other people, and reading appropriate stories can help.”

Research on Using Books With Young Children to Combat the Growth of Race and Racism

Researcher Kristina R. Olson reported in Psychology Today (2013) that “nearly all White mothers in their research study adopted a ‘colormute/colorblind’ approach when discussing a book that was either directly or indirectly about race with their 4–5 year old children; most chose not to discuss race at all.” She added that research “has demonstrated that as opposed to White parents, parents of minority children in the U.S. do talk about race and ethnicity quite regularly.”

Introduce Books on Race and Racism

The introduction of books about racially and ethnically diverse global populations can help teachers support discussions in the classroom about prejudice and stereotypes. Educators of ELs often teach those children who are targets of discrimination. It is important for them to have a list of books to recommend to classroom and subject area teachers. I would suggest books and resources from the following lists for classroom libraries. Most are marked with the age range that is appropriate for the book.

If you have resources that you use in your classroom with your students, either about racism or celebrating the diverse cultures of your students, please write about them in the comments, below.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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