The best way to promote empathy is to provide children with quality, reciprocal relationships with people from diverse communities. But that can be difficult, as 84 percent of elementary school teachers are white. And in most major cities, the majority of public school children are not.
So, teachers need to get creative. Young children can only normalize what they experience regularly. If they only receive knowledge, insight and comfort from white people, this can have lasting effects on what they assume about people of color. It is this disconnect, as civil rights lawyer Constance Rice said, that can make police officers “kill and do things that don’t make sense to you and me.”
One effective way to help young children is to seek out diverse experts who can speak in schools about weather, food, construction, politics and electricity (all common preK- grade 3 topics).
Another way to influence young children’s racial attitudes early on are picture books. Given the particular fear toward black men, using literature to combat negative assumptions means going through classroom books and thinking carefully about how often and in what ways black boys and men are included in stories. Are there enough books with caring, compassionate and smart, black, male characters? Are books in classrooms about black history balanced with those about the everyday lives of black men so that racial diversity becomes normalized for young children?
Having only a handful will not be enough to normalize positive images of black men. But although these kinds of books are still difficult to find, it’s not impossible.
Conversations while reading engaging picture books should be led by the children’s questions. Teachers can follow up with projects to help them learn more about the historical struggles that the books mention. We have seen children learn while creating art projects about protest signs, school integration, bus boycotts or kids having to change schools and being the only one with brown skin.
Stories like “The Snowy Day,” “Whistle for Willie,” “A Letter to Amy,” “Peter’s Chair” and “Googles” by Ezra Jack Keats present everyday scenarios from the perspective of a young African American boy. “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and “Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans” by Kadir Nelson offer cultural insights through the use of music. (The Zinn Education Project, Rethinking Schools and Teaching Tolerance have many online resources for teachers looking to improve how they talk about race with young children.)
As educators, we know this work is urgent. We work with education students along with a committed group of colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin to confront students’ often buried or at least unprocessed assumptions about race and privilege. Students take courses that push them to reflect on their own ideas about race and how to teach children to respect and support racial diversity, as well as recognize and act against discrimination.
And yet, it is simply too late in the game for some. As educators, we find too often that white students who don’t have positive, everyday experiences with the black community struggle to discuss or acknowledge their own racial prejudice.
If we’d like to keep what happened in Ferguson from ever happening again, we have to stop the fear and damaging disconnect many white people have when in the presence of black males. Helping young children develop racial empathy will have longer-lasting effects than classes or interventions for teachers and other adults who have already formed ideas about black males.