Prior to the advent of what is referred to in the scholarly literature as “Critical Whiteness Studies,” African American scholars, thinkers and writers conceptualized the various meanings of whiteness (see Roediger 1998, for review). Building upon the significance of such writings, contemporary scholars describe whiteness as obtaining privilege (Dei 2000; Frankenberg 1993; Lipsitz 2006); property (Harris 1993); identity (Charbeneau 2015), and as a practice of power (Levine-Rasky 2013). Evidently, literary consensus indicates that whiteness obtains a system of power, albeit one not readily acknowledged by those who partake of the advantages it bestows (Applebaum 2010). These benefits vary in accordance with a range of positionalities (Lipsitz 2006), as Dei (2000) plainly stated: “Whiteness is not the universal experience of all whites” (p. 29). In keeping with such assertions, we consider how gender, class, ability, and other markers of difference may procure varied forms of white privilege. The effects of positionalities, however, while producing alternate experiences, do not negate the fact that whiteness provides a range of benefits for the dominant group (Dei 2000). Undeniably, the anti-bias curriculum fails to address this salient reality. Here, educators may further develop the critique by illustrating how the anti-bias curriculum reproduces the invisibility of whiteness. Such discussions inform the analysis of teaching suggestions found in What if all the kids are White?, and are further contextualized within the academic literature on whiteness and education.
At first glance, the authors offer a compelling apologia for whiteness, privilege, and institutional racism. Indeed, the text contains chapters entitled, “A short history of white racism in the United States,” and “A short history of white resistance to racism in the United States”. The inclusion of these chapters may lead readers to anticipate, in addition to a set of pedagogical tools, a contextualization of the teaching approaches/strategies in question. On the contrary, readers are left with a dearth of theory–practice connections. While the volume deploys a few sound anti-bias concepts, it fails to proffer appropriate teaching strategies that would allow for young children to name and challenge whiteness. For the purposes of this analysis, it is important to provide a comprehensive overview of the suggestions offered in the chapter entitled, “Fostering Children’s Identities.”
Three objectives undergird the suggestions provided by Derman-Sparks and Ramsey (2006). One, in particular, works toward supplanting children’s internalization of white superiority via discussions and activities that focus on developing the self, an identity “based on personal abilities and interests, family history, and culture, rather than on white superiority” (p. 51). The authors go on to characterize a secondary objective as pertaining to a child’s ability to “Know, respect, and value the range of the diversity of physical and social attributes among white people” (p. 52). A third point of reference echoes a similar spirit to that of its predecessors: “Build the capacity for caring, cooperative, and equitable interactions with others” (p. 52). Notably, the preceding objectives revolve around a central practice of emphasizing “sameness” and difference, along with opportunities for white children to acquire an “awareness of themselves as contributing and caring members of their family and their class” (p. 65). The standards for teaching and learning align with such aims, along with the conceptual underpinnings, in the promotion of a silencing of whiteness which, when juxtaposed with the authors’ recognition that white children do indeed internalize white superiority, raises several questions concerning the validity of the anti-bias education framework as a useful pedagogical tool for challenging racism and the dominant narratives that inform much of the early childhood field.
Here, contradictions between the goals of the curriculum and the implementation techniques of its teaching strategies arise, most notably when white children are provided with learning activities that fail to name white as a racial category. In a troubling invocation of white privilege, and a further normalization of whiteness, white children continue to see themselves as “individuals” and others as “raced”; therewith, we begin to gesture toward the crux of the critical issue at hand. However, the authors opt to justify their collective position by claiming that social–emotional skills such as empathy “are germane to white children in a way not usually mentioned, because they potentially help them to “unlearn” the unconscious assumptions of racial superiority and economic entitlement that have been woven into their earliest social perceptions” (p. 48). In other words, the assumption is such that if children are taught to “care,” then prejudice and bias will yield to compassion and concern for others. By contrast, evidence shows that when some whites are confronted with the harm that racism causes to racialized persons, they may openly dismiss or deny such experiences. With a mind to unpacking pertinent generalizations, can we interpret such data as pointing to a lack of compassion or empathy in white individuals? In response, the present analysis takes a more critical anti-racist stance. The ability to distance oneself from the reality of racism and to ignore the rewards it bestows on whites at the expense of racialized persons is an advantage rooted in the structure of white supremacy, a system that insulates white power through various contexts such as education (often by precluding the naming of “white” as an identity and failing to address how the construction of such an identity converges with systems of power). Thus, I would argue that the anti-bias education framework can be characterized as more of a panglossian lens than an approach consistent with critical pedagogy and anti-racist praxis.
As a close reading demonstrates, the authors categorically ignore the vocational call to deconstruct whiteness through discussions, dialogue, and classroom practice. They offer several suggestions for each learning objective, but the following are the most relevant to the present analysis:
Ensure that all of your children’s families and daily lives are equally visible throughout the environment and classroom activities. (p. 56)
Ensure that children from different income levels experience equal visibility and respect from staff and other children. (p. 59)
Engage children in investigating the physical similarities and differences among children in your classroom or center. (p. 61)
Encourage children to learn about how they have similarities and differences in preferences and interests. (p. 61)
Encourage children to expand their friendships to include the range of diversity within your group. (p. 63).
Emphasize the ways in which each person expresses caring for others and contributes to the group. (p. 63).
Common to these suggestions is an emphasis on teaching children about an individual identity far removed from any racial affiliation; for instance, class and family structure (as opposed to race); in addition, such approaches acknowledge key areas of children’s social-emotional competence, as expressed by the suggestions focused on acknowledging intergroup similarities, differences, and social skills (such as empathy).
Nonetheless, an implicit assumption persists—namely, that by removing race from the discussion and highlighting children’s personal characteristics, along with providing opportunities to discuss intergroup class differences—white children will then somehow organically develop an anti-racist white identity. Perhaps, even more problematic and thus, necessary to address, is that such omissions, in effect, re-inscribe whiteness as a position of power by leaving white racial identity unmarked, unchallenged, and unexamined. Yet, to destabilize whiteness at its locus of invisibility, it first must be exposed. As Dyer (1997) so aptly noted, “White people need to learn to see themselves as white, to see their particularity” (p. 10). Such awareness is critical to dislodging whiteness from the twin archetypes of universality and normality, guises that legitimize racial dominance by ascribing difference and racialized meanings to non-white groups.
Frankly, I argue that it hinges on naïve optimism at best, and at worst, an oversight perhaps due to the authors’ developmental perspective of children and race— if we are to assume that educators and parents can lead white children to divest their understandings of white privilege and power by avoiding substantive discussions on race and racism. More pointedly, can a colorblind approach challenge, and subsequently transform, white’s children internalization of the prevailing ideological narrative—that is, whiteness as “good” and “innocent”—in support of a racist social structure? Similar thought-provoking questions inform the discussion largely, because the research findings and the socio-political exegeses of such data cast a more realistic and contradictory gaze on the practices/theoretical assumptions undergirding the anti-bias curriculum. Indeed, as evinced by the pertinent scholarship, white and non-white children exhibit an awareness of the currency associated with white identity (see, for example, Skattebol 2005; Van Ausdale and Feagin 2001).
Considerable research literature reveals white and minority children’s positive evaluation of and identification with whiteness in American, Canadian, and international contexts. In a study examining how discourses of whiteness affect children’s constructions of race, Davis et al. (2009) found that one participant attached a specific value to white skin. When asked by the researcher to select a doll that resembled her friend, the child chose a white doll. The researcher followed up by asking the child, “And what about Franca looks like your friend?” (p. 52); to which the child responded, “Ahh... Because, ’cause I think she’s the prettiest” (p. 52). The child further elaborates her understanding of the associations between whiteness and beauty as follows: “Ahh, because she has white socks and I like white and she has blue jeans and I like blue and she has a green top and I like green. And she has, and she has white skin and I like white skin. And I like her hair” (p. 52). Germane interpretations of the data point to the influence of whiteness in shaping children’s values regarding racial characteristics such as skin color. As the authors cogently noted, “For Spot white skin is something likeable. She locates herself within a discourse of whiteness as desirable” (p. 52).
Clearly, the topic of children’s constructions of whiteness persists as a common thread throughout the research literature. In a study on the relationship between European and American mothers’ colorblind racial socialization parenting, and their preschool-aged children’s racial attitudes, findings revealed a pro-white bias, with a corresponding negative bias toward African Americans (Pahlke et al. 2012). These data derive from a racial attitude measure which charted positive traits (nice, pretty, honest, generous, and happy) and five negative traits (cruel, bad, dumb, awful, and selfish). Employing a similar methodology, but with a sample of light-skinned and dark-skinned African American children aged seven-to-nine, data from Williams and Davidson (2009) interracial task activity showed that participants assigned more positive traits to photos representing European–Americans. Likewise, results from the intraracial task in which children were asked to assign positive and negative traits to stimuli depicting African Americans of light and darker skin tones revealed a similar bias for lighter skin tones. Indeed, these findings dovetail with previous studies that show the stark contrast in white and minority children’s in- and out-group evaluations. Simply stated, children recognize the sociocultural currency of whiteness, and white children, as the research suggests, are not only aware of their privileged position, but ascribe a measure of saliency to it as well. Considering the empirical data, it is, therefore, essential to critically examine how the anti-bias curriculum—via pointed teaching and learning activities—addresses such beliefs regarding whiteness in young children.
As previously stated, children raised in Euro-Canadian and Euro-American familial contexts recognize that whiteness obtains cultural and social significance. Working with this central notion, an effective deconstruction of white children’s understandings of their identity and how the latter affords a position of privilege, calls for a concerted anti-racism approach. Similarly, for some racialized children, an anti-racism education in the early years may also assist in dismantling the myth of white superiority by not only providing counter-images but also counter-narratives; such critical discussions will allow children to understand how white power and privilege work to racialize “others,” while simultaneously upholding whiteness as the standard of human worth.