How Racism and White Supremacy Impact Children’s Early Schooling

Three children stand with their arms around each other's shoulders

Jennifer Keys Adair is no stranger to discussing race and education. Her research and teaching interests focus on how racism and white supremacy impact children’s early schooling experiences. Adair is an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

Adair’s forthcoming book, Segregation by Experience: Agency, Racism and Early Learning, (University of Chicago Press) details a five-year study of a first-grade classroom in Texas. The class was led by a Black immigrant teacher who offered her students of color project-learning and dynamic learning experiences.

Adair created a film documenting the work. She showed it to educators, parents, and first-graders across Texas, who each in their own ways had resisted seeing children of color being so empowered in their learning.

Through this research, Adair attempted to make sense of what happened when each of these audiences saw children of color moving, talking, and making decisions in their classroom instead of working in rigid, controlled educational spaces. Most teachers liked the practices in the film but thought that they wouldn’t work for the children in their schools and blamed their families for not preparing them properly. Deficit thinking prevented them from thinking the children of color in their own classrooms were as smart and capable as those in the film.

In addition to preparing pre-service teachers to address race and inequity in their classrooms, Adair wants to help white parents recognize racism and actively work against it with their young children. According to Adair, young kids can handle learning about social justice issues and do not need to be sheltered from them. “Racism is something that white people are responsible for,” she explains, “so we are the ones who must work hard and do the labor in our families and communities to bring our actions and efforts in line with what communities of color are asking for and deserve.”

In an appearance on KLRU’s Blackademics TV, Adair drew from her experiences with her own children and outlined four steps that she has observed white parents of white children take as they strive to raise anti-racist kids.

  1. Teach children to notice and value differences. Instead of being afraid of pointing them out, appreciate and normalize them so that children are not raised to think that colorblindness is acceptable.
  2. Focus on books, stories, films and shows that highlight people of color, particularly those that embody the characteristics they want their children to have, such as intellect, kindness, generosity, and ingenuity.
  3. Dive into difficult and challenging conversations about racism, white supremacy, and inequities with children. As parents read books by authors of color about white privilege or institutional racism, find a way to share what you are learning with your children.
  4. Clarify that anti-racism work is never done. There are no ribbons or trophies or even congratulations for working to uproot racism and white supremacy in ourselves.  We do it because equity and civil rights are important to our society and are a way to care for one another.

To learn more, watch as Adair outlines the three patterns she has observed in white parents of white children as they raise their kids to appreciate the racial differences they see around them.