Teaching MLK and confronting racism with five-year-olds.
The Friday before the public holiday honouring Martin Luther King, Jr., I helped teach a “lesson” on his life and work to a room full of 4- and 5-year-old pre-school students. I sat on the carpet and listened as my lead teacher explained segregation to children who have only ever known a black president.
They were incredulous, like the idea of their teachers — two black women and a white woman — having to use different bathrooms and drink from different water fountains was absurd. (As it should be to them. As it should be to everyone.) They also said it would make them sad and mad to have to do that and that it wasn’t fair.
Of course it’s not, we told them; that’s what Martin Luther King wanted to change. And then we went on to read a book about his life and his dreams and what he stood for. This lead to a discussion about how everyone is the same on the inside and we all just need to love each other. That black and white and brown and whatever don’t matter, in the end…all that matters is that we are friends and we are nice to each other. I talked to a small group while my lead teacher took another small group.
One of my girls looked at me and asked, “Ms. Adcock, why are you white?”
Well, you don’t just explain 400 years of slavery and discrimination and biological evolution and melanin differences to a 4-year-old. Instead, I told her that a long, long time ago, our families came from different places that were far, far away from each other. But that since we are here together now, it doesn’t really matter what we look like.
As we reconvened in the middle of the carpet as a larger group following a spirited discussion about why we should all be friends no matter what we look like, one little guy didn’t seem to grasp the concept — either that, or he was just being contrary, which is equally as likely. He shook his head when asked if black people and white people could be friends and love each other.
“Do you love Ms. Adcock? Are you friends with Ms. Adcock?” my lead teacher asked him.
He looked at me and smiled a little. “Uh huh.”
The other kids chimed in. “We love you, Ms. Adcock!”
I said I love them too. I tell them I love them all the time. Because it’s true and because I don’t know if they hear it very often outside of school.
“That’s what Martin Luther King wanted people to know,” my lead teacher concluded. “That’s why he is so important.”
I told my best friend later that evening that this lesson was emotional but I was glad to be a part of it. So much of what I do involves early life lessons and instilling values and the ability to make good choices. This was one of those times where it was particularly overt, on a topic that I, my friends, my wider community, and indeed the country have been confronting in a very stark way in the past few years. As an educator, it is very, very important for me to be conscious of both my privileges and my responsibilities. I am white. My students are exclusively black. But they had never realised that we were different in any “real” way before we pointed it out during our lesson. (Actually, a couple of my kids had insisted that I was just really light-skinned black, back when they first met me. But that is a story for another time.)
I want to keep them that innocent — keep them believing that we are no different, at the end of the day, in any ways that really matter — as long as I can. But it is also my responsibility to acknowledge our differences and work as hard as I can to eliminate them. It is incumbent upon me to do my very best to help them break down the barriers that they will inevitably encounter in their lives, ones that I will never have to face because I am white. I know this, I understand this. It is part of why I do what I do. We gently teach them about past injustice so they can know it when they see it and — hopefully — hit back at it. However, they don’t need to face that reality yet. All they need to know is that people, deep down, are the same and that we should love and respect each other.
Earlier this week I was sitting on the carpet with R.K. He’s so, so smart. And so sweet. And gives such good hugs. He never fails to make me smile, no matter how awful I feel.
R.K. and I were reading a book together when he leaned over and asked me why white people hate black people. I looked at him and asked him what “colour” I was. He said white. I asked him if he thought I hated him. He said no, you love me.
I do, sweetie. Come sit on my lap and tell me why you think that or where you heard that.
Turns out someone he knows is white and apparently hates him (R.K.). So we had a discussion about how some people are just mean to other people or maybe the person has a personal problem in his life that makes him not nice. And we talked about how we can just ignore those people, and find people who love us for who we are instead. That not all white people hate black people, of course not. That he and I are friends and that is all that matters, that mean people are just unhappy and they need to take it out on someone else because they don’t know what to do with their sadness or anger. That it’s not R.K.’s fault at all if this person doesn’t like him.
This is a topic you hope you never, ever have to deal with, especially not as a pre-school educator. But the world being what it is — systemic and overt racism running rampant, especially in the last few years and fuelled lately by the president and his cronies — I should have expected it sooner. I want these children to grow up into a world where they don’t have to ask these questions.
That isn’t going to happen in my lifetime. And maybe not in theirs. But I bet John Lewis never thought he’d live to see a black president. So there might be hope.
The least I can do is prepare them — gently, subtly — to face the realities that await them. Officially, my job is to get them ready for kindergarten, to prepare them to succeed educationally. But that also means I have a responsibility to do every. single. thing. I can to get them ready for life.It means I have a responsibility to try and change my small part of the world so they have to face fewer grim realities.
It means I am not a saviour, but instead, I’m a stepping stone, a supporting pillar as they reach for the skies that should rightfully be theirs without having to fight so hard for it.
My actions seem small, I know. Taking a deep breath every morning and asking what good I can do for my students is not as overt as joining a Black Lives Matter protest. Choosing to boycott certain media or companies and supporting and donating to others is subtle, but effective. Calling out problematic statements and beliefs in my friends and family is critical, a role that I am embracing more and more lately.
That means reminding myself every morning that as a white woman — which comes with its own burdens, of course, there are levels of privilege that should not be discounted — I am in a position of power and I can use it for good or for evil.
Evil is doing nothing, akin to telling R.K. that this person he knows is right to hate black people.
Good is being conscious of my privilege and doing my best to be an ally, whatever that means in a particular moment.
Good is giving R.K. and his friends the tools to succeed and in the meantime, keep chipping away at barriers for him with my wallet and my mouth and my vote.
I can’t claim to a perfect ally or educator or person. But I can damn well do this. I can check my privilege at the metaphorical and literal door and get on with it, no matter how uncomfortable or sad it makes me that I have to.