Review of Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, by Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards

In 1989, the Anti-Bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children (NAEYC) was published. This is a seminal book that attempted to translate k-12 (and college) multicultural concepts to the early childhood (0-8) period. As such, Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves (2010) is a revision of the first book. This second book has expanded the view of diversity beyond gender and race/ethnicity, embracing language (non English speaking), economic class, abilities and disabilities, family structures, and sexual orientation. It has also adopted some of the major contemporary trends in k-12 and college multicultural education, such as critical pedagogy and social justice, with less than universally positive results.

I am a huge supporter of multicultural education in early childhood programs and k-12 schools. All children deserve maximum opportunity to succeed and fulfill their unique potential. But I believe this books does little to help achieve this important goal.

It is difficult to know how to best critique this book. I have decided to begin with the four core goals of anti-bias education, then examine areas that I view as particularly problematic: immigrants and their families (Latino), the two pages devoted to multiracial children, and the simplistic formula that considers mainstream whites the only barrier to diversity. I then discuss the unique definitions of certain words and phrases that this book has coined.

Goal I

“Each child will demonstrate self-awareness, confidence, family pride, and positive social identities”. Further, this goal adds, “A basic goal of quality early childhood education work is to nurture each child’s individual, personal identity. Anti-bias education adds to that goal the important idea of nurturing social (or group) identities” (p. 4). The book defines social identity as, “compared with individual identities, this denotes membership in groups that are defined by society, are shared with many other people, and have societal advantages and disadvantages attached to them. These identities include, gender, economic class, racial identity, heritage, religion, age group, and so on” (xiii).

Clearly, reference group orientation is a significant part of each of our identities, and the identities of our children (Cross, 1987). However, there are many problems with this goal:

1) The perception that all of these social identities are homogeneous, clearly defined, unchanging, and unchangeable. They are not. We know a family can quickly drop from middle class to poverty after a divorce or the loss of a job; we know that a child’s racial/ethnic identity can change when they come to America (i.e. a Hmong becomes an Asian, a Columbian becomes a Latino), transracial and multiracial children do not belong to any clearly defined social group (and if the various tables used throughout this book are any indication, these children really don’t exist!)

2) Society does not do anything – people do! Not only does one’s group identity depend on historical, global, national, political and economic contexts, but the individual also has some say-so in their identity. It is illustrative to note that in the section of the book that describes the identities of the people who contributed to it, there is this statement: “as people chose to identify themselves” (p. viii). Parents of young children also have an impact on the identity of their children. This is particularly true of interracial children, transracially adopted children, and new immigrants, whose home country often defines them differently from the way we define them. For example, new immigrants from various African countries do not view themselves as African Americans. Further, advocates of anti-bias education insist, as they should, on challenging society’s concept of gender and to some extent, disabilities, but are wholly unwilling to challenge society’s social and political definition of race and ethnicity. This inconsistency is difficult to understand, and will be addressed later in this review.

3) Who decides the social identities of children? Who decides if a child, in fact, feels good about membership in his/her group? For example, there is considerable literature that argues multiracial children who embrace a social identity that includes their full, mixed heritage, are somehow ashamed of their black social identity (Rockquemore & Brunsma, 2010). Or what about a Mayan child from Guatemala whose social identity in her home country is the Maya, but who is expected to change her group belonging in this country to Latino/a (the group that has historically persecuted her people)?

4) Attaching societal advantages and disadvantages to children based on their group belonging is highly problematic. For example, while sociologists place men at the top of the status hierarchy, young boys as a group struggle in our early childhood programs. Further, men have very little status in the early childhood field. And, how do we evaluate the status of children from different backgrounds? For example, how do we evaluate the black daughter of a single mother who is a physician at the local university hospital, compared to a little white boy whose two parents are homeless? But the main problem with this approach is the judging of individuals by teachers based on group belonging (the kind of stereotyping we should be avoiding), and a generally paternalistic attitude.

Goal 2

“Each child will express comfort and joy with human diversity; accurate language for human differences; and deep, caring human connections” (p. 4). This goal is problematic from several perspectives. Let’s take each one of these three ideas separately.

Each Child Will Express Comfort and Joy with Human Diversity

Young children are learning a variety of concepts about humans. A central concept they struggle with is their own identity – gender, language, culture, abilities, etc. Thus they tend to be attracted to people – children and adults – who are like them, and who are important in their lives. For example, little girls look to their mothers as very important role models; children play with other children who enjoy the same kind of games and activities they enjoy. Thus at this age there is a natural and healthy tendency to feel comfortable around people – adults and children – who are similar to them. Only after developing a secure sense of identity can young children truly “express comfort with human diversity”.

A central dilemma with this goal is that both parents and society in general teach children the survival skills of human safety. This is represented by the “beware of strangers” campaigns. But clearly parents also want their children to be cautious and defensive around human diversity. Part of the problem here – a problem embedded throughout this book – is that a young child’s ability to discriminate anything is very immature, and thus highly stereotypical. If a parent cautions her young child to stay away from a specific homeless man with a beard, chances are the child will stay away from all men with beards.

Each Child Will Express Accurate Language for Human Differences

It is not clear to me the meaning of this goal. On a recent visit to Brazil I discovered that it is not acceptable in that country to use the term Black to describe Afro-Brazilians, yet it is appropriate to call them Negros (the accepted term). We know that the language used to describe various disabilities continues to change over time; and the language to describe children of mixed-racial heritage in this country is still up for debate. Many adults still call these children Black (or the label of the parent of color) even though the correct terms are multiracial or multiethnic. In fact, many multiracial children will tell you the most annoying part of being multiracial is the constant questioning (especially by adults), of, “well what are you, anyway”(signifying these adults really don’t know!)? Many adults still refuse to even use the terms multiracial and multiethnic.

A good example of the adult use of inaccurate language to describe human differences is using the label Latino to describe the vast diversity of the people from Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America (see the later section on immigrant families).

Each Child Will Express Deep, Caring Human Connections

This goal I can totally subscribe to!

Goal 3

“Each child will increasingly recognize unfairness, have language to describe unfairness, and understand that unfairness hurts” (p. 5). It is important that children learn about unfairness. However, this goal is totally inappropriate for young children, to whit:

1) For children up to about age 7-8, fairness generally means what is best for them. This is the egocentric stage. There was many a time with my own four children when they declared my behavior towards them to be unfair. All parents soon learn that children will respond to a parental wish, a denial of a request, or a demand to do a chore, with the word, “unfair”. And most parents soon learn to respond with, “the world is unfair”.

2) The world is an unfair place, and, while we should all be committed to make it less unfair, a young child is in no position to do so. To use the language of the book, they have no power. For example, a child may discover that his friend from class has been diagnosed with a special need, and is consequently being removed to another classroom by the school district. The child does not want to leave, but what can his friend do? Or a child has a favorite teacher who must stop teaching to take a different job, because she cannot make enough money teaching. There is nothing the child can do.

3) I always wonder whether this goal will set up a child to fail. My son was very concerned with fairness, and struggled intensely in middle and high school. In middle school he was bullied; at high school he could not tolerate the arbitrary and autocratic rules that permeate most American high schools. He was exceedingly aware of the unfair rules of the schools and the unfair behavior of people in positions of authority (as were his parents). For example, when he was bullied he fought back, but due to one of these unfair rules, he was suspended along with the bully. Then the Vice Principal accused him of provoking the bully.

Goal 4

“Each child will demonstrate empowerment and the skills to act, with others or alone, against prejudice and /or discriminatory actions” (p. 5). Bullying in our schools is a major problem (Olweus, 1992). Yet, in schools throughout the world, bullying continues unabated. But its not really about prejudice and discrimination, it’s about two kinds of children (of all different racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds): bullies – aggressive children who enjoy power, and victims – timid individuals who are generally unpopular. And, according to the research, bullying continues because both the bully and the victim believe adults will not intervene. And they are often correct.

So it seems to me we need to do two things to address bullying, 1) develop a school-wide approach, and 2) seriously implement this approach. While children should be involved (i.e. in learning conflict resolution skills), it is clear that adults – teachers and administrators – must take the central roles. This should also be true with anti-bias education. Recently at a conference in Brazil a multiracial adult reported about the harassment she received in school from the teachers. My own children have also experienced harassment from teachers (“you can’t be Native American, you are Black”) and administrators (“your parents are uptight about the school’s racial categories”). Thus it is the adults who must spearhead anti-bias activities in our early childhood programs and schools.

Finally, as I have already pointed out, children do not have the power to create change. Many, many unfair situations occur in the early childhood center, classroom and school. If students protest, they get into trouble (as do their parents!). A high school student in Denver protested the fact that students were required to take meaningless, high-stakes standardized tests. He was punished with the same severity as if he had brought a gun to school.

Supporting New Immigrant Children and Families

In the essay, Supporting New Immigrant Families and Children, L. A, Hernandez writes, “misinformation about immigrants is everywhere” (73). However, he does little to clarify much of this misinformation, especially about immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean (what is commonly called Latin America). This is a particularly glaring example of how American (U.S.) diversity experts view global diversity from an America-centric perspective.

Hernandez perpetuates the myth that everyone from south of the U.S./Mexico boarder are Spanish-speaking people with cultural roots from Spain. The truth is much more complex, rich and diverse. The countries that comprise Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean, and S. America contain as much unique diversity as exists within the U.S., if not more. Three examples will illustrate this phenomenon. The three major cultural groups in Guatemala are Maya, Latino, and Black (on the Gulf of Mexico side of the country). The Maya are divided into several groups, each with their own language. In Guatemala, the Maya are also the majority population; however historically, politically, and economically, the Latino group dominate – they are the oppressors, if you will. While Spanish is Guatemala’s official language, among the Maya many do not speak any Spanish – especially the women.

In Belize, the majority of the population is Black, with small groups of whites (including Amish), Asians (many of the shop owners) and Indians. However, there are also several official mixed-race groups. These include Carib and Creole. The official language is English, but a variety of other languages are spoken.

In Brazil, the major racial groups are Afro Brazilians (there were five times as many slaves in Brazil compared to the U.S.), mixed-race (usually African, European and Amerindian), Amerindian (several tribes that speak various languages), European (Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, English, German, Spanish, Welsh, Scandinavian), Middle Eastern, and Japanese (the largest group of Japanese outside of Japan live in Sao Paulo). The major language is Portuguese, not Spanish, and the colonial history is Portuguese (and some French, Dutch and English) but not Spanish. Brazil comprises about 50% of the landmass of S. America, and over 50% of the population.

People in the countries south of the U.S. speak a variety of languages, including English, French, Dutch, Welsh, Japanese, German, Spanish and Portuguese, along with over 40 native languages.

As you can see, describing all immigrants who come from Latin America as Spanish-speaking people with a Spanish culture is not only a gross misunderstanding; but it is tantamount to an academic and statistical hoax.

Because people who enter the U.S. from Mexico, Central and Sought America, and the Caribbean come from countries with significant African populations (most of these counties had slaves), many Latinos have some African racial heritage. According to the one-drop rule, which is still used in the U.S. to categorize race, these Latinos would be considered racially Black (Fernandez, 1996).

Supporting Multiracial, Multiethnic, and Mixed-Heritage Children and Their Families

Maybe the biggest problem with the section, Supporting Multiracial, Multiethnic, and Mixed-Heritage Children and Their Families (p.88-89) is its size (2 out of 166 pages), and the fact that it is a separate section. Both of these facts make it a classic token approach to diversity! It should be noted here that the multicultural education body of knowledge to date has not embraced diversity that is multiracial. For example, of the 49 chapters in the Handbook of Multicultural Education (Banks & Banks, 2004), only one directly addresses this population, and most of the other 48 chapters strongly support a single-race view of race and ethnicity, including reinforcement of the one-drop-rule. And throughout Anti-Bias Education for Young People and Ourselves, there is constant reference to “groups of people” and “nurturing group identities.” All these terms and the general focus of the book reinforce a single race, essentialist view of identity and racial and ethnic diversity. If this book were truly about diversity, multiracial children and adults would be embraced and included throughout. They are not.

Beyond these two glaring issues, this piece, unlike other sections of the book that are very forthright and direct (even when they are wrong), is weak, tentative, and careful not to offend. For example, while it correctly reports that multiracial families experience racism, it never points out that this racism comes equally from people of all single-race groups (teachers, parents, and students), and not just from white people. Further, while the issue of filling out federal forms is addressed, it is not addressed with the clarity and urgency required. Many multiracial families first face official invisibility or downright hostility when officials with early childhood programs and schools insist they choose a racial category for their child that does not accurately reflect their own view. Early childhood programs and schools must address this issue head on: this book must tell them how to do so!

Another problem is that the author states, “having parents look very different from each other or very different from you makes the reality of difference very present in the family early on” (p. 88). This reality seems to be presented as a negative situation, it is not: these children grow up believing difference is normal and is their reality. To them, it is the other families that are strange! This same section also states that some families “feel confused about how to deal with their child’s racial/ethnic identity” (p. 89). While there is a sidebar that encourages parents to talk to the program if they want to discuss the identity of their child (because they are confused), early childhood programs must be much more proactive in helping parents understand the value (and the mounting research evidence) of challenging the role of hypodescent, and in raising and identifying their children as multiracial. Programs must empower parents of multiracial children (both biological and adoptive/foster parents) to have the courage to withstand societal orthodoxy and celebrate their child’s full racial and ethnic identity. This book is very clear in challenging other societal issues, such as non-English language learners and gender issues; so why is it not affirmative here?

As already suggested – and further explored later in this review – this section continues to perpetuate a myth woven throughout this book: only white people (teachers, parents and children) can be racist. Multiracial children receive outright harassment, along with “invisibility”, from people of all racial groups. In fact, one of the challenges that this book does not address is when race is presented in terms of power and privilege, how does a biracial (Black/White) child deal with this apparent conflict, and how should teachers help them deal with it? According to the matrix outlined on page 31, a child whose mother is Black (i.e. a minimum of a two-time target of institutional prejudice and discrimination) and whose father is an educated white, heterosexual, male (a four-time recipient of societal advantage) experiences a very unhealthy family due to their parents’ unequal status. If teachers, other parents, and “multicultural experts” believe this, as many do, then this child and her family will not be supported in the program.

Thank God my children were never taught this, because it simple makes no sense.

Finally, instead of providing direct advice to teachers regarding this greatly misunderstood area, particularly by people who claim to be “culturally competent”, much of these two pages presents scenarios for which the reader is asked to decide “what would you do?” (p. 89). Again it seems like the author/editors are unwilling to take the kinds of affirmative positions they do in many other areas throughout the book.

Mainstream Whites are the Problem

Like other early childhood multicultural texts, this book blames all prejudice and anti-diversity on mainstream (male) white people. In the book mainstream whites are the only examples of people engaged in insensitive behaviors and non-diverse and prejudicial activities. Never is a minority child or adult shown to exhibit any prejudicial or inappropriate language or behavior. While this is a nice, neat formula, it’s neither accurate or particularly helpful to teaches and child care providers.

Here are a few examples of a more realistic view.

The first incident of racism my eldest daughter experienced was from a boy who had just come from Mexico. His family lived below us in the apartment building. In the heat of a typical childhood argument, he said to my daughter, “and, besides, you are Black and I am not”. He obviously saw this as a putdown.

My youngest daughter had an ugly incident when her Hispanic friend invited her to play in her house. Her father met them at the door, and said to my daughter, “You cannot come into my house until you wash the dirt (dark skin) from your face”.

At a family picnic I recently attended, I observed a very active 9-year-old having a great time climbing a tree. Her mother called to her to “get down from the tree”.
“Why”? I asked the girl’s mother.
“Because girls don’t climb trees”, her mother responded.
The mother and her daughter were African American.

Some years ago I received a phone-call from a distraught white mother of a biracial child in Chicago. She was upset because Black children in her daughter’s kindergarten class kept telling her daughter that her mother was a whore. The mother complained to the Black administration and teachers, but both refused to intervene.

A good friend of mine, Marta Cruz-Janzen, recalls growing up in Puerto Rico (2004). She described how painful this childhood experience was, because she is biracial (Spanish/Black), and the local fairly tales, songs, and colloquial expressions used by the other children towards her were all extremely racist.

Any adult and child from any racial or ethnic background have the capacity to be racist, stereotypical, and prejudicial. Its not just white folks!

Word and Phrase Definitions

There are several words and phrases in this book that I wish to comment on: social identify, pre-prejudice, and race.

Social Identity. This term is defined as “compared with individual identities, this denotes membership in groups that are defined by society, are shared with many other people, and have societal advantages and disadvantages attached to them” (xiii). I have already addressed the phrase in another section of this review, so I will be very short here:

• Society does not do anything.
• We all exist within multiple social contexts (West, 2001).
• Advantage and disadvantaged often change as a result of time and context.
• Each person’s individual identity is comprised of multiple interacting social identities (West, 2001).
• This definition makes multiracial children and to some extent transracially adopted children invisible. They do not belong to one social identity group “defined by society”. In fact, for major components of society, these children are still invisible – as they are in much of this book.
• While it is important to help all children come to terms with the various words others use to identity them, it is absolutely critical we help children go beyond the limitations of these identities. A central dilemma for minority children is the insistence by peers that they must continually subscribe to their own groups’ narrow norms of behavior, taste and world-view. One result of this need to define what it means to belong to a social identity group is that minority students are often accused of “being white” (acting, behaving, speaking, doing well academically, etc) by their peers. Instead of reinforcing the limitations of children’s “social identities” we should be helping children not to be defined or limited by them.

Pre-Prejudice “Beginning ideas and feelings in very young children that may develop into real prejudice if reinforced by societal biases. It may be based on young children’s limited experience and developmental level, or it may consist of imitations of adult behavior (p. xiii)

According to Piaget, young children develop biased and limited schemas about the world and how it works. Through direct experiences with the social and physical environment, children continue to refine their schemas until they come close to reality. When it comes to ideas about people (race, ethnicity, gender, occupation, disability) young children’s views are highly stereotypical – and usually incorrect. Thus it is up to adults to help children progress to a place where they can see human diversity is all of its complexity (unfortunately many adults cannot do this). But it’s wrong and silly to call this pre-prejudice, because a young child’s view of the world is pre-everything.

Race: “A social construct that fraudulently categories and ranks groups of human beings on an arbitrary basis such as skin color and other physical features…..The scientific consensus is that race in this sense has no biological basis in the human species” (p. xiii).

First race as a construct is both social and political (as is ethnicity). Thus, as the direct result of powerful political pressure, we now have Latino/a as a census category. The rest of this definition I generally agree with. But what puzzles me is that, if race is a fraudulent system that categories and ranks groups of people on an arbitrary basis, which I believe it is, and, if this book is about anti-bias education, then why does it not strongly advocate – and include activities – to eliminate racial categories?

I can see wonderful anti-bias activities to protest the use of federal forms for the USDA food program; efforts by students to eliminate racial categories used by the school or early childhood program when they hire new staff, and activities by students to make sure their school district is in compliance with the federal law that allows people to check “more than one race”.

It seems to me the authors want it both ways, 1) to show the world that they understand the racist nature of racial categories (created by the dominant groups), but also to align themselves with single-race identity politics.

You cannot have it both ways!

This review highlights some specific areas where I think this book fails. However, as I have written elsewhere (i.e. chapter 11 in my 2009 book, Approaches to Early Childhood and Elementary Education), I think its time to change the entire focus of our diversity efforts. Essentially a simple, single-group approach (i.e. race, ethnicity, gender, disabilities, etc) to diversity is now obsolete, and we need to shift to viewing diversity in all of its wonderful complexity and interrelatedness. No one is just Black, just a woman, or just an immigrant. Thus we need to look at a child in his/her totality, using Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological systems theory to understand how all the contexts of a child impact the child, those who interact with the child, along with how they interact with each other (West, 2001). And we must place the child in the center; not race, ethnicity, culture, gender and so forth.

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Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cross, W. A two-factors theory of black identity formation: Implications for the study of identity development in minority children. In J. S. Phenney & M. J. Rotheram
(Eds.), Children’s ethnic socialization (pp 117-134). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.1987.

Derman-Sparks, L. & Edwards, J. O. (2010). Anti-bias education for young children and ourselves. Washington, DC: NAEYC

Fernandez, C A. (1996). Government classification of multiracial/multiethnic people. In M. M. P. Root (Ed.), The multiracial experiences: Racial borders as the new frontier (pp.15-36). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Olweus, D. 1992. Bullying among school children: Intervention and prevention. In R. D. Peters, R. J. McMahon, & V. L. Quinsey (Eds.), Aggression and violence throughout the lifespan (pp. 100-125). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Rockquemore, K. A. & Brunsma, D. L. (2010). Whiteness reconstructed: Multiracial identity as a category of new white. In J. O. Adekunle & H. V. Williams (Eds.), Color struck: Essays on race and ethnicity in global perspective (pp. 173-186). New York: University Press of America.

Wardle, F., & Cruz-Janzen, M. (2004). Meeting the needs of multiethnic and multiracial children in schools. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

West, M. M. (2001). Teaching the third culture child. Young Children, 56(6) 27-32

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