Antiracism and Jewish Early Childhood Education: Rethinking our Values and Practices

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By Ilana Dvorin Friedman

“I’m relieved it never came up,” a Jewish early childhood educator reflected at the end of the school year about her experience with a Black child in her class. “I worried before the school year started, but nothing happened.”

The “it” this early childhood educator was referring to was race. Or racism. Or both. That was not clear in her comments. But what was obvious was her perspective that addressing issues of race and racism with young children was not part of her job description as a Jewish early childhood educator.

The Colorblind Problem

This educator’s relief represents the particular problem of the colorblind sentiment that is pervasive in Jewish early childhood classrooms. While intentions of accepting difference may underlie this approach, it is a guise for “I don’t see color,” which has dangerous implications for young children’s development. If the educator does not see “it,” young children may view that silence as compliance that what they already know is accurate.

And what might young children know? Well, a lot! Not only do they develop racial awareness and identify themselves and others based on race, young children attach social meaning and hierarchies to these distinctions. Early childhood educators may inadvertently exacerbate the reach of white supremacy and anti-blackness as young children develop their identities and construct an understanding of others.

Of course, this educator meant well. Her comment revealed her concern for this child and his ability to feel a sense of belonging and make friends. But, the viewpoint behind “nothing happened” undermines that a lot of things may have actually been happening for this particular child and the other children in the class. Perhaps the children were curious and had questions or emerging ideas about race but had already internalized that it is not acceptable or appropriate to ask questions or talk about race. Perhaps remarks were made to this child when the educator was out of earshot, playing in the playground or in the gym. Perhaps the children were constructing ideas about racism based on the curricular choices and narratives presented in the classroom and invoking their ideas about race in their play.

Jewish early childhood educators, already value-based in their practice, have the opportunity to interrupt racism at a young age by implementing anti-bias and anti-racist frameworks. This begins with a genuine commitment to reconceptualize practice and engage in critical self-reflection.

Rethinking Jewish Values: A Vision Towards Antiracism

The concept of B’tzelem Elokim (created in the image of God) must extend beyond ideas of a shared identity as humans. We have to acknowledge differences and provide information to scaffold children’s learning to combat the potential influence of misconceptions and stereotypes about race. Early childhood educators must engage in ongoing self-reflection, trainings, and professional development that teach about systemic racism and encourage them to consider their racial attitudes and racial socialization. If we want young children to recognize that we are all created in the image of God, we need to model that by challenging discourses that promote white privilege and anti-blackness, we take responsibility to uphold this value and our responsibility towards equity.

The precept of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) begins in the microcosm of our classrooms as we empower young children to name injustice when it is present and take a stance against it. Young children have the social, emotional, and cognitive capacities to engage in activism. What mindsets are needed by early childhood educators to approach these conversations with young children? An attempt to fix the world should not be viewed as heroic or as a gift that reinforces the white savior complex; instead, to partake in repairing the world, we must acknowledge that we need to do better, listen, learn, reflect, and take risks.

And, when we promote the classroom as a kehillah (community) it is essential that we do not get lost in niceness alone as to what keeps us all connected. A community goes beyond feelings of warmth and acceptance; we must help young children problem-solve, consider different perspectives, exert their agency, and take ownership in the creation of their world. Community is not just built on kindness, but on recognizing the practices and policies that allow for the perpetuation of oppression and then dismantling them.

In daily professional practice, we must steer away from relief when discomfort arises; instead, we need to embrace our own discomfort as we confront race and racism with young children. The successful implementation of anti-bias education relies on an active and intentional choice to commit to self-reflection and a process of learning, unlearning, and relearning.

If early childhood educators promote that “it never came up,” young children will learn that “race doesn’t matter,” when in fact, race does matter. We all deserve our identities to be seen. If we teach young children to be kind and are blind to racism and power, we will mold the next generation to continue thinking that niceness is enough and racism is an individual problem and not a systemic one.

Ilana Dvorin Friedman PhD is a child development consultant, instructor, and researcher in Chicago.