We Don’t Say Those Words in Class!

Whoo-wee!  In this week’s assignment, I’m expected to ‘fess up to a time that I reprimanded or silenced a child for pointing out someone they saw as different.  That’s a tough one.

Many years ago, I was working in a preschool in Inglewood, California.  We enjoyed a wonderfully diverse group of children.  One day, a little boy, “A”, came to me and said something to the effect of, “Black ‘D’ hit me.”  We had two children named “D”, and they were both African-American, but one child had a significantly darker skin tone.  I must have had a confused look on my face, and said something like, “I don’t understand.”  

I didn’t exactly say, “We don’t use words like that.”  Instead, I think I said something like, “But they’re both black.”  I gave the child the message that we didn’t talk about color, or that color was not a meaningful descriptor, or perhaps even that race was not a significant thing.  On some level, I think I was employing what Louise Derman-Sparks and Carol Brunson Phillips refer to as a “colorblind” stance (Derman-Sparks and Phillips, 1997).  Derman-Sparks and Phillips describe colorblindness as having characteristics that include the “tendency either to ignore differences or regard them as unimportant…” (Derman-Sparks and Phillips, 1997).  And while the child may have, on some level, gotten a message that color was not a useful way to describe someone, he did not receive any useful information from me about understanding or appreciating differences.

My error was that I missed an opportunity to start a conversation about differences – a teachable moment.  Alejandro Segura-Mora says this, “Young students, because of their honesty and willingness to talk about issues, provide many opportunities to take seemingly minor incidents and turn them into powerful teaching moments” (Pelo, 2008).  A more skillful anti-bias educator would have seized the opportunity to talk about differences.  I wish that I had been a more competent anti-bias teacher back then.  I still am not sure if I even have the right answer. But perhaps it would have gone something like this:

T:  Well, “A” I am not sure which “D” you are referring to.

A:  Black “D”.

T:  Let’s get both “D’s” over here and you can tell me which one hit you.

T:  “D1” and “D2”, “A” tells me one of you hit him.

D1:  She did.

T:  “D2”, did you hit “A”?

D2: He hit me first.

T: Do you think that we can try to find a different way to solve our disagreements instead of hitting?

All:  Okay.

T: Can we talk for a minute about something else?  I think “A” and I want to ask you about the color of your skin.  What color would you say your skin is?

The children might respond with either “black” or “brown”.  Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that they respond with “black.”

T: “A” what color do you think “D1” is?

A: Her black.

T:  “D1”, “D2”, what color do you think “A” is?

D1: He white.

T: “D1”, would you go to the crayon basket and bring back a black crayon.  “A”, would you get a white crayon?  “D2”, how about if you go and try to find a crayon that looks like the color of your skin?

T: “D1” would you please hold the black crayon next to your skin?  Do you think your skin looks that color?

D1: No.  My skin is more like brown.

T: “A” would you please hold the white crayon next to your skin?  Do you think your skin looks that color?

A: No way.  That’s like milk white.

T: “D2”, were you able to find a crayon that looked almost like the color of your skin?

D2: Maybe.  Kinda.  It’s brown.

T: Hmmm, it seems like we are all a color sort of in between, aren’t we?  We all have our very own color.  When we go back into the classroom, I will show you some special crayons that we have.  We can try to find the ones that look closest to our color and then we can draw a picture of ourselves.  Would that be okay?  And maybe we can talk a little bit more about how we are all different and the same.


Derman-Sparks, Louise and Phillips, Carol Brunson.  1997.  Teaching/learning anti-racism, a developmental approach.  Teachers College Press.  New York, NY.

Pelo, Ann.  2008.  Rethinking early childhood education.  Rethinking Schools Publication.  Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


2 thoughts on “

  1. Caroline says:

    Thank you for sharing that story! Like you, I viewed this week’s activity as a time to “fess up”, and while at first it was hard to share, I have found it somewhat liberating. It seems as though a large part of anti-bias education can start with seizing those teachable moments. Though we have both missed out on teachable moments in the past, we can now look back on them, reflect, and prepare for those to come.

  2. Thank you for sharing your teachable moment. Before the last two classes I didn’t realize the fact I was missing the details of being an anti-bias teacher. Like you said, it is not only demonstrating to our students equality in the classroom but it is talking about our language when the opportunities present themselves. When we act uncomfortable in a situation children pick up on those feelings because of our body language and I think sometimes we don’t address biases because we are stepping into the unknown. However, as we learn about different ways to approach these situations and have a safe environment to “fess up” in, like Caroline said, we can grow and become an anti bias teacher. Thanks again!

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