Racism in kindergarten, Part 2

“I know I already sent home the announcement about Native American day,” Soph’s teacher told me, leaning in my car window during pick-up, “But I wanted to ask you: Do you mind?”

Back in October, trying to pre-empt the unreflexive racism of so many elementary-school Thanksgiving traditions (and inspired by this Exploding Historian blog post by my friend and fellow mom professor, April Merleaux), I had mentioned to the teacher that I find it offensive to dress up as any race, and we generally don’t ask kids to dress up likes blacks or Asians, so why is it that some schools still encourage dressing as Indians? I mentioned that it’s especially odd to freeze a whole race into the ceremonial dress of one small group in the nineteenth century.

Soph’s teacher told me: “Every year, we usually dress up, and make beads and feather-headbands, and the kids really love it, it’s so much fun! But I wanted to ask you, is it okay with you?”

How would you answer?

I guess it probably is fun, but, I also think it’s racist. As this nice Head Start article explains, the feathers-and-headbands thing can be especially hurtful to some contemporary Native children, who know that they don’t live in tipis or wear feathers, and wrongly assume that maybe they’re not Indian after all. I think it’s hurtful to us all, actually. Soph told me that she really wants to meet an Indian someday, unaware of how many Indians she has already met.

I think Dress up Like Natives Day is wrong, but I also think censorship is wrong. All I am comfortable doing is explaining my point of view, then letting the teacher make up her own opinion.

She invited me to participate in the day, to help improve it.

I asked my facebook friends what to do. Wear a sari or Punjabi suit, several said, since that’s what people wear in India. “Go Inuit. Think ski clothing,” wrote another. My favorite suggestion: Dress as Elizabeth Warren.

But I hadn’t been thinking of wearing anything but regular street clothes. What I need to think through is what to do with the kindergarteners. They move around classroom stations, in groups of 8, staying at each station for 15 minutes. At one station they make clay pots. At another they string beads. At another they make those feathered headdresses. Then they come to my station.

I could ask them questions. “What does an Indian look like? How do you know?” I could show them pictures like this one, ask “Who is Indian,” and then guide them to realize that everyone in the picture is Indian, because there are lots of different ways that Indians look. What I think I’m going to do — thanks to the suggestion of another blogging friend — is read them a book of photos of various Native American children today.

I like this idea, but I’m afraid it won’t be as effective a station as the bead-making, headdress-creating, other options.

Any other suggestions for me?


7 responses to “Racism in kindergarten, Part 2

  1. Anonymous

    Elaine, It occurred to me that you could do something related to indigenous languages. That might work with the “station” approach you describe. Perhaps using graphics of some basic words in certain California Indian languages, “hello,” “boy/girl/child,” “love,” “family,” etc. and also having recorded versions on an iPod. Even the 5-6 year old set are fascinated by other languages and the effort to recover/preserve indigenous languages is an important part of many Native communities today, but also has ties to the past that a historian can exploit. Just an idea…

  2. e961

    Would you be uncomfortable if a Latin class dressed in Roman togas for the Ides of March?

    • elewinnek

      No, because Latin is a language of the past, and one whose teachers regularly make connections to the Romance languages of the present. Also, Latin is not (now) considered a race. What bothers me about the feathers (besides the inaccuracy, for California’s first peoples) is the way it relegates a very-alive people to the past, and the way it is part of racial minstrelsy.

  3. If you’re right — and I suspect that you are — that craft and fun are what will be wanted by the kindergartners, then the trick is to not be generic. Part of the problem with the beads and feathers trope is that it has absolutely nothing to do with a specific people, just a reinforcement of the stereotype. Are there any indigenous Nations nearby that have distinctive crafts or customs? Specifically designing faux-azure and silver jewelry (out of blue fimo and paperclips, or whatever), specifically building and painting red clay pots, specifically constructing adobe houses, and linking each of them with their respective individual Peoples instead of just “Indians” would be a step. It’s an extension of the winter parka idea for the Inuit, but perhaps more local, and possibly (possibly not) more interesting. The jewelry idea also has the benefit of being wearable, which might be part of the charm. Not sure what to do for the boys. Totem animal masks also feels pretty generic, but could have cross-gender appeal.

  4. Angela P. Hudson

    I tried to leave this comment earlier but failed. It occurred to me that doing something on indigenous languages could work with the “station” approach and wouldn’t require you to participate in the more racist elements of this activity. Some neat graphics with simple words in California Indian languages (lots of resources available online– if not for local ones, then for other tribes in North America) combined with recordings played through iPod speakers and encouraging students to learn to say basic phrases, like hello, child, love, family, would be a nice way to introduce them to an important aspect of Native community life today, while also providing an opportunity to tell them about how Native languages are in danger(and exploit the historian’s gift of contextualizing).

  5. elewinnek

    Such great ideas! Now you have me thinking that it might be fun to incorporate food, too. Chocolate & vanilla & potatoes & corn & so much more give me a whole lot to work with, if I want to teach a lesson about what all the world has gained from Native Americans. Or I could incorporate games: lacrosse or cat’s-cradle-type string-games or some neat games of chance… It’s almost too much to think about, and risks its own sort of dilettantism and objectification, perhaps.

    The more I think about it, the more I start to think that maybe a book is enough. Maybe it will stand out among all the other activities. Maybe the kids will want a chance to sit still, look at pictures, think, ask questions. I’ll keep you all posted: November 29 is the day.

  6. Marla Doherty

    When I taught 5th grade (US history/geography), my class played games that had likely been played by children of that place/people/time . . . games I later played with younger students.

    For a 1st grade class, I read them Giveaways: An ABC Book of Loanwords from the Americas, authored by my Native American prize-winning friend Linda Boyden (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0826347266?ie=UTF8&tag=lindaboyden-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0826347266).

    Have fun!

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