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Why we need an anti-racist approach in early years education

Anti-racism is not about what we SAY; it is about what we DO, and it involves all of us – not just people racialised as white in positions of authority deciding what is best for everybody else.

Black and Global Majority people have perspectives, lived experiences and underpinning knowledge that is essential and needs to be heard and acted upon in order for anti-racist work to be impactful, effective and sustained.

The need for social justice and a heightened awareness of global racial inequality is something that we all must be cognisant of. For those of us on the receiving end of racism, there may be nothing new in what I share in this piece.

However, for those people racialised as white who may be reading – many of whom have, since the summer of 2020, pledged to stand side-by-side with Black people and those of the Global Majority in dismantling the racist systems and structures that form part of the tapestry of our everyday lives – you may find some nuggets here.

Courtesy of Liz Pemberton

My work as an early years anti-racist trainer and consultant is centrally focussed on the framework that I created above, because we need to get stuck into the ‘how’ immediately.

My work is spent engaging with early years providers, institutions that train early years educators, local authorities and, more broadly, anybody who has a hand in shaping the lives of children aged between 0-5, to help develop strategies for how we challenge, refocus and ultimately dismantle racist systems that impact children and families who are racially minoritised.

I am often asked by white early years educators how to get it right without causing offence. This focus on centring the feelings of white people in this work is precisely the problem. My response, referencing the 4E’s of anti-racist practice framework, is: if we are going to start embracing we need to start decentring whiteness.

You may now be startled, and that’s fine, stay there…this discomfort that you’re feeling is part of the process. If you have found yourself asking this question, then start examining why you are prioritising not wanting to offend over the impact that you will have on the racially minoritised person once you have offended.

I ask people who are racialised as white to accept the fact that they will get it wrong but that this mustn’t be used as a reason to disengage from conversations about race.

For 16 years, up until March 2020, I worked as a Nursery Manager based in Birmingham, managing a setting that was predominantly Black and brown in terms of the children and families who accessed the provision. When I joined the business in 2004, I knew that the cultural and racial landscape of the setting continued to be predominantly Black and brown.

During my time there, I always understood that part of my responsibility as a manager who shared the identity markers of many of the children and families was not only to support experiences that were culturally matched to the children, but also to acknowledge that – although these experiences wouldn’t necessarily be universal to the very few white children who attended (I have my theories about that, but that is for another blog) – this would in no way put them at a disadvantage of losing their own sense of cultural and racial identity as white children.

I embedded a culture of belonging for all because I recognised that all of those children’s experiences would now become enriched and diversified. The lens of ‘normalcy’ would be used as opposed to a lens of ‘other’ when our book corners were filled with books in which Black, South Asian or East or Southeast Asian children were the protagonists, or when they ate dinner and there was a portion of fried plantain served as an accompaniment, and this was not just reserved for Black history month.

Ensuring anti-racist practice in the early years is not a quick fix – and cannot be solved by just buying diverse books and other resources. I also encouraged my teams to listen carefully to the children and their experiences of the world based on how they saw it.

That may have involved hearing about their Saturday trip to the barbers, or their weekend with Gong Gong, and not correcting them by saying ‘it’s Grandad, not Gong Gong’. Here you are placing the child as the expert of their own cultural identity.

Use this to extend your own learning opportunities by using a resource such as Sennah Yee’s book, My Day with Gong Gong, to read with all of the children, whilst simultaneously ensuring that the child who told you about their day with Gong Gong feels valued.

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Liz Pemberton

Liz Pemberton is the award-winning Director of The Black Nursery Manager Ltd, an anti-racist training and consultancy.