There’s nothing more mortifying than a teacher witnessing children exclude each other based on ideas of race or skin color.
“I can’t play with you because your skin is brown.”
When Caryn Park (PhD '10) heard one of her preschool students say this to his friend, she felt helpless. She knew what it felt like from her own experience as a child of color in the U.S. and knew that it wasn’t fair to have to feel that.
“I felt like I knew nothing,” Park recalled. “I felt like I had no skills with which to support these children.”
Park calls this her critical incident.
In training and professional development discourses, no one discussed these problems. When she sought advice from adults around her, they quickly minimized what happened, saying, “Oh, they didn’t know what they were saying,” or “He probably watched something on TV.”
When Park heard of Professor James Banks and the Multicultural Education program at the University of Washington, she planned to get the answers she needed to return to her classroom with an understanding of how to support students learning about race.
She stayed at the UW to complete her PhD when she had more questions after completing her master’s than before.
Much of the research Park observed in the early 2000s focused on the products of what children knew or felt about race. But she believed it necessary to also understand the process of how children learned.
“There were many studies done that asked kids, ‘Do you prefer this image or that image?’ or ‘Which child looks like the nicer child?’” Park said. “They would have [a picture of] a white child, a black child, and kids would have to decide what they preferred and what they thought was more beautiful, which to me, is really looking for what they’ve already learned and not really looking at how they learned those things.”
As a researcher in the classroom, Park realized children had very few supports from adults and that adults spent a lot of energy trying to block racial learning.
“That kind of learning can feel very dangerous in a classroom,” Park said. “There’s nothing more mortifying than a teacher witnessing children exclude each other based on ideas of race or skin color. And I knew that personally because I had gone through it!”
Many teachers, Park found, believed they were avoiding imposing ideas of race onto their young students. At this point, her research shifted to how children processed and what they learned and discussed.
“I had a two-year-old [son] as I was writing my dissertation,” Park said, “and I think in many ways watching him be socialized into the society we’re in and the kind of noticings he was making and the kinds of aversions and attractions I was noticing really helped me to value the work I was doing, which can be a good motivator.”
Park said working with children isn’t very different from working with adults. They know that race is a taboo topic and that there’s power in talking about it. She said they also know they have power when they’re being interviewed or observed.
Lulu, a dog puppet, helped Park in her interviews with children. Because she asked questions through Lulu rather than herself as a grownup person of color, she was able to reduce the feeling of loaded questions or a sense of judgement depending on their answer.
“I found that often, working with young children, we were doing a lot of co-constructing rather than these kids holding the answers to my questions beforehand that I could just tap into,” Park explained. “It was more like we were co-creating knowledge in the moment between Lulu and the child.”
Part of her work now at Antioch University Seattle involves teaching graduate-level classes on social justice, difference, identities, and race theories.
Park hopes that through her research and similar work from other teacher educators, university-based teacher education programs will start to address race and racism head-on in their programs.
She wants teachers to feel they can and should be thinking and talking about race. They have an important role in how their students develop ideas about differences, but it requires a comfort with breaking the silences many grew up with.
“Whether they’re white or whether they’re people of color,” Park said, “no one is immune to the effects of racism—in our heads, in our bodies, in how we move in the world—and I think we need to spend more time working on that piece.”
Story by Olivia Madewell, marketing and communications student aide.
Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications