Discovering the Brilliance and Beauty in Black (Voices)
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A Deeper Understanding of Color and Race through Narrative Inquiry: An Introduction to Patricia Sullivan’s Article | Barbara Henderson and Daniel Meier
Dr. Pat Sullivan is the leader and head teacher of her own home child care center, serving mostly Black and Brown infants, toddlers, young children, and their families in San Francisco. As an African American educator, Dr. Sullivan has carried out teacher research over the last 20 years to support the anti-racist, social justice curriculum and learning environment at her site. Teacher inquiry is the foundation of Dr. Sullivan’s curriculum and educational philosophy, and it is emblematic of the high-quality, nature-based environment Dr. Sullivan creates for children and families. Dr. Sullivan also has a deep knowledge of environmental and nature education, and her center makes extensive use of a large urban park adjacent to the school’s backyard.
Dr. Sullivan earned her doctorate from San Francisco State University, and while she regularly teaches many courses at SF State and City College of San Francisco, she has chosen as her primary employment to remain in the classroom with children and to lead her home child care site. Dr. Sullivan has previously published her teacher research (see, for example, Meier & Henderson 2007; Meier 2009), and in fact, this Voices of Practitioners article is drawn from a book chapter she wrote for the second edition of Nature Education with Young Children: Integrating Inquiry and Practice (Meier & Sisk-Hilton 2020).
The style of this article reflects the strongly narrative stance that Dr. Sullivan takes in her writing and in her inquiry. Narrative inquiry is an approach to making sense of and analyzing data that recognizes the value of stories to frame our lives, to provide lenses and metaphors for understanding larger concepts, and to serve as tools for sharing with the broader public sophisticated analysis and knowledge creation. (This decision to highlight history and context is also reflected in an earlier Voices of Practitioners article by Head Start director Renetta Goeson, who is a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate (a Dakota Nation) (2014).) As a veteran teacher inquirer, Dr. Sullivan draws on a range of strategies for framing her inquiry, for collecting relevant data, and for reflecting on the significance of that data. These strategies include
- Engaging children in conversations about nature and animal life
- Using an inquiry approach in instruction and interactions with children to support their exploration of colorism as part of an anti-racist, social justice curriculum
- Photographing children’s spontaneous discoveries and social interactions in nature
- Documenting teacher observations and insights through written notes and journal entries
- Reflecting on key connections between nature exploration and observation and critical race reflection
- Using artifacts and reference books to stimulate discussion and reflection with young children
This article also reflects the teacher training Dr. Sullivan consistently engages in at her center as she works with teacher interns from San Francisco State University. Some of these in-service teachers took part in the inquiry described in this article. Dr. Sullivan embraces the recommendations of NAEYC’s Power to the Profession initiative to continue high-quality professional development throughout teachers’ careers and to center teacher inquiry in the preservice preparation of new teachers, as well as in the professional development activities of more experienced teachers.
Dr. Sullivan’s critical race theory stance also speaks to NAEYC’s position statement on advancing equity and addressing systemic racism in society and our schools. Critical race theory helps us to understand the deep value of counter-narratives designed to challenge and replace the dominant Euro-centric ways of being and knowing. Dr. Sullivan’s article shows how a commitment to an anti-racist, social justice approach as connected with an inquiry approach enables educators to document and reflect on critical elements of identity, colorism, racism, and community. Given the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and the ongoing systemic racism experienced by African Americans and other people of color, Dr. Sullivan’s article provides a cogent depiction of how early childhood educators can use children’s inquiry-based discoveries while learning in nature to promote a deeper understanding of social and racial tensions, injustices, and dreams.
Dr. Sullivan’s discussion of the Jim Crow era provides one link to the United States’ shameful history of anti-Black racism, and how we as teachers and early childhood education leaders can act to make changes in our daily lives with children and families. We can do so by listening to what children say and feel and by creating authentic, rich curriculum based on what we understand.
Early childhood educators would like to believe that racism and bias do not exist in their classrooms. Although they may be less motivated to hire diverse teachers or site supervisors, many directors actively recruit diverse children and require preservice and in-service teachers to enroll in courses and professional development workshops that focus on anti-bias curriculum, culturally responsive practices, and trauma-informed care. Cultural and linguistic diversity have been nationally accepted as essential elements of a best practice program design. But it is 2020, and I still meet teachers who proudly declare they are color-blind and don’t believe racism is real.
Unfortunately, even teachers who believe themselves to be open-minded, inclusive, and race neutral can harbor unrecognized implicit biases that influence every lesson, decision, and facial expression they bring to the classroom. These implicit biases are so entrenched in American culture that unfortunately they are learned unconsciously at a very early age and are normalized by those we trust, unquestioned as standard practice (Delpit 2012).
This article is adapted from chapter 6, "Discovering the Brilliance and Beauty in Black," in Nature Education with Young Children: Integrating Inquiry and Practice, edited by Daniel R. Meier and Stephanie Sisk-Hilton. Routledge © 2020. Reproduced with permission.
Through inquiry, teachers and children can create authentic learning that informs their understanding of themselves and others.
While some studies suggest that racial preference is innate, racism and White privilege are learned behaviors (Winfield 2007; Tatum 2017; DiAngelo 2018). Children learn by observation. They notice who their families invite to picnics and holiday parties. They recognize where their families encourage them to play, which peers’ homes they are allowed to visit, and who they can invite to spend the night. They may not watch the news, but they can see who their families avoid on the street, who lives in their neighborhood, and who their teacher repeatedly sends out of class or into the time-out corner.
In a statement issued by NAEYC, Ann McClain Terrell and Rhian Evans Allvin (2020) said that we each have a role to play in interrupting the systems of oppression that have had a devastating and deadly impact on the lives of Black people in the United States for centuries. The architecture of racism must be dismantled by all of us. As a family child care educator, I also have a role in that battle. What follows is an example of that role.
Baby Steps Nature School
My home-based early childhood education center’s back gate opens to 41 acres of green space, which is how I am able to run a nature school from right in the middle of San Francisco. The children in my classroom are immersed in nature every day, so the possibility of a surprise encounter with something interesting in the natural world is routine. Our teachers—experienced in emergent curriculum—transform chance observations into wonderful adventures. As an experienced teacher researcher and advocate of inquiry learning, I look for opportunities to develop meaningful research questions from chance occurrences in (and outside of) the classroom. Through the use of learning stories (Carr & Lee 2019), narrative inquiry (Clandinin, Pushor, & Orr 2007; Boylorn 2011; Stremmel 2014) has become the written record of our play and learning, giving the teachers and children the space and time for discovery, wonder, research, and ultimately a new understanding of the world (Meier & Sisk-Hilton 2013). This particular approach to teacher research emphasizes gathering, analyzing, and sharing stories to understand how our combined lived experiences shape learning. Similar to any teacher research, it builds on what effective teachers already do: they ask questions; gather information; and record, reflect, and partner with students to think critically about co-constructing new learning experiences.
In the examples that follow, I describe a teacher research project that emerged from a seemingly routine moment involving feeding animals in the yard. A child’s comment spurred me to became aware of both the subtle nuances of color bias and of an important question: How can I help the children in my care begin to think more critically about the judgments they make based solely on color? To answer this question, I inquired, collected information, and analyzed and shared data. This process impacted my own teaching practices as well as the children’s learning.
The research begins outdoors
“Let’s go feed the squirrels,” I say just after seven in the morning, leading David (3 years old) to the back door and the shelves where we keep the wild animal food. David doesn’t like to be the first child to arrive at school: he anxiously watches the door and waits for his friends, Sue, Adele, Leo, and Oscar (all between the ages of 3 and 5), to arrive. To distract him every morning, we feed the feral cats, the birds, and the squirrels.
This is a complicated process. The feral cats have been coming to our back door for five years and are always right outside when I open it. The youngest always runs inside for me to pet his fluffy white fur before he rejoins his more cautious friend outside to wait for their food. I have two containers filled with food and I hand the third to David to carry up the stairs to the deck rail, where the squirrels are already waiting. We pour the cat food into dishes first, so they aren’t hungry when the birds arrive. David pours cracked sunflower seeds on the rail and I add shelled peanuts. Then we quietly walk back inside to watch from the window that looks out on our backyard and the adjacent park.
“Squirrels are crazy!” David chuckles as we watch them jump and leap about trying to get their share of food. The Steller’s Jays (a bird closely related to a blue jay) are more cautious: they wait for the squirrel frenzy to die down before attempting to eat. They’re not afraid of the squirrels—they just don’t like all the moving about. Unlike the squirrels, the Steller’s Jays have memorized our schedule; they come several times a day and call to us to put out more nuts. If we don’t act quickly enough and the back door is open, they will fly inside and help themselves, because somehow they know exactly where we store the nuts.
David likes Steller’s Jays because they have cool mohawks and blue eyebrows. The jays sometimes watch us from the trees and mimic a hawk’s call to scare away the squirrels from the nuts. When actual hawks appear, the jays dash for the trees, warning everyone in earshot of the danger. As we watch them now, suddenly all of the jays fly away, and David and I stare through the glass at the branches above the deck rail, watching as a chicken-size crow lands silently.
“Oh no!” David says, dread and worry spreading across his face. “That’s not a good bird!” He freezes, alarmed but clearly eager to run outside and save the squirrels, who are still eating, oblivious to the danger.
“Why do you think that’s a bad bird?” I ask.
“Because it’s black,” David replies.
Initial research question: Are crows bad because they are black?
Having made inquiry an integral part of my teaching and of the children’s learning, David’s comment about the color of the crow prompted a new line of inquiry for me, along with the question, “Are crows bad because they are black?” As a Black woman living in America, I am hypervigilant about color and about Black in particular. I have also spent a great deal of time studying, writing on, and teaching about race and learning in both early childhood and postsecondary education. David is 3 years old, but he has already made some decisions about color and meaning that could possibly shape his feelings about himself, other people, and the world for the rest of his life. Studies reveal that young children such as David “begin asking questions about their own and others’ characteristics, including those related to gender, language, physical abilities, and racial identity” (Derman-Sparks & Edwards 2020, 26) even at an age as young as 3.
Representations of Race and Color in Literature and Media
Crows have been used in literature as symbols of evil and as bad omens for centuries. From Apollo to Aesop, crows in ancient literature are depicted as magical creatures that can flock to a battle, foresee the victors, and feast on the bodies of the defeated (Savage 2005). During the Middle Ages and the plague that engulfed Europe, crows were symbols of death, seen circling in the sky over villages littered with corpses (Savage 2005). Doctors wore masks made in the images of crows and used them to keep themselves safe from the plague (Savage 2005). Grimm’s Fairy Tales perpetuate and engrain crows’ evil personas by associating them with villains, such as the evil queen in Sleeping Beauty and the cabalistic witch in Hansel and Gretel.
More recently, crows are recurrent reminders of malevolence, such as in The Wizard of Oz when they rip the scarecrow to pieces, or they are stand-ins for racist stereotypes, such as in Disney’s Dumbo (Towbin et al. 2003). Disney studios even named the lead crow in Dumbo Jim Crow, referring to a character that was invented by a 19th century white comedian who sang in blackface (Sammond 2011). This perpetuation of the mockery of Black people in America inspired the minstrel show genre that eventually became so pervasive, when segregation laws were established, they were known as Jim Crow laws (Sammond 2011). Studies of media and literature delineate the ways in which negative portrayals of race and skin color persist and influence how children and adults think about their own and others’ identities exist at the root of colorism (Tynes & Ward 2009; Ferris State University Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, n.d.). Anthropomorphizing crows with evil intensions combined with the practice of colorism may provide a context that explains why crows are feared or disliked by humans.
David’s family is Samoan, and within his family there are many shades of brown: his older brother Tino is a warm caramel, while David and his little brother Andrew are a light tan. Just living with lighter versus darker skin has been found to have a significant impact on a person’s experiences (Dixon & Telles 2017), including in a child’s growth and development.
The concept of a color hierarchy that disfavors darker skinned ethnicities is called colorism.
In this country, because of deeply entrenched racism, we already know that dark skin is demonized and light skin wins the prize. And that occurs precisely because this country was built on principles of racism. . . . This privileging of light skin over dark is at the root of an ill known as colorism. (Tharps 2017, 8)
Although the term colorism is credited to Alice Walker, the concept of color hierarchy has existed, and continues to exist, in nearly every culture (Tharps 2017) and across media and pop culture. We devote attention to color and shades of color in everyday life and within the early childhood curriculum, encouraging children to name, sort, and sing about the colors around them. Yet adults may shy away from discussing colors when it comes to skin color, even when children make comments and ask questions about it. By ignoring the importance of color and the values our children attribute to it, we may inadvertently contribute to color bias. I wondered, in regards to David and his thinking, are crows bad because they are black?
Gathering data through color activities and teacher reflections
As a starting point to answer my question, I considered different ways I could collect information about children’s perceptions. It felt a bit heavy-handed asking the children to list the colors they felt were good and the colors they felt were bad. Discourse like this often perpetuates the kind of thinking I am trying to avoid. Instead, my coteachers used construction paper to cut out a bunch of colorful shapes and put them on a table with glue sticks and a variety of additional construction paper sheets for the children to choose as background colors. Each child chose white as their background color except for Sue, who picked blue. Circles, squares, triangles, and rectangles were all cut in red, blue, green, pink, purple, gray, white, brown, and black. As the children picked colors and made pictures with their shapes, a pattern emerged: nobody picked black. Sue and Adele both created landscapes; they used shapes to create flowers, houses, and trees, with big yellow sun circles in the sky. David, Leo, and Oscar were more abstract, stacking pieces on top of pieces like a construction project. Even in their zeal to use the glue sticks, they didn’t choose the black shapes.
A week later, we presented this activity again, this time only using the color black for the shapes and not including white construction paper. The children picked a background color and several announced they were picking their favorite color. When they added the black shapes, however, they didn’t use them in the same way they had used the multicolored shapes in the previous week. Here, the black shapes became holes, eyes, and open mouths. The color black became the absence of color, rather than a color all its own.
Based on how the color activities developed, my coteachers and I revisited the initial question about crows to more deeply consider our role in children’s thinking about color, developing a new question in the process: How do we use colors in our school, and are we contributing to color bias?
We could now add crows to our list of things we like that come in the color black.
Looking over all of the children’s art projects from various times of the year through this new viewpoint, I realized that we only used the color black on Halloween. In our crayon box, we have dozens of colors to choose from, but the colors used most often are red, blue, and green. The children have even tried to use white on white paper. Black is reserved for eyes, the insides of holes, caves, and the occasional witch or monster. Seeking further evidence about children’s choices with colors, I asked the undergraduate students in early childhood courses that I teach to do some investigating. They reflected on their experiences in the classrooms where they work and observe, and they agreed that the color black is used in much the same way in their settings. This use of color led us to begin thinking about color associations.
A new research question: What do we like and what color is it?
As the cycle of inquiry continued, my coteachers and I led a circle time discussion to collect information about color preferences and associations. The children were eager to participate. We started by asking their favorite colors: blue, pink, orange, yellow, and green were all selected as favorites, and red was a very popular choice. The colors were written on a whiteboard: blue in blue, pink in pink, until there was a rainbow of color words. We asked, “Which colors are missing?” Thoughtfully, the children added brown, gray, white, and finally black. Lastly, we asked the children to name some things they liked that came in the colors they had listed. Red was first. Besides Spiderman, the children also like apples, flowers, fire trucks, cars, and popsicles. Blue likes included the sky, water, and cotton candy. As we continued, we noticed that many of their likes were associated with concrete things within their experience. For example, pink is associated with dolls and orange with jack-o’-lanterns. Even brown is favored for trees, mud, and sand. But black had no favorite until David shouted, “Batman!”
This new information could have easily veered us into the universe of superheroes, but my coteachers and I wanted to keep the focus on color and the perception of “good” and “bad” colors. Looking at the information we had gathered, we made the conscious decision to recognize that we needed to help the children add to their favorites list related to the color black. Based on our understanding that the children’s associations with color are directly related to their personal experiences, we also realized that we needed to find things within their world that we could add to the list of things they like that are the color black.
Returning to our program’s focus on nature, we looked to the natural world for examples. We asked ourselves: what animal are these children most likely to encounter in nature that is almost exclusively black? We found the answer in the very animal that initiated this line of inquiry—crows.
Inquiring about crows
The one detail we (the teachers) and the children already knew about crows was that they like peanuts: they don’t care if the peanuts are shelled or unshelled, roasted or raw. If we put out peanuts early enough in the morning, eventually a crow will come. Seldomly aggressive, a single crow will often take turns going after a pile of nuts, walk away to eat, and come back for more. After eating for only a few minutes, the birds will take off only to return minutes later with a few friends.
For the next few weeks, the children and teachers watch with special interest from the classroom windows as the crows eat with other birds and squirrels.
“He brought his family!” David says excitedly. There are five or six crows now eating our nuts. We watch as they take turns eating the nuts, one always sitting on the branches as a sentry to keep the others safe. There is a lot of squawking and screeching as the crows communicate with each other, and I worry that the neighbors might complain about our project. After the crows leave, we notice that the crows didn’t eat all of the nuts, leaving a few behind for the grateful jays. In circle time, we talk about our observations and the children are happy that the crow left to get his family. They comment on how it was nice of the crow to bring the others to enjoy the nuts rather than keep them all to himself. I follow up these sentiments with the question of focus: are crows really bad birds? The children are still unsure. Finally I ask, “Would we like crows better if they were white?”
Teaching about crows and transforming perceptions about the color black
Following a cycle of inquiry (Chalufour & Worth 2003), the teachers planned our next steps. From engaging and asking questions to observation and reflection, we were ready for more focused research and data collection. The teachers brought an assortment of books about crows to circle time and introduced them to the children. They then left them on the science table for the children to use on their own:
- Crows! Strange and Wonderful, by Laurence Pringle—this book gives an overview of crows and their interactions with humans throughout history
- As the Crow Flies, by Sheila Keenan—this book provides insights into the daily life of crows
- Crows: Encounters with the Wise Guys of the Avian World, by Candace Savage—this book is filled with beautiful photographs of crows in the wild and discusses amazing studies of crow intelligence
- Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays, by Candace Savage—this book enables children to see close-up photographs of crows and jays
- Thank You, Crow, by Michael Minkovitz—this picture book tells the story of a special friendship between a boy and a crow that brings him trinkets
We also found a film made for PBS, A Murder of Crows: Birds with an Attitude (Fleming 2010). Surprisingly, the children were fascinated by the documentary; Sue and Adele were particularly interested in the fact that crows can recognize faces and warn their babies about people who might harm them.
As we recorded our data and reflected on our new understanding, the children and teachers created a list of some of the facts about crows, including that crows mate for life, they are one of the smartest species of birds, and they mourn when a member of their flock dies.
Destigmatizing negative perceptions of color can offer opportunities to identify unrealized biases.
Extending our learning further, on our nature walks we discovered that the crows in our neighborhood do not nest or live in the eucalyptus trees that line the edge of the park outside our gate. As we traveled deeper into the park to places where large pine trees grow, we found more crows in the branches. This is where we began to leave peanuts. The children were concerned that the crows might not find the peanuts left scattered on the ground; this inspired them to carefully place the peanuts under the trees and on benches in the park. My coteacher noticed that the crows were watching and were probably waiting for the children to leave, so she took the group to the playground next to the trees and encouraged everyone to watch from a distance. Sure enough, the crows came and took all of the nuts—even those scattered in the grass. “They knew those nuts were for them!” The children were delighted and promised the crows that they would always return to the playground with nuts.
Our last activity was the creation of crow costumes, giving the children the opportunity to personalize their understanding of crow behaviors and to act out flying in flocks, collecting things, and building nests.
Through questioning, observing, reading, discussing, and creating happily, the children found in nature a positive associate. We could now add crows to our list of things we like that come in the color black.
Based on experiences with direct and indirect messages about color, children can develop and maintain biases in favor of whiteness or lighter skin colors (CNN 2010). Although I would be the first to say that people can’t easily make the anti-bias leap from black animals to Black people, breaking the colorism barrier through an exploration of color may be an easy starting point, especially in schools and classrooms that are not diverse. Destigmatizing negative perceptions of color can offer opportunities to identify assumptions, misunderstandings, and unrealized biases, promoting more accurate, positive perceptions of self and others (Derman-Sparks & Edwards 2020).
Through inquiry, teachers and young children can create authentic, organic learning that informs their understanding of themselves, of others, and of the world they live in.
It may not be enough for teachers and family members to help children recognize that there are no bad colors—an especially important lesson for non-Black children. It may not be enough for teachers and families to highlight notable figures like Barack Obama and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. because these exceptions can’t outweigh the thousands of negative images and stereotypes about Black people that are insidiously woven into the fabric of American culture. Teachers and families of young children are understandably reluctant to talk about race and color, but maybe they can begin with something more basic, like simply appreciating and connecting with some of the wonderful things in this world that come in the color Black.
Voices of Practitioners: Teacher Research in Early Childhood Education is NAEYC’s online journal devoted to teacher research. Visit NAEYC.org/resources/pubs/vop to
- Peruse an archive of Voices articles
- Read another Voices article by Megina Baker and Gabriela Salas Davila
- Read the Fall 2019 Voices compilation
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Winfield, A.G. 2007. Eugenics and Education in America: Institutionalized Racism and the Implications of History, Ideology, and Memory. New York: Peter Lang.
Photographs: courtesy of author
Copyright © 2020 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. See Permissions and Reprints online at NAEYC.org/resources/permissions.
Patricia Sullivan, EdD, is a family child care educator and an adjunct instructor in early childhood education at San Francisco State University and City College of San Francisco. In addition to her passion for nature study, Patricia holds several seats on San Francisco early childhood education community boards and commissions. [email protected]