What anti-racist child care looks like, why it’s important and how to find it

Jan. 27, 2021

I’ve worried about preparing my children for a world that normalizes their mistreatment based on their skin color since before they were born. And now that I have one — and soon to be two — preschool-aged children, my quest to find programs and child care that go beyond tolerating and toward affirming them has intensified. 

“I really think all parents, not just parents of color, should be at a place where we are fed up with racism, discrimination, prejudice and hate speech,” says Ann-Louise Lockhart, a pediatric psychologist, who has her doctorate in clinical psychology and is also a parent coach and the owner of A New Day Pediatric Psychology in San Antonio, Texas. “We should not tolerate any of those things in any environment, setting or profession.”

While the traumatic aspects of parenting as a person of color have become public knowledge in recent years, organizations like the American Psychological Association document the physical, social, and psychological impact of racial stress on parents’ mental health. However, there’s still hope: We’re learning that introducing all children to anti-racist principles from a young age can remedy some of the stress experienced by parents of color, provide children with a greater appreciation for diversity from a young age and contribute to a more positive self-image for youth of color. 

Lockhart believes child care and other early childhood education types are ground zero for introducing topics of culture and identity and promoting positive messages on race and difference. She says this makes it inexplicably crucial that everyone — especially child care providers — embraces anti-racist principles. “If we are serious about treating everyone as a human being, it needs to start with effectively parenting our children, all children,” says Lockhart, “and ensuring the people we pay to take care of our children feel the same.”

Having access to early childhood education that incorporates the culture of anti-racism benefits all families. However, while plenty of parents seek the social and cultural benefits of anti-racist child care, few know how to identify it or where to find it. Below are a few suggestions for parents interested in learning more about anti-racist child care.

How anti-racist child care is defined

While many parents would like to table the issue of race until later in life, research has documented that children pick up on social scripts on race by 3 years old, around the same time they begin preschool. This means it’s imperative that preschool environments actively work to transmit positive messages around race and identity. 

Jasmine Banks, a licensed associate counselor and co-founder of Parenting is Political, a digital project that seeks to shift the conversations and narratives that surround family and parenting, says the best way for parents to find out if a child care option is anti-racist is to ask direct questions about racial equity, bias and discipline. As a Black queer mother of four, she used this tactic when locating child care for her own children. 

“I review the classrooms and see what races and ethnicities are reflected in the curriculum, books and toys. I also ask about nondiscrimination policies,” says Banks, who defines anti-racist child care as a form of child care that takes measurable steps to educate while creating a learning environment that de-centers white supremacy and directly confronts anti-Blackness.

This can be seen in big details like vocally affirming that all types of families are valid and small steps like making sure any arts and crafts activities have color and hair textures representing a wide range of features.

Ronda Taylor Bullock, who holds her doctorate in education and is co-founder and lead curator at we are (working to extend anti-racist education), notes that providing anti-racist child care requires acknowledging racism’s presence in all institutions, including child care. 

“Anti-racist child care is when child care providers actively work to create and disrupt racism in their setting,” Bullock says. “It’s important for these spaces to help children develop healthy racial identities, to help them understand fair versus unfair treatment and to help educate parents as well.” 

What to look for in anti-racist child care

When seeking anti-racist child care, parents will likely have to tour multiple facilities — or interview several nannies or sitters when seeking individual caregivers — to assess what elements of care work best for their family. 

Unsurprisingly, parents can learn a lot about a child care facility by looking at their hiring practices. Our experts suggest investigating whether staff demographics closely mirror the student population — especially when dealing with children of color. Anti-racist learning environments anticipate and seek to remedy some of the consequences of systemic oppression on students. You might see one or all the following:

  • The active recruitment of Black and brown children and providers.

  • Multilingual support for parents who don’t speak English. 

  • A sliding scale fee or scholarships for low-income children.

  • Ensuring all children have access to food and supplies (and uniforms if necessary).

  • Clear communication with parents and willingness to adapt the curriculum to the needs of each child.

Banks notes that while touring child care facilities, parents should expect administrators – and staff depending on the size – to engage in explicit but age-appropriate conversations about anti-Blackness, white supremacy and racism even when it’s uncomfortable. 

It’s not an automatic deal-breaker if providers of color are underrepresented at a facility. Bullock suggests the biggest priority is ensuring children have access to providers and educators who can treat them with dignity. Still, they should be self-aware enough to go beyond merely not being racist. 

“Parents should ask how the providers support children with developing healthy racial identities,” Bullock adds. “They should also ask if the curriculum represents windows and mirrors — windows meaning the children get to learn about children from whom they are different and mirrors meaning they get to see themselves as part of the culture and learning environment.” 

Lockhart asks parents to consider the following when evaluating facilities and providers:

  • What is your child’s developmental stage, and what are you comfortable with them being exposed to?  

  • What unique cultural / identity-based needs might your family have?

  • Is the care option you’re considering capable of filling those needs — for example, caring for the skin and hair care needs of children of color?

  • Are they informed enough to answer questions on race and difference without defaulting to colorblind responses?

What questions to ask providers in terms of anti-racist care

Investigating facilities practices, like staff demographics, lesson planning materials, and punishment strategies, are essential. However, Lockhart says since children are susceptible to both positive and negative messaging, the care providers must go beyond colorblind ‘we’re all the same’ perspectives. Despite being well-meaning, these perspectives are incorrect and harmful and can invalidate the experiences of people of color.

She says care providers must be well-versed in the historical, social and cultural moments that impact communities of color. She maintains that for Americans, there needs to be as much effort to memorize Jim Crow, slavery and the Tulsa race massacre as Pearl Harbor and 9/11 because many of these events happened in the not-so-distant past in terms of anti-racist curriculum.

“If individuals are socializing and raising children and youth of color, they need to understand all history, not just the parts they want to pay attention to because so much of our history continues to be repeated and displayed right in front of our faces,” she notes.

Again, Lockhart suggests that parents’ willingness to be flexible around these expectations will depend on geographical area, access to other individuals of color and whether they have examples of caring, conscientious and culturally humble people outside of their ethnic background. Families rarely find an all-in-one provider. Providers should be willing to listen and learn, so they’re prepared to meet any cultural needs. 

Still, when dealing with mostly white providers, our experts suggest parents should ask the following about what happens in the classroom:

  • What are the rates of discipline and punishment in the classroom?

  • Are corrective measures rooted in restorative practices or punitive ones?

  • How are identity and cultural experiences affirmed through lessons, classroom activities and other interactions? 

  • What types of cultural celebrations/ holidays will be acknowledged in the classroom? What measures are taken to make sure romanticized holidays, like Thanksgiving, don’t further harmful cultural stereotypes and misinformation?

  • How does the provider or facility engage with the local community? 

Why access to anti-racist care matters (regardless of race)

The pandemic has intensified the child care disruptions that had a particular impact on families of color. But all three experts agree that anti-racist child care is vital for all children regardless of ethnicity. It’s beneficial for parents wondering how to raise an anti-racist child or who hope to learn more about the differences between not racist versus anti-racist. 

“A culture of anti-racism child care benefits all families because it’s a healthy environment for BIPOC children and children who identify as white. It’s a space where every child’s dignity is acknowledged. It’s a space where there’s an appreciation for difference. Community is valued, and empathy for others is developed and supported,” Bullock says, noting an early introduction to anti-racist principles helps children bypass the unlearning process that traps many adults. Lockhart believes quality, culturally competent and affirming child care should be available to all families regardless of income. 

When you don’t have access to (formal) anti-racist care

Unfortunately, there will be circumstances where access to intentionally anti-racist center-based care, preschools and providers will not be available. My family lives in a rural, mostly conservative state that has few child care resources, to begin with. To cope, we’re working to instill healthy racial socialization at home. The good news is all families can — and should — supplement classroom learning by enforcing anti-racist habits outside of school.  

Below are a few easy ways parents can incorporate elements of anti-racist in the home environment: 

  • Introduce diverse characters — both fiction and nonfiction — and cultures through books.

  • Encourage and normalize questions of race and difference as a family.

  • Speak to your caregiver or child care facility and volunteer to bring cultural lessons into the classroom.

  • Understand that all parents are capable of transmitting racist sentiments and commit to learning and growing. 

Seek more context through resources like Teaching Tolerance | Diversity, Equity and Justice and Social Justice Books, aimed at parents and educators.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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