Teaching Race in Kindergarten

Oregon's new standards for social science exchange colorblindness for racialism. This is not progress.

From school boards to state legislatures, a battle is raging over how public schools should teach students about race and racism in the United States. Much of the debate has centered around opposition to “critical race theory,” which many have pointed out is based on a body of legal scholarship that is rarely, if ever, actually taught at the K-12 level. 

Yet the focus on the term often obscures more than it illuminates. What’s driving concern about what’s being taught to schoolchildren is a new racialism that directly challenges the colorblind approach that has been hegemonic in public schools since the civil rights movement.

Under the colorblind approach, we were taught to view people as individuals, to emphasize our common humanity, and to avoid racial or ethnic generalizations. Under the new racialism, we are told that it is naïve to believe that transcending race is possible in a society where every institution is shaped by past and present racism; therefore, we need to acknowledge, emphasize, and place value on racial categories.

If you want to know how this new racialism manifests in the real world, look no further than Oregon’s Kindergarten 2021 Social Science Standards, which have been updated to integrate “ethnic studies.” Standards like this one lay out the knowledge, skills, and understandings that educators are expected to impart to their students, and teachers use them as a rough guide for composing their lessons for the year. Although Oregon schools are not required to implement these new standards until 2026, they have been approved for classroom use as of March of this year. 

The Kindergarten 2021 standards definitively step away from colorblindness and towards racialism. For example, students are expected to be able to “engage in respectful dialogue with classmates to define diversity,” which includes “comparing and contrasting visible and invisible similarities and differences.” Teachers are tasked with making sure that students “develop an understanding of one’s own identity groups including, but not limited to, race, gender, family, ethnicity, culture, religion, and ability.”

Furthermore, students should be able to “make connections identifying similarities and differences including race, ethnicity, culture, disability, and gender between self and others,” “identify examples of unfairness or injustice towards individuals or groups,” and “identify possible solutions to injustices that demonstrate fairness and empathy.”

Reading over these standards, you have to wonder if the people who composed them have actually ever met your average five-year-old. Of course, kids do notice skin color. But skin color is distinct from race. The notion of race carries with it a set of preconceptions about someone’s culture, social class, and history based on whatever categorization we sort them into. The new approach encourages students to reify these stereotypes and groupings rather than treat their classmates as individuals.

Although kindergarteners aren’t literally colorblind, they are quite adept at practicing colorblindness. The typical five-year-old in a kindergarten class is much more interested in making a friend who enjoys the same toys than they are in making assumptions about their peers based on the color of their skin or the religion their family practices. 

This isn’t to say that children won’t naturally pick up on society’s biases as they age or encounter questions about American history or inequality. These issues may indeed demand some analysis of race, gender, class, or other identity categories. For students at higher grade levels, it is more than appropriate to introduce complex lessons and discussions about these thorny issues.

But why in the world does the state of Oregon think it’s a good idea to ask children at such an early stage of cognitive development to divide their classmates into sociological categories? 

A five-year-old isn’t a social scientist. If you tell them that their skin color places them at a certain level in a social hierarchy, they’re likely to become anxious and afraid—especially towards classmates who check different identity boxes. There is a danger that children will come to identify strongly with racial labels and start segregating themselves based on them. 

Although there isn’t a lot of research on the impact of preaching racial categorization to such young children, we do know that viewing people as individuals is one of the best ways to counter stereotypical thinking. The Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske, who studies stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination, told me exactly this when I reported on her research in 2019. “It’s just much harder to view someone through the lens of a stereotype—good or bad—when you start to imagine their individual mind,” she said. 

Oregon’s approach does just the opposite: It encourages students to see others as members of certain identity groups rather than as individuals. I worry that this is part of a broader trend that will help unwind much of the social progress of the past few decades. I grew up as both a racial and religious minority in the Deep South. I knew I had some differences with my classmates, but the school system I was raised in emphasized colorblindness. I was seen as co-equal with my classmates, treated no better and no worse. 

I wasn’t the Pakistani Muslim who needs to be treated as a Pakistani Muslim (whatever that would entail)—I was Zaid. And Zaid was just another classmate, who was who he chose to be. 

If students choose to identify strongly with a racial or religious group and make that part of their identity as they age, so be it. But schools should not encourage impressionable kids to see themselves as defined by, and inseparable from, these categories. That’s not education. That’s indoctrination.  

Zaid Jilani is a frequent contributor to Persuasion. He maintains his own newsletter, where he writes about current affairs, at inquiremore.com.