How Young is Too Young?: A Discussion on Cultural Competency with Youth

By: Carina Calderón

“Why is your skin that color? Why are you so brown?,” asked the white kindergartner to her fellow classmate, a young Black girl.

She stared in surprise and continued to color in silence. Discomfort swept over the room as students’ eyes shifted from the kindergartners to the staff. Everyone whispered amongst themselves, unsure of how to approach the situation. It is moments like these when instructors (and others involved in education or childcare) make the decision of whether to introduce concepts of cultural competency or pass along the opportunity for fear of difficulty and repercussions.

Sure, some may fear that a student will return home and repeat an interpretation of our words with a guardian who does not agree. Others may believe that these children are too young, that it is the place of the guardian to begin dialogue concerning social issues and identities. Still, we must ask ourselves, what do our concerns about intervention do for the situation? How does our refusal to engage in dialogue support both of these students at the moment?

As minutes passed and coworkers struggled to assume responsibility, I began to ask the white student about what she meant. She told me that she had never seen anyone who was “brown” before and was curious to learn more about her Black classmate. While this answer reflects the impacts of deeper issues like diversity in schools as well as housing segregation within the San Fernando Valley, it also demonstrated an early interest in learning about differences rather than an innate disliking for it. In other words, the white student was not asking these microaggressive questions out of malice, instead she was expressing interest in learning more about this difference: color.

While engaging in dialogue, we continued to color. I encouraged us to keep performing this activity so as to create a self-soothing environment in what felt like a sea of tension. After listening to the responses of the white student, I asked the Black student how she felt. She responded by shaking her head and continuing to color. I interpreted this as an expression of puzzlement given her young age, and I wondered if she had the language to name and understand her feelings; then I asked her if she wanted us to leave the table and she said “yes.”

When engaging in challenging dialogue with children, we must remind ourselves that these children are also young humans. They are developing their communication styles and repeating what they learn in school, at home, and through media outlets. They are sponges and they soak up the world around them. We must place ourselves in their positions and remember what it was like to be a child. We must begin to foster the kind of positive and productive learning environment that we’ve always dreamt of.