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.

It is important that we think through our approach so as not to discourage curiosity and the willingness to learn from others. When we react in outrage to those of such a young age, we prime our students to believe that these questions and ideas are taboo. We may propel them into debilitating confusion that can last a decade or more, and prevent them from ever participating in challenging discourse for fear of being shut down.

Developing a growth mindset in ourselves is essential in modeling resiliency for our students. We must normalize “making mistakes” and demonstrate how to call-in youth so that we can inspire them to engage in challenging conversations with comfort. This means shifting our perspective and understanding that each incident is a lesson to be learned. When we learn of new information, it is okay to change our perspective. This is only a step forward in growth.

As I collected our items to move to a different table in the library, I explained the diversity of skin tone to the white student. I asked her to look around the library and observe the skin tones of the students around her. She was receptive and excited to participate, a disposition that many students are unable to cultivate within the classroom due to punitive frameworks. As we spoke about the skin tones of our families, she told me that she understood the connection between our families’ skin tones and our own.

Nearing the end of our conversation, I proposed to her that these questions may have made her Black peer feel uncomfortable. I repeated the scenario and switched their identities so that we could explore how she would react in the situation. Once she understood this feeling of discomfort, she rejoined the kindergartner table and continued to color. Using language to guide her understanding, I encouraged her to ask her Black classmate about how she felt and offer an apology.

When I first began working with youth, I was reminded of how many microaggressive exchanges occur and go on without reflection. Students would repeat harmful things without any knowledge of what these words meant and would sometimes exclude one another in an attempt to raise their own social status. Like I had said before, children are sponges and they create the hierarchies that they observe in the home and country.

If it wasn't for my intervention, I am unsure of whether any discussion revolving color would have been had. In my months working alongside other instructors, I found that many of these incidents would happen under group supervision. While some people would act as if they didn’t hear it, others only escalated the situation by whispering or reacting in anger.

While these are normal responses to abnormal situations (by this I mean that microaggressions should not be normalized), we as educators must ground ourselves in the position of the student. No one wants to learn from someone who isn’t able to meet them where they are.

A shift in culture begins with a shift in learning. We must always assume the responsibility of intervention if we want our youth to know what it is to be a positive bystander. We must always model a growth mindset if we want our children to learn that they can forgive themselves, change their perspectives, and confidently engage in dialogue.

These conversations do not have to be perfect, they just need to be had.