Academic journal article JCT (Online)

Race as the Benu: A Reborn Consciousness for Teachers of Our Youngest Children

Academic journal article JCT (Online)

Race as the Benu: A Reborn Consciousness for Teachers of Our Youngest Children

Article excerpt

IN ANCIENT EGYPTIAN MYTHOLOGY, WE MEET THE STORY OF THE BENU BIRD ho represents the soul of the sun god, Re (Veggi & Davidson, 1994). The benu lives for centuries and some stories tell us that when it is old and tired and ready to die, it builds itself a nest of cinnamon twigs and sets the nest and itself on fire. In the ashes of its former self, a new bird emerges, a signal of the invincible strength of the spirit to renew itself. In this article, I use insights gained from an ethnographic study of three young children and the messages they received about being white in their day to day worlds to add an early childhood focus to a century's worth of urging that we, as a nation, need a benu-like rebirth to dismantle racist practices (Baldwin, 1965; Du Bois, 1940; Ellison, 1998). I use the metaphor of the benu to argue that race, as it is known and experienced by many white people, a construct mired with hatred, shame and guilt, should be born again as a construct of love.

This article directly responds to assumptions made in many early childhood arenas that young children cannot understand race or that educational settings for the very young are not appropriate for discussions about race. I argue that early childhood is the very place that explorations of the social construct of race should begin. And, for that to happen, we need to start with the teachers who impact or who will impact our nation's youngest children. My argument is derived from an empirical study I conducted to identify dominant discourses that shape young children's constructions of race, particularly what it means to be white. Designed from a concern that many white educators have little awareness of the whiteness they embody and perpetuate (Boutte & Jackson, 2013; Bryan, Wilson, Lewis, & Wills, 2012; Hayes & Juárez, 2012; Ladson-Billings, 1999, 2000, 2005; Turner-Nash, 2013), I wanted to understand more about how those messages are received and refined in early childhood to better help adults working with young children examine and interrupt the oft-invisible ways that racism is constructed and reconstructed during socialization.

Using critical ethnography methodologies (Carspeken, 1996; Noblit, 2004) and pattern analysis techniques (Grbich, 2007) to gather and examine data over a nine-month period of time, I studied my three young children (ages six, seven, and ten) as they constructed, deconstructed, normalized and/or resisted messages of whiteness. In referring to whiteness, I refer to the implicit normalizations of the oppression of persons of color as manifested globally, nationally, and locally. Specifically, I asked: What can I learn about the dominant discourses that shape three young white children's construction of race, particularly what it means to be white?

In this article, I share an overview of the study's findings; however, I focus primarily on further theorization from those findings. My rationale for this focus is intentional. Over and over, when I discuss the findings of my work, I am asked, "What can be done? What can I do?" True to the essence of critical research (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005; Lather, 1986; Madison, 2005; Noblit, 2004), the purpose of my empirical work is to seek strategies for alleviating oppression. My role as a critical researcher is to not simply report findings but to foreground action as foundational to any research agenda.

Review of Literature

This work was grounded primarily in critical race theory and critical whiteness studies which consider the ways racial oppression is maintained through institutions, material advantages, and cultural practices. Basic tenets of critical race theory that guided the study encompassed Ladson-Billing's (1998) ideas that (a) racism is a fixture of American life, (b) experiential knowledge or "alternative epistemologies" (Bergerson, 2003, p. 55) should be valued, (c) legal policies have often worked against efforts for true Civil Rights reforms, and (d) whites, not persons of color, have benefitted from liberal reforms (such as Affirmative Action). …

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