Can Elementary Students Fight Racism?
People around the world watched as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on a man’s neck for nine minutes, ultimately killing George Floyd. The act sparked protests and even riots throughout the United States and abroad.
And for 9-year-old Avalin Loveland, of Logan, an idea for change: providing every child in Utah a “Racism Ends with My Generation” t-shirt, starting with fourth graders in her local school district.
“When I think of what people are doing right now, I think they can do a lot better,” Avalin said, “and I think people should stand up for what's right.”
While Avalin’s mom, Jessica, didn’t let her children watch the video of Floyd’s murder, she’s been open with them about the event and instances of police brutality for months. Avalin’s dad suggested she make a t-shirt to wear to a Black Lives Matter protest as a way to express her feelings, but she wanted to take the idea statewide, fundraising the project through Indiegogo.
“We can’t fix all of the past generations,” Jessica said. “Why not just teach the coming ones?”
Kylie Jackson, who organized several of the Black Lives Matter protests in Logan, said allies and ideas like this make a difference for many people — including the parents of children who would receive the shirts — because racism starts in the home.
“You're not born knowing skin colors, or ‘Oh, you're black, I can't be your friend,’ but it starts in the home with a parent, with the older siblings,” Jackson said. “It just shows to the other people like, ‘Oh, this little girl is not of color, and she can do something like this. Why do I have so much hate for people of color and this little girl doesn't?’”
Jackson, who grew up in Maryland, doesn’t remember specific incidents of racism in her childhood. That changed when she and her family moved to Logan 10 years ago.
“I started getting the racism comments from different kids, and even different parents because I played on the basketball team,” she said, “so I would hear racial comments all the time coming out of the crowd. That ‘Oh, you're only good because you're black. You're only on the team because you're black,’ and stuff like that.”
According to Dr. Marisela Martinez-Cola, an assistant professor of sociology at Utah State University, many people of color experience racism even earlier in their lives. She said the Yale “Baby Lab” study revealed that children as young as three months old can recognize the race of their caregivers, and another study by the time they’re one year old, children can exhibit preferences to race as portrayed in toys and individuals.
“And then there is another study that shows it's about four to five years old where kids start showing sort of racial prejudice,” Martinez-Cola said. “That they begin to sort of say things, and it's either something they've heard or something they've surmised. Children are really smart, they’re very intuitive.”
Logan City School District has not explicitly created programs to target racism in the past, but superintendent Frank Schofield said the district is starting to address the need, such as having every administrator read Ibram X. Kendi’s book “How to Be an Antiracist” over the summer.
“We need to start doing things, and we need to take the initiative to learn what we need to learn, take that responsibility on ourselves,” Schofield said. “And then we need to start doing and taking concrete action, and recognize we're not maybe going to see huge changes overnight. But we have to start acting more, and acting explicitly to fix the issues.”
And one way to do that is to make sure to include input from minorities, Martinez-Cola said.
“Whenever I create something, I always ask the question, ‘who's missing from the table? What am I missing? What gap needs to be filled?’” she said. “And so that helps me to kind of be more cognizant of people, other than people in my own world.”
In the end, it comes back to education.
“You know, there are ways that sometimes we, as white people, attempt to provide support to ethnic minorities that come across as tone deaf,” Schofield said, “and that's something that we need to, you know, pay attention to, and we need to think about before we take steps.”
Another thing Martinez-Cola warns against is raising kids to be “colorblind” to race.
“I’d like parents to consider raising their kids to be color brave, right, the idea of seeing the beauty of color, the history of that color, the richness of that color," she said. "I would rather someone to see me and all of my complexity, you know, than someone who doesn't see what makes me really unique. Who wants a world without color?”
Martinez-Cola said it’s OK to make mistakes in the process, as long as it’s followed by learning. And Jessica said, for her family, “it’s all about balance.”
“I think it's important for Avalin to share her voice and whatnot, but I also didn't want to take the space of someone else," Jessica said. "We don't want to say something wrong or say that we know what we're doing, because we really don't know what we're doing. We're just trying to do something. Avalin knows racism is wrong, and she's chosen to stand up for it."
Avalin’s fundraiser has raised $1,686 of its $5,000 goal to produce the shirts, and the Lovelands hope to speak with educators and teachers on lesson plans to go along with their distribution if the school district agrees with the project.
This story is brought to you through a community reporting partnership between The Herald Journal and Utah Public Radio.