Experiencing Racial Bias In Preschool
When I was in preschool I hated my skin. While I had bronze skin, brown eyes, and brown hair, my friends in preschool looked different. Most of them had fair skin, blue eyes, and blond hair. I thought I could remedy this, could look more like them, by walking with my inner arms turned outwards because that skin was paler than the rest of me.
I remember seeing Snow White, a Disney Princess with “white” in her very name, at age 3. Snow white had brown eyes and dark hair like me, but her skin was so much lighter than mine. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Ariel also had pale skin like Snow White. I remember wishing that I could look more like a princess, and to me looking like a princess meant having lighter skin. Even though my parents avoided buying me Disney toys or Barbie dolls, all of my baby dolls still had creamy pink and white skin and sparkly blue eyes. I remember looking at the glossy pages of my Mom’s Vogue magazine and noticing that all the beautiful women had fair skin — skin that was almost white, like paper.
I first learned about Eurocentric beauty standards in preschool. I didn’t learn what they were called until at least a decade later, but I observed them nonetheless. Preschool was when I learned to feel different because of the way I looked, particularly because of the color of my skin. Preschool was when I learned what it meant to be mixed race with dark skin in a society that prizes whiteness.
Preschool is one of the first places in which young children have social experiences with people who are not in their family or close circle of friends. It is a microcosm of society where the ugliness of prejudice and discrimination can unfortunately shine through and affect some of the most vulnerable members of society: young children.
New research conducted by the Yale Child Study Center confirms that racial bias is prevalent in preschools. Preschool teachers spend more time focusing on their black students because they expect bad behavior from them and, cyclically, since teachers are looking for bad behavior in black students, they find it more easily. Recent data from the U.S. Department of Education supports this, and shows that black children are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended from preschool than white children. This bias isn’t just harmful in the moment, but in the long term as well. When young students are suspended or expelled from school, they are several times more likely to experience disciplinary action later in their academic career, drop out or fail out of high school, report feeling disconnected from school, and be incarcerated later in life.
Other studies, however, show that preschool also has the potential to be a critically positive time for a child’s social and emotional development, and that a child’s positive interactions with their teachers is correlated to an increase in compliance and cognitive control as well as self-regulation.
Ultimately, the fact that racial bias permeates the lives of the youngest members of society is a clear indication that it also lurks in our entire social sphere. I was able to recognize the glorification of white skin and eurocentric beauty standards at a young age and it has affected my life ever since. Throughout my childhood I came to realize that most of my pop culture idols were white women who conformed to eurocentric beauty standards including Disney stars like Hilary Duff, and pop stars like Lady Gaga.
Although it still frustrates me that I feel underrepresented — not just in popular culture but in all spheres of society— I know now that I will never be able to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards, even if I walk with my inner arms turned outwards. Instead, I try to celebrate the individuality of my own identity and of the identities of my friends and other women, regardless of race.
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