At first glance, the proposals might seem like political correctness run amok: replace the ubiquitous black pointy witch hat with a pink version, and instead of white paper for writing, use a variety of flesh-colored sheets. But, writes Julie Henry, for the Guardian, that is what experts from the Nursery World Magazine are recommending to help toddlers as young as two to "unlearn" race-based bias. The Nursery World draws its recommendations from research that shows kids show "show negative and discriminatory views about skin color" very early in their lives, therefore schools need to help their students think of dark skin-tones in a positive way.
Recent experiments carried out by Professor Lord Winston found that even before the age of four, children had begun to associate dark skin with with negative character traits, and white or light skin with positive character traits. Furthermore, the shade preference wasn't limited to just white children.
In an experiment carried out for the BBC's Child of our Time series, children were presented with a series of images of faces of men, women, boys or girls. Only one of the faces in each sequence was white. Children were asked to pick out the face of the person they wanted as their friend and the person they thought would be most likely to get in to trouble. Almost all white children in the survey associated positive qualities exclusively with photographs of white children or adults. More than half of the black children made the same associations.
Anne O'Connor, who is an equality and diversity consultant for school districts, and who suggested replacing white writing paper, understands that people will be tempted to brush her ideas aside as going too far, or looking too deeply for a problem that doesn't exist. She argues, however, that "anti-bias" programs like the kind she helped design and deploy in Lancashire recently, not only help develop empathy in children, they also encourage people in authority like administrators and teachers to examine their own biases and question preconceived notions.
"There is a tendency in education to say âhere are normal people and here are different people and we have to be kind to those different people', whether it's race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age or faith."
Issues as sensitive as racism in schools tend to create situations where trying to do enough, it is extremely easy to do too much. Such was the case recently when The Manifesto Club, a British civil liberties group, created a furor when it reported that all across the country, primary and secondary schools were logging and reporting "racist" incidents involving children as young as four. Margaret Morrissey, a spokeswoman for Parents Outloud, believes that in this instance, O'Connor and the Nursery World are barking up an equally wrong tree.
"I'm sure these early years experts know their field but they seem to be obsessed about colour and determined to make everyone else obsessed about it too. Children just see a sheep in a field, whether it be black, grey, white or beige. I have worked with children for 41 years and I don't believe I have ever met a two year old who was in any way racist or prejudice."