Skip to main content

Teaching children to challenge racism

Ronda Taylor Bullock isn’t waiting to finish her doctorate in education before tackling big classroom issues.

Bullock (B.A. ’04, MAT ’05), a doctoral candidate in Policy, Leadership and School Improvement at the School of Education, is working with elementary schoolchildren in Durham, helping them identify, confront and challenge behaviors that arise from stereotypes, and racial prejudice and bias.

Bullock led the creation of an organization called “we are,” which stands for “working to extend anti-racist education.” “We are” conducts professional development workshops for teachers and offers summer camps to elementary school students.

Bullock said she felt like waiting until young adulthood to have these conversations is too late.

“I wanted to focus on children because I know these things happen to kids,” she said. “Our racial identities are being formed at early ages.”

Bullock and “we are” pursue what’s called “anti-racist” education, which goes beyond teaching about the benefits of multiculturalism or about the harms of racial bias. “Anti-racist” education is aimed at helping people identify racial bias or prejudicial behaviors and then provides tools for standing up to both interpersonal and systemic racism.

For example, students role-play incidents that can be deemed racist or disrespectful. One example Bullock gives is the mispronunciation of names. The students read a book about a young immigrant child whose name was being mispronounced and how that made the child feel.

Bullock had the students act out how to respond when someone mispronounces their name or tells them that their name is hard to pronounce.

“We taught them to say, ‘Well, actually, my name isn’t hard to pronounce, but it’s hard for you and I will help you to say it.’”

Bullock called that response “shifting the deficit,” letting the person know it’s their fault they can’t properly pronounce the name — not the fault of the child or the child’s family.

Another activity her camp co-facilitator used last year with the first- and second-grade students involved hand puppets: a white male and a black male. Bullock said the co-facilitator narrated a story about the black puppet not being allowed to come to the white puppet’s house because of the color of his skin.

“And you could have heard a pin drop when that story was being told to those children,” Bullock recalled. “They were on the edge listening, paying attention. It just did something to them to hear that story.”

Bullock said they were so engaged because they could not believe that could happen to somebody — even though they had been discussing racist behavior throughout the week.

“Something about that puppet interaction changed it for them, which was really powerful to watch and to observe,” she said.

A passionate problem-solver

Bullock can believe it would happen because it happened to her.

She was 5 years old, and a white female classmate named everyone she was inviting to her birthday party.

Bullock was the only student sitting at their table who was not invited. She asked her classmate why.

“She said, ‘Because my dad said black people are not allowed in our home,’” Bullock recalled.

It was one of the incidents that would eventually lead Bullock to start “we are,” with the help of other doctoral students within the School of Education. Her work is getting attention. She was recently awarded a $125,000 grant from the Kenan Charitable Trust to conduct anti-racism training in three Durham public schools and to provide resources to educators that supports culturally-relevant pedagogy.

Before Bullock returned to UNC to get her doctorate, she taught at Hillside High School in Durham for nine years. She called teaching there a “beautiful struggle,” having to balance issues that come with working in public schools with her passion for children. But she realized there was more work she needed to do on a different scale.

“I had grown frustrated with seeing the number of black and brown boys coming into high school as ninth graders not reading on grade level,” Bullock said, adding that she felt guilty because she wasn’t prepared to teach them how to read.

She’d already earned her master’s degree in teaching, but she planned to get a second master’s. This time, she’d study the early literacy experiences of young minority men and become an elementary principal. But one of her mentors encouraged her to get her doctorate instead. Bullock entered the School of Education doctoral program in the fall of 2014.

Almost immediately she began drafting ideas for “we are.” Bullock reached out to the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University, where the staff offered her their support and guidance. And she received a $5,000 grant from the UNC social innovation incubator, which “we are” used to host its first events in 2016: a Let’s Talk Racism conference for educators, and a summer camp for children held at the Central Park School for Children in Durham.

Bullock had 15 kids during the first camp: seven African-American, five white and three multi-racial. Last year she had a total of 55 campers, including Latino and Asian students.

The camp is literacy-based, so students’ discussions and activities center on books that they read. Each student is given a copy of the books so by the end of the camp, they have their own at-home library of books that promote racial equity and justice.

Camp stimulates conversations

Angela Davis, whose son Matthew has attended the camps the past two years, said those books were a good resource for her. Davis said she had already started having race discussions with Matthew before he attended his first camp at age 6. She thought sending him to camp would be a way to further those discussions, and Davis said the books have helped give her the appropriate language to use when talking to her son, an African-American, about race and racism.

“We were already talking,” Davis said, “but this kind of opened it up even more.”

Rachel Littles sent her son Ryan, now 7, to the camp the last two years because she wanted him to understand some of the things he might encounter as an African-American male. She also wanted him to be proud of his heritage and what other people who look like him have accomplished.

Littles said she got feedback from Ryan’s teacher this year that he had been a leader during class discussions about race, and that he’d shared information he learned at camp.

Littles said the camp was where Ryan had his first in-depth conversations about race.

“That’s one thing that we were so impressed about the camp,” she said. “They were able to explain these topics that grown people struggle with in a way that the youngest children are able to understand.”

Cherish Williams, a board member of “we are,” said Bullock was “spot on” in recognizing that children need to be taught early about racism and that parents need to be given the resources to help them when they encounter it.

Williams, a doctoral candidate in School Psychology in the School of Education, said children know a lot more than what they are given credit for. She said parents who have signed their children up for camp initially think that they don’t know anything about racism.

Not true, Williams said.

“I feel like we’ve yet to meet a child that didn’t know anything about race and racism,” she said.

Bullock is on track to complete her doctorate this year, and she’d like to make “we are” her full-time job. She’s gearing up for her third summer camp and third Let’s Talk Racism conference.

But her dream is to see anti-racism work embedded in school systems, and to help create polices that improve the educational outcomes for all children.

“With this new grant, I was thinking about how we can be more involved in schools and become more systematic,” Bullock said. “Eventually, my ultimate goal is to use what we’re learning through the camp to advocate for anti-racist curriculum and anti-racist policy.”

+ Share This

By Jonnelle Davis