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With regard to the two articles by Boutte and Hyland about social justice in early childhood environments: 

  • Why does Boutte speak about “love” and “hate” in relation to social justice? 
  • Which two examples does Boutte provide that illustrate the misconceptions about diversity and which, in her opinion, contribute to   inequities and injustices? 
  • What pedagogical strategies supporting social justice does the author present? 
  • What is the key difference between culturally relevant pedagogy and critical pedagogy? 
  • How are issues of power and inequity addressed in either of these pedagogies? 
  • What relevant insight about social justice in early childhood environment did you gain from studying these two articles?

ABSTRACT. Whereas professional
organizations recognize the centrality of
diversity in school curricula and instruc-
tional practices and most educators con-
ceptually agree, little of this information
and ideology is translated into class-
rooms. When examining the ethos in
most schools, the valuation of diversity
is not readily apparent in teacher atti-
tudes, instructional practices, curricula,
and school policies. Although rapidly
changing demographics and accompa-
nying negative performance trends of
students from nonmainstream back-
grounds implore educators to consider
issues of diversity and equity, teachers
give little or no substantive attention to
sociocultural and sociopolitical issues
that mediate teaching and learning in an
increasingly diverse world. In this article
the author encourages educators to envi-
sion and enact new legacies on behalf of
humanity. The author discusses issues

of social justice along with pedagogical
strategies and includes examples from
micro and macro levels of society.

Keywords: diversity, early childhood,
pedagogy, social justice

The arc of the moral universe is long, but
it bends toward justice.

—Martin Luther King Jr.

n this article, I explore what we as
teachers can do to ensure that “the

arc of the moral universe continues to
bend toward justice.” I summon us to
collectively envision and teach peda-
gogies that can potentially positively
change the world beyond what our cur-
rent worldviews permit us to imagine.
Presenting examples from the micro
to the macro levels, I pose the follow-
ing questions: Why should educators
candidly address issues such as race,
discrimination, hate, and oppression
in early childhood classrooms? Which
pedagogical approaches should be used?
How do we create a more inclusive rath-
er than exlcusive social order?

“Freedom and love,” according to
historian and author Robin D. G. Kel-
ley, “may be the ‘most revolutionary
ideas’ available to people, but academ-
ics have ‘failed miserably’ in under-
standing their significance” (qtd. in

Frank 2000). In general, we are doing
a grave disservice to prospective and
practicing teachers if we provide little
or no substantive attention to socio-
cultural and sociopolitical issues that
mediate teaching and learning in an
increasingly diverse world (Freire
1999; Nieto 2003). I am concerned
that many teacher educators are not
well versed on issues of diversity and
the corresponding knowledge bases
and, thus, will bequeath this legacy to
our charges. Few of us have developed
tools to address difficult issues such as
discrimination and oppression, and we
likely naïvely believe that if we respect
the individual child, all will be well. I
wonder who will provide children with
the necessary critical skills and knowl-
edge base that they will likely need.

In this article, I consider two four-letter
words—hate and love—that are largely
ignored in teacher education programs.
In educational settings, love connotes
that all humans deserve the right to dig-
nity, freedom, and equal opportunities.
On the other hand, hate in educational
settings is defined as a lack of compas-
sion and lack of respect for the rights of
others. Like hatred in the social sense,
it is usually not intentional but often
results from lack of knowledge. Pro-
fessing love for children and humanity

Beyond the Illusion of Diversity:
How Early Childhood Teachers
Can Promote Social Justice
GLORIA SWINDLER BOUTTE

GLORIA SWINDLER BOUTTE is an asso-
ciate professor of early childhood educa-
tion and the Schuyler and Yvonne Moore
Child Advocacy Distinguished Chair at the
University of South Carolina. She is the
author of Multicultural Education: Raising
Consciousness, Resounding Voices: School
Experiences of People from Diverse Ethnic
Backgrounds and numerous other publica-
tions related to diversity.

THE SOCIAL STUDIES JULY/AUGUST 2008 165

I

Copyright © 2008 Heldref Publications

without reflective and collaborative
action is inadequate.

Educators face the challenge of pre-
paring students from diverse populations
and backgrounds to live in a rapidly
changing world in which some groups
have greater societal benefits than oth-
ers because of race, ethnicity, gender,
class, language, religion, ability, or age.
Approximately 40 percent of students
in U.S. schools are from African, Asian,
Latino, and Native American ethnic
groups. In urban schools, 63 percent
of the student population consists of
students of color; in areas on the fringe
of cities, 36 percent; and in small towns
and rural areas, 20 percent (National
Center for Education Statistics n.d.a).
Extending the demographic lens beyond
the United States, the majority of the
world’s population consists of people
of color, with Asians and Africans com-
posing nearly 75 percent of the world’s
population, 60 percent and 14 percent,
respectively (World Almanac Education
Group 2006). Yet, the vast majority of
students in U.S. schools know little or
nothing about people and culture in the
eastern hemisphere.

The knowledge base on culture,
diversity, and equity issues is volumi-
nous and has existed for decades (Banks
2006; Pak 2005; Woodson 1990), but
the language of culturally relevant
pedagogy and cultural diversity—used
heavily in accreditation reports, course
syllabi, and policy statements—is often
rhetorical in classrooms (Boutte 2002a).
Although the National Council for
Accreditation of Teacher Education, the
National Association for the Education
of Young Children, and other profes-
sional/accrediting organizations recog-
nize the centrality of diversity in school
curricula and instructional practices
and most educators conceptually agree,
classroom practices that substantively
address diversity are more illusionary
than real (Villegas and Lucas 2002).

There is much that we could and
should do in teacher education programs
to better prepare early childhood edu-
cators to address complex issues such
as discrimination and hatred. Notwith-
standing some of the important efforts
to make antibias instruction an integral

part of early childhood classrooms (Der-
man-Sparks and the A.B.C. Task Force
1989; Derman-Sparks, Ramsey, and
Edwards 2006), current events indicate
there is still much work to be done. Edu-
cators need to develop and institutional-
ize programs and practices that “make
attention to diversity, equity, and social
justice centrally important” (Banks et
al. 2005, 274). In the following sections,
I present personal and societal examples
that point to the need for early child-
hood educators to increase the vigilance
of their efforts. I also detail pedagogical
strategies to address some of the associ-
ated concerns.

Why Should Educators Candidly
Address Issues Such as Race,
Discrimination, Hate, and
Oppression in Early Childhood
Classrooms?

There is no other profession in the
world that directly or indirectly touches
the lives of people at the same level as
teachers do. While educators are not
responsible for all that is good, bad, or
indifferent in schools and society, they
can certainly take a more active stance
to fight for good (Nieto 2003). While
acknowledging the structural inequi-
ties in society and schools that limit
educators’ impact and simultaneously
recognizing the need to collaborate with
like-minded individuals, this article is
a call to action. Assuming that the vast
majority of teachers enter the profes-
sion to make a difference in the lives
of their students does not negate the
fact that without guidance and appro-
priate knowledge bases, educators are
likely to inadvertently contribute to
oppression—despite good intentions.
Without a knowledge base in critical
pedagogy and corresponding strategies
for addressing issues of oppression and
discrimination, many teachers are over-
whelmed by the rapidity of changing
demographics. Inherent in many con-
ventional educational knowledge bases
and teaching methods is a deficit per-
spective that “functions as an instru-
ment that is used to facilitate the inte-
gration of the younger generation into
the logic of the present system and bring

about conformity to it” (Shaull 1999,
16). We have the right to remain silent,
but silence on issues of oppression and
discrimination connotes agreement.

The following sections present two
illusions that educators may have, with
examples that demonstrate the need to
actively address social justice issues
with young children. Appendix A shows
comments made by my son when he
was four; appendixes B–D present com-
ments from university students. Appen-
dix B is used to emphasize worst-case
scenarios of unresolved diversity issues.
At the end of each section, I offer some
advice for educators.

Illusion 1: Young Children Are
Colorblind and Do Not Think about
Issues of Race and Racism

As appendix A points out, young
children are continuously internalizing
messages about people who are differ-
ent than they are—even when parents
value diversity. It is thus important that
children receive ongoing messages from
several sources that convey a commit-
ment to social justice and equity.

The first part of my conversation with
Jonathan is characterized by his mono-
syllabic responses indicating his general
disinterest in my “lecture.” Neverthe-
less, I wanted to emphasize that it is a
privilege to have a home, so I contin-
ued. His comments that people from
different racial backgrounds could not
live together surprised me, and I tried
presenting information that countered
these notions. It intrigued me that he
classified people from the Asian dias-
pora as white (when he said he did not
know any Asian people). Although I
had actively taught Jonathan that people
from different backgrounds can coex-
ist, the larger societal message of racial
divisions remained somewhere deep in
his consciousness.

Jonathan is not unlike most other
children who very adeptly internalize
social divisions they see around them.
Recently, my friend’s eleven-year-old
daughter queried, “Mom, why do you
always move your mouth like this [illus-
trating her mother’s grimace] when you
talk?” I chuckled because her comments

166 JULY/AUGUST 2008 THE SOCIAL STUDIES

THE SOCIAL STUDIES MAY/JUNE 1996 167 THE SOCIAL STUDIES JULY/AUGUST 2008 167

The residual effects of living in a racially
stratified society do not escape children’s
detection.

reminded me of my daughter’s constant
“social criticism” and commentaries of
my every move and nuance. What par-
ents and educators do not say or do is
as powerful as what we do. We often
inadvertently teach children how to
behave, and since they are programmed
to survive in the settings and culture
into which they are born, they are very
proficient at studying adults’ actions
and unspoken values.

Returning to my dialogue with Jona-
than leads me to examine how other
influences may have contradicted and
undermined my efforts at home. The
book collection at his preschool was
typical. The books were primarily Euro-
centric or portrayed animals with char-
acteristics and values of mainstream
lifestyles. Presenting an occasional
book about an ethnic or cultural group
does not teach children to view diversity
as the norm rather than the exception.
Most of the books in Jonathan’s class-
room focused on whites. Reading only
a few books here and there on people of
color (often historical folktales) sends
strong messages about what is normal
and what is not (Boutte 2002b). Exam-
ples of people living and working across
cultural lines are virtually invisible in
many classroom book collections—even
in fairytales. Likewise, other media (i.e.,
television, movies, videos) depictions
of living and working together across
racial lines are often absent.

In terms of Jonathan’s perspective
regarding cross-racial relationships, I
had to reexamine ways that I may have
presented contradictory information
at home. I queried myself about val-
ues that I may have covertly or overtly
taught Jonathan about how to treat and
view people different from us. How do
I approach people from different ethnic
groups in public (e.g., grocery store)?
Do I make eye contact? Do I smile and
greet them or suddenly find something
to look at in the opposite direction? Do I
send ever-so-slight nonverbal messages
that do not go unnoticed by my astute
child whose primary job is to figure out
what is appropriate and inappropriate
based on my actions? What is the eth-
nicity of the children who sleep over at
our house or who are invited to birthday

parties? These questions can lead each
of us to think deeply about how we
teach children to accept or reject others
who differ from us.

On careful reflection, I recognized
that even though I tried to teach Jona-
than to appreciate diversity, my efforts
were small in comparison to societal
realities beyond our home. For example,
even simple observations of families in

Jonathan’s childcare settings would lead
him to conclude that families are seg-
regated by race. That is, parents and
children at his childcare center were
matched by race. Therefore, Jonathan’s
conclusions were logical.

Revisiting my own efforts at home,
although we vacillated between attend-
ing a church with an interracial congre-
gation and an all-black one, I am certain
that Jonathan detected unspoken sub-
texts that escaped my radar. For exam-
ple, it is likely that I conveyed more
enjoyment, relaxation, and serenity at
the black church. Moreover, despite our
attempts to expose Jonathan to an inte-
grated church setting, observations of
the larger society reveal that most places
of worship remain racially divided.

Reflecting on what Jonathan very
astutely inferred based on his obser-
vations and experiences, it is appar-
ent that the social structures children
observe do not frequently lend them-
selves to high-quality cross-cultural
interactions. The residual effects of liv-
ing in a racially stratified society do
not escape children’s detection. While
my cross-racial friends and I generally
believe in basic principles of respect for
humanity and seek to extend our social
justice efforts beyond our professional
lives into our personal lives, we never
quite reach the same level as my same-
race friends. For example, I often find
myself explaining intricate details of
my cultural existence to my cross-racial
friends to help them more fully under-

stand a particular context or instance.
At times, my role is more like an infor-
mant than a friend—especially when
we are in the company of others. One-
on-one, our connections are generally
fine, albeit more guarded and formal.
My closest white friend, Susan, and I
worked hard to become bi-directionally
integrated into each other’s lives. Our
families (children, mothers, spouses)

know one another. Our children attend
each other’s birthday parties. We invite
each other to parties and informal set-
tings. Yet, the realization that there are
important things that we do not know
about one another or the realization that
some of our friends are quite uncom-
fortable when we are all together places
limits on our friendship. For example,
once Susan confessed that she never got
a chance to speak when we were play-
ing games at my house. I laughed and
tried to explain African American con-
cepts of co-narration and overlapping,
which permit more than one person to
talk at once or one person completing
another’s sentences (which is distinctly
different from the linear, one-person-at-
a-time convention). I added that in my
family the speaker has the responsibility
of being able to gain and hold the audi-
ence’s attention. Susan’s culture, on the
other hand, guided her to wait for a turn
to speak—which never happened at my
house. When she tried to assert herself
in her soft, courteous voice, others who
could engage listeners often overtook
her (we did not consider this to be rude
from our cultural perspective).

Another poignant example occurred
when one of my African American
friends and her husband invited several
white couples from their neighborhood
to their annual Christmas party. It was
interesting to observe the African Amer-
icans as they arrived and to notice the
ever-so-slight shock at the mixed com-
pany (which was atypical). The tone of

168 MAY/JUNE 1996 THE SOCIAL STUDIES168 JULY/AUGUST 2008 THE SOCIAL STUDIES

the party was somewhat artificial and
stilted. Interestingly, all of the white
couples left first after spending what
must have seemed to be the appropri-
ate amount of time to be polite. The
tone of the party changed considerably
after they left—becoming more relaxed,
more sustained, and filled with louder
laughter—even though all the black
couples did not know one another.

So what can educators learn from all
of this? First, we have to question how
and why it is possible for us to coex-
ist and not be familiar with our class-
mates’, neighbors’, and fellow citizens’
various cultural communication styles.
As educators, we have an opportunity
to extend the currently limited defini-
tions of humanity so that a wide range
of lifestyles and perspectives are seen as
acceptable. This requires careful exami-
nation of our instruction, curricula, and
resources to determine which ideologies
and worldviews are central and which are
invisible. Educators can also provide and
reinforce strategies and tools for commu-
nicating and adapting in cross-cultural
situations. Herein lies the depth of the
opportunity that early childhood educa-
tion teachers have. I am hopeful that we
can begin to change the hearts, minds,
and behaviors of our young charges.
While young children often eagerly play
cross racially (Delpit 2007), they have
“an unstated but nonetheless sophisti-
cated understanding of issues of race and
power” (Tenorio 2007, 20). Countering
discrimination and inequities should
involve thoughtful, ongoing efforts from
several sources since children learn
covert and overt messages from many
sources, including television, home life,
literature, and peers.

Illusion 2: Multiculturalism and
Diversity Are Valued in Today’s Society

Although the ethos of appreciation of
diversity is frequently espoused, most
Americans have few opportunities to
discuss issues and take actions that work
toward the appreciation of both unity and
diversity among people. The messages
in appendixes B–D were copied from a
women’s and men’s restroom at a mid-
size, mostly white university. The mes-

sages were written on the walls of the
three stalls, with most of the writing in
the second stall. While early childhood
educators cannot fathom young chil-
dren holding strong beliefs and opinions
such as the ones recorded in appendixes
B–D, the thoughts developed over time
and did not start at adulthood. Addition-
ally, young children live among adults
and are socialized by people who hold
varying values about diversity.

These scribbled writings on taboo
topics, which young adults in college
wrote within the secrecy of restroom
stalls, likely convey antidiversity sub-
texts in society. Based on the handwrit-
ing and colors with which the comments
were written, it appears that a different
person wrote each comment.

On reading the first comment (see
appendix B), I was compelled to docu-
ment the apparent need for discourse
on the topic. Although it probably
loses some of its impact when trans-
ferred from the bathroom wall to paper,
I immediately sat down and recorded
it all—staying in the bathroom for an
extended period of time and returning
the next day to take photos, fearing the
graffiti would be painted over. Was the
restroom the only allowable outlet for
these adult women (presumably) to
express their suppressed feelings?

Interestingly, the initial comment
elicited a thread of comments in this
“bathroom chat room.” The first writer
seems to have a need to talk about rac-
ism—a taboo topic in society. The sec-
ond person responded by questioning
social and political racial categories.
The third writer discouraged this dia-
logue, seemingly intimating that writing
on bathroom stalls is foolish and that the
topic does not warrant discussion. As
the comments continued, another per-
son chimed in by recognizing the beau-
ty of differences among humans and
resisting categorical divisions of race
but expressing discontent that whites
cannot openly celebrate some aspects
of their culture. This is followed by a
person, perhaps in jest, promoting hate
and divisions among groups. The next
commenter made an attempt to express
love for humanity, albeit, laced with
stereotypes. Finally, an acknowledge-

ment that American Indians are indig-
enous people is met with a distinction
between eastern and western Indians
(concepts that have undoubtedly been
overtly taught).

Wondering whether these university
students had ever been given the oppor-
tunity to write about their latent emotions
surrounding race, I continued to read the
comments. One writer tried to distin-
guish between institutional and individ-
ual acts of racism—an important dis-
tinction to learn about when discussing
racial issues. A member of the “fashion
police” felt compelled to tell the writers
to “shut up,” while inserting a pejora-
tive label for females. Another woman’s
question, “Why fight?,” seems to imply
that we are all humans and are more
similar than different. The coup de grâce
came from an African-centric “essay”
laced with sexist language (“ho”) and
divisiveness. The final single-word com-
ment (“STOP”) nicely truncates the con-
versation, although there seems to be a
need for open dialogue.

Having recorded every word in stall
2, I moved to the next stall where I
found a few brief comments about reli-
gion (appendix C). This brief discussion
about religion begins with an expression
of atheism, which leads to the classic
creation versus evolution dialogue. The
Christian comment about heaven seems
to suggest unity, while at the same time
negating any non-Christian religious
choices.

Racial epithets and accompany-
ing remarks were also made in stall 3
(appendix D). Having the opportunity
to write the dreaded “n-word” in public,
the first writer provides an etymological
analysis. There is no evidence of what
prompted the comment. The second
comment is an example of racism dis-
guised as empathy. The third comment
is simply hateful. While racial epithets
are not permitted or tolerated in schools,
many teachers do not know how to
handle them when they occur in class-
rooms (Boutte 1999; Tatum 2007). As
an African American parent, I warned
my daughter that she may hear the word
nigger one day. When she was in third
grade, one day she eagerly rushed home
to report that a white child had called

her best friend (and the only other black
child in the classroom) a “nigger.” My
daughter was excited that she had actu-
ally heard someone use the word and
did not concentrate on the word’s hurt-
ful intent. I was pleased to learn that the
teacher handled the situation in a com-
mendable manner. She first took care
of the victim’s feelings and then repri-
manded the child who made the offen-
sive comment and contacted his parents.
She also spoke to the class about the
issue. The drawback of the situation is
that discussions of racism, classism,
sexism, and other forms of discrimi-
nation were not part of the classroom
dialogue. Although dealing with these
topics is undoubtedly complicated and
difficult, when left unaddressed, faulty
beliefs and stereotypes develop and can
potentially fester.

Race can even define children’s games
(e.g., a child might say something like,
“You can’t be the queen. There are no
black queens.”) As teachers, it is impor-
tant to recognize racism’s effect on
children, address the issue directly, and
give children the skills they will need
to combat racism in their lives (Tenorio
2007). Omitting the word race obscures
the issues at hand.

Returning to the graffiti in the bath-
room, one writer artistically wrote in
huge, two-dimensional colored letters,
“Love each other.” This message, while
sweet, is naïve and simplistic, missing
the mark as does much of the typical
commentary on race relations in early
childhood classrooms. The writer urges
readers to see our larger connection as
humans and to seek harmony among dif-
ferent ideologies, cultures, ethnic groups,
and economic and political systems.

The comments obviously reflect
issues about race and racism that need
to be discussed. I wondered how many
of the students revisited the dialogue
and what purpose it served in their lives.
Did they think about their comments
before writing them? Did they strategi-
cally go to the restroom when they had
time to write undetected? What prompt-
ed the first comment? Did any of the
women discuss what they had written
with others or in classes? Would they
feel comfortable doing so? How many

of these women were going to be or
were already teachers?

Without venues to discuss issues
surrounding diversity, actions and dis-
course will continue in subversive ways.
Teachers need guidelines and profes-
sional development on these topics.
Multiculturalism is often valued con-
ceptually versus practically and efforts
to address diversity issues are frequently
superficial.

Many may think that acts of hatred
are few and do not affect our daily lives.
Examining acts of genocide around the
world, the January 2006 issue of Nation-
al Geographic reported that an alarm-
ing 50 million people have been killed
during the twentieth century (Simons
2006). In many cases, the perpetrators
of these heinous acts were following
orders. Readers in the United States may
feel relieved and disconnected because
the genocide accounts cited were from
Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East,
and South America, and instances in
the United States were conspicuous-
ly missing. However, approximately
5,000 people—mostly African Ameri-
can men—were lynched in the United
States between 1882 and 1968 (Walker
2003). Additionally, the number of hate
groups continues to escalate each year,
and there were 844 hate groups in the
United States in 2006 (Southern Poverty
Law Center 2007). Children from fami-
lies who teach hate attend our schools.
In many cases, teachers may be the only
people who have a realistic chance of
countering such indoctrination by pre-
senting other perspectives.

National Geographic posed the fol-
lowing question to readers: “Will
humans ever overcome the ethnic
hatreds and other factors that contribute
to genocide?” (Simons 2006, 35). The
results were close: 52 percent of 12,987
respondents said “yes” and 47 percent
said “no” (National Geographic n.d.).
As Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie
Wiesel notes, “Only human beings can
move me to despair. But only human
beings can remove me from despair”
(Simons, 35).

Despite worldwide protests, wars
such as the one in Iraq continue to erupt
and result in the loss of lives of innocent

people. As long as hatred dwells in the
human mind, real peace is impossible
(Vreeland 2001). So we have to learn
how to fight hatred and to attack its
roots. But first we have to be able to
recognize it—even when it is disguised
as education or socialization.

While genocide represents extreme
acts of hatred and divisiveness, most
societies inadvertently teach division
and ethnocentrism early on. It starts
with seemingly benign and common
instances: girls versus boys, us versus
them (these poles can represent any
groups), the Lakers versus the Suns,
the Deltas versus the non-Deltas, my
state versus other states, east side versus
west side, Bloods versus Crips, and so
on. While these polarities are not hate-
ful per se, the sense of competition is
embedded and becomes second nature.
People often become so vested in the
divisions that they forget that most of
them are contrived and not originally
intended to be taken beyond a healthy
level of amiable competition.

It is important for children to begin
to understand the social, environmen-
tal, and situational roots of the hostility
that leads to hatred and genocide (Zinn
2007). Children can learn that these
events are not inevitable and adults need
to show them how such antagonisms
divide people, thus making it difficult
for them to solve their problems.

For many early childhood teacher
educators and teachers, the thought of
addressing issues of hate and oppres-
sion is daunting because most of us
tend to be most familiar with and asso-
ciate with people who are similar to
us. It may also be difficult for us to
conceive of relinquishing some of our
favorite dichotomies since these are
a part of our identities. Additionally,
conventional wisdom regarding what
young children are capable of process-
ing makes many teachers understand-
ably leery about venturing into such …

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Social Justice in Early Childhood Classrooms What the Research Tells Us
Hyland, Nora E
YC Young Children; Jan 2010; 65, 1; ProQuest One Academic
pg. 82

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