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Bridging Racial Divides with Diversity in Children’s Media

June 4, 2020

How can we combat racism in our own households and classrooms? As an integral piece of our begin to ECSEL program, we teach children and educators to promote their own emotional intelligence while upholding the values of tolerance, empathy and anti-racism. In ECSEL classrooms -- and in most classrooms and homes around the worldcaregivers reach for children’s books and programming as a method of teaching important life lessons. Whether through access to picture books, movies, television or web-based children’s shows, a child’s experience consuming different forms of media can prompt conversations about what’s happening in the narrative, what the characters are feeling, and especially how what’s happening in the media might relate to the child. Children’s media offer an opportunity for children to feel as though they are a part of the story—or even more compelling—a part of the greater world.

In an environment of heightened racial conflict, injustice and intolerance, content produced for children—whether books or children’s programming—can provide an important lens through which children are better able to make sense of the world, while also fostering in them a greater empathy and understanding of the differences and similarities among us. But for these media forms to carry this positive role in young children’s lives, we—as the adults in their life—need to carefully curate what they consume, being sensitive to both the language and imagery that the media forms convey. This means that news coverage should be thoughtfully limited in the household, as it frequently shows extreme violence and themes of racism and aggression. Dr. Donna Housman, founder and CEO of Housman Institute says, “Witnessing too much information through news media with violent visuals and loud angry and scary sounds is overwhelming not only to children but to adults as well. Young children, although they are trying to understand, lack the reasoning skills to accurately make sense of what is happening and why.” That is why media to which children are exposed should be limited as much as possible to media produced for children, such as children’s literature, children’s television programming and family/children’s movies.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN CHILDREN’S MEDIA:

Diversity is important. In a process referred to as legitimization, the inclusion of characters from multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds allows young media as consumers of color to see their lives and experiences as visible and valuable. In addition to enhancing self-understanding and self-esteem, diverse media focused on inequality and empowerment support children of color’s academic motivation and literacy outcomes. Another value of diverse representation in children's media is, of course, also to educate and influence children within the social majority (i.e. Caucasian children in the United States). Media depicting the breadth and depth of other cultures provide children with a “window” into those other ways of life, therefore reducing the tendency to participate in what is sometimes referred to as “othering,” or treating people of other racial groups differently from how you treat people of your own.

WHY DIVERSE MEDIA IS IMPORTANT:

Research shows it is tremendously important to recognize that the cognitive and developmental implications of monochromatic (i.e. non-diverse) media have twin implications, each amplifying the other: to majority children, they subtly reinforce normalcy and even superiority; to minority children, just the opposite. When children of color are absent from children’s media it presents what author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls a “single story” that limits the opportunity for understanding in children across races. Issues of racial, ethnic and cultural equity in children’s media is more relevant than ever -- especially in light of recent developments in the political environment of the United States -- as children must be able to see what brings people together, and not what pulls them apart.

Young children need caring adults to help them construct a positive sense of self and a respectful understanding of others, as from a very young age children are exceptionally aware of the physical differences and inequalities between races. This awareness may be caused by an implicit bias that children hold about people who are visibly different from them.

WHAT YOU CAN DO:

You, as an important adult in a young child’s life, can play a pivotal role in helping children reconsider biased views and values in developmentally supportive and appropriate ways. In addition to seeking out information from anti-racism foundations and supporting civil rights organizations, exposing your children or students to diverse media can help open conversations about race relations and lead them toward a more tolerant and empathetic worldview that will inform their views and outlook in adulthood. Adults therefore have the power to create, teach, maintain or even eliminate bias. In another sense, because the realities of prejudice and discrimination are proven to affect children’s development from an early stage, it is developmentally appropriate – if not crucial – to address these issues in our interactions and education of young people

Below, you will find a list of some books, tv shows and movies that represent and celebrate diversity, inclusion and tolerance.* We encourage you to explore and share with your children. 

CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

AGES 0-6:

  • The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats 
  • Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison
  • Saturday by Oge Mora
  • Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o
  • Same, Same but Different by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw
  • What Is Given from the Heart by Patricia C. McKissack
  • Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
  • Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena 
  • Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews 
  • The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson
  • Black is a Rainbow Color by Angela Joy
  • Just Like Me by Vanessa Brantley Newton
  • I Am Human: A Book of Empathy by Susan Verde
  • Tallulah the Tooth Fairy CEO by Tamara Pizzoli
  • Layla’s Happiness by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie
  • Magnificent Homespun Brown: A Celebration by Samara Cole Doyon
  • Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry
  • Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty

AGES 7-9

  • Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson
  • The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander
  • Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes
  • Freedom Over Me by Ashley Bryan
  • Radiant Child by Javaka Steptoe
  • Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford 
  • The Book Itch by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
  • My People by Langston Hughes
  • Dave the Potter by Laban Carrick Hill
  • I Have a Dream by Kadir Nelson
  • The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes
  • Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson
  • When the Beat Was Born by Laban Carrick Hill
  • The Old Truck by Jarrett Pumphrey
  • Resist by Veronica Chambers 
  • Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness by Anastasia Higginbotham
  • New Kid by Jerry Craft
  • Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia
  • Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome 
  • The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson
  • The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon 
  • Octopus Stew by Eric Velasquez

Children's TV Programs:

  • Doc McStuffins
  • Bubble Guppies
  • Sesame Street
  • Handy Manny
  • Nella the Princess Knight
  • Ni Hao, Kai-lan
  • Nina's World
  • Mira, Royal Detective
  • Elena of Avalor

Movie Night Choices:

  • Liyana
  • Coco
  • Moana
  • Finding Nemo
  • Monster's Inc.
  • Big Hero 6
  • My Neighbor Totoro
  • Dancing in the Light: The Janet Collins Story
  • Akeelah and the Bee
  • A Ballerina's Tale
  • Black Panther
  • Wonder
  • Hidden Figures
  • I Am Eleven

* this list cannot be considered complete or comprehensive, as new options celebrating diversity are being produced regularly.

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