We attended an evening meeting for prospective kindergarten parents last week. I was sitting there, following the 45 minute presentation pretty well, actually thinking to myself–this doesn’t sound that bad. And then came the part about units. The kindergarten program has three units each year including the ocean and (da-dum!) Africa. I let out a huge sigh, loud enough that my husband turned and raised his eyebrows at me. Africa? I mouthed. He rolled his eyes and shook his head (at the unit or my reaction?) and turned back to the presentation.
In the brief meet-and-greet with the kindergarten teachers following the presentation, I asked my questions. What exactly were the kindergarteners studying during the “Africa” unit? (Mostly animals.) Were they studying a particular area of the continent of Africa, or a specific country? (No.)
Sometimes international students from the college come and talk to the kids, said one teacher. At the end of the unit, we let African American kindergarteners talk to the class about their family’s culture–one child talked about Kwanzaa, added another teacher, beaming at me. I tried to smile. I drifted away.
I looked around the classroom that was just finishing their unit on Africa. There were grey construction paper elephants in a group on one bulletin board. The only photographs from Africa were ten old black and white photographs, blown up to 11×17, marching along one wall above the coat hooks. They were unlabelled photos of people living in rural poverty. The people all had short hair, very little clothing, and were shown (for example) squatting around a stone-encircled fire.
Let me be clear: I do not have a problem with displaying photographs of the indigenous or poor peoples in Africa, however they historically lived or currently live. My main problem is this: these were the only photographs or pictures of people of color in any of the kindergarten classrooms.
As I wrote earlier, this is not a racially or culturally diverse school, nor does it embrace multiculturalism. I had been warned by more than one acquaintance that this school (when it did include anything non-White) consistently exoticized people of color. Example #1: Black people live far away in the rural deserts of Africa with large scary animals. This style of presentation makes Black Americans (and Black children in the class, if there are any) exotic, strange, other.
My secondary problem is that Africa is not a homogeneous region of the world. It is a vast continent made up of 53 nations, more than 1000 languages, and people of all races and an uncountable number of ethnicities. To “study” Africa in kindergarten (in a unit that lasts less than 3 months) seems so broad as to do nothing more than perpetuate stereotypes.
Imagine the kindergarten was instead doing a unit on Europe, an area of the world that includes about 50 countries (depending on who’s counting) as diverse as Ireland, Poland, Germany, France, Italy, Greece, Switzerland, Turkey, Croatia, Spain, and Russia. Is it possible to construct a remotely accurate generalization of the daily life of European people (as well as European wildlife)? I don’t think it is.
I pulled a book out of the kids’ shelves to read to them last week, after the parents’ meeting. It is one of my favorites. Africa Is Not a Country describes and shows the daily life of children in 25 different countries in Africa. The book includes almost no animals, and people of all skin-colors.
We donated a copy to the elementary school library today.