Clark's mother was so tense that her hands shook as she approached Louise Derman-Sparks to ask a question about her 2-year-old son.
The boy is enrolled in the nationally respected children's school of Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena, and Derman-Sparks teaches there.
"Clark's mother told me the following story," said Derman-Sparks, who has written extensively on early childhood education.
"She was washing Clark's hair, and when she finished he said, 'Now my hair is white.' She said, 'No, your hair is black.' He said, 'No, it's white, only the dirt was black.'
"So Clark's mother took him to a mirror and showed him his hair was still black.
"But even when he could see his black hair, he insisted it was white because it was clean."
The incident by itself seemed innocent enough, even a bit funny. But, considered in context with a couple of other disconcerting comments from her son (whose name has been changed for this account), it led the distressed mother to ask:
"Does this mean Clark is a racist?" There are no 2-year-old racists, said Derman-Sparks, who is writing an anti-bias curriculum for preschoolers in cooperation with the Pacific Oaks Children's School faculty.
But children as young as 2 can exhibit a potentially explosive "pre-prejudice," she said. Pre-prejudice is the lowest rung on a ladder that leads to racial prejudice.
Blocking an Approach
Pre-prejudice can be checked, and when it is, a ladder to racism is splintered, although that only blocks one approach to racist behavior and does not prevent other ladders being built later on, Derman-Sparks said.
"You can't immunize children against racism, but you can eliminate pre-prejudice, and in so doing you begin to give children the tools to deal with prejudice as they grow older. That's what we are trying to do," concluded Derman-Sparks, who has taught at Pacific Oaks for 12 years after serving in Ypsilanti, Mich., as a curriculum and teacher supervisor for a Headstart program that was a national model.
The need for early childhood programs to combat racism was underlined by Lyla Hoffman, who retired this year as director of the resource center for the Council on Interracial Books for Children in New York.
"There have been dozens and dozens of studies showing children at a very young age pick up attitudes about race," she said. There have also been a very limited number of curriculums written to deal with early childhood racial problems, Hoffman added.
But, she noted, "there is very little available for parents and teachers that explains the theory and research and how it fits into general child development, and gives you examples of what you can do about it. The idea of the Pacific Oaks curriculum is that it will put together what's known about child development with actual observations of real live children to provide curriculum examples that have been tried and tested. This will be invaluable."
Derman-Sparks says of the Pacific Oaks project, "The thing that's radical about it is that nobody's doing it. And nobody's doing it because people don't understand what's happening to young kids. People don't understand the gravity of the problem. As soon as children become aware of color differences, they connect them with racist attitudes and emotional discomfort among adults about racial differences. It's a subconscious recognition for the children, but it's a real and frightening recognition. Kids don't live in a vacuum, you know."
Clark, the 2-year-old who equated black with dirt, projected his error beyond hair color. He exclaimed "Yucky!" upon seeing pictures of blacks, and he refused to hold a black child's hand "because she is dirty."
After Clark's mother voiced her fears, his teacher, Maria Gutierrez, made a concerted effort to change the boy's direction.
Gutierrez, who is a dark-skinned Latina, read to him from books featuring black and Latin characters, she smeared black and brown dolls with dirt and let Clark bathe them, she developed a special friendship with the boy.
Three months after Clark's mother talked with Derman-Sparks, he came up to Gutierrez and said matter of factly, "You're my friend." "Yes, I'm your friend," responded the teacher. There was no apparent thought in Clark's mind that Gutierrez was "dirty," despite the color of her skin.
Derman-Sparks cites two theories about how racism begins: psychological and institutional.
Psychological racism involves individuals like Clark who, for reasons more or less specific to their own situations, develop biases against persons of other races.
The theory of institutional racism is that society as a whole promotes racist attitudes and that if those attitudes can be arrested in time, significant amounts of racism can be averted or at least diluted.