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The World of -Isms in the World of Early Childhood Education

The World of -Isms in the World of Early Childhood Education

Racism, classism, and ableism are concepts that affect our society in many ways. Often times these factors in our society bring negative proclivities that affect individuals and groups who are labeled and experience stigma because they oppose the imagery or lifestyle of the dominant culture. There is a great social stratification within our society based upon race, class, gender and other diverse matters that divide this country.

Racism, classism, and ableism of a society can transfer and affect our classrooms which shifts the dynamics of our education settings causing a divide in our mission of inclusion, diversity, and high quality education for all children “For too long, educators’ approach to understanding the relationships between poverty, class, and education has been framed by studying the behaviors and cultures of poor students and their families” (Gorski, 2007, p. 30). 

Our personal biases and generalized misunderstanding of people, groups, and individuals are influenced by our environments, social cultural experiences, family cultures and beliefs, and the most influential is through the media. These factors can persuade and achieve biases and stereotypes of people in various groups and individuals. “A broader and deeper understanding of racism and other biases is central to acknowledging linkages between varieties of discrimination, hopefully enhancing the possibility of conceptual and practical reconciliation…” (Ford, 2009, par.5). 


The U.S. has a history of division and divide between phenotypical differences in human beings for many decades. The dominant culture in this country are rich white men who are economically and political empowered in this country. Many decisions made in this country are based upon the Eurocentric ideas and concepts that hold a fixed position of power in society. “Racism is taught. Through both explicit and implicit messages, society teaches ideas, attitudes and assumptions about race that are not true” (Margles & Margles, 2010, p.137).

Racism in this country has negatively affected people of color for many years. As an African-American woman there are racial discriminations that affect me directly and indirectly. The issue of race that directly and indirectly affects my life as an African-American women is colorism. Colorism has affected the African-American culture for decades in this country. 

The dominant culture in this country has used the colorism as a vice to divide the African-American community based upon skin color. The whiter you look the higher your chances are to become more privilege, afforded more advancements, and life achievements. “In fact, light-skinned people earn more money, complete more years of schooling, live in better neighborhoods, and marry higher-status people than darker-skinned people of the same race or ethnicity” (Hunter, 2007, p. 237).

In contrast, the darker you are the less likely that you will have a chance to engage in opportunities of advancement and achievements. “Colorism is a persistent problem for people of color in the USA. Colorism, or skin color stratification, is a process that privileges light-skinned people of color over dark in areas such as income, education, housing, and the marriage market” (Hunter, 2007, p. 237).

The skin pigmentation hierarchy has caused blacks to devalue themselves in very unhealthy psychological manners. These are instances that affect me as an African-American woman directly and indirectly as well. These types of racial occurrences can affect the livelihood and life chances of African-Americans. Hunter (2007) states, “Given the opportunity, many people will hire a light-skinned person before a dark-skinned person of the same race or choose to marry a lighter-skinned woman rather than a darker-skinned woman.” This concept is vice versa in many cases.

In the article written by Margles & Margles (2007), allows the reader to understand a multiple venues of oppression and many forms of oppression are interrelated and cross over into other types of oppression or served as the foundation of racism and oppression. The most significant type of oppression is institutionalized oppression. This oppression is relevant as an education professional. 

So many children are marginalized because of their differences in phenotype, specifically, in skin color which determines the livelihood of a child within their academic and societal roles. In education, children of color are stratified and privileges afford to white children are not easily obtained. In a school context, this includes, to name just a few obvious examples, hiring practices, exclusive curricula, unequal distribution of resources…”(Margles & Margles, 2010, p. 138). 


In my experience, very early on in my childhood, I understood economic class. I was a 80’s baby. Pop culture, music, and money was influential to me and other peers, especially Michael Jackson. Learning about the wealthy culture was easy to understand when I was younger. The media displayed music and wealth in parallel ways. For example, everyone wanted to feel like Michael Jackson if you were a Jackson fan. 

People learned his dance moves, wore penny loafers with white socks, and wore one white glove. This image was powerful and crossed all races and ethnicities. The Michael Jackson fashion statements and media imagery was filled with glitz, glamour, and power. I knew that rich people consist of singers because they had on fancy, loud, shiny, and stylish clothing and it was much different from the clothes my parents and I wore. The media and other people around me drew me in the understanding of rich.

When I was younger, I never equated rich people as rich white men because I knew that black people were rich too. Now, that I am older, I understand socio-class statuses. The dominate power in this country is considered as wealthy, privileged, and powerful white men (Derman-Sparks & Edwards, 2010). There are other ethnicities that are wealthy, but they are not as privileged compared to their white counterparts who share in higher income living status. Therefore, classism is even practiced among the rich because the ideal rich are rich white heterosexual men in this country.

At a young age, I learned about poor people as well. Poor people were people who did not have food, malnourished with enlarged bellies, and peers who looked unkempt, ungroomed, on free/reduced lunch, and did not wear the latest shoes or fashion statements in school. Some of these things may be indicators about low income children and families, but the stigma was towards people of color. Children can easily understand the differences between socio-economic classes.

Now, as an adult and early childhood educator, some of these are indicators of poor conditions at home, but the issue lies in the environmental and systematic operations that harbor racism and marginalization in our classrooms and in society which is the “new” found information I acquired through my academic studies as I got older.

It is important to create classrooms of inclusion and diversity. Moreover, having resources that are readily and available and school interventions for students and families in low-income situations are importance to have in early childhood programs. In this way, all children are included despite their socio-economic statuses. Equity should always be practiced within academic settings of young children at all times.

The dominate culture perpetrates and cultivates oppression through social class, thus, affecting the quality of education which continues the crooked path of poverty, inadequate living, and low quality education in many lives of minority children. Gorski (2007) states, students in high-poverty schools are more likely to be subjected to overcrowded classrooms, dirty or inoperative bathrooms, less rigorous curricula, and encounters with rats and cockroaches. Or that these students are more likely to attend schools with serious teacher turnover problems and lower teacher salaries…” (p.30).

Poor academic settings are the reflection of the poor social classes many of the students and families are categorized in. Poor quality education is created to continue a cycle of oppression for minorities and a cycle of inferiority and power for the dominate culture making sure that minorities are in a position of second class citizenship (Laureate Education, 2011). 

Understanding the effects of classism in educational setting is vital if you are an educator. It debunks the false hood the mythological idea of “poverty culture” (Gorski, 2007) and the clear and consist understanding of poverty in academic settings which affects the ideas and livelihood for both students and teachers. 

Teachers who are willing to forego in their passion for teaching children in poverty stricken academic settings are punished directly and indirectly for wanting or willing to work in these settings. 

They experience poor wages and poor working environments because of the inequalities that the children experience at home and at school which— again, is perpetuated by the dominate culture creating class-ism. And, perhaps, it maybe quite hard for teachers to teach in these academic environments because they lack the necessary training in culture and diversity, carrying a knowledgebase of misinformation about poverty, and children living in poverty, much like the teacher Gorski describes in his article, “The Myth of the Culture Poverty”.

Parents and families are not poor just because of poor life choices, but for minorities there is a pre-destined agenda that is carried out to oppress and to dominate. People are poor because there is a systematic strategy that causes, what I call, “successful failures” which is in favor of the dominate culture to continue in a seat of power and domination over groups of people in this country. 

The “successful failures” are not favored by the groups that are being oppressed, it is a continuum to recycle poverty, disadvantages, and opportunities of underachievement for minority and other groups that are not in the likeness of the dominate powers in this country. 

The most destructive tool of the culture of classism is deficit theory. If the goal of deficit theory is to justify a system that privileges economically advantaged students at the expense of working-class and poor students, then it appears to be working marvelously… In our determination to “fix” the mythical culture of poor students, we ignore the ways in which our society cheats them out of opportunities” (Gorski, 2007, p.34).

This is my belief as to why some people are poor and others are privileged in this country.


 Learning about disabilities and the ableism was very interesting. I think that this issue is overlooked and really needs to be discussed more in our classrooms and in society as a whole. There are various types of disabilities and discrimination, stereotypes, and stigmas are labeled against those persons who are categorized as “disabled”. “While there is no one correct representation of disability, there are more or less typical representations of embodied differences that count as disability in Western cultures” (Titchkosky, 2009, p. 76).

Similarly, like race, the dominant culture also creates stigmas and hardships for people who are disabled. The ideal livelihood of people in the dominant culture is to be working, able bodied, in a social class of middle to upper class status. This idea cannot be unattainable to people who are disabled because the system has created means of limited financial resources for people who are disabled. “Not all cultures and not all times have so radically marginalized disabled people so that our rates of unemployment, under-employment and poverty remain two and three times higher than they do for the currently non-disabled” (Tichkosky, 2009, p. 76), but in this country people are stigmatized and marginalized because of their disabilities.

In this country, with regards to disability, Schwartz (2010) describes his experience of being deaf and coping with his disability he states, “I grew up rejecting my deafness and this rejection caused me great anguish, which did not heal until I came to terms with being deaf” (p. 21). As a young child, he was rejected because of his disability it was socially unacceptable and it looked abnormal to communicate using American Sign Language. Sign Language did not pattern the dominate culture’s way of communication. The image of normality was lost and stigmas were attached to person with hearing loss. This can be daunting for children who suffer with hearing loss. It is important that educators educate children early on about diversity and disabilities. Provide lessons within the class setting along with books, activities, guest speakers, and other classroom enrichment to ensure that the message of inclusion and diversity is age appropriate and meaningful.

Imagery plays a powerful role in stigmatization, stereotyping, discrimination, and racism.  It is this image that is created and psychological embedded in our minds that determines what normality is and what is abnormality. It is this image of perfection that is created for others to emulate by the dominant culture and it is that imagery that determines the fate of a person’s social acceptance.

Upon reading three powerful articles written by Tichkosky, Schwartz, and Ford all three authors spoke about the imagery of normality and how powerful and dominating imagery can be. 

It creates stigmas, stereotypes, and discrimination to groups of people who have varying abilities and creates an ableism making room for oppression, low self-esteem, and shuns diversity in abilities. This again, creates a hierarchy much like racism between people of color and mainstream culture. Ford ( 2009) states, “In my view, ableism should be viewed as a form of racism.” (par.5). 

The imagery of disability is something valuable that I learned and being normal is really something that is made up because as humans we all have flaws and imperfections, but who’s to say that they are imperfections of flaws? Perhaps, just differences that make up unique and clearly defining our individuality in society.

Understanding how powerful imagery is helps me to understand more and more how the world operates. Symbols such as the handicap sign, for example, Tishkosky (2009) states, “Beginning again where all disability begins … in imagination, imagine the many scenes where the normalcy of exclusion is figured through the image of potential access for people. These signs for access, images of disability, found sprinkled in our public lives…The stylized and repeated image resides in a space between access and exclusion” (pp. 79-80).  

Imagery and the powerful affects of imagery is carried within our early learning classrooms and affect our children who are labeled and classified within these stereotypes. You must understand that outside of our classrooms the dominate culture’s standards are carried in our classroom passed down from adults to children. These ideas are shared within classroom setting both positive and negative ideas.

Identity Safe Classrooms

So, what is our job as educators when faced with -isms? We must be filters and filter out these negative ideas and replace them with positive idealism on difference and diversity– out with the old and in with the new. Our classroom should be identity safe classrooms. There are four major ways to create identity safe classrooms. As educators, it is important to seek out ways to eliminate negative factors that will negatively affect our students and their education. All children deserve quality education that is biases free and culturally inclusive that will build positive character, self-esteem, and value social identity. 

Dr. Cohn-Vargas (2015) suggest 4 major ways to create identity safe classrooms.

•child-centered teaching

•cultivating diversity as a resource

•classroom relationships

•caring classroom environments  

These four major ways to create identity safe classrooms allow teachers and students to respect difference and celebrate diversity. Identity safe classrooms allow children to embrace their self-identity and individualism. They are no judgement zones with meaningful and rich lessons about race, ethnicity, family culture, culture, and other important elements that cultivates and fosters a child’s self-identity, social, and emotional development in positive ways.

As educators, we must undergo a self-evaluation of our own ideas of race, class, and disability. Are we carrying these types of imagery and stereotypes in our daily interaction with children and families? Are we using positive idealism on race, ethnicity, class, and varying disabilities that people socially identify with? These are questions that we must ask ourselves so that we will not add to the problems we are aiming to eliminate.

Diversity and inclusion are essential ideas that must be implemented in our early learning settings. We must stop the perpetuation of racism, classism, and ableism despite the standards of our society or outside of our classroom doors. Our classrooms should be places of safety, understanding, and a place of trust. Identity safe classrooms are necessary in early learning environments.


Cohn-Vargas, B. (2015, April 20). Identity safe classrooms and schools. Retrieved from http://www.tolerance.org/blog/identity-safe-classrooms-and-schools-0 

Ford, A. R. (2009). It’s not just about racism, but ableism. Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, 26(4), 16, 71-99.

Gorski, P. (2008). The myth of the “culture of poverty.” Educational Leadership, 65(7), 32–36. Retrieved from http://katfacs.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Myth-Culture-of-Poverty-Paul-Gorski-1-11.pdf

Gorski, P. C. (2007). The question of class. Education Digest, 73(2), 30–33. Retrieved fromhttp://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/32685024/The_Question_of_Class.pdfAWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJ56TQJRTWSMTNPEA&Expires=1478973926&Signature=deUdvn4omIlp%2Fay5L%2B8VFe7Qwi4%3D&response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3DThe_Question_of_Class.pdf

Hunter, M. (2007). The persistent problem of colorism: Skin tone, status, and inequality. Sociology Compass. Retrieved from http://www.mills.edu/academics/faculty/soc/mhunter/The%20Persistent%20Problem%20of%20Colorism.pdf

Laureate Education (Producer). (2011). Microaggressions in everyday life [Video file]. Retrieved from https://waldenu.edu

Margles, S., & Margles, R. M. (2010). Inverting racism’s distortions. Our Schools/Our Selves, 19(3), 137–149. Retrieved from http://culturalpolitics.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Inverting-Racisms-Distrotions.pdf

Schwartz, M. A. (2010). Disability . The search for belonging—filling the hole in my soul. The search for belonging—filling the hole in my soul. International Journal of Leadership in Public Services, Suppl. 6(21–23).

Titchkosky, T. (2009). Disability images and the art of theorizing normality. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 22(1), 75-84.

Jocelyn D Jones is the organizer of Kappa Learning Group in Norcross, Ga. A professional development organization for early childhood and education professionals. She has taught in the field of Early Childhood for 20 years. She has a Master’s in Early Childhood Studies and a member of Kappa Delta Pi International Honors Society in Education. Ms. Jones is an GA Approved Trainer. 


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