Cover image for The first R : how children learn race and racism
The first R : how children learn race and racism
Van Ausdale, Debra, 1954-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Lanham, Md. : Rowman & Littlefield, [2001]

Physical Description:
vii, 231 pages ; 24 cm
Added Author:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
HQ784.S56 V36 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Writers since Piaget have questioned when and how children assimilate racist attitudes--or simply become aware of racial differences. This remarkable book offers stirring evidence that the answers may be more surprising than we ever imagined. The rich accounts of children's behavior around race are drawn from Van Ausdale's ethnographies, conducted in several multi-ethnic day-care centers. When she persistently divested herself of any authoritative role, children as young as 3 years gradually revealed to her a surprising array of racial attitudes, assumptions, and behaviors--most of which they normally withhold from parents and adult companions. The careful ethnographic analysis, conducted over many months, lead the authors to question many of our long-held assumptions about the nature of race and racial learning in American society. The stories of the children are compelling, often endearing, and unforgettable. They will change the way parents, teachers, and other educators understand the world as seen by children.

Author Notes

Joe R. Feagin is graduate research professor in sociology at the University of Florida.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

These two books are thoughtful examinations of the controversial issues of violence and race, respectively, and their impact and influence on young children. Both present disturbing but insightful portraits of how children learn negative behavior. Katch, a teacher, relates her day-to-day observations of five-and six-year-old children, increasingly enamored and engaged in violent play-acting. Over the course of a year, Katch watched children reenacting violence from television and movies and even creating a game called Suicide. She engages parents, older children, and other teachers in her efforts to record how students are acting out violence and how to reduce violent influences on children. Katch struggles with the need to allow children to creatively vent their feelings but to curb a growing fascination with violence among some children. She examines changes in children's behavior from the index-finger guns and "bang-bang" of earlier generations to graphic and gory violence acted out on playgrounds today. Katch intersperses her classroom accounts with remembrances of sessions with the late Bruno Bettelheim, famed for teaching emotionally disturbed children at the University of Chicago. Van Ausdale and Feagin challenge conventional theories of child development that are "adultcentric" and removed, based mostly on attitude testing and behavioral checklists. The authors spent a year at a racially diverse day care center, observing children from three to six years old. They found--and report--children deliberately and intentionally using hurtful words and attitudes. Despite denial, particularly among white adults, that children are unaware of racism, the authors found that the children "themselves perpetuated racial and ethnic patterns, away from the prying eyes and controlling activities of adults." The authors suggest that racially hostile and discriminatory behavior among children needs far more study and attention than it has had to date. They also advocate research methods that examine children's racial attitudes in their own interactive context. --Vanessa Bush

Publisher's Weekly Review

Decades of "adultcentric" research have led social scientists to deny the existence of racial awareness in young children. Yet childrenÄeven very young onesÄare clearly able to understand sameness and difference, say sociologists Van Ausdale and Feagin after studying 58 children, three to six years old, in an urban nursery school. According to their findings, children learn to identify racial or ethnic markers (skin or hair color, eye shape, accent) and use them to gain social control, even in a nursery school with an antibias, pro-tolerance curriculum. Van Ausdale, the fieldworker of the two, spent 11 months listening to the children chat and observing their play, effacing her presence as much as possible. While the authors' validation of the child's perspective is compelling, and their societal approach to the race problem sensible, their study itself is underwhelming. First, the school's racial mix is curiously skewed: of 58 children, 24 are white and 19 Asian, and there is only one nonwhite teacher. The authors continually assert that Van Ausdale functioned as an invisible observer, although this concept is questionable. The most problematic aspect of this report is the anecdotal presentation of the findings. Readers are left wondering about the actual frequency of various types of racist behavior, data that would have given the study more credibility and depth. While the jacket is appealing, no one browsing this book would mistake it for a lively read. Still, early education professionals and interested parents will find it an important addition to their collections. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The premise of this challenging study by Van Ausdale (sociology, Syracuse Univ.) and Feagin (sociology, Univ. of Florida, Gainesville) is that children are complex individuals from very early on. They are not "too little" to understand race or ethnic identity, and they can and will use those concepts to discriminate and segregate. Van Ausdale arrived at these conclusions after spending 11 months in a day-care center as a nonsanctioning adult observer. She describes many comments of the children, who were aged three to five, and the use of ethnic identity in their play. Often, when she reported what she had observed, teachers and parents responded with disbelief, arguing that the children must have picked up that attitude elsewhere. As a parent of children raised in diverse neighborhoods, this reviewer has some quarrels with the underlying meaning the authors attribute to what Van Ausdale observed. Certainly, many of the authors' opinions on race relations are well taken, but readers may have real reservations about some unsubstantiated claims made concerning the children's motivations. As the authors state, much more in-depth research needs to be done in this field. An extensive bibliography is included. Recommended for academic libraries. Margaret Cardwell, DeKalb Technical Coll., Clarkston, GA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

The thesis of this book can be simply stated: children, contrary to conventional wisdom, not only learn about race and racism at an early age but are able to deploy and manipulate racial and racist messages in quite complex ways, chiefly in efforts to shape modes of exclusion and inclusion. The empirical data that the authors use to make this case derive from participant observation research conducted by Van Ausdale at a racially and ethnically diverse day care center. It is unfortunate that the authors don't say more about the particular research site. In particular, readers would have benefited by knowing more about the reasons for its diversity--which strikes this reviewer as making it quite different from most centers--and its commitment to a progressive antibias curriculum. The primary value of the book lies in its numerous interactional vignettes. The chief shortcoming derives from its failure to offer a convincing critique of existing developmental theories of children as t hey relate to the acquisition of racialized notions, and the related failure to offer a compelling alternative theoretical account. In short, this is an empirically rich but theoretically thin book. General and undergraduate collections. P. Kivisto Augustana College (IL)

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. vii
1 Young Children Learning Racial and Ethnic Mattersp. 1
2 Using Racial-Ethnic Distinctions to Define Selfp. 47
3 Play Groups and Racial-Ethnic Mattersp. 95
4 Using Racial-Ethnic Concepts to Define Other Peoplep. 129
5 How Adults View Childrenp. 155
6 What and How Children Learn about Racial and Ethnic Mattersp. 175
7 Postscript: What Can Be Done?p. 197
Referencesp. 215
Indexp. 223
About the Authorsp. 231