“The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist.
Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself.
And it’s the only way forward.”— Ijeoma Oluo
Growing up white in North America, having any awareness of race and racism is optional. As white parents, it is not something we have to think about nor talk about with our children. This is an aspect of white privilege, and is distinct from the reality of families of color in North America.
Often the first time a person of color hears a racial slur is as a very young child, even as young as three or four, when they are first gaining mastery of language and before they have individuated at the conclusion of the first seven-year cycle in child development as understood in anthroposophy. Beyond racist name-calling, which is of course damaging enough, the reality is Black, Indigenous and Latinx people in the United States and Canada are not only subjected to verbal racism, but are less likely to receive appropriate medical treatment and are at greater risk of being killed by the police. For generations, many Black parents have had 'The Talk’ with their children, a colloquial expression for a conversation about the dangers Black people face due to racism or unjust treatment from authority figures, law enforcement, or other parties and how to de-escalate them in order to survive.
Racism, and its far reaching and often lethal impacts, has been at the forefront of national and international discussion since the highly publicized murder of George Floyd by on-duty Minneapolis police in May 2020. En masse, white people are finally beginning to recognize the effects of institutionalized racism and acknowledging that we have a lot to learn and to do to dismantle this destructive societal force. Civil rights activist Angela Davis wrote, "In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”
How do we go about being anti-racist? As a first step, to be anti-racist in the context of schools means examining both our physical setting and supplies as well as our curriculum. In this article, I examine an aspect of insidious institutionalized racism which may not have occurred to many white people: the problem of white as default and how to address this issue in Waldorf education. White as default happens in books and stories when it is assumed a character is white unless otherwise noted. It happens in both children's and adult books. It happens when a pink crayon is called skin color. It happens when a preschool teacher refers to exclusively light-pink-skinned dolls as being neutral. The problem with white as default is it expresses "the concept of a (neutral) center as a standard with a peripheral identity requiring identification and definition. [It] is a dynamic of power, with power inherently located in the neutral subject rather than the peripheral object.”
White as default assumes a white-centered perspective, where everyone non-white is othered and perceived as deviant from an unnamed norm . . . People perceived as white don't have to work to fit in and do not face the added pressure and visibility of being seen as different or other. This added visibility is generally a burden, and comes with increased responsibility and higher, often unattainable standards. The dominant group tends to generalize behaviors of the non-dominant group, attributing negative actions to the whole group. In contrast, the dominant group often attributes negative actions of people from their own group as being attributed to the individual alone, the bad apple and not to the group as a whole. When white is default, white people's actions and choices can fade away more quickly into that was just one person rather having their actions as closely scrutinized or criticized as the actions of people of color (POC).
From a white perspective, assuming white as default reinforces a racist power dynamic, allowing white (and often male) people to do things such as not develop empathy for POC; not include women or POC in trials for new medicines; and exclude POC from many employment, educational, or housing options. The list is long. When POC don't see themselves specifically represented in literature or other media, it is apparent they don't even exist in white imagination except in superfluous roles or as dangerous, criminal, villainous, pathologized, or otherwise less human. Assuming white as default reinforces the understanding that whiteness is the unspoken standard for humanity, from which people of color are deviant and considered less than.
In a sea of whiteness where white is assumed to be the default, it can be hard for white people to see whiteness, like a fish in water. A fellow Waldorf parent described the shift, “Once I was able to see whiteness, like a fish suddenly noticing water, I could no longer unsee it.” The effects of this racist dynamic are everywhere in society, from who gets approved for mortgage loans to which unarmed people get shot by police.
Dismantling the narrative of white as default is critical for children of color so that they may see themselves represented as main characters in stories; that they may see their skin tones as available colors of crayons, pencils, and paint; and that they may imagine a future where they may pursue their skills, interests, and dreams. Dismantling the narrative of white as the neutral center is equally important for white children; so when they consider drawing a human, they have to look in a basket of people-colored crayons and choose which shade they are among many, not assume pink is the default, universal, and superior skin-colored crayon and everyone and everything else is peripheral, less important, and other.
It is critical to start right from the beginning of early childhood. Although the Waldorf approach is to insulate and protect the young child and their sense of wonder with the world until they are old enough to grapple with issues such as prejudice and civil rights, implicit bias is shown to exist in very young children. Also worth noting is this stance of protecting the young child is a demonstration of privilege, and one not afforded to POC.
It is important both to represent diversity in our art materials as well as to support children to acknowledge and understand our similarities and differences. Jyoti Gupta’s Different Differenter: An Activity Book about Skin Color is “thoughtful, sensitive, and beautifully illustrated . . . [It] lifts up the issue of ‘colorism' through a variety of developmentally and culturally appropriate experiences and explanations that provide exceptionally important resources for parents, children, and those who work with children and families from a variety of backgrounds.” Also useful are books which identify shades of color as a normal part of conversation, such as The Colors of Us by Karen Katz.
The following materials and resources may be helpful both at home and in our children’s classrooms.
- Have a basket of People-Colored Crayons or People-Colored Pencils
Color is an important feature of Waldorf education, from the kindergarteners wet on wet watercolor exploration of single primary colors and how they mix to the lazure-painted classroom walls. Rudolf Steiner said, “Color is the soul of nature . . . and when we experience color we participate in this soul.”
Typical Waldorf sets of crayons and colored pencils are rainbow colors only and do not include brown or black.
"According to anthroposophical belief, of which Waldorf education is based, colors have spiritual powers and meanings. This is especially important in respect of a child in their first seven years of life—a time when the child has not completed its incarnation and is still very connected to its spiritual heritage . . . Steiner never suggested taking the black colors away from children in any of his lectures on education, as some experts claim. This assumption of a prohibition on the use of black in drawing and clothing cannot be found in any of his education lectures. He himself wore black most nearly everyday, even when he was visiting the children in his school.”
One day in first grade my daughter brought home a picture of herself with her dad and me. In it, her dad, who is Black, had brown curly hair. When I asked why his hair was brown in the picture, she told me they didn’t have black crayons. Afterward the teacher kept a black crayon in her desk available for when students were drawing people: for both my daughter to draw her father’s hair accurately and for her Chinese classmate to draw her own hair.
The following year one morning my daughter had crayons on the kitchen table and referred to a pink one as “skin-colored.” She is mixed—her father is Black and I am white. Her skin is certainly not pink, and I was dismayed to hear, even without Crayola naming the color “flesh” as they used to, the mostly-white class had decided it was “skin-toned.” When I looked at the rainbow colors offered in the standard Stockmar set of crayons, I saw, lacking any brown shades, pink was the closest to any human skin available. I bought her an individual brown to keep in her crayon roll at school and spoke with a kindergarten teacher in Chicago about what their approach was in their more diverse school. She described the baskets of “people-colored crayons” they keep in their classrooms. She emphasized the importance for all the children to look through the basket to find their closest shades, not just the students of color. She also recommended the book Different Differenter mentioned above. I later was talking with the white father of a friend from my daughter’s class, and he acknowledged it had never occurred to him, and the adults in their home had unconsciously called the pink color “skin-color.” It is most impactful if we bring this linguistic awareness both to the classroom and to the home environment.
Have a variety of people-colored crayons and pencils at home. If your child’s classroom doesn’t already have one, ask them to create a basket of people-colored crayons for all the students to use when they are drawing people.
- Cloth dolls and imagery in Early Childhood classrooms should represent diverse ethnicities and importantly represent any children in the class
When my daughter was in preschool I noticed the classroom only had dolls with light-pink colored skin. I offered to sew a few dolls for free, using my own materials and time, and was told these light pink colored dolls were “neutral.” This racist response is exactly the problem of seeing white as default; for pink to be considered a “neutral” skin color could only be true for a white person who has never left their ancestral home and never seen anyone from beyond their own ethnicity. However, we are in Canada, where the people whose ancestral land it is are not light-pink and neither are many of the current population in the province who have immigrated here from all over the world, not exclusively Europe. Although majority white, the preschool class at the time included children whose ancestry spanned three additional continents: Asian, African, and Latinx (Mexican-Puerto Rican).
All companies that sell materials for making Waldorf dolls include a variety of skin tone fabric from very light and pale to very dark-brown as well as different colors and textures of hair yarn. The materials are readily available: Waldorf preschools and kindergartens should be sure to have dolls with a variety of skin tones and hair colors and textures. “There’s no shortage of images in the media . . . that affirm the value of white girlhood . . . Black dolls are an important tool for teaching kids of all races that Black is beautiful and equal.”
If your child’s preschool or kindergarten lacks diverse representation in its doll population, consider getting together with other parents to sew a few to gift the classroom. Handwork is such an important part of Waldorf education, and it is always a great opportunity to come together as community and work crafts, especially those which support our children’s school environments. Perhaps the school’s handwork teacher can give some guidance or provide material. But if that is not an option there are plenty of easy-to-follow kits available or it can be done creatively on a budget. I sewed my daughter her first doll when she turned one and I had very little prior sewing experience. I followed a free online photo tutorial I found on Flickr, purchased a half yard of doll skin fabric, found free wool on Craigslist, and used yarn for hair that I had in my yarn basket.
- Books and Stories which Reflect Ethnic Diversity
For Younger Children
Waldorf publishers tend to have plenty of European based farm books. Some additions that are favorites in our home are Bring Me Some Apples I'll Make you a Pie about Edna Lewis by Robbin Gourley and Ugly Vegetables by Grace Lin. Grace Lin has a great variety of picture books that introduce Chinese holidays such as the Autumn Moon Festival (Thanking the Moon) and Chinese Lunar New Year, as well as an excellent TEDx talk about the importance of diversity on our children’s bookshelves titled, The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child's Bookshelf.
Grade One curriculum includes folk and fairy tales. At home, we supplemented this year with books such as Jane Yolen’s Not One Damsel in Distress: World Folktales for Strong Girls, and Ethel Johnston’s Tatterhood and Other Tales adds stories featuring courageous, clever main characters who are female. In addition to having strong and interesting female characters, these stories come from around the world and feature people of different ethnicities and cultures. Mufarro’s Beautiful Daughters is a story with princesses who have beautiful dark skin and kinky black hair and Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China retold by Ai-Ling Louie includes a princess with Chinese features including long black hair. As mentioned earlier, the benefits of having diverse main characters in books is not only for the non-white children. As Grace Lin said in her TEDx talk, “As much as kids need books to be mirrors, kids also need books to be windows. Kids who always see themselves in books need to be able to see things from other viewpoints. How can we expect kids to get along with others in this world, to empathize, and to share if they never see outside themselves?”
Class Two curriculum includes fables and saint stories. At home during the second grade year and beyond, we read many Buddhist Jataka tales such as Kindness, a Treasury of Buddhist Wisdom for Children and Parents by Sarah Conover and The Eight Year Old Legend Book by Isabel Wyatt. Sarah Conover has other books which feature Hindu, Chinese, and Islamic tales. Tuttle Publishing offers a series called Children’s Stories as well as myths, legends, and folk tales for children from different Asian countries including Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and India.
The limitation of an article such as this doesn’t allow for a comprehensive review of all the grades, but I think it is important to address the Age of Exploration covered in grade seven. It is time we as parents pay close attention to the subject of colonization and how it is taught, and that our children who are growing into young adults use their critical thinking skills we prize so highly in Waldorf education to examine deeply and thoroughly the historical and present-day impacts of colonization.
Historically, grade seven curriculum has often been the epitome of Eurocentrism, discussing how white people explored the world. While exploration may have been the experience for European colonists, the onset of colonialism for the rest of the world largely indicated extreme brutality, systematic theft, and murder—from the genocide of First Nations people in the Americas, slavery of Africans, Britain creating opium addiction in China, and cementing a rigid and cruel hierarchical social system in India, to Denmark’s Leopold II and his barbaric rule in the Congo, killing an estimated ten million Congolese and maiming countless others. To most of the world, this time period was far from one of innocent exploration. I hope no Waldorf class seven covers the time of the conquistadors and calls it the Age of Exploration again. And if we find our seventh grader comes home having learned an old school approach about colonization, I invite you to have a conversation with the teachers. Share this article with them. Begin a dialogue. Change can only happen within each of our own communities when we make the choice to speak up.
A friend, teacher, and founder of a Waldorf school in San Francisco described how at different times in history, the frontier of exploration has been different for different people. Currently, as a globalized world, our frontiers of the unknown are in stark contrast to exploration of centuries past. In this century, the frontier of the unknown may be found in outer space and the microscopic world. Another Waldorf teacher in Canada told me when she taught, she always looked at who were the first peoples of the area of the school and what did they explore. Similarly, who are all the people who have, over time, discovered the place where your school is located? We live on southern Vancouver Island, and for more than 10,000 years and up to and including the present there have been communities of Salish First Nations people living here. Of the different Salish peoples, my daughter’s school is on Cowichan Tribes traditional territory. On this island over the past few hundred years Europeans, Chinese, Japanese, and Punjabi Sikh have made up significant parts of the island’s population and history.
In conclusion, Ibram X. Kendi writes, “The opposite of racist isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘anti-racist.’” “It’s easy for people to blame racism on others who are more extreme and rash in their outlooks, and to claim that they are not racist. However, to truly not be racist, we must actively be anti-racist in our actions and speech. To be anti-racist is to admit when we expressed a racist idea . . . But I'm going to change. I'm going to strive to be anti-racist. I want to build a just and equitable society, and the only way we're going to even begin that process is if we admit our racism and start building an anti-racist world . . . At the heart of being anti-racist is love, is loving one's country, loving one's humanity, loving one's relatives and family and friends, and certainly loving oneself.”
Let us admit perpetuating concepts of a white-centered world with white dolls only, with no brown or black crayons, and with stories which primarily center on white main characters is racist, and let us change. Let us strive to be anti-racist. Let us strive to build a just and equitable society where our children grow up loving their humanity, themselves, and each other.
 “Police violence is a leading cause of death for young men in the United States . . . Black women and men and American Indian and Alaska Native women and men are significantly more likely than white women and men to be killed by police. Latino men are also more likely to be killed by police than are white men”. (Wikipedia, bit.ly/33aKGas)
 Private conversation with Michael Aanavi, PhD, author of The Trusting Heart: Addiction, Recovery, and Intergenerational Trauma.
 Increasingly in recent media, the term BIPOC is being used instead of POC, which refers to Black, Indigenous and people of color. “As a phrase, “people of color” dates back centuries . . . and is often abbreviated as POC. The other two letters, for black and Indigenous, were included in the acronym to account for the erasure of black people with darker skin and Native American people.” NY Times (https://www.nytimes.com/article/what-is-bipoc.html)
 Science Daily reports "In three separate studies with over 350 five- to 12-year-old white children, researchers found that children show an implicit pro-white bias when exposed to images of both white and black children.” (Science Daily, bit.ly/35p3GEM)
 Reviewed by Dr. Ed Greene (www.socialjusticebooks.org)
 Article “Are There No Black Crayons in Waldorf Education?” https://www.acornsandtwigs-blog.com/waldorf-education-black-crayons/
 For a long time, Crayola had only one color for “flesh” tone, which was renamed “peach” in 1962 (https://www.cbc.ca/kidsnews/post/recap-some-good-news-and-why-is-crayola-adding-more-skin-tones)
 Lyra makes their own set of skin toned pencils for when the kids get to the age of using pencils instead of crayons as does Crayola for Crayons. Unfortunately at this point Stockmar does not offer a skin toned set of crayons, but schools can order individual colours to make their own basket of “People Coloured Crayons”. Shown in the image above is a list of Stockmar crayon colours that might be included in a basket of “People-Colored Crayons”: Pink, Pearl Pink, Yellow Ochre, Venetian Red, Umber, Rust, Yellow Brown, Black
 Jamilah Lemieux (https://slate.com/human-interest/2020/03/dolls-race-gifts-care-and-feeding.html)
 Doll making tutorial here: https://bit.ly/36aCBFR
 Now that I’ve made a number of dolls, I found I prefer the pattern from Weir Crafts, though the end result is similar regardless of the pattern used. (https://www.weircrafts.com/items/37671682)
 How to Be Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, pg 9
 The Difference between being “not racist” and being anti-racist”, interview with Ibram X. Kendi (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KCxbl5QgFZw)