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How do I talk about race with children in the Early Years – a reflection on a year of anti-racist discourse in the sector

by Liz Pemberton on October 19

10 min read:


It sometimes catches me off guard, the momentum and pace at which I have worked this past year and it has only been something that I have taken stock of because colleagues have told me how much they have seen me do, or rather, that they have felt the impact of my work.

When I was approached by Juliet from the Foundation Stage Forum (FSF) to write this piece and we discussed what I would like to write she said to me that she too couldn’t quite believe that it had been a year since my first piece of writing for the FSF, at which point I was a few months into my journey as an Early Years anti-racist trainer and consultant. Having previously been a nursery manager for 16 years, I stepped away after a real reflection about how deeply systemic racism plagued the sector in many ways. I decided to take some different kind of action to challenge this and started the business – The Black Nursery Manager Training and Consultancy.

In its early stages, the business was a series of my own monthly webinars that I had designed for Early Years Practitioners to attend with the explicit purpose of helping the workforce to gain a better understanding about what anti-racist practice looked like in a nursery. I wanted to get the word out about my work and used social media, namely Instagram, as a marketing tool to cultivate an audience. I look back to that piece I had written for the FSF and see that I had stated at that time I had 5k followers on my account, @theblacknurserymanager. If anything indicated that in the midst of 2020 there was a thirst for knowledge about anti-racist practice for new and more established members of the childcare workforce, the flocking of predominantly white followers to my Instagram account was something that I used as an indicator of that thirst. I wondered what the heightened awareness about the impacts of racism globally during the Summer of 2020, as a result of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Police officer Derek Chauvin, would do to jump start the sector into really grappling with how it addressed the presence of racism.

In writing this piece, I decided that I wanted to revisit my first piece written for the FSF in October 2020 by offering my reflections of a year of anti-racism in action in the Early Years, because since that time I have delivered close to 100 webinars and worked with a range of Early Years provisions up and down the country and internationally. I have delivered presentations for Local Authorities, had consultation meetings about the representation of race and ethnicity in children’s literature with children’s publishing houses, discussed how Children’s and Families departments of Museums and Art Galleries can make their spaces more inclusive to racially minoritised communities, contributed to the development of Early Years policy, developed policies and procedures for Early Years organisations, mentored other practitioners who have an interest in this line of work, delivered in person training, written articles, contributed to book chapters, been nominated for awards, met up with colleagues who are also doing this work in the sector and had my brain picked about how best to handle racist incidents in Early Years provisions and schools, not to mention that I have created and shared content more or less daily on my Instagram platform which now has 18.1k very engaged followers who regularly send me direct messages and comment in response to said content.

I state all of this, not for any accolades or to garner any favour with you but more for you to get a better understanding about my journey to date and in order to contextualise my reflections about where I see things now in the Early Years.

Stuck in a rut

I make no apologies for not presenting a happy ending here for you, for not telling you that all of your work is now done and that we had a great summer fighting racism so we can all relax now. The reality, in so far as I see it, is quite the opposite. The work of challenging racism never stops and the challenge is greater because the topic of anti-racism has been subjected to opposition from a Government who wrote a whole report to say that systemic racism does not exist. To dismiss the lived experiences of those for whom racism is an everyday experience by going to the lengths of producing a government stamped report to say that this is not the case is beyond debilitating. But the ripple effects for the Early Years sector are what we need to closely examine here. How does this influence the behaviours of Nurseries when parents bring concerns regarding racism to their attention? How are these concerns handled if a Government MP dismisses the necessary highlighting of anti-racism as “dogma and doctrine that is out of place”. It has certainly not encouraged the actions of some Early Years providers to take racism seriously but has further encouraged them to firmly plant their heels in the ground, arms folded and saying “no, I don’t want to talk about race in my nursery, we don’t see colour here!” When colleagues come to me to tell me of the latest hot topic of discussion in Early Years Facebook groups in which professionals proudly declare that “all lives matter” as a response to the Black Lives Matter global social justice movement, it is never a surprise. This dissonance that some have between not seeing anti-racism as important for Early Years workforces to gain a deeper and better understanding of, whilst simultaneously waxing lyrical about the importance of the unique child and the rights of the child, is just one example of why I know that there is still much work to be done.


Just be kind!

It almost makes me shudder when I see these words – ‘Just be kind’ – as a tool to excuse not having to engage with the impact of racism and the multitude of ways that it shows up. When there is a question asked or a point made about the racist impact of the actions of a well-meaning white person who works in the sector, I have seen all too often that as well as this being met with a huge amount of fragility there is a tendency to run to a claim of bullying. In what has come to be expected, the mantra of kindness is used as a way to derail the conversation about racism, and thus a learning opportunity is prevented. Ironic really, since the sector makes claims about how important reflective practice is. Too many times I have observed from the metaphoric side lines of how these incidents play out time and time again. I am very rarely the challenger now, more often the observer. This is not for fear of being labelled unkind either. Remember, I take up space in this world as a Black woman – such labels are automatically attributed to people whose identity markers are the ones that I possess (also add aggressive, scary, sassy, unfriendly, and strong). No, I have no energy to pour into every white person creating a spectacle after being called out on their racism, purely because I need to reserve my energy to live and be joyous. I now leave the job of calling these instances out to those white people who swiftly came to claim their ally badges in June 2020, and watch them experience that small fraction of discomfort when they are accused of not being kind.


That doesn’t apply to us, we don’t have any Black children here!

A classic retort to the work of anti-racism. In the statement itself it suggests that anti-racism is work to be done for the benefit of children who are not white when, in actual fact, it is to benefit all children. The recent non-statutory guidance that the sector has seen come out since I wrote my first piece – The Birth to Five Matters document and Development Matters – both have a stance on anti-racism and neither say that this must only apply to settings with racially diverse cohorts, so the notion of not having to engage with anti-racist practice because your setting is all white has no basis. Anti-racist practice is for all of us.


I will end on one more positive note though, you’ve certainly been ordering lots of anti-racist books for yourselves, and titles such as Reni Eddo-Lodge’s “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” saw a surge to the point of selling out during the year. But be warned, reading books, whilst absolutely necessary, is not the end point – continuous action in your settings and as a collective within the sector is.

  • Challenge in the Facebook group

The next time somebody says that all lives matter tell them that nobody said that they didn’t. Ask why the mention of Black lives mattering triggers such a response in them? Ask if they are compelled to respond that all forms of cancer matter when there is awareness raised about Breast cancer in particular?

  • Do not use your Black colleagues in the Early Years as a pawn to demonstrate how great an ally you are

I work collaboratively with a number of Black Early Years colleagues in my everyday work, and those white colleagues who are fighting the good fight in their various spaces and amongst their spheres of influence have been known to use the “I have a Black *insert relational value here*” tool as a means of demonstrating how nonracist they are. This has meant that at times myself and other Black colleagues minding our own business on a Sunday have been unwillingly drawn into back and forth discussions tagged as badges of honour in social media posts. Don’t do this – we are not your pawns. You can make a point about racism without the need to use us for your performativity or in a quest for your ally cookies.

  • If you are a white man in the Early Years sector, use your limitless credit card!

This matters because the hierarchical societal structures remind us that to be a cis gendered, heterosexual, able bodied white man is to be the king of the castle and there are a few of you here in this space. Some of you are challenging and calling out racism, you are turning down jobs if you are invited to speak on all white early years experts panels and you are paying work forward to those professionals who are as equally qualified but are Black, Brown or of East or South East Asian heritage. Do this and continue to be critical of the spaces that you occupy or create.



Ed. Liz Pemberton hosted the Tapestry Education Conference: Reflecting on Anti-racism in the Early Years’ on 25th March 2021. The conference, with speakers Shaddai Tembo and Faith Chow, reflected on the need for a deeper understanding of our own unconscious biases, of how each of us are a product of our surroundings, experiences, and of a society steeped in white privilege, and that without this understanding we cannot truly see and support every child, family and colleague.

Watch the Tapestry Education Conference: Reflecting on Anti-racism in the Early Years.



Liz Pemberton

Liz Pemberton runs a training and consultancy company, The Black Nursery Manager Ltd, whose mission is to promote inclusive practice in the Early Years education sector, with particular focus on how race, culture and anti-racism should be considered in this practice. She has a Masters degree in Early Childhood Studies and Qualified Teacher Status and has taught Early Childhood Studies and Health and Social Care to secondary school and sixth form students. Liz has a background in Nursery management.