Everyone is differnt. That's the message that should be preached and practiced in the early childhood classroom, along with the sister message of "Everyone is special and unique."
In a world filled with discrimination, blunt familial discussions in the home, anger, violence, frustration and fear, it's easy for parents to prejudice children against those who are "different." But when you look from a ethno/cultural perspective, we truly are all different.
When we spoke of how we were different and the same in our classrooms, color seldom came into the picture until all other options were exhausted. Each child noticed diffeent colors of hair, eyes, whether their classmates were boys or girls, even different ways of dressing before they brought up culture or color. Once they did, we all placed our hands in the middle of the sharing circle and compared skintones. There were no right or wrong responses, just observation. In doing so, we celebrated everyone's unique characters and then moved on to paint or color rainbows or families.
This is an imperfect world. Television programs and the media exploit differences for the sake of sensationalism. Even video games are often stereotypical. Where was it ever determned that one ethnic group was superior as athletes or competitors while another was brighter, or how was it decided that one cultural group was "better with money" while another was a group of punks? When you look at it from a childlike perspective, this is silly.
Children know who the more popular children are in a classroom or on the playground. They may seek to emulate them or may even join their little clique. But even they won't describe them as being better, just as more popular or prettier. As they get older they get crushes on actors, movie characters, television personalities or singers. That's normal. They may try to "be" them for brief moments before moving on to another interest. The is usually innocent infatuation.
What's harmful is when children perpetuate cultural, religious or ethnic biases. Parents must be sure not to influence their children against others. Grandparents have the duty to watch their cultural biases within earshot of young, innocent listeners. It's so easy to sound off against someone, using language you wouldn't normally use in the household, and it's easy to fly off the handle if you are disappointed or angry because of work or an experience on the road. Just remember that young children pick up on these biases and, since they are outside their own experience, these opinions may accelerate and be stored within their memories to surface later on.
Teachers have to guard against nepotism, favoritism and personal bias, too. All teachers have their 'favorites,' even though they may deny this vehemently. It's only human. But teachers owe all their children the attention they deserve.
The classroom is no place for prejudice, so celebrate differences and similiarities, special qualties and ablities. Celebrate diversity and teach your students to do the same as you lead by example.