How to talk to children about racism

September 10, 2020 Published by

With the Black Lives Matter movement bringing to the forefront issues that have been hidden in the background for a long time, you might be wondering how you can talk to your child about racism in the world in a constructive way.

Black Lives Matter Protest

 

I think we often make the mistake of avoiding difficult subjects, believing that our children are too young to understand, or wanting to protect them from such things.

But in fact, the earlier we start the conversation, the better.

Children are being exposed to racism and opinions around it all the time – particularly once they are online – so we need to prepare them for that.

The important thing is to talk to you children in a way they understand and let them lead the conversation.

 

What is racism? 

Racism feels like a strong word and no one would consider themselves racist. When we think of racism, what might immediately spring to mind is intentional, angry or violent behaviour against different groups of people based on their race or skin colour.

But racism isn’t always like this. Even when people don’t intend harm, they still might be making judgements based on race that can lead to unintentionally racist behaviour. 

 

A great example of this comes from Maggie Beneke, an Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Washington, who says,

“After viewing films with mostly white princesses, a child might say something like, “I only like princesses who look like Elsa, and I don’t like Moana’s brown hair and skin””.   

This isn’t just about race though, it’s about valuing diversity and learning that everyone is different. This is important for discouraging harmful stereotypes as well as helping your child learn to value themselves as unique individuals. For example, how might a child with brown skin feel, when almost all of the princesses in the films she watches are white?

 

Ten tips to help your child understand racism 

  1. Learn about it yourself first – It’s easy to shy away from talking about something you feel like you don’t fully understand yourself. It’s our responsibility to educate ourselves and be aware of our own biases that can affect our words and actions around our children. 
  2. Hold yourself accountable – as we know, we are our own best role model for our child and acknowledging your past mistakes, engaging with educational sources and passing these onto your child set a great example for how they can unlearn negative behaviour. 
  3. Set an example and speak up – If you overhear someone telling a racist joke for example, speak up and let them know that stereotyping is harmful. Let your children know that they should feel okay to speak up as well. 
  4. Examine your own racial bias – This might feel uncomfortable, but is an important part of setting an example to your child. Does your friendship circle or the people you work with represent a diverse and inclusive group? 
  5. Find out how racism is covered in your children’s school – You can use this to start a conversation and also discuss what the regulations are to prevent and deal with racism. 
  6. Talk to your children about racism and differences – explain that racism is a system of unfairness rather than an isolated event and that it has a long history in our country. Understanding movements for equality around the world can also highlight how far we’ve come and how much further we still have to go.
  7. Make talking about skin colour normal – Try to avoid saying “I don’t see colour” – it’s the barriers that people have as a result of this, that we don’t always see. Being honest and talking about why everyone isn’t always treated the same is important. 
  8. Encourage your children to ask questions – Children are naturally curious and should feel comfortable to come to you with any questions they may have, in the same way you would encourage them to ask you about topics like mental health and sexuality. Check what their question is before answering by asking questions, so you can make sure you’re giving them the information they want and avoid confusing them. 
  9. Seek out books, films, and toys to help start conversations – Especially those that portray people from different racial and ethnic groups in varied roles. 
  10. Be open – The subject matter of racism is uncomfortable to talk about, but it is important to explain to your child that it is painful to experience as well. Identifying the emotions that we are feeling and questioning why we are feeling them is a good place to start.

 

How to start an age-appropriate conversation with children

Pre-schoolers 

At around age three, children are aware of race and skin colour and able to ask questions about it – encourage your child to come to you with questions that you are open to answer. As they reach age five, children tend to understand the concept of fairness pretty well, so it is a good starting off point to talk about racism as being unfair and unacceptable and that’s why we need to work together to make it better.

 

Primary age

While children develop their ability to talk about their feelings more as they grow older, they are equally also exposed to more things that they might not understand. Find out what they know by being curious and asking questions. They might be learning things at school, hearing things on the playground or seeing things on TV. If you talk openly, you can build trust and encourage them to come to you with concerns and worries. Discuss media together, for example, you could look at how different groups are portrayed in the news and negative stereotypes in films. 

 

Secondary age

At this age, children are able to understand more abstract concepts as well as express their own views. Ask your children questions, for example, when there are events in the news such as the Black Lives Matter protests, ask them what they think about it and introduce them to different perspectives on the subject. 

Teenagers’ social media presence is important to them and they may have already thought about participating in online activism. Encourage them to respond and engage with racial issues in an active but safe way. We’ve all seen arguments kicking off in Facebook comments – they’re rarely constructive! So talk to your child about the best way to respond and when to walk away.

 

Summary

While the earlier we start the conversation about racism, the better, the fact is – it is never too late to educate ourselves and our children. So, use some of these points and start the conversation today. Start off by choosing one or two of the tips above and let us know what works for you over on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

 

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This post was written by Katie Roberts-Mason

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