Talking to Children About Racism
In a world that still grapples with the effects of racism, it is essential for parents to engage in conversations with their children about this sensitive topic.
Sometimes we make the mistake of avoiding difficult topics, 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 about these subjects, the better.
Here we will talk about how to approach discussions about racism with children of different ages, using age-appropriate language and teaching inclusivity.
What is racism?
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 which can lead to unintentional racist behaviour.
A good 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?
Young children may not fully grasp the complexities of racism, but introducing them to the concept of diversity and promoting kindness sets the foundation for future conversations as they grow older.
Celebrate diversity by using books, toys and artwork that showcase characters from various racial and ethnic backgrounds. Use stories that teach valuable lessons about kindness and acceptance. Discuss the characters’ experiences and highlight how they overcome challenges related to their differences. Point out and appreciate the differences in skin tones, hair textures etc, and explain that everyone should be treated with kindness and fairness, and that it is not nice to judge people based on how they look.
During their early years, children are developing their sense of self and their understanding of the world around them. They are learning about right and wrong and have a keen sense of fairness, so talk about what’s fair and what’s not, giving examples they can relate to, such as, “What if there was a rule that says everyone with (the same colour eyes as your child) isn’t allowed to play with their friends at break time. Do you think that’s fair?”.
Encourage your child’s curiosity and be prepared to answer their questions honestly. If they ask why someone has a different skin colour, explain that people inherit their skin colour from their families, just like they inherit their eye or hair colour. Keep language and explanations simple and easy for them to understand. For example, explain that people come in different colours, just like flowers or crayons, emphasising that all colours are special and wonderful.
Remember to follow your child’s lead. If they ask follow-up questions, they are showing they are ready for more information. And remember that talking to children should be ongoing, not just a one-time event.
As children become more independent, parents have less control over what they are exposed to, so it’s good to find out what your child knows. They might be learning things at school, hearing things in the playground, or seeing things on TV, and while children develop their ability to talk about their feelings more as they grow older, they will still come across many things they don’t understand. So encourage open and non-judgmental conversations by creating a safe space for your child to talk to you and ask questions.
At this age children will be able to understand what racism is, so explain that it is a system of unfairness, rather than an isolated event and that it has a long history. Talk with them about historical examples of racism, such as slavery and apartheid, and discuss key figures who championed equality, such as Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Understanding movements for equality around the world can also highlight how far we’ve come and how much further we still have to go.
Discuss common stereotypes and biases with your child, explaining that they are often based on untrue or incomplete information. Encourage your child to think critically by challenging stereotypes, which will help them to understand that individuals should be judged on their character and actions, not their race. Tell them about real-life examples of racism that you may have experienced and how hurtful it can be.
Children learn from observing their parents, so lead by example and ensure your own actions and words reflect inclusivity and respect for everyone. If you hear someone telling a racist joke, speak up and let them know that stereotyping is harmful.
During adolescence, young people develop a greater sense of identity and become more aware of social issues, including racism. At this age, they need their privacy but it is also important for parents to be aware of the media their children are exposed to and make sure they are using technology safely. When they are online or watching the news etc, suggest that they look for multiple, trusted sources for information, so they don’t get stuck on one perspective or view.
Most children will encounter some form of racism by the time they reach secondary school, and whatever your child’s race or ethnicity, it’s important they learn how best to respond. Discuss with your child the different ways they could deal with these situations – should they challenge the person who is being racist, or is it safer to walk away? Is there a trusted adult they could speak to if they witness racism at school, or at their sport club?
It could be helpful for you and your child to come up with some set phrases they could use if they are victims of or witness racism, “That’s racist, don’t say that”, or “I don’t find racism funny.” It’s important to try and stop racism as it happens, and not be a passive bystander, but only if it is safe for your child to do so, and if it isn’t they should ask an adult for help.
Encourage your child to speak to you if they experience racism and explain that you will support them in speaking to a teacher, sports coach, headteacher etc, if further action needs to be taken. It’s important to teach your teenager that racism is not something that should be taken lightly and swept under the carpet.