Tag Archives: racist bullying

A Step by Step Guide to Raising Race Conscious Children

Raising Race Conscious Children: Talking about Racism

My oldest daughter, aged 7, recently learned about Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. But not from me. In school, with her teacher and amongst her classmates who are majority white.

For her, I knew this was her first introduction to the concept of racism. Not only that, but injustice, discrimination and hatred based on skin colour- not in a playground but rather, played out in the adult world causing pain, violence and in some cases, death.

Some heavy lessons in there I’m sure. And though I’m glad she learned about some of the bravest and most heroic names of our time, I’m also sad that she’s had to take this in at such an early age.

My fear? That her belief and naivety in a world where everyone is treated equal was shattered. In her world, bullying doesn’t and shouldn’t happen to grown ups. Ashamedly, I hadn’t actually thought that raising race conscious children was possible at her age.

It’s worse than that. It’s not just bullying, it’s actually denying people the same things for reasons that she’s been taught thus far, don’t matter. Things that make no difference and shouldn’t feature in how you judge a person’s character.

Raising Race Conscious Kids

Do Children Actually Understand Racism?

It’s good that her teacher is talking to children about racism and as part of this, she performed an experiment (you may have heard of it). Half the class were let out for playtime early, that same group were given chocolate treats, iPads and new markers while the other group were told to get on with what they had or were given old markers and broken toys.

The kids without were outraged and the kids given everything understood it was unfair. The experiment showed that kids do get injustice. But did they truly understand the power context behind racism? Racism is not simply denying group x, it’s about actually creating and maintaining a system of power to maintain it.

It raised the question, could I have had a chat with my daughter earlier so that her first introduction to the subject would be with us, her parents? And was I naive to think she wasn’t already seeing signs of how privilege and prejudice work and who benefits? If I want to be raising race conscious children, should I have been trying to talk to them about racism a lot earlier?

The answer is yes. Our children are never too young to have these discussions if we want to be raising race conscious children. Because they are noticing difference no matter how much you want to sugar coat it. And if it’s you who first broaches a discussion, your child will most likely feel comfortable later on to discuss the more complex aspects of race that inevitably need exploring.

So if you want to have an open door about topics such as race and racism,  here’s a guide to get you started,

Raising Race Conscious Children: Kids are never too young to begin talking about race

If you think your children don’t see colour and that racial differences are taught and not noticed by children, you couldn’t be more wrong.

Children as young as two or three start asking about differences, such as disabilities, gender, skin colour and physical characteristics like hair and body shape. Surely you’ve been out with your children and they’ve loudly and rather unininhibitedly asked about the woman with the limp, the man dressed up as a woman or even as mundane (as in my daughter’s case) as the man with “hair all over his face!”

These moments are opportunities. And that’s just it. Opportunities to introduce difference, to explore how we’re all made in different shapes, genders and sizes. Use other differences and topics to start talking to children about racism. Start a discussion reminding them how some of us may have parts of us that work differently or look slightly different but  what’s important is how we act and behave towards others.

If you don’t live in a diverse area, use books, magazines, tv shows and ads to introduce diverse characters. Be intentional about seeking out diversity- not the books that talk about difference as its main subject but diverse characters doing everyday things.  So kids can see that these differences aren’t that important.

Point out all the similarities, like the fact they both like playing football or wearing pink. The differences are there but they’re not more important than what brings people together.

Raising Race Conscious Children: The Early years

Somewhere around 4 or 5 years old, children begin to make conscious decisions about who they play with based on things as arbitrary as ‘he wears glasses’ or ‘she funny hair’.

These are based on what we call unconscious bias which they would have already begun to have absorb. They’re based on their idea of what is ‘normal’ in the world around them and unconscious characteristics that they assign to certain things.

So, brown skin can be perceived as ‘dirty’ or a child with brown skin born to a white mother (as was the case with my daughter’s friend at this age) was not possible.

It’s important in these discussions not to scold or shush a child who questions but rather, ask them why they might think this and gently explain why that is not the case. Talking to children about racism is never going to be comfortable. And though I was initially alarmed by the child who told me I couldn’t be my daughter’s Mum because I didn’t have the same skin colour, I realised it was just not in her consciousness that families could look so different.

We talked about how each child is a mixture of both their parents and that DD1’s Dad was black and I’m white so our children came out a light brown colour. With that, she was off. She got it. Made sense in her world: colour mixing. We can be raising race conscious children positively. It doesn’t always have to be the negative aspects of race.

Don’t feel alarmed when children voice such assertions about the world but again, try to look at them as opportunities to ask them why they think this. And explore whether there is more you can be doing to show them why their assertion was not true.

I spoke to the teacher about possibly looking at how families look different and that this could be an opportunity to explore more than just race but single parent families, same sex parents or adoption.

Raising Race Conscious Children: The School Years

Like a lot of things at this age, the fairytales about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy have become just that- tales. Children have started becoming more discerning about the world around them and questioning why things are the way they are.

Part of this shift includes absorbing the not-so-subtle messages of power and privilege surrounding them. You could choose to ignore it or you could use their questions to spur in depth discussions about privilege.

To start a discussion, try talking to them about some of the subtle messages we get in our everyday lives. Are there particular people who never seem to be the superhero or princess in your books or movies? Who always seems to ‘save the day’? And who is often the one who needs to be ‘saved?’ Who is considered ‘pretty’?

My middle daughter recently expressed a dislike towards a doll we had that happened to have darker skin. The instant she told me she didn’t like her anymore, I knew why.

For all the work and positive images we try to surround her with, we know we’re up against it with all of the ads, images and messages she gets in her school and around. For her, it amounted to one kid in her class that was consistently bothering her and who happened to have darker skin. She had reconciled it in her head that perhaps that was why he was unkind- because of the colour of his skin.

When we talked about it however, she realised that people behave in all sorts of ways, and it doesn’t have to do with their skin colour. Luckily she has enough positive black role models around her that we could reinforce this message. The door is now open for further discussion because I know this is likely only the beginning of what she’ll take in. She will become more race conscious and that is a good thing. My hope is that she can express it positively.

Sometimes these discussions can stir a lot of empathy and emotion so it’s important not to leave your children with that sunken feeling of helplessness. Talk about the heroes of our time who have worked to influence change and what kinds of things they can do if they see someone being treated unfairly. Talking to children about racism doesn’t have to be a depressing discussion, try to let it end in hope.

Our children don’t have the luxury or privilege to ignore race. So what other choice is there?

What Happens Next?

If we don’t talk to our children about race and racism, they will go elsewhere to get answers.

In the end, I’m glad my daughter’s teacher introduced the subject because it has spurred ongoing discussions that have branched into gender and class. I don’t always have it spot on and I’m certain these discussions will get more difficult over the years but our children don’t have the luxury or privilege to ignore race. So what other choice is there?


For more from Mixed.Up.Mama about talking to children about race and privilege, read on… 

10 Things to Consider Before Having Children in an Interracial Relationship10 Things Every Parent Should Do When Raising Mixed Race Kids

Raising Mixed Kids in a Colourism WorldInterracial Relationship

The Downward Cycle of Playground Politics into Outright Racism

It was the moment I dreaded. Today my daughter came home recounting her day with the casual tone she adopts when talking about homework.

“Mummy, I made a secret club today! Brown skin and blonde girls only”.

At the mention of skin colour, my head turned. But instead of the usual defensive lioness I’ve become so used to at the mention of anyone excluding her for being brown, I had to do a double take.

“What??? Why would you?… Who??….”, my voice tailed off. Realising she’d included blonde girls, I calculated that most of her friends were actually probably included- even with this strange entry requirement.

All except one. “Were all your friends allowed to join then?”, I asked carefully. “Yes”, she said. “Except N…”

Racism and Kids: Exclusion in the Playground

My heart dropped. Just as I feared. One of her friends who didn’t play with her that often but who was often on the periphery of her little group was unfortunate to have brown hair.

My daughter was obviously oblivious to her error. In fact, she looked at me curiously to see why I might be so concerned.

What do you do and how do you say it? My automatic anti-racist, discrimination-hating, scary-Mum instinct was about to be unleashed where I lecture my daughter about everything that’s wrong with excluding someone because of their skin colour.

And yet I knew that if I scared my daughter with my reaction, what would be the impact on any future conversations about race?

Would she want to bring up any more moments where race and skin colour come up and would she feel comfortable to know that she can ask anything- even if it is offensive?

Because keeping that conversational door open is one of the most important things to me. That she knows that she can ask anything of us- her parents- even if she suspects it’s not a comfortable subject for many.

We talk about race and heritage and colour because it’s there. Not because we want to make a big deal of it but because it’s there. And we don’t have a choice.

Fortunately, the people who make up my daughter’s entire world are all different colours so I didn’t have to travel far to get her to understand.

“You do know that your rules mean that I couldn’t join your secret club”.

Armed with this new revelation, she seemed to pause and agreed quickly to change the rules so that blonde, brown and black hair, white skin and brown skin could be included.

In Shakil Choudhury’s recent ground-breaking book on diversity, he spells it out for us that our human brain is predisposed to be empathetic to those who are most like us. But as her immediate circle is made up of multiple skin colours and features, I knew that her concept of ‘us’ was unlikely to be limited.

So I didn’t harp on about the colour aspect. The incident that happened today could have happened to any kid, of any colour. For my daughter, it could well have been glasses, no glasses, brown hair, blonde hair or black hair, as long as her chosen friends were included.

In those next few moments, I chose to talk about exclusion as it happens to us all, not about colour specifically.

“Why would you want to exclude N***?”, I asked her.

“Is she mean?”

“No.”

“So, why?”

She didn’t really have an answer. Perhaps because it was easy to exclude N***.  And because her best friends were all blonde-haired or brown-skinned.

I continued. Today, you’re in control of the club but tomorrow, it may be those very same kids who exclude you because of your curly hair or your nose or your shirt or… your skin colour.

“How would you feel if…”

Pausing, she said she understood. And she felt bad, I could tell. She’s not a mean kid and I know she’s been known to stand up to bullies and other kids who turn on others. But what happened today, she was reminded of who she is and what she stands for.

So proud was she of her ‘secret’ club and the fact that she’d come up with rules to make it even more exclusive (probably inspired by the recent episode of Peppa Pig), she’d forgotten how it felt to be left out.

Tomorrow she’ll go in and apologise to her friend. She’s done with secret clubs for now, she says. And she’s got a renewed incentive to be kinder and to ensure everyone gets included in her circle.  Because when encouraged to imagine themselves in the others’ shoes, children don’t need much encouragement to change their behaviour.

I hope that my daughter got the lesson. I certainly did not think I’d be having this conversation with her, especially at 5 years old. But, then again, I’m glad it happened and I can understand better when young children do make judgements and decisions based on skin colour.

Later, it may become more sinister and I’m ready for those conversations. But it’s a reminder that in this racialised world, none of us are perfect and we’re learning along the way. Talking about race is not taboo, nor should we scare our children or run away from such conversations. Even when they surprise us with the most unimaginable.

Click below for more from Mixed.Up.Mama

Talking to children about RacismRaising Mixed Kids in a Colourism WorldHow to Talk to Mixed Heritage Kids about Racism10 Things to Consider Before Having Children in an Interracial Relationship

Preparing your Children for Racist Bullying

Reading posts from a few Mama bloggers this week, the subject of racist bullying seemed to come up a lot. A black teenager who retaliated when she was called the ‘n’ word and the school/ police’s unequal response. A Mum whose mixed race daughter was asked (twice in one week) if she was adopted and “is that your real mom” because she has dark skin.

Real racism or blatant bullying hasn’t happened to my kids… yet. But I’ve witnessed hints of kids becoming ‘aware’ of difference.

At 4 years old, I could see the children already noticing skin colour and how it relates to them and their friends.

But racist bullying isn’t anything new, surely?

Children noticing difference and singling out other kids for looking or acting a certain way is nothing new. I remember being picked on and even doing the picking- for all sorts of things: glasses, red hair, short, fat, hairy, long nose, short nose, names… the list goes on. But what I don’t remember and what I’ve never had to experience is racist comments about skin colour.

Though I was born into a mixed race family, my father a milk chocolate colour, I am by far the lightest in my family- easily able to pass as white. I could float between my identities at will, embracing more of my Iranian background as I grew older but wanting nothing to do with anything foreign in my pre-teen years. True, my name often gave me away but I was able to shorten it to a westernised version that allowed me to pass.

So I’m new to this territory. I remember when my daughter was barely 1 year old and my husband and I took her to a local park in a very white middle class area. A child came up to her and stuck his tongue out, then tried to tell her she couldn’t come to the part of the climbing frame where he was.

Perhaps we were sensitive as new parents but I remember feeling rage at the other child for excluding her or being mean to her. She was oblivious of course, as most babies would be. But looking around the park with so many white children and their blue-eyed- blonde- haired parents in groups, it played into the feeling we already had of feeling isolated and sensitive to a world that might judge our beautiful child on the basis of her skin.

Like any mother I desperately want to protect my children. I don’t want to be over sensitive but…

Why then does racist bullying hurt so much more than just plain bullying?

My guess is it’s because we know it won’t end when the children grow up and realize glasses can be cool, being short is pretty common and having a different name isn’t something to make fun of someone for.

Most people grow out of bullying. But racism is something that will and can continue for a lifetime. It may take a different form but the hurt caused whether you’re in the playground or grown up and working can be just as painful.

So to have it start at such an early age is heartbreaking. Because if you’ve given them the best start, you know they’re confident, even proud of who they are, soon, very soon, they’ll understand not everyone thinks that way.

I do realize that nothing could happen as many mixed friends can recount not having encountered any negative experience because of their skin color. If so, my daughters may just escape the large chip many of (we and many generations before us) us have been forced to carry and have a pretty good shot at happiness.

Be Ready…

But if comments do happen, I hope I’m ready for it. Ready to maintain my cool and hold down the rage that I can imagine I’ll feel at even the slightest hint of racist bullying. I hope I can talk to my daughter about how and why it happened, how it made her feel and how some people may see things that way. What I hope more than anything though is that if it does happen, my daughters will be secure enough in who they are to be able to dismiss such comments as they would any other.

Is there any way a parent can prepare for when their child gets bullied? Perhaps not. I can’t do anything about the way the world sees her, but I hope I can be a positive influence in the way she sees herself.

How to Prepare your Kids for Racist Bullying
10 Things to Consider Before Having Mixed Kids
racist bullying
Are They All Yours? The Questions Asked of Parents of Mixed Race Kids