Talking to Children 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 talking to children about racism 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.
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? Should I have been talking to my children about racism a lot earlier?
The answer is yes. Our children are never too young to have these discussions. 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 discussions on race and racism, here’s a guide to get you started,
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.
Talking to children about Racism: 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.
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.
Talking to Children about Racism: 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.
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…