Talking with Children About Racism
Talking about racism with children can be a sensitive topic but you can turn these critical moments into valuable teaching opportunities.
Racism. It may feel like it's going to be one of the hardest conversations you'll have with your children, but we need to normalise these conversations. In the current climate, race and racism takes the front page for many reasons, from movements such as Black Lives Matter to political campaigns fought and won - in part on racial issues.
Children notice things and understand things we don't give them credit for so don't ignore the conversation, indeed, parents need to start and encourage these conversations. Younger children may notice differences, like the fact that some eggs are brown and others are white, some people are black or brown, some are white. They may comment on things innocently, like asking you out loud why the person sitting beside you is large or old or wrinkly etc. Parents may find it embarrassing and awkward for parents because you know the emotional triggers and sensitivities behind the comments but this has become an excuse ‘not to go there’ for many. We need to work harder to re-frame these kind of conversations as important, necessary conversations to be faced up to and addressed and weaved in to dialogue on a daily or regular basis, as young children are simply learning to notice differences.
Try to embrace your children's journey to understanding the issues surrounding race and use them as teaching moments for us as adults to challenge ourselves to learn more and to teach our children more. Raising children who are aware of the issues and challenges that still need to be overcome will lead to a more inclusive society going forward.
Tips on how to approach conversations about racism:
Be a good role model
Remember that children will repeat the things they hear you say. If you use racist language, they will too; the only difference is they won't understand the full implications of what they are saying. If you refer to groups of people in a certain way, they will too, and more often than not they'll use the expressions in public and out loud. This may be just a superficial example, but the messaging you send your child by your words and actions is the only way to model the change in behaviours that needs to take place to truly address the deeper racism in society.
Even preverbal toddlers can internalise racism and start putting value judgements on things. Whether they hate one type of food or have decided on a best friend - they are starting to make their own judgements on things - these next few years are formative.
It's important to provide facts rather than any prejudices you may hold during this time. Your personal beliefs and attitudes will influence them, so make sure you are demonstrating tolerance and acceptance and go beyond baseline minimum ‘niceness’.
Children will pick-up on differences between themselves and other children. So when, for example, a new child joins their class but speaks another language as their first language- listen carefully to how your child talks about them and help them understand the subtle differences in the words we choose to use.
If the initial way of describing the new child was as being "weird", it would be better to guide them recognise the "difference" but encourage them to find things they have in common. This could then lead to opportunities to understand the new child's heritage and helping your own child understand how the country they have come from contrasts, perhaps just in simple ways, like the weather, food, or celebrations.
Be careful to use language that refers to individuals rather than groups. Help your child understand that just because people share a similar trait, skin colour, religion, hair colour, does not mean they are all the same. You can often use simple examples here by looking at how they are different from their siblings or friends. Try to discourage stereotypes and collective terms as this only encourages children to think that all people with a similar trait are alike. However some collective terms can be right in the right context e.g. how do you address the issue of specific forms of racism if you can’t use the term Black.
Respond in the moment
When we don't want to address something, we can often put it off. If, for example, your child makes a racist comment or joke, but it’s important to address the issue immediately. Children learn better in the moment, they need to be in it to understand how what they have done is wrong and the ramifications their comment or action might have. In most cases, they won't realise that what they have said is offensive, they may have heard it in the playground, from friends or siblings, seen peers laugh and decided to try and elicit the same response. Explain why we don't say things like that and try to get them to tell you how they would feel if the joke was about them in some way.
Children hear and see more than we think. You may have the radio on in the car, or the news on while making dinner. These can all trigger a conversation, or a question that's far more insightful than you imagined and you may wonder where their query came from. Maybe they were discussing race in a lesson (virtual or real) or maybe they heard something on the news last night. It's likely they took something in and took time to digest it and try to understand it before they asked for more information.
If you don't know how to answer straight away, ask them a few questions such as "where did you hear that?" or "why do you think?" - this will give you time to think of a good way to explain. But it’s important to remember that this subject is all around us and that the importance here is about understanding and responding to such language or actions.
Pick your moment
While this issue shouldn’t be confined to any specific date or time , there are many events throughout the year that can help prompt good conversations. Take holidays for example; understanding that not everyone celebrates Christmas, or Passover or Eid. Noticing these simple differences can lead to conversations and teaching moments by sparking a real interest in other cultures, a deeper understanding of the challenges and prejudice facing specific groups and the issues which need to be addressed by society as a whole.
There is no shortage of examples of racism in the daily news. Rather than telling children what you think, ask them what they think about events happening around the world, or even what happens in their classroom. Get them to talk about their feelings, and their perceptions of events. Look at the age of your child and find books that highlight topics they mention – take a look at some of the further reading below; these are another good way to start conversations.
Be present and open for discussion
The biggest perpetuator of racism is ignorance so don't ignore comments or questions when they come up. It may seem easier to say nothing when your child asks "why does she have brown skin?" or "why does he wear that piece of cloth on his head?", but your child is genuinely interested in understanding the differences between themselves and others around them.
Remember that asked by an adult these questions may demonstrate ignorance and racial stereotyping but asked by a child they are most likely fuelled by curiosity not cruelty. Answer the question if you can, and if you don't know the answer suggest that you look into it together when you get home.
Bright Horizons Work+Family Content Team
"It is our responsibility to be active in the face of injustice. Use these books to start conversations, hold yourself accountable and educate a new generation. Reading isn't the only answer but it's the start, above all else. Black Lives Matter." Aimée Felone, co-founder of Knights Of and Round Table Books in London.
Antiracist Baby - Ibram X. Kendi
Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race - Reni Lodge
How To Be An Antiracist - Ibram X. Kendi
I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness - Austin Channing Brown
Natives: Race & Class In The Ruins of Empire - Akala
BRIT( ish ) - Afua Hirsch
The 1619 Project NY Times
Black and British: A Forgotten History - David Olusoga
Freedom Is A Constant Struggle - Angela Davis
So You Want to Talk About Race - Ijeoma Oluo
Staying Power - Peter Fryer
There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack - Paul Gilroy
Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power - Lola Olufemi
The Place is Here: The Work of Black Artists in 1980s Britain
The Good Immigrant - Nikesh Shukla
My Name is Why - Lemn Sissay
*Please note that this list is general signposting and is not a specific endorsement or recommendation by Bright Horizons. Should you utilise or download any of these resources, any exchange of data is solely between you and that provider - please note that these resources may be subject to their own terms and conditions and / or privacy notice. (As Bright Horizons has no control of the contents of the external resources, it can assume no responsibility or liability for these resources or the provider's use of any data you share with them.) This list will be updated on a regular basis.