June 15th, 2020

Raising anti-racist children

3 weeks ago George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, by a white police officer during an arrest, by kneeling on his neck. His death triggered demonstrations and protests in citiies around the world against police brutality, racism, and lack of police accountability. This week another black man, Rayshard Brooks, was shot dead by police officers in Atlanta. Now, if never before, parents are faced with explaining to their children the issues raised by these events. 

In other countries there have also been repeated incidents of police brutality towards people of colour and deaths in custody. During the Covid-19 pandemic people of Chinese descent have been faced with racist taunts. Racism is rife across the world. If you are a person who has experienced racism, if you have been afraid of the police or anyone else because of the colour of your skin, if you have had to explain to your child why they should not run from the police or that they are likely to be stopped and searched just because of how they look, if you have had to endure taunts or discrimination or been denied opportunities or been made to feel that you don’t belong then this may be sadly familiar ground. If you are from an ethnic minority your children may feel afraid and angry and that life is unfair. I don’t presume to know what that is like but I know it will be important to validate these feelings and allow them to vent. Racism is unjust and hurtful but we can also teach our children that they have a voice and can change things. 

None of those things may have happened to you but you may want to ensure that it no longer happens to anyone else. Caucasian parents need to not let guilt about what’s happened in the past, or discomfort about what is still happening, stop them from raising children with better attitudes for the future. If the protests across the world are anything to go by many people, white or black or Asian, have had enough. If you share that view you may want to teach your children to be anti-racist. How do you do it? 

Your approach will vary according to your child’s age and your lived experience, including your current neighbourhood. I am a Caucasian who grew up in Singapore in a multi-cultural community where my friends were mainly Chinese, Malaysian and Indian and one or two Europeans.  I saw difference all around me but was only interested in whether or not my friends wanted to play. The more your child is exposed to people from different backgrounds, the more they’ll get used to the idea of different races, and the more comfortable they’ll become with people from other ethnicities. This was an important factor to us when my husband and I were choosing what schools we wanted our children to go to in the UK. Surrounding yourself with diversity is a strong step toward breaking down the ignorance behind the fears that feed racism. 

We can also be thinking carefully about what books our children read and films they see and toys they play with –are they seeing people of different races portrayed in familiar situations? What ideas are they picking up about who occupy positions of power? Eg are the princesses or the heroes in the films your children watch all white?

Children are aware of race from an early age –from as young as 3 months old babies show a preference for people from the same race as their primary carers. Quite young children pick up attitudes and behaviours toward people of different races from those around them even if they don’t hear overtly racist comments. Most people don’t intend to be racist but may unconsciously model beliefs about a person’s capacities or their place in the world on the basis of race. It’s not racist for a child to notice differences such as skin colour but what we want to be careful of is any value judgments that are being attached to those differences. We need to challenge these, not with criticism, but by gently helping the child to see that stereotypes aren’t true. At any age we can have conversations with children about fairness and hurt. By primary school age children have a well-developed sense of fairness so we can tap into this. We can be talking to them about racism and white advantage as part of a wider conversation about fairness and teaching empathy.

As well as celebrating differences eg by taking part in festivals and sharing food, music and dance we want to be pointing out to our children the many things we have in common as human beings. 

Very young children take their cues from their parents about how to react to people so if they see that you welcome someone they will too. Ideally young children would not be exposed to the news but if they have heard something about recent events you will need to explain in very simple terms what has happened. “A police officer killed a man who had black skin. That was not ok. The police have to follow the law, the same as anyone else. A lot of people are very angry about it. We should be angry when something is wrong. It is wrong to treat people differently because of their skin colour. People are marching to let the government know they want things to change. That’s what we can do when we’re not happy about something in our country.” 

If your older child asks why the police officer killed this man this is a good opportunity to talk about how people handle anger and how important it is to use words. From the age of 7 we can be talking to our kids about how they feel about fairness. Relate it to their experience. Would it be fair if everyone except you could have ice cream? What if only people with red hair were allowed to play football? You can ask questions to engage them in ideas including about what they can do when they see unfairness to themselves or their friends or in the wider community. 

Don’t feel you have to have this conversation in one go and don’t feel you have to know all the answers before you begin. The fact that you are engaging in this conversation with your children will be raising their awareness and taking some important steps toward raising an anti-racist generation.

Posted in: Privilege , Racism





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