How do I talk to my child about racism?

For many, racism just isn’t an issue. However, there are times in history when something so dreadful happens that forces the topic into the homes and minds of those who wouldn’t ordinarily spend time thinking about it.

When the shocking killing of George Floyd occurred on 25th May, for those in the black communities around the world, the subsequent protests of rage that enveloped hundreds of thousands of people came as no surprise.

However, for our children and those lucky enough to live in a world which has not been poisoned by racism, there will be confusion and anxiety about how or why this has all happened.

How can you help them understand?

If you have a child who has asked you questions about the protests and George Floyd’s death, how can you help them to understand? What could you possibly say to explain the anger, hurt, and destruction that has been beamed into your home, without scaring them?

Firstly, ask yourself do you actually know what racism is? I know it seems like an obvious question, but there is no reason why you should know the answer. I suspect many people have navigated their lives into adulthood not really understanding what the term actually means. Even more so, they have chosen to hide away when the topic arises for fear of saying something wrong, causing distress or even being labeled as racist themselves.

What is racism?

Racism is basically the belief that members of other races are not as good as the members of your own. You believe that your race is superior and that you should be treated better than those who are not of your own race.

What about examples of racism? These can differ widely, which is sometimes why some adults are confused about what the term actually means. It can be a negative nuanced act, like someone making a barbed comment about your hair that could only be applied to your race (“I can’t stand afro hair, it’s always so greasy) or something so obvious and disturbing as George Floyd’s death.

Don’t shy away

If your child is asking questions because either they have seen or overheard something then please don’t shy away, make sure you tackle the question head-on. However, if you are uncertain how to answer, then say so. Explain to your child that you’re not sure, but that you can explore the question together over the internet or by even asking a friend or member of your local community.

Trust me, if you do broach the subject with someone you know, like a teacher or someone else in the community, they won’t be embarrassed or annoyed that you asked. Instead, I suspect, they will be silently surprised, but impressed and grateful that you have taken the time to enquire and listen.

If you give your child the impression that the topic of racism is not to be discussed, that there is something to hide, shy away from or be embarrassed about, then that is the impression that they will be left with. This would be wrong because history repeatedly tells us that those who fail to question or challenge wrongdoing, permit that wrongdoing to grow and fester.

Also, if your child is older and you fail to give them an answer, then they will simply look elsewhere and who knows where that will lead!

How to talk to your child about racism #racism #diversity #ethnicity #equality

Be direct

Depending on the age of your child, if they raise the topic, try to answer the question directly to the best of your knowledge or suggest you could both immediately go and find out. Even if your child doesn’t raise the question directly, but you notice that they have either seen or been following the topic on the news, then don’t wait and see, raise the issue with them as they may not know how to broach the subject.

Again, depending on your child’s age, you could raise the topic directly by asking them to look through a particular book or magazine. Ask your child whether they noticed anything in particular about the pictures, the clothes a person was wearing, or how they styled their hair and try to relate it to your child’s friends or members of the community.

You could then go and say: do you think a Chinese man could be a police officer? and see where this answer takes you. This type of questioning opens the door to discussing how your child sees the world around him or her and will help you assess the extent to which you need to deal with the topic.

The social media influence

If your child is older and has access to social media, don’t allow social media to be their font of knowledge and wisdom. Ask them about what they are seeing online and what their view is about it. If you see their friends, broach the topic with them.

Yes, the likely standard response will be “I don’t know” or an embarrassed laugh, however, challenge this inertia with a question like: “so what would you have done if you were Christian Cooper” or “how do you think George Floyd’s friends are feeling now”? Even though they may not be able to respond straight away, they will leave you thinking about the topic and forming a view that you should revisit over and over again.

Don’t be fearful about raising the topic

Children are being taught about it all the time, even in nursery they are asked to describe themselves, their family, and their community. They watch TV, read books and play computer games. They will notice differences far more than we give them credit for.

However, what they don’t understand is why those differences should create feelings of hatred and anger and this is where you come in. Ultimately, there is no right answer to my headline question. However, you may find that you need to challenge yourself and your own worldview about what you understand racism to be.

What do your network of friends look like, and I mean your real friends? How do you express feelings about other races when at home and within earshot of your children? Do your children, for example, possess books or other forms of artistic entertainment that reference those from other races in a positive light?

Promote positive messages

Exposing your child to art and literature is a simple way to consciously and subconsciously promote positive messages about ethnic groups. Consciously by way of visual content and subconsciously by your child growing up surrounded by those positive messages and from the knowledge that their parent wanted them to celebrate, know and understand different races. 

If you do care about your child understanding and appreciating other races, then take responsibility for ensuring that they get clear positive messages from you. Or perhaps more importantly, that you are able to reinforce that positive message if they challenge you with a negative or ignorant one.

Remember racism is not innate, but learnt. This means, the power to eradicate the unfairness that results from this bias is very real and attainable through education, information and communication, be that with your child, those in your community, or with society as a whole.

You should also be conscious that racism isn’t just about the tragic loss of George Floyd, but can cause just as much harm through; for example, negative stereotyping which leads to a skewered view of how others should be treated in society, from the type of jobs they obtain to how they may obtain justice. It is just as important to tackle that bias because in failing to address this, those who suffer the unfair treatment will become disaffected, angry and turn away from the more conventional methods of seeking redress due to the fact that they no longer trust in the system. Those protesting the death of Mr Floyd no longer trust that the system will protect them from injustice. 

Racism can be defeated and now you know that the power lays with you.

About the author

Award-winning female black Barrister Paula Rhone-Adrien (Lawyer of the week for The Times and trusted BBC Expert) is a mum of 4 and a very well respected voice at the top of the legal profession who also uses her platform to educate people regarding racism.

Picture cover credit: People photo created by master1305 – www.freepik.com

10 comments

  1. A great post. It’s a difficult subject with children depending on their age I’ve found and not really had many questions from them about the subject.

  2. I can be proud to say that I have taught my children early on to respect each other’s uniqueness. Can you just imagine how boring it would be if everyone in the world looked alike? My grandson is starting to ask questions and I am always ready to explain to him why some people look different and that he must learn to love them just the same.

  3. There is nothing to be shy about when discussing this with anyone of any age. Every child needs to know and understand..there is no age limit on this subject.

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