In response to the global impact of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, many non-Black people are committing to learning and educating themselves and their children about racism. As Motherly says, ‘parents want to raise good humans’, and ‘part of the process of raising good human beings is finding a way to navigate difficult - even painful - topics with our kids’.
However, many families feel under-prepared to teach children about the realities of racism. Within an environment of trust and love, there are effective ways of discussing racial inequality and injustice that we can do at home.
In this article, we offer seven tips on how to raise racially conscious children.
1. Avoid colour-blind parenting
Many parents are reluctant to explicitly teach their children about race. Some believe that avoiding discussing racial difference is the best response to avoid ‘drawing attention’ to race. This can be described as a ‘colour blind’ parenting approach. Parents might tell children that ‘they don’t see colour’ and insisting ‘we are all the same’. But are we? Does society treat people the same?
While used with good intentions, colour-blind approaches can be very damaging. It is not possible to teach children ‘not to see colour’ (we all do), so this effectively perpetuates the silencing of discussions about racial difference. Erasing people’s race allows us to erase their racial experiences as well. Black people want others to ‘see’ their blackness, but treat them equally regardless.
2. It's never too early to have conversations about equality
Studies show that babies begin to show racial preferences from 6-8 months. By age five, children may demonstrate implicit racial attitudes picked up from their social environments and use race-based stereotypes to explain behaviour. Children notice racial difference, therefore normalise talking about race in a way that is respectful and kind, in age appropriate terms. Children need to understand that there is nothing wrong with racial difference.
3. Model inclusivity
Children mostly acquire racial attitudes from parents and their social environment. It is important to observe the language you (and your family) use when people of other races are discussed. For example, do you mock other people’s accents, customs, or backgrounds? Do you categorise and homogenise people from other races by saying things like “they are all like that”? Language and behaviour fuels single stories about minoritised people.
Leticia: I look at maps a lot with my daughter, explaining where her different ancestors and family members came from or still live. But we try not to cast everyone from particular countries or regions as being ‘the same’, instead emphasising diversity in looks, culture, languages and characteristics using examples from people we know.
4. Introduce diversity through play and story
Consider the TV shows, books and toys that your children are exposed to. Do they provide positive models of diverse communities? Are Black or Indigenous characters centred in these stories, or are the stories mostly whitewashed? Is there only superficial diversity? Consider if it is necessary to revisit ‘classics’ with our children if they contain offensive stereotypes. Sometimes, however, we have to find the teachable moments in the media our children are passionate about. I (Leticia) have struggled with my four-year-old’s Frozen obsession and its idealisation of a very Eurocentric, white femininity. The second movie, whilst still not perfect, has given us a lot of scope for discussions about coming to terms with and making reparations for racial injustices committed by our ancestors, and the complexities of belonging in intercultural families. Recently, my daughter independently connected a discussion we had about slavery (after she heard it mentioned on the radio), to the injustices committed by the characters’ ancestors in Frozen II.
Children notice racial differences but do not necessarily attach any negative bias to difference.
Kathomi: I worked as a nanny for a few years. I’d often observe the children trying to make sense of my Black skin and why it was different to theirs. They’d ask me questions about why my hair was different, or why the back of my hand was darker than my palms. They would also immediately pick out dark-skinned children from story books and shout in excitement, ‘she looks like you!’. This innocent curiosity allowed us to discuss racial difference in an age appropriate way. We must stop underestimating children’s ability to grasp what we consider to be complex topics.
Consider if it is necessary to revisit ‘classics’ with our children if they contain offensive stereotypes.
5. Foster curiosity
Encourage your children to be curious about difference and to share their observations of the social world. Then, reward their curiosity with honesty. Often times when children curiously point out the difference in others, parents respond with embarrassment while reminding them “it is rude to stare”. But often that punitive response when children notice difference sends the wrong message. Allow your child to see others who don’t mirror their immediate world and permit them to ask questions that adults would normally shy away from.
Allow your child to see others who don’t mirror their immediate world and permit them to ask questions that adults would normally shy away from.
6. Surround your children with diversity
It’s important for children to grow in environments that reflect our racially, ethnically and culturally diverse world, and to remind them that diversity is what makes it beautiful. Children who grow up in diverse environments show less implicit biases and more positive attitudes in childhood. Avoid cushioning your child in an environment where they never get to interact with people outside their own racial bubble. If your children have no contact with anyone from other racial groups, consider why that might be?
7. Have ‘the talk’
Talking about racism is difficult. Families with visibly Black children must have what is referred to as ‘the talk’ to equip them with ways that minimise racial profiling and police contact. White parents can have alternative talks introducing racial inequality and injustice. Children know when something is unfair, therefore, you can connect with their sense of right and wrong to explain complex matters.
Leticia: I recently attended a #BlackLivesMatter protest. I explained to my daughter why I was going and why that was important.
Parenting to develop racial consciousness is not easy or comfortable. It can be confronting but if we are to envision a more inclusive future, we need to have hope in our children and prepare them to thrive in our diverse world.
Kathomi Gatwiri is a senior lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Southern Cross University.
Leticia Anderson is a lecturer in Humanities at Southern Cross University.