Dr Jessica Walton, a socio-cultural anthropologist at Deakin University, told SBS that racism starts young.
Children as young as three-years-old recognise racial differences in people by identifying different and similar physical traits to their own, she says. They begin assigning social meaning to those differences from around the age of five.
“This is around the age in the early primary school years that they begin to favour some people over others, form friendships (in-groups) which coincide with categorising people who aren’t in their friendship groups (out-groups),” she said.
As children enter teenhood, the biases they form can be harder to break.
“When children get to around the 12 to 13+ age and into their teenage years, their biases can be reinforced and harder to change if not challenged through perspective-taking and empathy earlier on,” Dr Walton said.
It is important to be open to how children make sense of the racial, ethnic, and cultural differences they see, Dr Walton said, and to challenge biases they have in age-appropriate ways through empathy and discussion.
Like others, Dr Walton, says better representation of minority groups in mainstream media is a good way to tackle racism and cultural bias. But it's more than just representation, it’s about building empathy and understanding around our differences.
Victoria's anti-racism workshops:
Dr Naomi Priest, a public health scientist and fellow at ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods, said there were a few good ways to promote racial empathy among kids.
Empathy, she said, can be built through exercises in the school or at home, though ideally both, where children are taught to explain how they’d feel if they were in a similar situation to a person facing racial bias.
“These can be simple scenario based exercises for early primary school-aged children,” she said. “’How would you feel if you were in this situation? How would you feel if someone treated you this way?’”
Children's television show 'Sesame Street' broached the subject a couple years ago, showing children how skin comes in a range of colours and they are all “beautiful”.
However, these exercises and discussions don’t need to be awkward or contrived. Dr Walton emphasised the importance of creating an “open” environment where children feel comfortable bringing up their experiences with or feelings surrounding racial bias.
“So not shutting conversations down when they come up, but exploring with children what they understand and how they might be able to think about the issue differently. This can mean asking them questions to understand where the children are coming from,” said Dr Walton.
“For example, if they’ve heard something on television or at school. Rather than just saying ‘don’t be racist’, explore with the children what they think racism is or why they said what they did and try to help them take a different perspective.”
Confidence in Culture
“It all comes back to empathy,” said Dr Priest, who believes showing young people positivity around race relations and different cultures is the key to shifting or preventing biases.
“Especially for children from a minority racial background, it’s important they develop pride and confidence around their culture. Parents can help by bringing that into the home, getting their kids involved in cultural activities, just creating a positive atmosphere around their racial and cultural differences,” she says.
“It all comes back to empathy.” - Dr Naomi Priest, ANU
For biracial children, especially scenarios where one parent is white and the other is black, it’s important both parents show understanding, empathy and positivity toward the minority culture, Dr Priest said.
Interestingly enough, when it comes to teaching white children about racism, the literature is sparse.
A joint study by six academics, including Dr Walton and Dr Priest, found most of the research surrounding a “preparation for bias” only catered to children from minority racial backgrounds.
“Kids from majority backgrounds also need to have an awareness of their own position so that they are also aware of their own biases in order to address racism, so it’s not just minority children who are aware of racism,” Dr Walton said.
Racism in Adults
Though both Dr Priest and Dr Watson agree it’s better to start young, using the same techniques on adults can be effective.
“Many adults may never have had to think about issues of racism," Dr Watson said.
She suggested activities like reflecting on personal experiences and biases and how they may have developed; considering how other people view the world and how your view is just one of many; and picturing what it might be like to be discriminated against because of your skin colour.
“Overall, it’s important to think in ways that are open-minded but also critical and reflective,” she said.