Teaching kids about racism

There’s no time like the present to teach your children about equality and discrimination.

At present, the world over is confronting racism and unequal treatment of people of colour head on. When handled correctly, these conversations can be effective, helpful and kind, but when ignored, and pleas go unheard, anger is fuelled, and no growth takes place.

In a diverse country such as South Africa it is important for our parents to know how to navigate conversations about race with our children.

Talking to kids about race and racism

Before we can teach our children about equality and discrimination parents are required to be aware of their own biases and prejudices. These could be biases about race, gender, sexuality, weight or religion, among others. If as adults in the home we are aware of our biases we can challenge our own behaviour, and therefore encourage our children to challenge theirs.

At the Raising Girls and Boys conference in 2018, Nene Molefi, a diversity and inclusion consultant challenged those in the audience on a number of areas regarding race and racism. She said that positive conversations (or the cessation of negative conversations) have to start at home. This means that racial jokes, statements, generalisations and stereotypes and challenging of these conversations has to start at home, in private, with nobody else around to see.

We cannot go out into the world and purport to be advocates for equality and claim that we do not have biases or prejudices if we are making jokes in the comfort of our own homes. She challenged us as an audience to be advocates in our homes for equality and non-racist, tolerance and acceptance.

In the same vein, we cannot expect our children to treat others equally at school or in their extra curricula if they observe behaviour or commentary to the contrary at home.

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How do I recognise my bias or where I need to grow?

Recognising one’s own bias is important, albeit somewhat uncomfortable at times. Harvard developed an ‘Implicit Association Test’ (IAT) which assists in developing a self-understanding of one’s bias.

The test is highly recommended and has been adapted in some forms to be done with children (still being researched and not yet readily available). In addition to this, a popular infographic has circulated since the start of the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA.

The infographic was created by Andrew M. Ibrahim, which he adapted from a COVID-19 model. The model suggests that we need to know what we fear, based on what we are comfortable with (and thus staying in our comfort zone). When we learn – whether it be about ourselves or others, we are able to recognise where we fall short and where we avoid certain conversations or thinking areas. By being willing to learn we are able to grow as people and act when we see racism in action.

How to become anti-racist

How do we teach our children about equality?

Teaching your child about equality is to teach them about not discriminating against somebody else for their differences. It means to teach your child about human rights, and how everybody deserves to be treated fairly by others whether it be peers, teachers, parents and members of a society.

It means to teach your child that everybody deserves an equal chance at achieving, and should not be hindered because of their race, gender or ability.

It is important to actually talk about race and differences – we cannot ignore these areas with our children. If you don’t talk about race with your children at home, somebody else will outside the home. It is important to acknowledge that racism is not a thing of the past but is active in our society.

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Children notice differences in others’ skin colour from as early as four months old, and thereafter develop a preference for the colour of the face that is the same as theirs. From as young as three years old, children are aware of different races and skin colours, and due to their age, questions will begin. Race might be easy to talk about…racism is more complicated.

paper dolls cutouts in different colours: how to talk to your children about race and racism

At the heart is empathy and kindness in order to raise children who are anti-racist. When our children are kind and compassionate toward others, and when they develop a sense of empathy toward the circumstances of others, we can hope that this empathy extends to everybody – those who are the same as them and those who are different.

While these conversations about race need to take place across the age spectrum, it is the adults who are responsible for facilitating these talks, and adults who are responsible for finding teachable moments, and modelling positive behaviour for their children. We need our children to see that as adults we treat others fairly, are willing to learn and grow as people, and that we admit when we make mistakes, where we could have done better.

In an article written by writer Heather Greenwood Davis regarding how to talk to our kids about race, she quotes from a book called “Stamped: Racism Antiracism and You” and says that “we should raise children who can express notions of racial equality, who can see racial disparities as a problem, and who can do their own small part to challenge this big problem of racism.”

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We want our children to not only tolerate others, but actively support people of a different race, and act when they see that something is wrong. We want our children to be upstanders, not just bystanders, when it comes to racial inequality. We want them to unlearn racist ideas and discrimination of others.

How to teach kids racial tolerance

Some practical ideas to promote equality

  • Acknowledge differences in colour – saying that “I don’t see colour” is not true or possible.
  • Don’t wait to have conversations with your children – this is one area that requires a parent’s initiative, not just waiting for your child to bring it up.
  • Choose a racially diverse school for your child to attend, or if not, engage them in after school activities with children of other race groups.
  • Encourage diversity in playdates or birthday parties.
  • Offer books and toys that expose your child to different race groups and ethnicities. Colour Me Kids has got these amazing crayons that have a ‘skin colour’ crayon for everybody.
  • Use stories, or persona dolls to talk about incidents between the dolls as a way to facilitate discussion and empathy (https://www.teachingforchange.org/teaching-about-race)
  • Encourage curiosity and questioning in a kind and boundaried way. When a child asks why somebody is different, instead of keeping them quiet, create teachable moments.
  • Visit museums or historical sites that encourage conversations about race and discrimination – in South Africa, the Apartheid Museum is an important outing for children of all ages.
  • Have conversations often – not just once off.
  • Encourage learning in your home about different race groups and cultures to promote understanding and learning.
  • Make sure your child’s school promotes inclusion of diversity and equal treatment of all people.
I am an HPCSA registered independent Educational Psychologist. I work at a school and in private practice. I offer short and long-term therapy for children, adolescents and young adults, as well as parental guidance. My method is primarily non-directive and psychodynamic but I will take the unique nature of every client into consideration when making a choice on how to proceed with therapy. I offer therapy for (among others) anxiety, anger, bereavement, depression, children struggling with divorce or parental conflict, adjustment and learning difficulties, self-esteem, eating disorders, self-injury and trauma.