Let’s get honest for a second. It can be a bit uncomfortable talking to children about race at times. Or anyone for that matter.
We don’t always know what to say, we don’t want to feel guilty and we generally tend to shy away from awkward conversations as a human race. At least I do.
But in my heart, I feel that this is such an important thing to talk about with our children right now. A little while back I had my first conversation with my four-year-old Zach, about race. It was the first time he really properly asked and it got me thinking.
Although I was very aware of other cultures and races from a young age, I very much didn't see race much when I was young. When Michael and I got together it was only then that I properly realised that he was of a different race to me! In my head, I was so of the school of thought that race didn’t matter, that until we were together, I hadn’t really thought twice about it.But, turns out it did matter. At least to other people.
See the thing is, we don’t live in a world that doesn’t see colour. Sure, it would be great if racial tensions had never existed in the first place. If Martin Luther King’s vision of a world that judged on someone’s abilities not the colour of their skin, actually existed, then that would be a wonderful thing; but we are working with the world we have, so let’s be realistic. We don’t live in a perfect utopian society, where every person has the same opportunities in life. Privilege exists in many forms, whether you are born into wealth or poverty, parents who care or parents who don’t, your gender, your body's abilities, your race, and much more - they all have an impact on the level of privilege you are rewarded right from the moment of your birth. But if you are under any illusion that white privilege does not exist, then I urge you to watch this eye-opening documentary by the BBC, or watch this heartbreaking video showing children choosing a white doll over the black doll every time.
Teaching colour blindness as a way of dealing with racial differences seems to have originated in the 60’s as a means of encouraging racial equality in the workplace. This was a massive and necessary step forward for former generations in the journey towards racial equality, especially for my parents peers, given they lived in Zimbabwe and South Africa!
‘Racial colour blindness is a sociological term for the disregard of racial characteristics when selecting which individuals will participate in some activity or receive some service.’
Which sounds great right? It’s an important thing to have this in place, especially in the workplace. But it has now been taken to the point where we apply this to all situations and claim to not see colour at all. Well-intentioned parents have been teaching their children that race is not important for decades, and even sometimes that it is something to not be talked about. We now need to adapt our conversations about race as we listen to our friends and neighbours.
It’s only now that I have two mixed race children, that I can see there are better ways to talk to your children about race, instead of pretending that it doesn't matter. Because to the child of an ethnic minority, race does matter. Children DO see colour, just as you or I can see colour. When we teach them to be colour blind we are not helping them to see racism where it exists. We are doing our friends and family of ethnic minorities, a disservice. We are teaching our children to ignore racism, not help relieve it. It is then far too easy to assume that race doesn’t matter to anyone else either, and therefore the inequalities are harder to see.
A Northwestern University study found that when kids aged 8 to 11 were taught about diversity as a value, they were better able to detect evidence of racial discrimination than were kids who had been taught a “color-blind” message.
So when Zach and I started playing with this adorable 'People of the World' game, and he asked me why one woman was very brown and another was ‘kind of pinky’ I used it as a chance to talk to him.
‘Because some people have more melanin in their skin. Melanin is something in our skin which gives people their colouring. See in our family, Daddy has lots of melanin in his skin, and you and Ollie don’t have quite as much, and I have even less.’ I said holding out my arm next to Zach’s.
‘Oh yes, you’re white like a ghost’ Zach says laughing.
I wanted to give him facts. I could have left it there, but instead, I carried on.
‘Zach, sometimes people are treated differently because of the colour of their skin. Some people are called different names because of the way they look, but that’s not right is it? It doesn’t matter how different we look, we are all the same underneath, so no one should be treated unkindly because of how they look.’
‘Yes, you’re right aren’t you. That's not very nice.’ Zach said in a very un-Zach like way, which threw me off. Then he laughed and said, ‘Yes but we shouldn’t be kind to ghosts, because they might eat your head off.’ Ahh my Zach was back.
But, hey, it’s a start. We also talk to him about where he is from, where Daddy was born and where my parents are from, and stories from those cultures, that's an important part of making sure that he knows how valued he is as an individual. I feel very aware in this present moment that Zach will be growing up in a world that is so unlike the world I grew up in. I did not have to face anything like the struggles of millions of racial minorities across the UK and the World. And it doesn’t seem to be getting easier.
Now more than ever, I want to start my children on a path that will enable them to see and face the racial injustices in the world with a level head, their feet firmly planted on the ground, and be able to say:
'That’s not right.’
If you're wondering how to talk honestly and openly about race with your children, here are some ideas to start.
Top 5 ways to openly talk to your children about race
1. Celebrate similarities
Not teaching a child to be colour blind doesn’t mean we can’t teach them to see similarities in each other. It can be as simple as ‘Becky loves Moana, so do you!’ It’s a general human connection, the more we feel we can relate to someone, the more we accept them for who they are. I, for example, have a special connection with mothers who are happy when they just manage to make it through the day with no extra grey hairs (if that’s you, let me know.)
2. Celebrate Diversity
Curly hair or straight hair, blue eyes or brown eyes, outgoing or shy, outdoor type or homebody. Embrace the differences that make us who we are. Deborah Rivas-Drake, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, suggests that pointing out the differences within your own race could help foster diversity acceptance.
3. Teach children to love themselves
This might sound like an obvious one but when we teach children to love themselves for who they really are, we also teach them to love and accept others for who they are. By teaching them that what's on the inside is more important but that their race is part of who they are. Their cultural heritage is part of who they are but it does not define who they are. And the same goes for everyone else.
4. Find out where prejudices are coming from & tackle them head on
If you hear your child talking about race in a certain way that you know is not from you, gently ask them where they heard someone talking in such a way. Whether your child is the one speaking inaccurately or is the one feeling hurt, it may be a situation that teachers need to be asked about, or perhaps something they overheard in a conversation and you need to talk to them about. Talking is good.
5. Answer with facts
Sometimes the hardest times to speak to children about race or any other differences for that matter are when our children ask us an awkward question. Especially in front of someone. If we treat it as awkward and uncomfortable, then it will be. When we realise that kids are kids and are just curious, then a factual answer is often the easiest. I’ll give you a real life example for this one that only left my cheeks slightly pink instead of as red as a beetroot.
‘Why does that lady’s hair look funny?’ Zach asked as he motioned to a woman with a large blue afro.
‘It doesn’t sound very nice to say it looks funny, even though it looks different to yours. Her hair is curly like yours though because the hair follicles where the hair attaches to your head, are an oval shape, which makes hair curly. It’s blue because she wanted to dye it blue. Blue’s a cool colour isn’t it Zach?
‘Hmm, yeah.’ he replied, ‘I like curly hair. When Daddy was my age he had curly hair, but now Daddy only has teeny tiny little hairs.’
Yes, he does buddy, but let’s not bring that one up, he’s a bit sensitive.
How do you talk about race to your children? Let us know in the comments.