Whether your children are black, white, both or neither, talking to them about race these days is a must – particularly in a post-George Floyd world. Not every Briton feels comfortable broaching the subject of race, and inevitably racism, with their children. I’m not sure why, though. After all, how many parents have taken the time to talk through the changes their child should expect as they near puberty? On the flip-side of that conversational coin, how many teenagers have sat uncomfortably whilst their mum or dad delivered the ‘other’ talk? Their mortification was probably turned up to 11, as their parents laid out the concept of consent.
Parents deliver such talks because to be forewarned, is to be forearmed. You want your children to be prepared. You hope that they’ll make the best decisions when you’re not available for guidance. Similarly, taking the time to discuss race and difference gives your kids the tools necessary to cope more calmly when they do find themselves confronted with prejudice, witness unfairness, or realise they’re being led by their own unconscious biases.
These tools are ones that I wish I had been given as a child. The first time I experienced racism I was definitely not prepared.
Sticks and stones
I must have been about 7 or 8 years old. Queueing up with the other schoolchildren to go inside after lunchtime play, I noticed two girls ahead of me looking over and giggling. I was starting to feel a little put out, when one of the girls finally spoke up: “You’ve got weird lips”.
“No, I don’t”. I said fiercely. “You do”, she smirked. “One of them’s brown and the other one’s pink”.
I faltered a little. It’s true. My bottom lip IS more pink. I’d never considered that might be weird, though. My mum had always said that everyone is beautiful in their own way. But, before I could respond, another verbal blow landed.
“And, why’s your nose so flat?”
“Your nose. It’s all squashed down”.
“It is?” I thought, reaching up to touch my nose absent-mindedly. The girls started laughing again before turning around to face the front, leaving me to my confusion, and a growing sense of shame. This was all news to me. I’d never really thought about my looks before. But, now, I was suddenly noticing how long and straight everyone else’s noses were. I didn’t know then that – compared to Europeans – flatter, wider noses are quite common for West Africans (and their British-born children).
I just wasn’t prepared for that kind of unfair criticism or the harsher forms of ignorance and blatant racism that would follow over the next few years. Perhaps I should have spoken about it immediately with an adult. But, given the embarrassment, I chose to internalise all of my thoughts and feelings, to absorb as ‘truth’ some of the taunts thrown my way.
Sad, but what’s the big deal?
Now, maybe you’re thinking this was mean behaviour, but ultimately a trivial example of kids just being kids. Everyone’s been picked on at some point, right? Aren’t I being over-sensitive to view such behaviour as important? Well, think again. Academic research conducted by psychologists in the 1940’s showed the long-lasting and pervasive effects that behaviour like this can have on children. The ‘doll test’ proved how prejudice can negatively affect a child’s view of themself. More recently Italian journalists recreated ‘the doll’ experiments. I’ve embedded a video of children undergoing the tests below. It makes for sober viewing.
Age-appropriate conversations about race
So, what is a parent to do? Well, your approach to the ‘race talk’ should entirely depend on the age / maturity-level of your child. The older they get, the more complex and in-depth your discussions should become.
Be aware that much of the discourse about race and civil rights is written from an American perspective. So, feel free to use stories from your own life, or British sources you come across to add value where appropriate. For example, there are many lesser-known black British figures from history you can learn about together.
Babies and toddlers
Yes. You read that heading correctly. When it comes to race socialisation, there’s no such thing as ‘starting too early’. That’s because your cute and innocent child already knows a whole lot more than you think.
Research shows that babies notice race-based differences from just 6 months old. And, by two years old, little Beatrice and Benedict have already formed race-based biases! These biases, writes US pediatrician Dr Jacqueline Dougé, are being internalised further by 2-4 years old.
So, think back to the days and weeks after the death of George Floyd. Was your child increasingly fussy, and/or acting out? Your media consumption choices may have played a part. Young children and babies can become distressed from the urgency and negative emotions they hear in people’s voices, or that they display on their faces. Even if that’s on the television. To counter this, Dr Jenny Radesky (developmental behavioural pediatrician) suggests that when you are catching up on distressing news reports about race do it when your child isn’t there. Don’t let yourself become consumed by watching throughout the day. Catchup with the news, re-ground yourself, then spend time together as a family.
Perhaps the most straightforward path towards race socialisation – and natural discussions about race – is to ensure your child gets to mix with kids from different backgrounds, as early as possible. I completely understand that might not be possible for everyone. For example, I grew up in a very white rural area in England, and was literally the first black person that some adults had met in years. In such cases, you can always turn to storybooks. The idea at this stage is just to introduce characters from different ethnicities, into your normal reading routine with your child. This doesn’t need to be done with any sort of fanfare. But, do answer your child’s questions as they come up. And, feel free to point out the positive actions of the minority ethnic characters as you normally would for others.
Here are some storybooks you might want to begin with.
READING LIST: Early Years
- My Mummy is Magic by Dawn Richards
- A Welcome Song for Baby by Marsha Diane Arnold (N.B. incorrect cover art displayed by Amazon)
- Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love
- Whose Knees Are These? By Jabari Asim
Toddlers to preschool
Don’t worry. Just because you didn’t read enough interracial stories to little Beatrice in her first two years, there is still hope 😊 In fact, this is when things get really interesting. You should aim to regularly read stories that have black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) protagonists, with your child. But, now, you can also include deliberate reflection activities. Dr. Oona Fontanella-Nothom, a researcher into early childhood education, suggests that we stop at strategic points in the story to ask open-ended questions designed to get children thinking about different races, cultures and the similarities we share too.
“Reflective teaching, can encourage… engaged citizens who can ask questions and participate in dialog about social and cultural differences”Dr. Oona Fontanella-Nothom (2019)
In her 2019 paper “Why do we have different skins anyway?” Dr. Fontanella-Nothom, transcribed a number of reflective reading sessions she held with preschoolers whilst exploring the book, The Other Side by Jaqueline Woodson. I’ve shown one such transcription below. It’s important to note that to Dr. Fontanella-Nothom, there are no wrong answers. And, when a child says something that seems ambiguous, she asks non-judgemental follow-up questions.
|During the book’s second reading|
|I invited Karl, a three year old, as well as Hailee, Kelvin, and Zoey, |
four year olds, to reread The Other Side. The parents of these children
identified their ethnic identities as follows: Karl, white and Asian;
Hailee, white; Kelvin, Black; and Zoey, Black.
After we finished the book I asked
what they remembered most about the story and what questions they
had. Karl brought up the fence:
Karl: Them sat on the fence…. Her lived in the white house and her
lived in the yellow house.
Oona: Wow, that’s right. You remember.
Hailee: But they become friends. I like this book so much because
they become friends.
Karl: Yeah. Friends.
Zoey: They were swingin’ on the gate.
Kelvin: But they can’t cross over.
|Oona: Hmmm … Kelvin, are you talking about—|
Kelvin: The momma said don’t cross over. It’s not safe.
Oona: What’s not safe?
Hailee: I think it’s because the other people are dangerous.
Zoey: Yep, yep … see, they’re dangerous.
Oona: What makes them dangerous?
Zoey: See, they say, “it wasn’t safe”. That means dangerous.
Hailee: I don’t think people are dangerous.
Karl: Maybe they are scared. The different skins make them scared.
Zoey: Sometimes, yeah. The different skins.
Kelvin: I’m not scared of different skins.
Oona: You’re not?
Hailee: My neighbor upstairs has different skin than me but we
Kelvin: Why do we have different skins anyway?
Reflecting on ‘mean’ behaviour
After several sessions like this, you and your child should feel more comfortable reflecting on race-based differences, and why that can be a good thing. You should now begin to layer in discussions about the problems created when people refuse to accept those race-based differences. Remember, your reflection periods should always be pitched to the age/maturity of your child. But, you should aim to cover the concepts of bullying, racially-fueled microaggressions and racial insults.
Don’t try to shield your child by avoiding these subjects altogether. Having this talk gives kids the tools they need to deal with prejudice when it does occur. Being prepared in this way will make a big difference to their self-esteem. I suspect I know what you’re thinking… My child’s a bit too young for these ideas, aren’t they? Well, here’s what one child asked his mother after overhearing conversations about the death of George Floyd – the boy was just 4 years old:
“He said to me: ‘Are police here to help me or do they shoot me? I thought they’re supposed to keep me safe. I thought they were supposed to keep us safe’.”Dr. Nia Heard-Garris, Paediatrician & Mother, (CNN, 2020)
Do you know how you might have responded if you were in that mother’s place? In an interview with CNN, Californian paediatrician, Dr Rhea Boyd recommends keeping things simple: “Ask them what they know and what they’ve seen. Ask them how they are feeling. Validate their feelings and let them know what you are doing to keep them safe – be it in your home or your community.”
I’d add that there are many different ways for your child to express themselves, should they find themselves at a loss for words. One example, would be to ask them to draw a picture of how something has made them feel. You can then use that drawing as the basis for the rest of your discussion, now that the ice has been broken.
Remember, too, having the ‘race talk’ with your child is not just a one-time thing. It’s a process. It’s a series of conversations that become more in-depth the older your child becomes, and the more of the world they are exposed to.
READING LIST: Preschool
Primary school children
If they’re not overhearing conversations between adults, then children are getting a lot of their information from their peers. So, if YOU don’t have the ‘race talk’ with your primary-aged philosopher, you’re really just leaving them to navigate some potentially complicated feelings on their own.
Screen time and device ground rules
There will be times when serious external events prompt the need to talk to your child about race, perhaps before you’re completely ready. For example, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in 2020, news reports were filled with coverage of justified anger, distressed people of all races and sometimes violent protests. This was an emotional time for people of colour. But, it’s easy to forget what scary viewing it could be for children too.
Before sitting down with your child to talk about race, racism, prejudice and what that can mean in the world, reflect on your child’s media consumption. Can you help to mitigate any distress by putting down some rules around device usage at home? Is it worth setting times for them to use the family tablet? Perhaps you can agree that devices should be used in common family rooms. If possible you may choose to browse content together. Or – and this one’s pretty old-school – you could always send them out to play. Like, off-line. But, if the weather, or your surroundings, don’t permit outside play then consider other ways that you can model off-line behaviour as the parent. I used to love cooking with my mum, for example.
Limiting solo screen time is not intended to be a distraction technique. Rather, it’s about giving both of you the space to talk more calmly. Remember, that your child likely knows more than you’d expect. So, don’t be afraid to ask them questions directly about what they think is going on.
“Ask them what they know and what they’ve seen. Ask them how they are feeling. Validate their feelings and let them know what you are doing to keep them safe – be it in your home or your community.”Dr. Rhea Boyd (CNN, 2020)
Context is king
The meat and potatoes of discussing race with a primary school-aged child? Give them an age appropriate societal context to racism. And, then ask questions that help your child to think about how things might appear from a different perspective. The purpose of this is to help your child to strengthen their sense of empathy. Note, too, that this approach helps to empower your child by moving the focus away from specific fears to developing an understanding that will deepen with age.
“X happened to them. How do you think that made those people feel? Tell me about a time when someone did something unfair to you. How did you feel about that? Do you know why those people are angry?” These reflective sessions should be safe spaces where your child can reason out their thinking without feeling judged or laughed at. You child should never need to worry about possibly saying something silly, or giving the wrong answer.
At this juncture you may find it useful to strategically reintroduce more screen time. Show them the ‘other side of the coin’: e.g. black people peacefully protesting, like clips from the Million Man March. Can you talk about what life was like before segregation was ended in schools? You could juxtapose that with part of the ‘I have a dream’ speech.
N.B. If you do use video clips and other online examples, make sure you explain to your child that not everything on the internet can be trusted; but, that you have chosen some examples that can be. For older children, try to dig a little deeper into why something might be ‘fake news’ or false advertising. Ask them questions about what they think is trustworthy and why.
Ground? Open up and swallow me, please
You know that moment, when your little kid tugs on your sleeve and asks something… extremely embarrassing in public? It’s always asked in an innocent, yet loud voice that seems to carry to everyone in earshot. If you’ve not experienced it directly, then you’ve probably been in the audience, with your popcorn out, waiting to see how the poor parent will respond:
“Mummy. Why is that man brown?” Or, perhaps it was more like: “Daddy. Why does that black man have a white baby?”.
Well, I’ve seen all manner of responses to questions like this. From shushing the child, to apologising to the person singled out, to even pretending not to hear the question. The next time something like this happens, think of it as a teaching moment. Use it to celebrate difference. For example:
“Isn’t it great that we all are so different? I think the world would be very boring, if everyone looked the same”. You can then compare and point out the differences between yourself and your child’s skin tone.
READING LIST: Primary School
- Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry
- Master Man: A Tall Tale of Nigeria by Aaron Shepherd (comic book)
- Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History by Vashti Harrison
- The Proudest Blue: A story of Hijab and Family by Ibtihaj
- Islandborn by Junot Diaz
- The Silence Seeker by Ben Morley
- The Chocolate Box Girls: Cherry Crush by Cathy Cassidy
- Blackberry Blue by Jamila Gavin
- The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Rauf
By the time your child is 12 years old, their beliefs about race and culture are already setting. Those racial biases – the ones you may not have noticed taking root – will have a significant impact on them for the rest of their lives. All of this means that parents have just “a decade to mold the learning process, so that it decreases racial bias and improves cultural understanding”, that’s according to Drs. Ashaunta Anderson and Jacqueline Dougé, in their piece for The American Academy of Pediatrics. That’s not to say it’s impossible to change hearts and minds. But, prevention is better than cure.
This is a good time to begin discussing the differences between the experiences people of colour (PoC) in the UK compared to in the US. You can use news stories or video clips from YouTube as a launch point for your discussions with your pre-teen. Actor Daniel Kaluuya – from films Black Panther, Get Out and Sicario – has spoken about these differences. Watch this video together, and ask them whether they agree with what he had to say. What does your child think he means by racism preventing people from achieving their best selves? N.B. This video ends with a couple of expletives. So you may wish to have a listen first to make sure you’re comfortable with your child hearing that. Or, if you have a quick click finger, just stop the video before it reaches that point!
Remember, these ‘race talk’ sessions should be part of an on-going process. A series of conversations that become more in-depth the older your child becomes, and the more of the world they are exposed to. You want them to feel comfortable coming to you with their thoughts, concerns and experiences of their own volition.
“Include specific guidance that enables your child to know their rights and the steps they can take to try and stay safe.DR. RHEA BOYD (CNN, 2020)
This is often what black parents mean when they refer to giving their child ‘the talk’. Make sure that your preteen knows it’s not fair that they have to learn about these aspects at such a young age. But, it’s your job to keep them safe. Common advice given at this stage includes: Don’t attempt to run from the police. Be polite at all times when interacting with the police – but know your rights, and when you can say no to an officer. It’s worth reading through the ‘Stop and Search’ rules with your child. Not everyone knows that you can refuse to be searched, under certain circumstances, for example. An overview of other useful rights under the law can be found on the UK government website.
White parents should also consider giving a version of the talk to their children too. It will help to teach empathy and the knowledge of why it’s important to speak up in defence of someone who is being treated unfairly.
I’ve listed some books below that you and your child can read together or separately. Try discussing the main themes afterwards, how was race represented in each? How did that make them feel?
READING LIST: Pre-teens
- Pig-Heart Boy by Malorie Blackman
- How High the Moon by Karyn Parsons
- The Hypnotist by Laurence Anholt
- I Am Alfonso Jones by Tony Media (graphic novel)
At this age, gentle debates and discussions about race can be much more complex. You can examine the grey areas more confidently, particularly if you have been following the steps laid out in the other sections above.
US v UK (replay)
Remember in the preteen section when I wrote about actor Daniel Kaluuya? He talked about the need for black artists to travel from the UK to the US for work, where there is more opportunity. Let’s compare that with the view of broadcaster Alvin Hall. Another black man, who thinks the UK is more tolerant with more opportunities for black people. Two black men with very different views. Watch both videos and then ask your child which person they agree with, and why.
News and current affairs
Find topical examples that showcase race relations, both good and bad. Discuss them with your teenager. George Floyd’s death is an obvious example to use as the basis for one such talk. But, you might begin by watching together the New York Times reconstruction of the events surrounding his tragic death. It uses CCTV footage, camera phone video from witnesses and official documents to explain what happened.
Ask your teen for their thoughts/reaction to what they just watched. What would have happened to the police officers if there was no video? The BBC actually published a report on what happens to the people who choose to share videos of police brutality, and those who (almost) don’t. The senseless death of Walter Scott is referenced in that BBC report. It’s a useful case study because the bystander who filmed his murder almost didn’t come forward, fearing police retaliation. Again this is an important moment to teach empathy and ‘upstanding’ for others.
Talk to your child about why George Floyd’s death in particular was a tipping point for so many people leading to protests in America and around the world. Political commentator, Van Jones has this take on why 40 million African American’s were left heartbroken:
“There’s nothing you can tell your child that would protect them from this outcome. Don’t run. Don’t talk back. Don’t have drugs on you. Don’t have a weapon on you. None of that would have saved this man. None of this would have saved our child”.Van Jones (CNN, 2020)
In the end, there are times when you can do everything right and the situation can still escalate. Talk to your child about this. Let them know that they should focus on the things they CAN control.
The importance of hope
There’s no getting around it, focusing on race relations in the news is likely to lead to depressing conversation. It feels rare to hear about positive race-related stories, at any rate. So, try to begin and end your talks with a slice of positivity. Perhaps for your next talk, you can both agree to bring an example of unity and integration between races, or show how expectations have been positively subverted in some way. The often negative news-related discussion material will then make up the ‘filling’. Think of this as the conversational version of a Fyre Festival sandwich 🥪 😉
We all need hope – some might call it a dream – whereby George Floyd didn’t die in vain. Hope that this moment will be a catalyst for greater economic opportunity, for police reform and justice that is accessible for all people whatever their race.
I’ve listed some recommended reading below that you and your teenager can discuss together. You might want to wait to talk about it after they’ve finished a certain section, or after they’ve read the entire thing. Good starting points for reflective sessions, include: What was the most memorable part for you? How did that make you feel? Was there anything that surprised you, and why?
READING LIST: Teens
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. This was also made into a film.
- The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon. There is a film adaptation too.
- Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. Audiobook version also available
- The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
- So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. Audiobook also available
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
- Monster: A Graphic Novel by Walter Dean Myers
I hope that this guide has given you some useful ideas for how to talk about race and prejudice with your children, in a productive way. I’d love to know how you and your kids get on with the books in the reading lists. These are just the tip of the iceberg of literature that I found during my research. So, let me know in the comments if you’d like me to put together a more extensive, downloadable list of books and other media for each age group.