Talking to Children about Race

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Uju Asika and Orla McKeating joined the Frolo Community for a live Q+A on how to talk to your children about race and racism.

Uju is an award-winning blogger and the author of Bringing Up Race: How To Raise a Kind Child in a Prejudiced World (available to pre-order now)! Orla is an activist, speaker, and a frolo who is raising a biracial child in Northern Ireland. She is also the co-founder of Still I Rise Storytelling.

Here are the questions we discussed:

I’d like to know more about implicit bias. How can we be aware of it, move forward with our children, and raise them be aware of it too?

Uju: The first step is just acknowledging it. Most of us aren’t examining these biases – they’re implicit. There’s actually a test you can do online, created by Harvard University, and pretty much everybody would fail that test in one way or another. We’ve all been conditioned by society and an innate fear of strangers. When I was researching the book, I learned that babies as young as three months old can tell the difference between people of different ethnicities. The point is that they don’t attach any judgement to that observation – they just not that you look different from their primary caregiver. It’s at around nine months that a sense of anxiety around unfamiliar people kicks in. That’s why its important to intervene early and make sure that children are exposed to representations of different races from an early age – but also acknowledge that on some level this is a primal response. You can tackle that by being intentional and interrupting the narrative when it occurs – either by ensuring that your child has people in their circle who look like them, or, if your child is in a homogenous environment, introducing people who look nothing like your child and bringing diverse books into your home.

Don’t be afraid to talk about times that you make a mistake or have a strange reaction to a situation – don’t be afraid to admit it. People are very afraid of being racist or being called a bigot, but most of this is not our fault – we’ve been conditioned into it by centuries of history. So let’s unlearn the things that we’ve learned and do better. Every day is an opportunity to do better.

I’m a white mum to a biracial daughter who’s three. How can I best support her when it comes to race issues, given that I may not fully understand the situation due to my white privilege?

Uju: As I said, she’s aware of race and has been since she was a baby! What happens with kids is they don’t have the language to talk about race and racism because it’s something that doesn’t get discussed in polite company most of the time. They pick up on the tension adults feel in conversations about race too.

I think the best thing to do is be proactive. Often, parents end up having these conversations after their child has asked them something awkward in public and you panic and give a reactive response. You should take the initiative and bring it up. If you’re not sure how to bring it up, start with a question about what she’s noticed, what she feels, what her friends look like, how she feels about her skin tone and your skin tone. You can talk about your differences and your different family trees. she’s inheriting so much diversity, culture, and things you can celebrate. You can bring all of this in. But it also doesn’t have to be one big, heavy conversation – you can talk about it in small chunks every now and then. You can talk about the characters she sees in books and TV shows too – conversations about race in my house often start when we’re all watching TV together.

In terms of your different experiences, that’s something you can talk about too. You can talk about how things were different for you growing up as a white girl. You can also reach out to her community – there must be a black community local to you, or you could reach out online. Don’t be afraid to reach out and say you want to learn more and you want more for your daughter.

Sometimes, in families with mixed heritage, parents aren’t keen on emphasising difference too much. It’s actually better to acknowledge that your child has a different ethnicity to you and that that is wonderful. You’re still a family and there are so many different ways to be a family. Always be open to their questions and the more you talk about it, the more you normalise it. As parents, we want to wrap our kids up in cotton wool but unfortunately we can’t do that. We can educate ourselves and make sure that they can come to us and talk to us about anything. It’s like talking about sex – the best way you can protect your child is by being there, being open, and keeping that dialogue going.

Can you recommend any books that will help children learn about diversity and different cultures?

I want to talk to my daughter about racism before she experiences it herself, but I don’t want to pass on any of my anxieties or give her the idea that being black is anything but beautiful. Any advice?

Uju: This is a very difficult and emotional conversation to have with your child. I’ve had to have that conversation with my boys. It’s great that you’re planning ahead though. Don’t shy away from racism when talking about race, which many parents do because they want to protect their child. It’s case of preparing your child to encounter hazards – in the same way that you explain how to cross the road safely, you need to explain that there are some people in the world who have wrong ideas about people with different skin colours, hair, or people who speak a different language. I would just explain that they are people who don’t have big hearts or minds, and tell her that she can be different. You can explain it to her, but also empower her by making it clear that she’s not a victim and she can be the kind person who stands up for others. Also let her know that, if anything like that happened to her, there are things that can be done and she never has to endure racism alone. You can talk about historical figures too – someone like Dr Martin Luther King, who was able to bring people together and stand up to racism. Then she can see herself as part of the fight for change. Be very affirmative and spend time telling her how beautiful her skin and hair is. That’s a wonderful thing and you can never do enough of it. Agin, when educating your child, don’t drench them in information.

Orla: From my experience, whenever I’ve been been panicky, upset or given an emotive response – instead of, as Uju was saying, owning the moment and being honest about it – that’s when I’ve not given by best response as a parent. Also, there are so many stories about bias and discrimination, but race is also joy and community and family, resilience and allyship. There are so many wonderful things that are always worth discussing and reminding your child of, at any age. So try to identify what your child needs at that point and remembering to share all the positives of their identity. Avoid anxiety like I did!

Uju: But also be kind to yourself! It’s not easy. I’ve literally written the book on talking to kids about race and my kids still say things or ask me things that make me freak out a bit. Just take a breath and tackle the question in the best way you know how. You’re not going to get it right and come out with some eloquent speech every time. Like Orla said, just be as honest as open as you can – you want your child to trust you with how they’re feeling.

Orla: I’d also say that, with younger kids, to really consider a diverse school and dig deep into whether they’e really diverse. How is diversity represented in their curriculum, after school clubs and policies? It’s definitely worth setting up a meeting with the head teacher or head of pastoral care if you can. I wish I’d done more of this when choosing my son’s school.

As white people, we can and must do better every single day. There’s no shame in it. There’s no shame in feeling uncomfortable. The vast majority of us want the same thing and it’s just a matter of being aware of that and being ok with it.

Talking about race with children with learning disabilities.

Uju: The Conscious Kid is an amazing website with tons of materials about race, but it also talks about kids with different abilities, gender, etc – they also have a great instagram page.

This is also a great opportunity to bring up race as a conversation in any support networks, organisations, clubs, or community groups that she belongs to with her son. Discuss what you can do as a group to introduce more resources for talking about race with your children.

Orla: I’ve found that really gentle learning, based on real events and real figures can be really helpful for children with learning disabilities. I’d recommend getting two or three books which offer the opportunity to learn about race and racism that they can check back in with regularly to help promote that gentle learning.

My children are white and I’m trying to raise them to be kind and aware of diversity. Resources and books often focus on diversity – when and how do I bring in conversations about their white privilege?

Uju: If you’re aware of white privilege and you feel like you have a good grip on what it is, you can’t start talking to your kids about it from a very early age. Take crayons for example, for many years the “flesh” coloured crayon was pink. So you can bring in things like that to illustrate the assumption by society that whiteness is the default and everything else is other. You don’t have to lecture them, but just talk about things as they crop up. When you’re watching TV – it doesn’t even have to be a show about diversity – but if you notice, for example, that all of the characters were white you can have a really interesting conversation with them about why they think that is. There are also lots of books where the central character is black but the author is white and you can talk about that and all the steps that that author went through to get published over other authors.

The important thing is getting across the idea that being white gives you certain advantages in this society – so what can you do for others with this advantage? Encourage children to recognise the powers they have and use them well.

Thank you Uju and Orla!

You can pre-order Uju’s book Bringing Up Race: How to Raise a Kind Child in a Prejudiced World here.

And you can check out her blog, Babes aBout Town, where she shares all the best things to do with kids in and around London here.

You can find out more about Still I Rise storytelling, and join one of Orla’s live Zoom sessions, here.

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