How to Talk to Children About Race

How to Talk to Children About Race

Dr Pragya Agarwal believes talking to children about race has the power to change the world.

Tell us about yourself.

I’m a mother of three girls, including four-year-old twins. I was born in India, live in the UK, and I’m a behavioural and data scientist who was an academic in US and British universities. I run a research team called the 50 Percent Project, which investigates women’s rights and status worldwide. I’m also a freelance journalist and author
of three books.

Describe your book Wish We Knew What To Say: Talking With Children About Race.

I wanted to write an easily digestible book for all parents, not just white parents. It's based on scientific research and evidence and provides age-categorised advice. But each child is unique, and this book isn’t a fixed template.

I’m a parent with mixed-race children, so it’s an important topic to me. My children are growing up in a white area and don’t see anyone brown except for me. Research shows many biases form from fear of the unfamiliar. I want to ensure children are comfortable with their own identity and understand that differences exist in this world, but they cannot be the basis for inequality.

The book also has a limited-series podcast called Wish We Knew What to Say, where I talk to parents of different ethnicities.

How can we raise non-racist children?

It’s not enough to be non-racist. We have to raise actively anti-racist children instead. Non-racism is passive.

Initially, we need to stop our children from acquiring racial prejudices and beliefs. But, research shows us children are like sponges. They pick up messages from all of their environment, including television, books, and how their parents, teachers, carers and friends talk.

So, if they live in communities that are not very diverse, they can form stereotypes or fear of others who are different. If they only read books with a white protagonist, they will invite the belief there is something better or superior about whiteness.

When my child was two, she said she wanted blonde hair like Elsa from Frozen because it was more beautiful. This idea was formed on what she was seeing around her. This is how children start to form hierarchies about status: who is better, who is worse, who does the work, who drives a car, who is richer or poorer. All these ideas are forming and slowly turning into biases. That's why it's essential we expose them to diversity and actively talk about race.

Do you believe we will ever have a non-racist world?

I am hopeful and optimistic that we can create some semblance of equality by normalising conversations about race. But while we are doing this work and talking about individual and interpersonal beliefs, we need to remember they also feed into systemic and structural inequalities with a legacy of oppression. Neither stands alone. But by doing this work, we are creating an army of empowered people to address inequality. So long as parents, teachers and carers also examine their beliefs, biases and prejudices to avoid passing them on to children.

What can history and science tell us about race?

So much! Systemic and structural racism and inequalities in our society result from history. Science proves there are no genetic differences between members of one race and another.

Understanding science and history are essential to understanding that race is a social construct.

Some parents might tell their children, “We are all the same regardless of skin colour.” Why is this problematic?

This approach is called colour-blindness and is very harmful. By saying we are all the same, or we don’t notice colour, you are negating the experience or the history of people who are marginalised or in the minority. You are saying: your lived experience of racism or your history of oppression does not matter or impact you today and how you are treated. Instead, we must raise colour-conscious children who notice skin colour and difference, to make sense of the world.

How does racism affect children?

Research shows that children who face racial discrimination or fear facing racial discrimination are psychologically impacted. Anxiety, depression and other stress-related mental and physical health issues can result. It has also found that children who are not treated as the ‘other’ and are bystanders to racial discrimination can suffer the same psychological impact. So this is an issue affecting not just brown or black children living in a white environment, but also white children.

How much should parents tell children about racism?

My book provides guidance, but if children have a question, answer them normally. I’ll give an example.

If I was in a library and a three-year-old child pointed at me and said, “Look Mummy, that lady is so brown.” And if the mother was embarrassed and pulled the child away, a teachable moment has been missed. Instead, the mother could have acted normally and said, “Yes, her skin colour is different,” and started a conversation explaining everyone is unique, and skin colour is a result of melanin.            

When a parent is awkward, the child learns it is not okay to ask these questions, and the topic is taboo. They then make assumptions and develop a fear of asking these questions. If the child is naturally curious, they will seek the answers themselves. This might not have the right result. Parents also miss out on an opportunity to understand what their child is thinking about the world around them. Parents, teachers or carers should be a safe place a child can turn to whenever they feel scared, threatened, fearful or curious. They lose the sense of safety when we give them a message that it’s not okay to ask these questions.

What actions can parents take to demonstrate active anti-racism?

It depends on context, but trying to expand our circle of friends to include different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds is important. Parents should also demonstrate how to be an ally. It can also be good for children to go to protests or marches. Making placards together is playful but also educational. The child will learn even if we are small, we are not weak, and we can actively raise our voice and do something to create change.

When I was young in India, my mother celebrated all the festivals of any religion. It meant we had a lot of festivals and nice food to eat. But it also meant we celebrated different languages, cultures and rituals.

You might talk to kids about what happens during Diwali or Eid, or make a lantern together. But be careful not to impose stereotypes by saying all brown people act like this, wear these clothes or celebrate these festivals, because that is quite reductive. Instead, say that some people who live here do this. Take it as an opportunity for children to learn about history, geography, science and rituals.

How can we explain white privilege to a child?

It’s a tricky concept, and even some adults can be resistant to the idea. Just starting with the notion of privilege is important.

I tell my four-year-old twins: you have lots of books and toys you don’t play with anymore, and some children don’t have this privilege, so let's give away some to charity. This demonstrates they have certain benefits others do not, but it also shows they can do something about it.

For my eldest child, I take her to food kitchens and homeless shelters with me. At Christmas and Boxing Day, we volunteered to cook and serve food. This helps her to understand her privilege and mobilise and leverage that privilege to help others.

Through our actions and conversations, we can explain everyone has privilege, be it educational, race, gender, sexuality, religion or something else. As children grow, we can talk more about power dynamics and the hierarchies formed due to slavery or imperialism in history.

Should parents talk to their children’s schools to address racism in their curriculum and resources?

Absolutely. It can be uncomfortable, but we should find out what books they are reading and what messages they are getting—especially if your child is the minority, but also white parents. Children need to read history from multiple perspectives to make sense of power and privilege. Parents also need to talk to schools about their racism policies. I think every school should have an inclusivity policy.

What has been your lived experience with racism?

Quite a lot, but I do carry certain privileges as an educated person who is aware of these things. So, my experiences may be very different from some other women of colour.

But generally, I think women of colour always have an underlying feeling they will be regarded as an ‘other’. So they try very hard to fit in and often don’t acknowledge their differences so they can avoid being judged by them. And that can be very harmful because they internalise some racist beliefs about themselves. The stereotype threat they live with can create a lot of stress and anxiety. It often means these women will work ten times harder because they feel they have to prove their worth and prove they deserve to be here. From my experience, this is a tremendous stress to carry.

Having to deal with micro-aggressions that might not be acknowledged in a workplace is also hard. If we react, we can be accused of being overly sensitive, which has a huge psychological impact that heightens our anxiety level. It becomes an internal debate: Am I overreacting? Do I not understand humour? Should I say something or not say something? Will I be penalised? This can affect people’s performance and sense of wellbeing.

What have you learnt from these experiences?

My eldest child was born in India, but I raised her, as a single parent, in the UK. When we moved, I did not talk much about race or racism. I spoke lots about female empowerment, women, sexism, gender bias and gender inequality, because they had been huge things for me as a girl in India. I tried to dismiss any notion that race plays a part in the barriers we face. But she was one of the only brown girls in her school and community. Looking back, I regret not talking about race. It affected her sense of identity even while I was trying to give her empowering messages and be a role model.

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How to Talk to Children About Race was first published in Lunch Lady magazine issue 23