How to talk to children about racism: 'Start early, often and in an age-appropriate way'

On the occasion of Black History Month, we discuss teaching your children how to celebrate diversity

Studio shot of a young woman protesting against racism against a dark background

As a Black American living abroad, I’m watching from the outside as my country grapples with civil unrest owing to racism against black people, particularly in the form of police brutality. As protests and riots sweep across the nation on an alarmingly regular basis, threatening both national security and democracy, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that racism is America’s problem, until racist rhetoric shows up where I live.

My son is currently reading Harry Potter, a popular choice among the third graders at his Abu Dhabi school. He told me a fellow classmate alerted him to there being profanity in book number three of the series, a revelation that then prompted another student to share that the N-word has meaning in his native language. I was gobsmacked.

(FILES) In this file photo a man holds a Black Lives Matter sign as a police car burns during a protest on May 29, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. When Ridley Scott and Kevin Macdonald created documentary "Life in a Day" a decade ago, their goal was to construct a video portrait of a typical 24 hours on Earth, as filmed by tens of thousands of amateurs around the world. Repeating the trick in "Life in a Day 2020," stitching together footage shot last summer as the coronavirus pandemic and massive anti-racism protests turned the world on its head, their sequel is anything but typical. Assembled by a vast team of editors from 324,000 clips, the film -- which premieres February 1, 2021, at Sundance before hitting YouTube -- captures the eerily empty streets, collective cabin-fever and civil unrest of a year like no other. / AFP / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Elijah Nouvelage

That word had not been introduced to my eight-year-old, and the thought of unpacking it – its history, its contentious use throughout pop culture and why it was aimed at him, in particular – gave me anxiety. I wasn’t ready to discuss the complexities of race with my young child, but I knew that I had to because encounters such as these have the potential to shape his identity in a negative way.

What is racial trauma?

Racial trauma is a term used to describe the trauma-like symptoms brought on by experiencing racism. Symptoms can include anxiety, hyper vigilance, bad moods and negative thoughts.

Remind children that their culture makes them special and unique, and our differences are what makes the world beautiful

Dr RJ Verwayne, a clinical psychologist specialising in child and adolescent development, contends that young children are as affected by racism as adults. “It begins with micro aggressions and progresses to overt racism in the absence of adult correction or intervention,” she says.

“Micro aggressions are seemingly harmless assumptions made about a group of people, such as: ‘You’re black, you should be good at basketball.’ Children can feel confused and even angered by such statements.”

How can parents tackle racial trauma?

Parents are the first line of defence when it comes to steering kids in the right direction. “Parents from racial minority groups can prevent such trauma by building self-esteem, which relates to culture and ethnicity. Remind children that their culture makes them special and unique, and our differences are what makes the world beautiful,” says Verwayne.

Diversity is key. It's what shapes society and drives innovation, but Dawn Metcalfe, author of Hard Talk, believes that diversity also makes it difficult for people to communicate effectively.

“The more differences there are between you and me, the more chances there are that I’m going to get it wrong when I speak up and, therefore, I say nothing at all,” she says. “Consequently, we end up in these difficult situations where we don’t talk about race until it’s too late, until we hear a bad word, say.

When you demonstrate kindness, a desire to challenge racism and stand up for any person's right, your child will grow by following your example

“Don’t wait until something dreadful happens to start talking to your kids about race. Start early, often and in an age-appropriate way.”

This advice is not limited to parents in racial minority groups, either. Race is a universal, all-encompassing topic that all children should be able to discuss comfortably.

“The ‘we’re all the same’ view is ineffective and can be dangerous. Differences should be celebrated early on and any instances of micro aggressions or racial inferences must be taken seriously,” Verwayne says.

“We need to be arming kids with the ability to talk about not only race, but also what makes them uncomfortable,” Metcalfe says. “To be able to stand up as an ally as well as a survivor or someone who’s been impacted directly. And to say, no, this isn’t appropriate.”

The power of communication and observation

To prepare for these conversations, Metcalfe suggests that parents remain calm and remember children may not use the appropriate language at first. In those moments, find a way to correct them without making them feel bad, worried or ashamed.

“Be clear that you want to have these conversations because they need to communicate effectively with people from all backgrounds. They need to be able to have difficult conversations and approach difficult issues with bravery, courage and empathy,” she says.

Parents are encouraged to lead by example. “When you demonstrate kindness, a desire to challenge racism and stand up for any person's right, your child will grow by following your example.”

The development of good communication skills and racial tolerance begins at home, but educators have a responsibility to encourage these skills, too.

The role of educators

As Verwayne puts it, children trust educators and view them as experts, and conversations around race can begin as early as primary school. However, just like parents, they may find it difficult.

“Teachers really struggle to discuss race, in my opinion,” says Metcalfe. "White teachers are often scared to talk about it at all because they’re worried, particularly if they work in very diverse schools, that they are going to get themselves into trouble."

The civil rights movement, apartheid, or Gandhi lend themselves to productive discussions that should be encouraged

Daniela Andrade, general manager of Social Educators Consultancy in Dubai, says racism is often a factor of social exclusion in schools and that’s why children need to be educated. “Social education is important for social, cultural and economic development. It helps fight poverty and reduces violence among many other benefits.

“Introducing social education to young children promotes basic principles such as respect, commitment, dialogue, inclusion and participation,” says Andrade. “I believe that if children are encouraged both at home and at school to respect everything and everyone, they will become strong, resilient and empathetic adults.”

Sowing the seeds of tolerance

Sydney Atkins, an educator who lives in the UAE, believes teachers need to have conversations about race in the classroom and that schools can champion cultural sensitivity with a two-pronged approach: developing the right culture and using instructional strategies.

20th December 1969: Anti-apartheid marchers, including David Sheppard, Bishop of Woolwich (second left) and (from left) Anne Kerr MP, Methodist preacher and christian socialist Lord Donald Soper and Ian Mikardo MP, on their way to Twickenham rugby ground.   (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

“Developing and nurturing a whole-school culture that celebrates diversity, individuality and inclusivity all the time, is the key. Cultural needs are as important as intellectual, behavioural or social ones,” he says.

“Discussing race in a safe environment and with sensitivity can also help students make emotional connections to curricular content. The civil rights movement, apartheid, or Gandhi’s life story, for example, lend themselves to productive discussions that should be encouraged.”

When this model is followed, students can blossom and eventually become teachers of tolerance themselves.

Start by asking what biases you have and understand that you are not there to tell children what to think

Atkins recalls that some of the best advice he’s heard on the matter came from former students who returned from university in the US to conduct a workshop on cultural sensitivity for ninth graders in Dubai.

They said that it is essential for educators – which could very well include parents – “to know themselves before charting a pathway for students. Start by asking what biases you have and understand that you are not there to tell children what to think, but to give them a skill set that will help them learn how to think about race, in a safe environment.

“That really is the essence of why we do what we do each day. We give children a set of tools and skills, which we hope they will apply to their real-world experiences.”