Discussing race with children is not always easy. Deciding how to approach a sensitive issue can be intimidating, and some parents may avoid it until a child raises the topic, but with research showing that children notice ethnicity from as young as three months old, it is not to be shied away from.
Older children using social and mainstream media can be exposed to negative messaging and images, which left untamed, can fuel prejudices or fears of their own, while younger children often experience this in the playground. One thing is for sure; whatever the age, it is a crucial issue to tackle.
It is relatively simple to broach when a young child notices race for the first time, the innocence of a child allowing them the freedom to ask simple questions, offering parents a time to have open discussions. Harder, however, is when the child is on the receiving end of racism, or worse still, a possible perpetrator...
We all have subconscious bias
Dr Sarah Rasmi, licensed psychologist and founder of Thrive Wellbeing Centre in Dubai, says studies have shown children can internalise racial bias as early as two to four years old and says parents must start addressing these issues very early on. However, she says it is vital parents address their own biases first, before tackling the issue with their children.
“When it comes to biases, there are two forms; one is explicit so that’s the type of bias we’re aware of, the other is what we call implicit, that we are unaware of. It’s very important to know about this as we know from research that implicit biases can influence and impact our behaviours,” she explains. “For those parents who feel they don’t have any biases whatsoever, I invite them to take Harvard’s implicit association test and examine if there’s anything that lingers below the surface. Once we have a sense of the type of biases we’re working with, then we can talk to our kids.”
It’s uncomfortable, but don’t shut it down
Dr Rasmi says children usually bring race up when they’re young, in moments such as when in the supermarket, asking why someone has a different skin colour, asking questions about observations they come across. “As parents we can become uncomfortable and don’t know how to deal with these so usually we’ll shut the conversation down and say ‘don’t say that’ or ‘don’t ask that’. What’s important is that when they do ask, we approach it with a sense of curiosity. Where does it come from?”
We should let children take the lead, she says, approaching their questions and statements with curiosity, and when necessary, replying in very anti-racist terms. “It’s not sufficient to be non-racist,” she says. “It’s important as people of privilege that we use our privilege to speak up against the inequalities and injustices we see so we correct very clearly any misconceptions once we’ve explored them with our children.” Importantly, the message must be to explain that race is an arbitrary tool used to justify power privilege and oppression, she says.
Use fiction as a diversity tool
In the UAE, it’s easier than many other places in the world to expose children to diversity, to make them understand we are all the same, even if different, says dr Sarah Rasmi. “Some studies show that the majorities of character in mass media are white - so it’s about being very deliberate about exposing them to people from different backgrounds, both in terms of their social circles and in terms of the type of media they consume,” explains Dr Rasmi. She encourages parents to use books as a way to approach the topic, including “We’re Different, We’re The Same…” by Bobbi Jane Kates. This is a tool that UAE-based mother-of-two Leonie Pitts has used…
Leonie Pitts and family
British expatriate Leonie Pitts chose to adopt her first child, Beatrix, from Ethiopia in 2016. They also have biological daughter, Dorothy, who is 10 months old. Having a mixed family, she says race is a critical discussion to have with both children. “I am not a psychologist but in my experience young children view the world in very simple terms. Bea was not yet three years old when she made the observation that she is black and I am white. She has always known she was adopted so that was not a concern but it shocked us that she noticed our skin colour so early on. Although it shouldn’t have come as a surprise really, she was learning about colours at nursery and to her that’s all it was. She was just stating the facts.”
She acknowledges such discussions about discrimination are not easy, uncomfortable even. “I believe that the only way to overcome discrimination is to talk about it head on. Ignorance is not an excuse.”
"The only way to overcome discrimination is to talk about it head on”
Though the UAE is diverse, allowing children to mix with children of all colours and creeds, racism is not absent. “Last year a boy in the community playground told Bea she couldn’t play with him because she is black. I was heart-broken for her, and became fiercely protective in that moment,” she says. “I spoke to his nanny there and then, and found his mother too. I wanted to demonstrate to Bea that such behaviour was not something she should ever have to tolerate. It is essential that parents lead by example and teach children to see others as equals. The conversations need to start at home.”
She says story-time is a perfect way to bring up such conversations, through books, and learning, finding words through books, they may not be able to find themselves. “Children are very inquisitive and it does not take much to plant the seed of an idea in their mind. We should be taking the opportunity whilst they are young to nurture the right ideas so that we can encourage the next generation to be the most just, inclusive and accepting there ever was.”
Chloe Kangalee and Terrence Donald
Chloe Kangalee and husband, Terrence Donald, are a mixed race family and they say that talking about race is crucial as parents. British-Trinidadian Chloe, says “ignoring it would not be equipping our children with appropriate understanding and information”. It is something the couple had discussed at length, before recently giving birth to their first child, their daughter, Minty.
According to the Pew Research Centre, one in 10 children in the US is multiracial which includes children with parents of two different races, plus those with at least one multiracial parent. Figures are said to be the same in the UK.
“Upon sharing our own experiences of growing up and how race affected our experiences, naturally we talked about how to address the issue with our children,” she said. “Growing up in a mixed race family I was always told I was exotic and gorgeous with my brown skin. This always gave me a sense of pride in being mixed race and helped my confidence grow. I want to bring this essence of being blessed to come from a mixed race family to our children.”
"I think people see race as less of an issue in the UAE"
Contingencies for racism, and how to deal with it, have also been discussed. “We have decided to address it openly and frankly and explain that sometimes in life people are prejudiced against others for all sorts of things and that all you can do is try to educate them or rise above them if educating them doesn’t work,” she says. “I think it’s very important to discuss race and open the dialogue up for our children to know they can ask us anything. I think like any sensitive topic it will have challenges because on one hand you don’t want to have to have the conversation because it shouldn’t matter, but sadly it still does.”
Being a teacher in the UAE, she says it is refreshing to see how diverse classrooms are, enabling children to grow up in a more racially mixed setting than perhaps offered at home. “Our own experiences as adults here are much kinder and easier than back home in the UK or the States and I believe people see race as less of an issue here in general. Young children tend not to see colour as much and I think that is universal. Having said that, I think raising children here will be kinder to them than some areas in the UK or US for example as they get older. It’s so cosmopolitan that I hope raising children here, they are just seen for who they are not what skin colour they have.”
This means more to Chloe than people may imagine, having some of her earliest memories growing up in Essex, tainted by racism and its harsh lessons. “When I was six, my best friend’s parents were racist. She was never allowed to my house and it took months for me to be allowed into her home, and only then under the promise that it was only my white mother who could drop me off or collect me. This had a detrimental effect on my friendship as I didn’t understand why her parents hated my dad so much. When I asked my parents they explained sometimes people don’t like other people for silly things and sometimes the silly thing was skin colour.”
Dr Mariam Awatai and family
Dr Mariam Awatai, Head of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at a Dubai hospital, is British-Nigerian, as is her husband. Growing up in a diplomatic family, she travelled the world as a child, understanding the world’s beautiful diversity. However, during medical school years and beyond, both she and her husband encountered prejudices in Europe, which they never wanted for their own children, now 19 and 16. Race was always an open topic of both education and conversation in their household.
“From an early age we taught the children to be proud of their heritage and culture. We emphasised the value of education and gave them multiple examples of highly educated and successful black people both from within the family and in the wider diaspora,” she explains.
"We gave our children examples of highly educated and successful black people"
She and her husband filled the home with books and encouraged the children to read African history in addition to European history. “They bombarded us with questions about race, ethical dilemmas, good versus evil and we used their questions to really have in-depth talks about racial equality and struggles. No topic was taboo. They gradually grew up to become more knowledgeable than us their parents, as their exposure increased,” she explained.
She says with the Black Lives Matter movement, the children are now better equipped to deal with the facts and provocations they may face, and are more able to help educate others around them, whether friends or teachers. They even set up school group forums to support both black and white students needing help or a voice to be heard.
Kangalee agrees that education is critical when it comes to race, important as adults to educate not only children, but friends, and even the people who are acting with prejudice. “I will always try to have a conversation with someone even if it’s just that they have said ‘I don’t see race as an issue’ or ‘I don’t see people’s skin colour’ as that in itself is denying the problem exists and is denying black people or people of colour their experiences and history.”
Pointers for parents
• Don't shut children down if they mention race.
• Don't wait for kids to bring it up.
• Be proactive, helping them build a positive awareness of diversity.
• When a child experiences prejudice, grown-ups need to both address the feelings and fight the prejudices.
• You don't have to avoid topics like slavery. Instead, give the facts and focus on resistance and allies.