Talking to your child about racism
We are witnessing and participating in a transformative time in our culture. Black Lives Matter, and anti-racist protests, have proliferated across the globe in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, one of many victims of police brutality towards Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) in the United States. Canada is no better in its treatment of BIPOC; we have recent examples of similar racially motivated attacks by police and RCMP. This, and other forms of systemic racism in the education, judicial, housing and health care systems proliferate our society and deny full advantages of citizenship to BIPOC.
As a person of mixed race (the main make up of my DNA is South and Central Africa, Scotland, Southern Asian) the recent spotlight on systemic racism has prompted me to reflect on my own past experiences. My parents are both of mixed race; my mother is dark skinned and my father is light skinned. I am also light-skinned; I did not experience or perceive racism to the same degree as my dark-skinned brothers, mother and members of my extended family. My mother and father emigrated from South Africa and settled in Toronto, Canada in the late 60s before I was born to escape the oppressiveness of the apartheid regime. My mother is a pacifist at heart in contrast to her activist siblings (her siblings are artists and teachers; at the extreme, her sister is a poet who was exiled from South Africa for her anti-government writing and efforts). My mother said she came to Canada because she wanted her children to love whoever they wanted to love. I grew up hearing my mother sing us songs about love for children of all colours and the beauty in all humanity. She always emphasized the importance of being kind to everyone and avoided conflict (in contrast to her siblings). My father would always easily make friends and was well-respected for his work (he is a bookkeeper and still does taxes for several clients despite his age) and was always helping out others in the neighbourhood. The communities where we lived (predominantly Jewish when I was young and multi-cultural when I was in high school) always seemed inviting and accepting, and we had several friends in these communities despite our obvious differences. Between my large family (my uncle’s family moved in with us when they emigrated to Canada) and our surrounding communities, I always experienced a multi-cultural existence. I never once was encouraged by my parents to think that any negative events in my life may have racist roots and instead always focused on my own efforts when others were given opportunities that I was not. However, there were some things I could not make sense of in relation to my own/my family’s efforts, talent or lack thereof (e.g. bullying, social judgements, occupational opportunities). I find myself reflecting on the part that racism may have played in these events and the growing call for all of us to take part in finding solutions to systemic racism and guarantees of social justice for all.
Racism is learned through family, institutional and cultural socialization and can be unlearned
Buhin, 2006, p.21
Recently, families, of all cultures, have been taking part in protests together over the past weeks and have actively taken this moment to initiate or continue meaningful conversations about racism with their children. For systemic change to happen, people of all races and ethnicities need to understand the importance of and be actively involved in promoting anti-racist attitudes.
Children have integrated the majority society’s views, stereotypes, and rules for racial interaction by the time they start elementary school (Buhin & Vera, 2009). “Racism is learned through family, institutional and cultural socialization and can be unlearned” (Buhin, 2006, p. 21). Children are first taught racist thoughts and behaviour through listening to their parents’ words, watching their parents’ actions, following their parents’ example, and modeling the behaviour and language used by their parents and other adults with whom they regularly interact. Racism is reinforced through interactions with other important adults and peers, and the opinions we choose to read and watch.
Behaviour that is learned can be unlearned and replaced. Racism can be replaced with anti-racist thoughts, attitudes, and behaviours. Children from minority groups are likely used to having discussions about racism in their homes as in many ways their very lives and liberties depend on it. Children from white families may not often experience opportunities to broach this subject as they are not in danger from racist individuals and systems, and these systems have tended to benefit them. We need to acknowledge that there is a different understanding and perception of racism in BIPOC and white groups and the focus on systemic racism helps to broach tough subjects and begin to align these views (Carter & Murphy, 2015). It may be helpful to think about yourself as a racial being and foster conversations with you and your family around how society has perpetuated systemic racism for BIPOC. It is important that we inform ourselves and continue to learn.
Acknowledge racial identity
Acting as if racial differences do not exist and that they do not make a difference in our experiences is a denial of our social reality and serves to maintain racism.
- Explore your own family tree and promote pride in your family heritage
- Talk positively about racial differences that are present in your own family and the strengths of diversity
- Foster your child’s curiosity about their racial identity
- Have respectful conversations about the racial identity of others
Explore racial privilege
Start by exploring the ways your family benefits or is disadvantaged due to your racial group.
- Give children the opportunity to talk about what seems fair or unfair about the ways people of different races are treated
- Acknowledge the part that racial privilege plays in events in the child’s daily experiences
- Learn about the history of racial privilege and how it is manifest today
Increase cultural experiences
It is common for people to interact mainly within their own racial group and some neighbourhoods largely lack cultural diversity. Lack of interaction with people from other racial groups can help to maintain and foster racist attitudes.
- Find opportunities to learn about other cultures in family activities such as meal making, games, music and movies.
- Take part in community cultural events
- Visit culturally diverse places
- Find ways to be of service to people from other racial backgrounds through volunteering
Always remember, your actions speak louder than your words. There are many ways children can be involved in building a more just society.
- Take part in political action towards anti-racism.
- Volunteer together as a family with anti-racist organizations
- Attend events that support racial equality.
- Financially support organizations that promote racial equality.
Eliminate racist talk
Racism starts at home. Make your home a place where race is discussed in positive terms.
- Use positive terms when talking about your own race and those of others
- Eliminate talk that promotes negative racial stereotypes
- Call out the racist talk of others and family members. SILENCE gives people the green light. Here is a template of to respond to racist comments (by Sinead Bovell, founder of WAYE). You can also check out NPR’s article on “How You Should Respond to a Racist Comment”:
- Could you clarify what you meant by that?
- As a friend, I feel obligated to let you know that that remark was racist.
- I know you were trying to make a joke, but here is why it is offensive.
- I really don’t feel comfortable when you make comments like that.
- Discussing racist talk with others and your family members does not need to confrontational. Offer time to talk about things. Share resources. Acknowledge your courage in speaking up. It is okay to take comfort in knowing that calling people on their racist talk is not easy or comfortable, but it is the right thing to do.
What are some helpful resources I can access?
Children are aware of racial differences from a young age. Having meaningful conversations with your children about race and racism can help to promote anti-racist attitudes in your children. Start by talking about things that your child has direct experience with (herself, her own family and friends) and then relate these ideas to widen her social understanding.
- 13th – Netflix
- When They See Us: Netflix
- The Racial Wealth Gap, Explained S1:E1 – Netflix
- We Need to Talk about an Injustice by Bryan Stevenson – TED Talks
- Lets get to the Root of Racial Injustice by Megan Ming Francis – TED TALKS
- White Fragility
- Me & White Supremacy
- How to be an Anti-Racist
- The New Jim Crow
Child Specific Resources
You can also engage in antiracist reading with your children. There are lots of children’s books that support conversations on race, racism, and resistance.
- Check out Chapter’s antiracist reading list for kids
- Download Raising Little Allies to Be – Kiss For Kindness
- How to Explain Racism to Kids – CNN
Check out this article that talks about how race awareness develops and conversation you can have with your children at different ages to promote a positive attitude towards race.
Buhin, L. (2006). Strategies for prevention of racism in children. Prevention in Counseling Psychology: Theory, Research, Practice, & Training, 1, 21-22.
Buhin, L. & Vera, E.M. (2009). Preventing racism and promoting social justice: Person-Centred and environment-centred interventions. Journal of Primary Prevention, 30, 43-59.
Carter, E.R. & Murphy, M.C. (2015). Group-based differences in perceptions of racism: what counts, to whom, and why? Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 9, 269-280.
Thank-you to Victoria Purcell, ISE Doctoral Student Clinician, who researched and collated the resources mentioned in this blog.
About the Author
Dr. Harriet Johnston has been a Registered Psychologist in Calgary for over 20 years. She practices School Neuropsychology. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor and Sessional Instructor at the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary. Harriet supervises graduate students learning how to do assessments of children who experience learning and emotional-behavioural challenges for the Integrated Services in Education clinic at the Werklund School. She continues to provide direct assessment services to children and youth in her private practice. She lives in Calgary with her husband, two teenaged sons, and two dogs.