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Young people & Racism

By Dr Rebecca English

The world is in turmoil right now, and many of us have our children asking us what is going on. How can you talk to your kids, with respect and gentleness, about race?

I am sure many of us have had the same experience, where our child has called out a person’s skin colour, head covering, dress, disability or perhaps it’s something smaller like a birthmark. It’s awkward, but you can be assured it’s perfectly normal and okay.

My son, who was about five at the time, yelled out in Officeworks, “wow mum, look at how black that fella is!” If anyone has met my son, you’ll know he’s neither quiet nor backward in coming forward. I looked at the floor of the shop and hoped a gaping hole would open so I could be swallowed up. However, his question was actually pretty innocent and reflects that where we live, there aren’t many Sudanese refugees or people of colour for it to be normal for him to see people who aren’t white or South-East Asian.

Research says that children’s experiences of race are part of the theory of mind they are developing. A theory of mind is basically a child’s working knowledge of how the world works and their place in it. It links their experiences of the world with their developing theory of how other people think. It seems to form as early as three.

Race is part of their theory of mind. Their ideas of race and difference are initially very abstract but become more integrated with their experiences so that they harden into a coherent theory of the world as they age.

There is a great deal of debate about how we deal with our children’s theory of mind in relation to racial difference. Some say we should take a ‘colourblind’ approach, where children are discouraged from seeing difference. However, as these differences are sometimes really obvious, this approach is difficult to achieve.

Others talk about how colour should be something we talk about openly, and we acknowledge the inequalities in the system. They say the focus should be on how differences are made to matter. This approach means that, when addressing issues of race and ethnicity, we should acknowledge there are differences and how these differences impact people’s lives, and our shared experience as a community, while advocating for equality.

In practice, what does research say we should do?

When your children ask you about the situation in the USA, for example why the people are rioting, you could respond, in an age appropriate fashion, that there are some people who are angry and feel they are not given the same fairness by the police that is afforded to others.

The research seems to say, we should acknowledge the difference and the person’s lived experience and treat it as a statement of fact.

It can be uncomfortable for us to have these conversations with our children, mostly because our parents were uncomfortable about us asking questions. We may need to think about why it’s uncomfortable and how that reflects more on us than on our children.

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