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Our Favourite Ways to Address Racism

Racism is a controversial topic, but certainly one you need to address when the time comes. Children notice differences in people and you can turn those sometimes embarrassing moments into teaching opportunities


Racism. Probably the hardest conversation you'll have with your children - after the one about the birds and the bees. This is for a few reasons; knowing when to bring it up, approaching it in an informative way while not reinforcing stereotypes and, even as adults it can end friendships.

In the current climate race/racism takes the front page from terrorist attacks to campaigns and movements such as Black Lives Matter, and political campaign fought and won - in part on racial issues.

Finding the right time, and the right angle is important when talking to children, so don't ignore the conversation because you feel uncomfortable. Children notice things, and understand things we don't give them credit for. Younger children may notice differences, like the fact that some eggs are brown and others are white. They comment on things innocently, like asking you out loud why the person sitting beside you is fat. It's embarrassing for you because you know the emotional triggers behind the comment, but young children are simply noticing differences.

I remember my mum telling me about the first time I visited our new doctor. He was African, and when I walked into the office, my first comment to my mum was "How come his teeth are so white?". The fact that he was black was not what I noticed - even if that's how she heard the comment - against his skin, his teeth appeared whiter - this is what I saw.

There will be cringe worthy moments, but embrace them and use them as teaching moments. Raising children who are aware will lead to a more inclusive society in the years to come.

Tips on how to approach conversations about racism:

Be a role model

Remember that children will repeat the things they hear you say. If you use racist language, they will too, the difference is they won't know the full extent of what they are saying. If you refer to groups of people in a certain way, they will too, and more often than not, they'll use the expressions in public and out loud.

Generally, children from the age of about 5, start putting value judgements on things. Whether they hate one type of food, or have decided on a best friend - they are starting to make their own judgements on things - the next few years are formative.

It's important to provide facts rather than your own prejudices during this time. You're personal beliefs and attitudes will influence them, so make sure you are demonstrating tolerance and acceptance.


Children will often notice differences - for example if they have a new student join their class, who speaks another language - listen carefully to how they explain it and help them understand the subtle differences in the English language. The expression "weird" vs "different" for example. Or simply celebrating the new child's heritage and helping your child understand how the country they have come from is different, simple things like the weather or the different celebrations.

Be careful to use language that refers to individuals rather than groups. Help your child understand that just because people share a similar trait, skin colour, religion, hair colour, does not mean they are all the same. You can often use simple examples here by looking at how they are different from their siblings or friends. Try not to encourage stereotypes, or use collective terms. This only encourages children to think that all people with a similar trait are alike.

Respond in the moment

When we don't want to address something, we can often put it off. If for example your child tells a racist joke, you may think that ignoring it and coming back to it later will limit your embarrassment. However, children learn better in the moment, they need to be in it to understand how what they have done is wrong and the ramifications their comment or action might have. In most cases, they won't realise that what they have said is offensive, they have likely heard it on the playground, seen people laugh and decided to try and elicit the same response. Explain why we don't tell jokes like that and try to get them to tell you how they would feel if the joke was about them in some way.

Children hear and see more than we think. You may have the radio on in the car, or the news on while making dinner. These can all trigger a conversation, or a question that's far more insightful than you imagined. Imagine you're driving along listening to some inoffensive pop music when a little voice pops up from the back seat: "Why did Hitler hate Jews?" You'll likely be taken aback, and wonder where that came from. Maybe they were discussing the holocaust at school or maybe they heard something on the news last night. It's likely they took something in and took time to digest it and try to understand it before they asked for more information. Ask them a few questions such as where did you hear that or why do you believe that to be true - this will give you time to regain composure and think of a good way to explain.

Pick your moment

Broaching the subject of racism can be daunting, but there are many events throughout the year that can prompt conversations. Take holidays for example; understanding that not everyone celebrates Christmas, or Easter, or Halloween. These simple surface conversations can develop into teaching moments that can spark a real interest in other cultures.

There is no shortage of examples of racism in the daily news. Rather than telling children what you think, ask them what they think about events happening around the world, or even what happens in their classroom. Get them to talk about their feelings, and their perceptions of events. Look at the age of your child and find books that highlight topics that they mention; these are another good way to start conversations. Having a conversation is better and easier than lecturing your child - you never know you may find a new and refreshing perspective on life's happenings.

Be present and open for discussion

The biggest perpetuator of Racism is ignorance so don't ignore comments or questions when they come up. It may be easier to say nothing when your child asks "why does she have brown skin?" or "why does he wear that piece of cloth on his head?" or "why is she covered in spots?", because we're embarrassed, but your child is genuinely interested in understanding the differences between themselves and others around them.

Remember that asked by an adult these questions may demonstrate ignorance and racial stereotyping, but asked by a child they are fuelled by curiosity not cruelty. Answer the question if you know the answer, and if you don't know the answer, suggest that you look into it when you get home. In my experience, sometimes the individual beside them will answer the question when you admit to not know knowing the answer - these are the best teaching moments you can hope for.

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