By Maria Thattil
Educating your child about racism and how to speak to others when someone appears to be “different” from what is perceived to be “the norm” is not simple. Kids are naturall curious; this curiosity can manifest in unintentionally insensitivity, but sometimes, intentional unkindness.
I should know. Growing up with Indian parents and going to schools where the benefits of racial diversity were not always understood or celebrated, I was subjected to my fair share of ‘brown jokes’, gaffes and racial stereotyping. I was questioned whether my dad was a “taxi driver”, quizzed on whether we “bobbed our heads when we speak” and asked “if we eat anything aside from curry”.
Beyond childhood, these racist remarks can stay with people throughout their lives. At length, I have dissected the experience with viewers on my Instagram Empowerment Series ‘Mind With Me’ where people shared the mental anguish and identity crisis that ensures when these remarks tar their spirit and sense of belonging.
As a woman committed to using her voice and platform to drive the pursuit of progress, I believe that we can unlearn racial stratification through representation, courageous conversation that recognises and challenges bias and celebrating diversity. We all have the ability to change the present and importantly, lay the groundwork for an inclusive future. It starts with us first, and then what we teach our children. So, here are my tips when it comes to teaching your child to be respectful when it comes to race.
Start conversations about race early
Research tells us that babies start noticing racial differences at six months of age and by four years old, they start to show signs of racial bias.
We know that children are egocentric and socio-centric in early childhood – so they think that they are wonderful and that people like them are wonderful too. Rather than trying to intervene by challenging this belief, start conversations about race early and promote the idea that people from different backgrounds who look different from them are wonderful too. Teach them to look for commonalities with people of diverse backgrounds to counter implicit bias.
Teach them how to choose their words wisely with practical examples
Engaging in practical exercises where you and your child practices examples of how to phrase things is useful. For example, if a young child is curious about the colour of someone’s skin, you can respond in a calm, positive tone with: “People are very different and unique; some have different skin colour, some speak different languages, some have different hair … and isn’t that beautiful? The things that make us different make us special, but at the end of the day we are all human beings and the same.”
If your child is the one on the receiving end of an awkward question, such as one that I received as a child, e.g. “If you are Australian, why is your skin brown?”, suggest they respond with explaining that the world we live in is full of people who are different, and different cultural identities are made up of many different shades of colours and races.
When it comes to helping your child respond to racist remarks, it’s important to let them know that they have options. You could role play conversations with them practicing taking the person aside in private, explaining to them that it was hurtful and why it isn’t appropriate. You could also let your child know that it is also a perfectly good response to allow themselves time to feel and process the hurt, to discuss it with you or a trusted friend or teacher, and to let the person behind the remark know later that what they said was offensive.
As a child and teenager, I used to laugh off racist remarks because I didn’t know that I could use my voice or that I was allowed to process the hurt and heal. Internalising the racism meant that I even joined in on the jokes about myself and allowed the mistreatment to continue because that was the price I had to pay as an ‘other’ who just wanted to belong. This isn’t healthy as the internalised racism festered, fuelled an identity crisis and led to resentment over my self-rejection later in life. I processed and am healing in my own time, and as a woman, I want you and your child to know that no-one deserves to internalise mistreatment – that is never the price of belonging.
Expose your child to different cultural aspects
Show them racial diversity in photos, films, books and cultural events and discuss it in a positive light. If your child doesn’t go to a diverse school, enrol them in extra-curricular activities that give them the chance to experience people from different ethnic backgrounds – it’s about opening dialogue. Giving them an opportunity to develop cross-race friendships are an important factor in decreasing prejudice, and the stress and fears of rejection that occur in cross-group situations.
Talk to older kids about racism in society
Get them comfortable with intersectional dynamics early. I think it’s important for kids to participate in conversations about how racism manifests in society from a young age.
Be forthright about oppression and bigotry early. Kids will notice patterns – talk to them about them. When I was growing up after my parents first migrated to Australia, I didn’t live in the best socio-economic area. As I went to a private school in a better area, there were assumptions made about me and misperceptions held based on my neighbourhood. If we can talk to older kids openly about everyday things like the “neighbourhood” context of racial disparities early – it makes them more sensitive.
Demonstrate good role modelling
Let your kid see you admit and face your own bias. Give examples of racial biases you have held and share what you have done to confront and challenge your own ideas. It’s also important to be mindful. Always be positive when talking about others when it comes to race and to show diversity in your choice of social circle, the shows you watch and what you do. Ultimately, what you say and do leaves an imprint on your child, be the change they need to see. How you talk to them about race will make all the difference. It’s how we will change our world.
Maria Thattil is a writer and speaker and the creator of Mind With Me – an empowerment series on Instagram which inspires women, men and young people to be confident and live their best lives. She is a former Melbourne-based human resources Advisor, empowerment coach in training and is the current Miss Universe Australia 2020.