Written by Jamal Elsheikh, co-founder of One Love Australia. One Love provides racial literacy education for schools and aims to empower teachers, students and members of the school community to have meaningful conversations about racism and to promote equality for all.
There are plenty of difficult topics that we need to talk about with our children, but racism is the one that most parents I’ve spoken to are hesitant to go near. If you haven’t personally experienced racism, you need to be able to rely on someone else’s experience in order to have that conversation with your child. That may be more easily said than done.
Race equality is an issue for everyone. We need to prepare young people to be able to navigate and succeed in the world they live in. By ensuring that they value and celebrate diversity, we can help them to build healthy relationships with people from all walks of life. Children will have many questions to ask around ethnicity and the differences between people, and this article will give you tips on how to talk with them about race.
Educating yourself is an important first step. Better yet, do it with a couple friends who have kids and go on the learning journey together. This creates a safe space for you to ask questions without feeling judged and helps to promote a collective approach to learning about this topic.
Starting the conversation about racism
So how do you have the conversation? Here’s a four-step guide by Clinical Psychologist Michael Tunnecliffe to help you talk to your children about racism.
We are all at different stages of our racism education journey; therefore, it’s important to meet your kids where they are and then facilitate a conversation that can help them to find answers to their questions. We want to take a ‘no question is off-limits’ approach. If you as a parent don't know the answer to a question, then admit it and look for answers together with your child. Some of the most common questions we hear are:
- ‘Why are people racist?’
- ‘What if it's a joke?’
- ‘What about freedom of speech?’
- ‘Can white people understand racism?’
Do some research on these topics to help you understand why these questions are being asked. You could check out the Australian government’s Racism. It Stops With Me campaign, Reconciliation Australia and All Together Now.
Race discussions are often uncomfortable; hence, it’s important to acknowledge your feelings and your children's feelings. Express how you feel about something, and ask your teenager their view on it. This is important to help gauge how they’re reacting to certain topics, and shows them that you value their opinion.
The goal of conversation is to help your child gain a broader perspective by seeing how other people view the world. Getting your child to consider the way someone else has grown up – with different traditions, foods and customs – is important in building their understanding of people who are different from them. Encourage these conversations by participating as a family in multicultural events, or by watching a movie together from a different culture. Your teen can learn more about the different types of discrimination here.
Always end your conversations by encouraging your child. ‘I know it must be uncomfortable for you, too, but I’m glad that we got to talk about this.’ We want to reduce children’s fear of talking about this topic. The more confident they feel to talk about it, the greater the chance that their friends and peers will also develop an increased awareness of it.
Jamal talking to high school students, as part of One Love's racial education program.
Responding to racism
Topics such as racism are always going to be difficult to approach, but talking about racism shouldn’t have to be confrontational. It should be a meaningful conversation that allows everyone to see others’ perspectives. There are many tactics for challenging a racist incident. Here are a few common ones that you can discuss with your teen. It’s also ideal that you demonstrate these behaviours, as your children will often copy your behaviours and attitudes.
People still use outdated terms from time to time, such as racial slurs or labels. You can subtly challenge this terminology by using the correct terms in your conversation.
When someone says something negative about immigration, for example, you can ask: ‘Where did you first hear that’, or ‘Where did you get that from?’ The idea here is not to be aggressive, but just to ask them to identify the source of their information.
Challenging (direct or indirect)
Challenging somebody directly takes a lot of courage. If you feel supported by people around you and there is no danger to you personally, then you could challenge a person who says something racist. You can also take action by reporting them, especially if you’re within a community, school or sports setting.
Things to remember
- It’s okay to make mistakes, as long as you keep learning from them.
- If a conversation is hard, it’s probably one worth having.
- The intention behind something racist doesn’t matter; it’s all about how it’s received by the other person.
- Don’t talk over the top of people, especially people of different backgrounds who might be the ones experiencing racism. Let everyone have their say.
The conversation shouldn’t be about right and wrong. (Kids are more perceptive than we sometimes give them credit for here.) It should be about people, and about understanding that while we’re all different, we should all have the same opportunities to succeed and thrive, and that skin colour or background shouldn’t prevent that.