How to Talk With Children and Young People About Race and Racism

The murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer and the subsequent protests against systemic racism and oppression will be impacting heavily on children in the UK.

Children will be encountering information via the media, family and friends. There can be a temptation to try to shield them from complex and difficult issues, to turn off the television and shut down conversations. However, even young children will have often absorbed more than adults realise, and older children will be encountering disturbing images and text on social media. All need space to interrogate their thoughts and feelings.

Some tips for talking about race equality and racism are outlined below:

Start from a Young Age

There can be a belief that young people don’t notice difference and that speaking about diversity and race will introduce issues where they had not previously existed. However, in reality, small babies are aware of differences in skin colour and children as young as three start to use racial cues as a basis of categorising people. Talking with young children about diversity will help them to value differences and reject prejudice and develop positive attitudes about themselves and people unlike themselves.

There are lots of lovely board books which introduce the ideas of celebrating difference such as: Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers, which has beautiful illustrations by Marla Frazee showing babies doing all the things they do best- sleeping, laughing, playing, crawling, and which represents a wide array of different families.

Ensuring that there is a diverse representation of people in books, toys and games, such as dolls, jigsaws and dressing up items introduces children to diversity and creates opportunities for conversation.

Promoting Race Equality is not about ignoring difference.

Someone’s ethnicity is a signifier of their history and a key part of their identity. As Kerry Washington says:

“I’m not interested in living in a world where my race is not a part of who I am. I am interested in living in a world where our races, no matter what they are, don’t define our trajectory in life.”

If adults avoid speaking about difference, then children can erroneously grow up believing that it is rude to mention someone’s skin colour, religion or culture.

Don’t Silence Children’s Questions

Don’t give a negative message by trying to silence children and not answering their questions. Young children are naturally curious about the world and differences between people. If children are told to be quiet and the subject is not something to be talked about, they will draw their own conclusions that being different is somehow embarrassing or shameful. Use questions as an insight into the child’s world and an opportunity to open up conversations.

Talk about Similarities and Differences

Allow children the opportunity to discuss differences between people: skin colours, hair textures, facial features, temperaments and abilities, homes, family structures and relationships, but also focus on similarities. Across ethnicities, countries and cultures there are things we all share: our common humanity, our concern for others, our need to be loved, our need to eat and sleep and play and have a home and clothes – all of which can be different and valued in their different forms.  Avoid stereotypes and generalisations; remember there is huge diversity within every ethnicity, country and culture.

Start from Where Young People are

Young people need the opportunity to explore their emotions and learn coping mechanisms. Providing a safe environment to help children talk about issues and understand what is going on will help them navigate any confusion, distress and worries they may be experiencing.

Ask children open questions about what they know, what they’ve seen and what questions they have. This allows you to pitch the conversation at the right level,  avoiding over-complicated explanations, which could increase worry and confusion, or pitching it too low and leaving out important issues because you think that children aren’t aware of them.

Avoid exacerbating fears and upset by using graphic images or images of people in distress. If children are focussed on a specific incident or event, broaden the conversation, ask them questions such as ’How do you think the people were feeling?’ and  ‘What do you do when you think something is unfair?’. Help them to understand the wider societal context of what is happening to allow them to build empathy and understanding.

Challenge Stereotypes and Prejudice

Sometimes children may say something which is biased or prejudiced. Use open non-judgemental questions, such as ‘What do you mean by that?’ or ‘What makes you say that?’ to find out what they meant by the statement and allow them the opportunity to question what their opinions are based upon. Provide them with an alternative viewpoint and help them to recognise stereotypes and explore the difference between neutral and emotive language, fact and opinion.

Never leave racism unchallenged, use incidents as an opportunity to educate.

Promote Positive Action

Young people can feel helpless in the face of big world issues such as racism, but there is lots that they can do to create positive change, including raising or donating money, challenging racism and raising awareness amongst their peers, sharing content on social media, creating films and blogs, and writing to newspapers and MPs. Young people have a voice and should be empowered to use it.

You Don’t Need to Have all the Answers

Take the time to read and educate yourself as much as possible, but there will always be times where you don’t know the answer to a question. Admitting that you are unsure is a much more positive approach than imparting information which is inaccurate. You can research answers together, which not only ensures that children are receiving accurate information but also teaches them the value of research and how to research for information in a safe and effective way.

A selection of books which provide a platform for discussions on racism are outlined below.

My World, Your World by Melanie Walsh

Age 1-3

A brightly coloured book celebrating the similarities and differences between people.

What’s the Difference? By Doyin Richards

Age 3-5

A book about seeing and celebrating difference and recognising that the most important things are what we can do together as friends, families and communities.

A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara

Age 3-7

A colourful ABC board-book full of rhymes, and pictures with a cat to find on every page, this book helps to raise children to be conscious of activism, environmental justice, civil rights, LGBTQ rights and more!

Racism and Intolerance by Louise Spilsbury and Hanane Kai

Age 5-8

A beautiful picture book that explores what racism and intolerance are and how they affect children all over the world

Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged by Jody Nyasha Warner and Richard Rudnicki

Age 5-9

The true story of Viola Desmond who refused to move from her seat in a movie theatre in Nova Scotia in 1946. She was arrested, charged and fined, but continued to fight for equality, inspiring others and raising awareness of the injustice of racial segregation. An important story written and illustrated for young people.

What is Race? Who are Racists? Why Does Skin Colour Matter? And Other Big Questions by Claire Heuchen and Nikesh Shukla

Age 10-13

An accessible exploration of the history of race and society, being. It looks at belonging and identity, the damaging effects of stereotyping, the benefits of positive representation and how to protect against and stop racist behaviour.

A Change Is Gonna Come by [Various Authors]

 A Change is Gonna Come by Various Authors

Age 13+

This book is a collective of stories and poetry from Black, Asian and other Minority Ethnic authors, all on the theme of change. The stories are as diverse as their authors!

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Age 13+

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this is a powerful and gripping story of a teenage girl’s struggle for justice. 

Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman

Age 13+

A series of books exploring race, superiority and love through a world where black people (Crosses) have superiority over white people (Noughts).

“I will not be erased” by gal-dem

Age 13+

gal-dem is an award-winning online and print magazine written by women and non-binary people of colour. “I will not be erased” is a collection of essays from gal-dem writers, using raw material from their teenage years, to share stories of growing up as people of colour.

These books specifically focus on race equality and racism. However, it is vital that this is not the only form in which young people encounter black people in literature. Make sure that children and young people have access to a wide array of literature which includes black histories and stories.  Some top tips for building a diverse and inclusive bookshelf:

  • Consider the authors: do you have books by a range of authors with different characteristics, backgrounds and experiences?
  • Consider the protagonists: are the main characters in your books all white? Do they fulfil stereotypical roles?
  • Consider the story: will this story bring something new and different to the child reading it? Will it share a new experience, teach something about a different culture or country, or alternatively will it help to celebrate an important part of their own identity? A great bookshelf will offer all of these!

Some great independent book sellers and online services who stock and recommend a diverse range of books:

Knights Of: a bookshop and movement to support diverse authors

Jacaranda Books: an independent publisher ‘with a dedication to creating space on the bookshelf for diverse ideas and writers.’

Little Box of Books: a book subscription service delivering boxes of inclusive and representative books for families and schools.

Letterbox Library: A children’s booksellers celebrating equality and diversity.

Tamarind Books: Now part of Puffin books, Tamarind has championed diversity in children’s publishing since 1987, helping to make sure children of all cultures and ethnicities have the chance to see themselves in stories and books.

The Willesden Bookshop: Supplies multicultural books for schools and libraries.

2 responses

  1. What a very excellent set of thoughts, observations and resources designed to kick-start a debate on race and racism in a thoughtful, constructive, non-judgmental way and then making it possible to continue to grow the awareness, the discussion and the learning…
    Thank you Sarah Soyei and all contributors to these superb resources.

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