How to talk to kids about: Race

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The ‘R’ word. It’s both simply descriptive and politically loaded, and is the basis for many uncomfortable realities. Most recently, there has been an explosion of reactions to the killings of African-Americans in the US with #blacklivesmatter in many social media posts.

Photo credit: CNN

Some might argue that there’s no need to talk about race with my son Alex. We’re in Singapore, not the US; there aren’t members of the citizenry hunting down minority joggers. Why bring this into his life?

Of course, the answer is that race is very much a part of his life and all of ours. Here are some things I have done or plan to do:

Recognise my own biases

When I was growing up, none of the books or TV shows I watched reflected my life. I was obsessed with Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, about British girls in boarding school in England – about as far from my experience as could be. There was a time I remember watching footage of myself that my uncle had filmed and thought – oh, how strange that a person who looks like me should speak English so well. I seemed completely alien to myself.

Then there was my grandmother, whom I spent a lot of time with as a child. She showed contempt for people who were dark-skinned, and used racist epithets to describe them. Gradually, I understood these were wrong, but I inevitably absorbed this and the lack of representation in my makeup.

I haven’t talked explicitly about these sorts of things with Alex, and I should, even if it makes me uncomfortable. It models for your child that you’re still learning about yourself and growing. Not sure if you have any biases? You probably do, but you could try this test, a Harvard project.

Protagonists of different stripes

It can be a challenge to make sure Alex’s books, TV shows and movies have more representation than mine as a child because white British/American characters still dominate. But they are out there, and I find that these tend to take two tacks. Either the story is culturally homogeneous, with a protagonist who happens not to be white (e.g. Doc McStuffins), or the fact that the main character who isn’t white is built into the details of the story. For example in their names, food they eat, family customs (e.g. the Sam Wu series written by Katie Tsang). 

Photo credit: goodreads

I think there are benefits to both types. Alex is exposed to different ‘default settings’ in the first instance, where race is but one of the characteristics of the protagonist. In the second, his investment in the characters is a stepping stone to notice and recognise differences, and sympathise with challenges. 

You also want your child to see role models of all races, so they can see the possibilities for themselves. There have been many articles recently that have touched on this, including this one.

Making room for open discussions

Here’s a little nutshell of a story about the complications of racial description and identity. I was describing someone as black, to which Alex said “You shouldn’t say that – that’s not nice.” Even though I was using it as a physical attribute for someone with African descent, Alex perceived it to be a pejorative term. What resulted was a conversation where we talked about who is usually described as black, and that it’s purely descriptive, not good or bad.

Part 2 came a few weeks later, in talking about a friend of his who is mixed Chinese and white but is quite naturally tanned, when Alex said “He’s a bit black”. So we had another conversation about race vs. nationality, where I pointed to different people in our lives as examples i.e. Charlie’s race is Japanese, and his nationality is British, or Amin is Malay and he’s from Singapore, or Ines’ mother is originally Algerian and her father is white, but they are French. 

I have no doubt he will continue to make mistakes with this, as will I. What is important to me is that when he asks a question that may sound silly to my adult ears, I have to tamp down the urge to say “Of course!” or “Of course not!” and instead ask “What makes you ask that?” or “What do you think?” before presenting an answer which I try not to make definitive if I’m not sure myself.

Expand and deepen your circle

When I lived in China, there were foreigners around me who deliberately made friends with Chinese people mainly to practise their language skills. It struck me as crass and utilitarian at the time. So I’m not suggesting you seek out friends of different races to plug into your child’s life for the sake of it.

Rather, when the opportunity presents itself, engage with the parents and encourage the friendship. If nothing comes of it, fine. But just be a bit more mindful of how easy it is to be blinded to the experiences of other people if you are only exposed to people of the same race/economic circumstances. I’m guilty of this too.

Alex has swim lessons with kids who come from backgrounds very different from the ones in his school, and it has never occurred to me to invite them for play dates or birthday parties, because he’s not close to them. But maybe something could develop out of the pool if there was an opportunity.

Educate yourself

Here are some resources that have given me food for thought:

10 tips for teaching and talking to kids about race – a succinct list to consider for yourselves. It’s written from an American perspective but would certainly be useful for our contexts in Malaysia as well.

The recent events in the US is what led me to this video (as below) showing black parents talking to their children about the police. I decided to show this to Alex, who went through incomprehension followed quickly by boredom, both a consequence of his sheltered privilege, and a sign that there’s more work to be done on my part.

If you haven’t already, you should watch this 1970s video of Jane Elliot’s experiment separating brown and blue eyed children to teach them about racism. It’s compelling viewing on how to encourage children to be more empathetic in an experiential way.

Uma is a Malaysian mum who has travelled around the world as a teacher and teacher educator. She currently lives in Singapore with her husband and son.