Talking to Children About Racism, Discrimination and Equality

The recent Black Lives Matter protests in the US, the public support in Australia and from around the globe, has brought the issues of racism and inequality to the fore. After the loss of another human life with the tragic death of George Floyd, an African American man – individuals have taken to the streets to protest police violence against black people. Here, in Australia, our First Peoples also experience discrimination and inequality. There are disproportionate statistics for Indigenous incarceration and deaths in custody. So, this isn’t an issue that’s far from home.  

Inevitably, our children will witness these events in the media. As parents, teachers and carers we can take the opportunity to teach our children about race, racism and equality. This helps our children be part of the movement for positive change in the world as they come to understand what’s behind the Black Lives Matter movement. Now as a parent you might be thinking “yes, I want my children to understand that Black Lives Matter. Additionally I also want them to understand that ALL lives matter, so I’ll have a conversation about that instead.” Here’s why it’s important to consider having a conversation about BOTH as fundamentally, they’re not the same issue. Plus YES, Black Lives Matter is relevant in Australia. 

Black Lives Matter

The Black Lives Matter movement is dedicated to raising awareness and stopping police brutality against African American people. It began back in 2013, following the death of African American teen Trayvon Martin. The movement highlights the differential treatment of People of Colour when compared with White people. This treatment is in terms of police discrimination, brutality and death.

I spoke with Aboriginal Elder, Aunty Munya Andrews about the topic. I wanted to gain a better understanding of the issue and how it relates to Indigenous Australians. Here is what Aunty Munya had to say:

Some people have taken the “Black Lives Matter” slogan to include the phrase ‘All lives matter’ and while that is true, we must not lose sight of the fact that we are talking about the systemic brutalisation and discrimination of black people. When this systemic brutalisation impacts all people in society equally, then we can talk about “All lives matter.”

There are some people who claim that the “Black Lives Matter” movement is not relevant to Australia but that’s not the case at all. Aboriginal people face the same sort of treatment that African Americans do and our social indicators such as the high disproportionate figures of Indigenous incarceration are virtually the same. So, the “Black Lives Matter” movement is totally relevant and applicable to the situation here in Australia.

We all need to stand together as Allies to end this appalling, intolerable treatment of people based purely on the colour of their skin.

“Black Lives Matter”.

As parents, carers and teachers, once we’ve opened up the conversation on Black Lives Matter with our children, we can then talk about the importance of respect and equality for all people.

Respect and equality for all of humanity

To create a world where all people are treated equally, we need to help our children develop:

  • knowledge and understanding about what privilege, discrimination and racism are;
  • beliefs that all people deserve to be treated equally;
  • skills that enable children to interact and communicate with others in a caring and respectful way; and
  • an understanding of the importance of standing up for equality and inclusivity. Understanding the importance of not supporting discrimination on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, disability, class, or sexual identity – with thoughts, words or actions.

Children learn how to be in the world by watching those around them. Therefore, how adults behave when it comes to equality and inclusivity, matters. Children also learn by what parents, teachers, family and friends teach them. We can start our children’s education on race, inclusivity and equality at a very early age. It’s the same way we teach our children numbers, reading and writing skills – we start very simply and add the complexity when it’s developmentally appropriate.

Making time to talk

I understand that talking about race and racism isn’t an easy topic. Parents and teachers we need to have conversations about many difficult topics like drugs, pornography, domestic violence and death. But, just because they are challenging topics doesn’t mean we can avoid having them.

To give you some ideas on how to start a conversation, here’s a simple 15-minute activity you can complete with children on privilege, racial discrimination and equality. This short activity is from one of my Life Skills e-books to help children develop their Social and Environmental Understanding – just one of the many topics we explore in my series of seven life skills e-books. These resources were developed to give parents and teachers short activities they can complete with children to help them develop key life skills to navigate life successfully. You can find out more about the Life skills e-book series here.

Helping your child understand more about racial discrimination

Social awareness is about being conscious of the issues that different people, communities, or societies face on a day-to-day basis. Children with an awakened social consciousness are more likely to act in a positive way. These children will be more empathic towards others regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, disability, class, or sexual identity.

This activity looks at privilege, racism and equality and serves two purposes:

  1. Increases your children’s awareness of how they and others live in society.
  2. Helps your children become more empathetic towards others and consider how they can make a positive difference either now or in the future.

Step 1 – fact finding

Invite your children to share if they have friends from other countries or other cultures. Ask your children to explain if they know what the terms “race” and “racism” mean. Invite your children to think about whether they have noticed children being mean to others based on their country of origin or culture or if your children have experienced racism?

Ask your children if they have seen anything in the media about the recent protests in the US and Australia to stop police brutality against black people Black Lives Matter.

Invite your child to discuss what they have learned about Australia’s First Peoples and the gap between Indigenous Australians’ and non-Indigenous Australians in areas such as education, health and life expectancy.

Explore the concept of privilege from your child’s perspective.

Step 2 – doing the activity

Building on your children’s understanding as indicated by their responses in step one, discuss with your children what privilege, equality, race and racism are by sharing your knowledge, understanding and views. Here are some points that may help you. 

Racism can include verbal abuse or ridicule, social exclusion and even violence. Racism can be based on many things including: appearance of people from different races, differences in religious beliefs or practices, differences in cultural or religious dress.

Privilege is an advantage or entitlement that a person or group of people may have. Privilege can include things like food, money, education, possessions or status. Privileged groups can be advantaged based on social class, age, disability, ethnic or racial category, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or religion. People with privilege can use it to the benefit or detriment of others. Most importantly, privilege isn’t a bad thing and can be used to do good in the world.

Science proves that humanity – although diverse – is one family and one people. All people feel pain if they are hurt; bleed if they are cut; are born of a mother and father; are able to love and are capable of hateful actions.

Children may either respect, support and care for each other – regardless of ethnicity – or they can be cruel and hurtful. Ask your children how they wish to treat others. Ask your children to talk about how they wish to be treated. 

Explore what your child might do if they saw someone being racist or mean to others because of their social class, age, disability, ethnic or racial category, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or religion.

Ask questions like: how would you react? Would you join in? Would you stand up for the person – if it is safe to do so? If it isn’t safe – would you get an adult to help? Giving children options can help them know how to behave if they encounter racism or discrimination.

Finishing up the activity

Ask your children to share if this activity has it increased their awareness of discrimination, the Black Lives Matter movement, our First Peoples and the importance of treating people equally. Has it started them thinking about racism in their own lives or in society? Ask your children to talk about how they could be more inclusive of people from different races at school. Invite your children to think about how they could make a positive difference either now or in the future to children from different ethnic backgrounds. Discuss ways your children can manage racist remarks they may experience. Or, what to do if they see others being racist. Ensure your children know how to seek assistance from an adult if needed. 

Tip’s for young children

Even young children can be taught the value of equality and diversity in society. Furthermore all children can be encouraged to be socially inclusive with their friendships. Cultural diversity allows us to experience different foods and ways of being in the world. Just keep the language simple. Explain that people from different counties may dress differently, eat differently and speak different languages. These differences are what make society interesting and rich. Discuss why it is hurtful to tease or exclude other children based on their skin colour, cultural or religious beliefs.

You may also like to talk about what you’d like your children to do if someone teases or hurts them based on their ethnicity. For example, you may encourage your children to say to the offending child “I don’t like it when you talk to me like that. Please stop it now.” Or you may prefer to instruct them to simply walk away. You may recommend to your children that they talk to an adult (parent or teacher) if it happens repeatedly to them or to other children. Providing young children with possible courses of action helps them to navigate the world effectively. 

Tips for older children and teens

After an initial conversation, you could encourage your children to learn more about the topic so they can understand how to make a positive difference in their community. Reading the book, Young Dark Emu: A Truer History by Bruce Pascoe or for older teens. Dark Emu is a great way for our children to learn more about the historical treatment of Aboriginal people at the time of colonisation and  how our First Peoples’ knowledge of the environment and environmental practices has sustained the land across Australia. Families can continue the conversation by discussing Australia’s historical treatment of our Indigenous peoples. Discuss the negative impact it has had on their lives and what we can do to close the gap in outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

The book ‘Young Dark Emu’ by Bruce Pascoe is a great resource for younger and older children (aged 7 – 12) that uses the accounts of early Europeans explorers, colonists and farmers to argue for a reconsideration of the hunter-gatherer label for pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians. 

Ongoing conversations

One conversation isn’t enough. In the same way that we continue to support our children to learn to read and write over many years of schooling – developing life skills that support children to be inclusive and promote respect and equality takes time and effort. As children mature, parents and teachers can have ongoing conversations about race and racism. Adults need to provide consistent positive messages about kindness, respect and equality for all people.

It’s important to continue to reinforce positive behaviour and consistently remind our children how to be respectful when we see negative behaviour. By the same token, parents need to model good behaviour consistently as well. How diverse is your friendship base? If you encounter racism – what do you do?

Being a proactive and vigilant parent will take a little more time in the short-term. However, there are many benefits for your family and for society that make it worthwhile in the long-term. Teaching your child to be respectful means they’ll be less likely to engage in aggressive or disrespectful behaviour that you’ll need to address with friends, or at school. No-one wants to get called up to the school or have a difficult conversation with another child’s parent! Right?

Are your children experiencing racism?

If your children are experiencing racial discrimination, you can seek assistance at school and from government organisations in your area. If your children are inflicting racial discrimination, you can provide them with the information and resources to understand a more respectful way to be with others from diverse backgrounds as explained above.

Learning social skills that help children to nurture relationships will support them to make friends. They will be loving members of their family and caring members of their community.

Changing the world starts at home

Every adult can play a key role in stopping violence, discrimination and inequality. This can be done by raising our children to expect respect and to be respectful to others. Yes, that’s regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity, disability, class, or sexual identity. Parents and carers can teach their children these skills by being good role models. Additionally we need to guide them to change their behaviour whenever they behave in a way that harms others or themselves. This way, we not only improve and enrich our own family life, but also the lives of others in our community, our nation and over time – the world.