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It’s been a thought-provoking few months in terms of racial injustice and equality campaigning.
Motivated by the tragic death of George Floyd, people the world over have been asking themselves how such overt examples of racism can still be happening – and discovering that systemic racism is, very sadly, alive and well.
One need sensed by many parents over the last few months is that of providing black role models and black history to their children – in response, I offered 25+ suggestions of Culturally Diverse Story Books we could read with our children, as well as how reading historical fiction with our kids can help teach racial equality.
Today I want to look at other ways we parents can educate our children on matters of race.
Living in a very white-European city, my kids don’t get so much exposure to people with different skin tones, so I’m particularly keen to know how I can raise my children to be aware of issues of racial injustice. However, these are important questions to be working through whether you live in a white area or a racially-mixed area.
I’ve enlisted the help of some friends with more experience in this field than I, and have been blown away by their grace and wisdom. I hope that you, too, will find this blog equally insightful.
Firstly, please introduce yourselves!
NB. To protect the anonymity of contributors, real names have been replaced with pen names.
PENNY: My husband and I are White British. We have five BAME young people (aged 13 – 28) in our home currently and have cared for several in the past too. They are all either our kids (two of whom are black) or teenage refugees who we foster.
OLIVIA: I’m White British and my husband is Nigerian. He grew up in Nigeria and Ghana. We have two kids.
BELLA :My heritage is mixed (Native American and White European) and my husband is African so our kids are a mix of both of us.
SAMMY: I’m Nigerian and so is my husband. I grew up in Nigeria, spent teenage and university years in the US, my 20s and 30s in the UK, and have recently moved back to the US with my husband and two children.
What were your experiences (or your spouse/child’s) growing up BAME in a white culture?
PENNY: My black children growing up have mainly experienced curiosity (especially from other children) and a little embarrassment from adults (especially around terminology). Blatant racism actually only makes up a small part – it’s more racial thoughtlessness or ignorance, and often children are made to feel ‘different’ in a way that can be upsetting for them.
Can you explain a bit more about the ‘thoughtlessness or ignorance’?
PENNY: The whole question of colour and culture tends to be a bit muddled, I think. Probably all black children get used to the ‘where are you from?’ question, especially from older people, but you could be black British, black Kenyan, black Jamaican…these are all very different cultures!
One of our adult sons has Ugandan ethnicity but says he feels his identity is black British. Despite our love of Uganda and the fact that we lived there for years he has no particular interest in Ugandan culture. We’re fine with that. I think it’s a very individual thing and general assumptions about culture based on colour are impossible to make.
What are some examples of racism that you’ve encountered in adulthood?
SAMMY: I personally have not had ‘overt’ racist experiences but I have had conversations where it is clear that the person was speaking from a place of bias (probably unconscious).
For example, I was in a Christian setting here in the States and we were all talking about our childhood experiences. I remember saying something about not having a lot of sweets as a child, and the response of this other person (who happened to be white) was that I probably didn’t have sweets because I was poor. I was a bit stunned that someone who didn’t know my background would assume such a thing. I didn’t consider that racist but a prejudice.
There was one time back in the UK where a group of us (all black) were denied entry into a club because we hadn’t bought drinks within the first five minutes of our arrival; we went to the cash machine to get money so we could buy drinks and were told we couldn’t come in.
The interesting thing was that I had visited this same establishment a week prior with my colleagues from the University who were predominantly white and no one bothered us at all. Again, I was so shocked by the way we were treated that I reported it to the police. The police asked me if I thought it was racially motivated and I really couldn’t answer that because I’d never experienced anything like it before, and I don’t think in racial terms.
When the news of George Floyd broke, not to mention the ensuing protests, riots, taking down of statues etc, how did you navigate this as a family?
BELLA: It was definitely tough to see and talk about that kind of overt racism. To be reminded of how the system can be so stacked against minority cultures was disheartening and heart breaking for our kids. We were comforted, however, by solidarity and growing awareness from others.
OLIVIA: In the past few months, we’ve talked more as a couple about race than we have previously. Although my husband often tried to tell me about racism in the UK before, I don’t think I understood what he was saying.
What’s changed? I’ve had time to mull over those comments from years ago and have seen – sadly – examples of what he talked about.
PENNY: We had a lot of conversations in our home which raised many points, but mainly that the effects of being made to feel different in school are cumulative. For example ‘Can I feel your hair?’ is OK once, but 2-3 times a week (or even other students just touching it without permission) gets tiring.
Most teachers are very good and will certainly confront any blatant racism. However, a few times not listening to the BAME person’s experience and actually wanting to ‘shut it down’ very rapidly has been a problem. Unfortunately, some teachers seem to be so concerned about making sure they appear non-racist that they don’t manage to actually ‘hear’ or address the issue that the young black person is raising.
Our children have also had experience of teachers objecting to black hairstyles, other students staring, laughing or teasing when a topic concerning black issues is covered in class, and cruel name-calling.
Do we really still have a problem with racism? What about political correctness?
OLIVIA: Although it’s all well and good that many companies are taking a stance on diversity and equality, that’s really nothing new – it’s illegal to be otherwise. I think there has to be a challenge for people to examine themselves, to move from “not discriminating” to true equality.
PENNY: With his permission I’d like to share with you something that my (grown-up, black) son wrote recently on Facebook to answer your question:
“I see it most days in the north (where I grew up) and the south (where I live now). It might not be the obvious or the horrific racism reported in the news. But it’s the ignorant questions, preconceived notions, the being followed around in the supermarket or a shop by security or a staff member, the “you speak very posh!” “You don’t sound black”. I’m TIRED!!
I’ve been very lucky with my life where I haven’t experienced the incredible fear of not knowing whether you’re going to come home when you leave the house, or having a gun pulled out just because you’re black, or being hung from a tree, or being shot when you’re out for a jog. The list goes on and on.
But there was one time when I was a 16-year-old boy, new in London, at ballet school, and a police van slowly pulling up behind me. And the two big policemen tackling me to the ground, as they had reports of various “men of colour” who had broken into a house or something. I can’t remember as I was shaking like a leaf in the back of the van as they took down my name and where I lived. I was also given a ticket I had to keep on me for a month, to say I’d be checked. The fear I had as a young impressionable 16 year old , every time a police car drove past or two officers headed my way, I’m sure is something a lot of you hadn’t experienced. The funny thing is when I told the school they did nothing…”
What do you think the UK is getting wrong about race and diversity in 2020?
BELLA: Although changing, a lot don’t realise or accept that people often view someone’s competency and value differently based on their appearance and heritage. Although there is growing awareness of hidden racism all around us and the statistics to prove it, some are still in denial. Facing the reality of intrinsic, systemic racism, how you’ve been influenced by the system you grew up in and maybe played a part in can be challenging and responses range from positive change to anger and more racism.
PENNY: A lot more work still needs to be done with the police and employers. One boy, living with us, was recently stopped by police near the local school when he was not in school uniform and asked, ‘Do you live around here?’ There seemed to be an implication that he didn’t belong or was somehow suspicious.
Sadly, it appears that right wing extremism and nationalism (often closely linked to racism) is on the rise. I’ve been told there is evidence of this, not just hearsay, both in the northern city where I live and around the country.
OLIVIA: We have the right laws and we’ve been trained not to discriminate, therefore we think it’s not a problem. But the law, as Christ says, is unable to change us. We need a deeper heart change.
I think the UK is also afraid of difference. We are a class-based system and make snap judgements on whether people are higher or lower class than us and interact accordingly. Race fits into our class judgements and doesn’t fare well.
The intro to Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddon-Lodge is very perceptive. White people have not experienced racism, so it’s very easy for us to think it doesn’t exist. We are confounded when told otherwise.
I heard Afua Hirsch, author of Brit(ish), speak on a podcast recently about why racism is so entrenched, and I found her comments really insightful. She referenced education: history is white-focused, we won two World Wars, we haven’t been invaded since 1066 and therefore we believe we’re on the ‘right’ side of history.
SAMMY: There need to be conversations on racial tensions between black and white but also within races. Being willing to listen and seeking to understand is important. I think one question that is important to ask a black person who was born in Britain is what growing up was like for them.
I have found that my view of race is markedly different because I grew up in a homogenous environment where discrimination based on colour was non-existent because we were all basically ‘the same.’ I also came from a stable loving home where I was valued.
I am realizing now that I am privileged because of my background and the opportunities that I have been fortunate to have, which I am grateful for, but I am cognizant of the reality of negative experiences that so many black people face. So now, I am seeking to learn and just listen.
My blog speaks to parents, grandparents and others with a family focus. What message do you have for them about how to raise their kids to be pro-diversity, anti-racism?
PENNY: Help your children to use the correct terminology. Very recently someone we know (a lovely guy, definitely not racist at all) described our young people as ‘coloured’. Speak out when you see examples of racism – but maybe not in a way that might make the black person feel even more uncomfortable. If you’re not sure about anything why not ask the person who is BAME?
BELLA: Talk about equality and make it OK to discuss our differences. I think sometimes there is a misunderstanding that acknowledging differences is racist, which can lead to confusion.
Have a lot of different people reflected in the imagery and media surrounding your kids and celebrate positives of different cultures. [Lucy adds: “If you’re looking for fabulous children’s books which celebrate and feature people from different cultures, check out my 25 recommendations of Culturally Diverse Stories”.] Make positive references to people from a range of backgrounds.
Tackling topics such as racism and Britain’s history is important, and asking the ‘how would you feel?’ question often helps build empathy.
Model treating people equally and with respect and compassion – this is a powerful tool for influencing your kids to be pro-diversity and anti-racism.
OLIVIA: I would say notice your own heart first. Do you shy away from books with BAME characters? BAME dolls? If your child talks about the colour of someone’s skin, do you move them on quickly and change the subject?
Make friends with BAME people, even if it’s uncomfortable at first. Allow your children to talk about the colour of other people’s skin: they are rarely placing value judgements on them, it’s usually just noticing what is around them. Talk about it in the same way you would eye colour or hair colour.
If your child does start to place value on people according to their skin colour, then that is the time for deeper conversations and setting them right. I have rarely found this the case, but maybe being mixed-race my kids appreciate that there is no difference in our value.
SAMMY: As Christians we should follow the Word of God to seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly. I have friends from very different ethnicities and backgrounds and we encourage our children to have good friends no matter what culture or country they hail from. Our children know that God created a myriad of colours and He said, ‘It is good’ at the end of his creating.
Over to you: have you, or those you love, experienced racism or prejudice due to the colour of your skin? What tips would you give to parents seeking to raise their kids to be justice-seekers in the area of racism? Let us know in the comments!