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How to Raise Race-Conscious Children

HuffPost UK logo HuffPost UK 5/08/2018 Dr Pragya Agarwal
a little girl posing for a picture: Rawpixel via Getty Images © Provided by AOL Inc. Rawpixel via Getty Images

We live in a multi-cultural diverse society but race is still a very sensitive topic to talk about. Born in India and having lived in the UK for two decades, I am guilty of ignoring my own race and roots. For too long, I tried to fit in. I wanted to be known for my achievements and not because I look different, and I wanted to avoid any racial biases, any suggestions of brown privilege or any stereotypical associations.

And, so, I avoided talking about my race altogether.

But, in doing so, I also avoided a conversation about race and race politics with my eldest child who was born in India and was brought up here in the UK. And, I know many other immigrant parents who have done the same.

Race is such an ingrained social construct that we can never truly dissociate ourselves from it. People are socially conditioned to assign values to someone based on their skin colour. Colour matters, and race matters.

Since the birth of my twins, I have become increasingly conscious of this. They are bi-racial and they do not look like me or their older sister. We do not live in a multi-cultural town and there are no non-white children at their nursery or amongst our neighbours. I also recently started looking at the books that we have been reading with them, and could not find many non-white characters.

Diversity in children’s literature is a huge concern and research suggests that over 80% of characters in children’s books are white. This doesn’t reflect the reality of our world. It does not allow my children to look beyond stereotypes, to understand that their view is never less (or more) important than someone who is not the same skin colour as theirs, or that they are less important as someone who has blond hair and blue eyes - the stereotype character in children’s books and in media.

By dismissing or keeping silent about our race and others, we reinforce the notion that people are not born equal and allow children to make their own judgement and inferences about racial equality. By saying that “everyone is the same” we deny our children their own racial and cultural experiences. We also dismiss the fact that racism is still a huge issue in many parts of this world, and it whitewashes many significant events of racial crimes and segregation in history. 

It is important to me that my children are proud of their ethnic origins and can challenge racial prejudice when they see or encounter it. This is such a complex multi-layered issue, but here are a few things that we can do:

1. Actively discuss race and racial inequality. Rather than ignoring race, it is important that we actively encourage our children to talk about it and ask questions about their own race and others. By fostering a culture of dialogue and actively encouraging critical thinking in our children, we empower them to form judicious views about race. This helps develop a positive view of cultural diversity. Questioning stereotypes in children’s toys and films can be one way of starting a discussion.

2. Find suitable diverse inter-sectional role models. Parents can model behaviours that we want to encourage in our children, such as fairness and social justice. We feel more comfortable pointing out sexist behaviour and gender biases, but we often choose to ignore those linked to race and colour. By highlighting strong role models from different race and ethnic origins, we can empower our children. When they feel empowered, they feel more confident about their own race and their identity.

3. Share our story and experiences. It is important for our children to hear our stories and those of their ancestors. We should talk about their history so that they take pride in their roots, and not reject their racial and cultural heritage.

This way they can understand their place in the world, and also learn to express from their own heritage. Bi-racial children, in particular, can sometimes be forced to choose one part of their heritage over another. Discussing intergenerational narratives and history will lead to a stronger sense of identity.

It is our vital responsibility as parents to encourage our children to be conscious of their own race and that of others, notice discrimination and prejudice, and actively voice their discontent when they encounter any unfairness towards themselves and others. They have to understand that acknowledging differences makes for a fairer world; one where they accept their ‘otherness’ and are proud of it.

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