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How to talk to your children about race and racism

Parenting comes with plenty of awkward conversations, from discussing sex to bodily functions, but race and racism can be one of the more sensitive areas to navigate. Regardless of your own ethnic background, your children will no doubt ask questions – but how do you answer them? Entrepreneur, blogger and mum-of-one Freddie Harrel and Behavioural scientist and diversity consultant Dr Pragya Agarwal – who has three daughters - shared their personal experiences and tips with Woman’s Hour…

Dr Pragya Agarwal [left] and Freddie Harrel [right]

1. Start early

“It’s never too early to start talking about diversity and bringing diverse books into children's lives,” says Dr Pragya Agarwal. “Make talking about skin colour normal and encourage respectful curiosity. Never shush them or show that talking about someone's skin colour is awkward or embarrassing.”

“People will say, ‘oh my children are too young to talk about race’,” says Freddie Harrel. “But if you’re having constant conversations about Brexit around them, if they can hear that then they can hear more.”

2. Have the difficult conversations with yourself first

“Parents can often feel reluctant to talk about race with children because they worry that they don't know enough or will make a mistake,” says Pragya. “It is our responsibility to educate ourselves and to be aware of our own implicit biases that can affect our words and actions around our children. Children can pick up these implicit cues.”

“It really starts with you as a person - your fears, your insecurities, your own bias, your worries,” adds Freddie. “I think so many people are scared to have conversations with themselves, because they don't want to find something that is going to mean [they’re not] a decent and nice person. [If] you feel uncomfortable, ask yourself, ‘why?’. Go back to what made you feel the most uncomfortable, the most outcast, the most 'I don't want to be here, I don't fit'. That also gives you a place to start.”

3. Avoid using skin colour as an identifier

“Race matters but it is not the only thing that matters about a person, so try and not use skin colour as an identifier such as 'that brown kid',” says Pragya. “When we talk about diverse characters and role models, children can understand that not everyone with the same skin colour is the same.”

4. But don’t claim not to see colour

“I don't want to hear 'I don't see colour',” says Freddie. “If you can see that my dress is red, you can see that my skin is brown. Everyone sees colours and the problem is not about seeing colours, the problem is about hierarchies that we put among the colour, that's the issue. The problem is about the barriers that we have.”

It is important to listen to his emotions and have him explain why he's sad, why he’s angry - and to make all of these emotions really valid.
Freddie Harrel

5. Celebrate goodness and encourage talking about emotions

“Little boys, especially little black and brown boys, go quickly from cute to scary - they'll grab your bag! - from cheeky to being naughty, [and] when someone goes a bit too far we see these little boys as something wicked, something very negative,” says Freddie. “It is really important for me to reinforce the knowledge that [my son] is a very nice guy and a very good guy. It is important to listen to his emotions and have him explain why he's sad, why he’s angry - and to make all of these emotions really valid. There’s nothing to numb, nothing to hide.”

6. Think about the lessons you learned

Freddie says her own parents didn’t focus on negative stories but tried to build her confidence.
“It was more like, ‘do your best and work hard - don't apologise’. [My mum] would say, ‘you're amazing, show this.’ And at the same time, ‘you're going to have to roll with the punches to have opportunities to show how amazing you are.’

We can help our children understand that they can be part of the solution rather than be part of the problem.
Dr Pragya Agarwal

“I grew up in schools where I was one of the only black girls, for me it's important that 30 years later my son doesn't feel lonely, that he doesn't have people telling him he looks weird or he has his limitations. I don't want history to repeat itself, that's basically the focus.”

7. Have pride in your history and culture

“Showcasing role models, rituals and stories from our own culture can help children take pride in their history and cultural heritage,” says Pragya. “This will help them develop a strong sense of identity and belonging, which is so crucial for their mental as well as physical health.”

“It's really important to check your environment and the people around you,” says Freddie. “That's going to help us have this frame around our son, and then we can discuss the conversations more as we go.”

8. Empower them to change things

“We can help our children understand that they can be part of the solution rather than be part of the problem,” says Pragya. “Talk to them about organisations and individuals who are creating positive change and tackling racism.”

9. Everyone needs to be on board

“It’s really important that everyone feels concerned by these things. It's nice to have me speaking about it, but I'm a black woman. White people also need to have these conversations with their children too,” says Freddie. “The same way that you will talk to your daughter about being a girl and your son about being a boy, the same way you are going to have conversations about consent, about sexuality… race just fits the same way. How are you going to teach your children that we are all equal, we all feel the same, we all suffer, we are all happy? Everyone needs to jump on board.”

Listen to Freddie Harrel and Dr Pragya Agarwal discuss how to talk to children about race and racism on the Woman’s Hour Parenting podcast.