Written by Dr. Natasha Alexander (Clinical Psychologist)
‘Look! There’s that black family that just moved in next door to us!’ says your kid rather loudly in the library. You don’t know what to say, so you say nothing. Of course your kid isn’t satisfied with this. They say it again. Even louder his time, confused by your lack of response. A couple of people turn to look at you both. How do you handle this? It seems like a teachable moment, but what should you be teaching? Keep reading. I can help you with this stuff.
I am a tall black woman, and I wear my hair in an afro. I am not an indigenous Australian and I can only speak about my own preferences and experiences as a black woman born in the UK.
My family is originally from the West Indies. I live in Brisbane with my white Australian female partner, our black son, and our mixed race baby daughter. Sometimes we get stared at. Mostly I think people are curious about us, and where we are from.
A couple of my Australian friends in Brisbane have commented that they find it ‘confronting’ when I use the word black to describe myself or someone else.
I am aware of some of the history and confusion around this, and the fear about not wanting to offend. I appreciate people’s concerns about not saying something wrong, racist or offensive, I really do. However, we need to be talking about things more, not less!
I understand that people may want their children to see people as individuals and equals. This is great, but a colour-blind approach isn’t the answer. Simply saying ‘we are all the same’ isn’t an effective way to prepare children for life in a world that is moving through multiculturalism into interculturalism (1).
So how should you talk to your children about racial differences? I love the concept of ‘all different, all equal’ – the title of a campaign from the Council of Europe. It is a concept that covers a lot of differences, such as age, gender, sexuality, culture, and religion and that is what makes it so good to teach to children.
In East London in the UK where my son was born, there is incredible cultural diversity. More than 100 languages are spoken in the borough he was born in. It wasn’t always harmonious and equal, far from it. However, there were a lot of benefits of living there. He was born and raised in a context of diversity, acceptance and tolerance.
He knows that it is ok to be curious about the race, culture and religious practices of others. We often have conversations about people at his school. He tells us if they are ‘brown’ like him and where they might be from. These conversations are ok and are welcomed in our home.
Back to the situation at the beginning of the article – the potentially awkward moment involving the ‘black family’ from next door. What to do? Shush your kid? Use it as a teachable moment to talk about racial differences”? Maybe you say in a hushed tone “we don’t say ‘black’, we say ‘dark skinned’.
Shushing is ok in a library – quiet voices are necessary! You could just say ‘oh yes, You are right. Let’s go and say hello and introduce ourselves properly.’ Back at home, the following tips may be useful.
- Help children understand the difference between noticing racial or cultural differences (ok) and talking in a derogatory way about people’s differences (not ok).
- As a family, have conversations that celebrate who people are. E.g. friends at school or work. People on television, in movies. Talk positively about differences – they are what makes the world so amazing.
- Don’t be scared to talk about differences – do it in a curious, positive way.
- Avoid pretending that differences don’t exist.
- Emphasise that no one should be judged negatively for their differences.
- Remember that your children are watching and copying how you talk about racial differences. You have an important role in stopping racist hate speech at home.
- Don’t talk negatively about people from different racial or religious backgrounds. If you must do this, make sure your children aren’t around.
- Help your child know what to do if they witness racist or religious bullying.
- Ensure that your children have access to a wide range of books and toys that celebrate multiculturalism and interculturalism e.g. dolls or musical instruments. We love the soft dolls from Ikea – our son has two black ones.
- Be curious about your child’s friends at school. Don’t shut down comments about the colour of their skin or where they are from. Model ways of talking about it positively, with friendly curiosity.
- If your child is subject to negativity about their race, e.g. from people who comment about their skin colour, hair, or style of dress – you can react in a way that indicates that this is nonsense. Just as you would with any other bizarre comment that people make.
- Model positive conversations and responses e.g. if your kid says “look at their hair/clothes/headdress” – you could say “yes, they look awesome don’t they!”
- If your kid says “why are they speaking funny”, you can comment that people across the world speak in different languages. Have a look on the internet together to explore different languages and cultures.
- Try different foods. Try a new recipe using ingredients from different countries or cultures – be brave!
- If you know about a particular cultural or religious festival – mention it to teachers at school. We did this when our son was in pre-school, and they learned about Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights celebrated every year in autumn in the northern hemisphere.
- Look at maps or a globe together – imagine what it would be like to travel to different places. Talk together about what it would be like to live somewhere else.
Dr Natasha Alexander is a black British clinical psychologist from the UK, who is now settled in Brisbane with her family. Dr Alexander is the founder and director of Consentability, a Brisbane based service that provides assessment, consultancy, education, therapy and training for individuals and couples with disabilities and their support network.