Racism is not just something kids face when they are born in a society like the United States, where prejudice has been systematically passed on from generation to generation. Racism is a phenomenon that pervades an increasingly globalized world, and relocating to a new community or country with different people from different cultures can expose parents and children to the racism that they never experienced themselves growing up.
Some of our parents may not have prepared us well for the injustices we or our kids may face from others, and we can find ourselves personally challenged when we have to explain this ugly phenomenon to them. Two mothers, a Black mother from the Southern United States and an Indian expat living in Bangkok, Thailand, write about how they have faced these issues head on with their kids and have an open-ended discussion about the difficulties they have encountered and how they have dealt with them.
A Black mom challenges racism as she redefines herself (Livi Bivens)
Racism is newly defined as the belief that race determines certain human traits of inherent superiority combined with social and systemic power. For anyone in this day and age, racism shouldn’t be an unfamiliar buzzword. Many people have varying experiences with the word. For some, it’s not a problem until it reaches their doorstep and for others, it’s a matter of survival and at the forefront of every decision and interaction, both as a child and an adult. New-age parents have watched racism finally be redefined and gaining popularity in conversations. So when do we address it with our children and how does that look?
Hindsight is 20/20
Looking back, my own mother never had a conversation with me about racism. She and many like her ignored racism and simply believed some people were just rude and that was normal and it truly did me a disservice. I was so uneducated and unaware going into college; I was forced into culture shock and had the curtains pulled back to reveal the US had not succeeded in dissipating racism after the Martin Luther King civil rights fight as was customarily taught in school.
I found out fast, especially while dating, that racism was in fact still present, but it was just more “covert” (if we can even say that). Looking back on my own life, I experienced blatant racism in the form of consistent microaggressions on a regular basis and participated in colorism and anti black ideals because that’s what I was taught and it’s what I adopted. It led to a lot of unpacking as an adult.
I guess that’s why they say hindsight is 20/20 and boy, is that true. I find myself cringing at the backhanded compliments I received:
- “You have long hair for a Black Girl.”
- “You are pretty…for a Black Girl.
- “You aren’t like the rest of those ghetto Black girls.”
Things you think are compliments if you don’t know better, but really they are disgusting sentiments to say.
Parenting and racism from a Blacktivist Mama perspective
Because part of the work and advocacy I do, and because I know better as an adult, I couldn’t afford to wait until the first incident to talk to my children about it all. I felt it would be a disservice. I know many parents feel it takes a child’s innocence away to approach such issues at a young age, but for many, it’s a matter of life or death educating their children. I started young with reading anti-racist books for children such as Antiracist baby board book by Ibram Kendi, A kids book about systemic racism by Jordan Thierry, and A kids book about racism by Jelani Memory. These books open the floor for conversations and questions.
As systemic racism is exposed more and more, it is not enough in our world to wait until racism is at your door. Even for non-Black children, these should be early conversations, being anti-racist should be an ongoing conversation for you too. It is not enough any longer to simply be not racist nor is it enough to attempt to teach the idealistic lesson of color blindness (which is dismissive teaching anyways). See color, teach them to recognize color and what that means when it comes to navigating society, and then teach them to treat everyone with humanity. In a world where Tamir Rice and more continue to fall at the hands of systemic and individual racism with zero justice, I feel this is no longer optional.
It’s been an interesting build-up of discussions. My family is mixed race with our skin tones varying across the spectrum, not only has racism been a topic but colorism along with it. My children range from age 1 all the way up to 6. It’s important to tailor such a heavy traumatizing topic to the right age and couple it with self-love. Uplifting Blackness and its versatility and beauty has been our formula to combat racism at home along with regular talks about how it affects different people, and how it could affect them, my children. My talks won’t resemble the same as those of a Black mother with unambiguously Black children and that’s important for me to sit with and realize when working to raise children who are aware. As they move through the world, they can do so with happiness, but still, a sense of awareness and they do.
An Indian expat in Bangkok confronts racism in her daughters’ international school (Parul Mathur)
I may write for a living, but I was at a complete loss of words for the first time when one of my 3.5-year-old twins asked me, “Why are we brown and not white?” When I asked why they would want to be white and not brown, one of them innocuously replied, “Our friends in school don’t want to play with us as we’re not white.” It was like the reality of the outer, not-so-fairytale-ish world was creeping in my innocent babies’ well-protected and safe bubble and I was not even aware of it.
I spent my entire childhood in my hometown in India growing up with people who looked, dressed, and talked like me. As a child, I never knew what it meant to feel left out or unincluded based on one’s physical hues. When we moved to Thailand, my daughters started their elementary education at one of the prestigious international schools in Bangkok. As a mother, I was thrilled that my daughters had the chance to grow with kids of different nationalities and ethnic backgrounds, something I as a kid could not have dreamed of.
I looked at it as an opportunity for my kids to learn about the diverse world we live in, but in my excitement, I neglected the negatives that came along with it. It wouldn’t be wrong to say neither I nor my kids were prepared for it.
Nonetheless, I had to take charge of the situation, sat them down, and listened to the complete incident. While I also talked to their teacher and the respective parents, I knew, before anything else, it was time for real talk about color, race, and the behavioral discrimination that might come with it, and no matter what, this prejudice and inequality are wrong and unacceptable at every level.
Why do parents need to talk to kids at an early age about racism?
I never thought of talking to kids about race and racism at that early an age, assuming them too young to comprehend. Even though I intended to protect them and avoid any misconceptions from forming in their young and naïve minds, it turns out it was not the best idea after all.
Studies show that children can register the difference in appearance at an age as early as 3-4 months and by the age of 3-4 years they can start noticing the variance and inequality in behavior and treatment.
- In the present digital age, kids are bombarded with all sorts of unfiltered and uncensored data/information, which may leave stronger impressions on their subconscious if parents don’t intervene.
- Kids aware of the facts tend to better at identifying and reporting racist acts and tend to be less biased in actions and thoughts when dealing with kids from other races.
- Children cannot fully understand the reason behind the biased treatment towards them which leaves them feeling unsafe and unaccepted in their circle.
- Being laughed at or being humiliated by peers or adults for one’s appearance or family background make kids feel perplexed and if this feeling goes unattended by parents or a guardian, it can impact their emotional growth and well-being, which would lead to extreme reactions ranging from anger, irritation or frustration to being quiet, shy, and scared.
Talking to your child about racism
While I was not sure what the right way was to react and respond at the time, I learned from that first incident how to open up and talk to kids about color or race and make them aware of the diversity around the world. Here are my tips to help guide a conversation with your kids about racism:
- Identify and acknowledge the difference: Use books or videos to help kids understand how different people can be in their appearances and yet be friends together. I used stories from Peppa Pig or Dora the Explorer and Good night stories for rebel girls (for a more human example) to explain that people are of different colors, races, and types and that’s natural and beautiful.
- Simply telling them that “everyone is unique and beautiful in their own way” does not exactly get the job done though. Explaining a bit of history and geography of various races, cultures, and people will give kids an idea that appearance reflects one’s heritage and is always should be worn with pride.
- Be prepared for a series of questions. Listen and answer patiently. If you don’t know the answers, tell them you’ll get back to them. And make sure you return to them with answers. This instills faith in kids and will make it easier for them to open up again in the future.
- Give them details depending on their age, like a toddler of 2-3 years may only need to know people come from different backgrounds and appear different, whereas a 6-7-year-old can understand the biased behavior and needs to be aware to identify and stand up against it.
- Ask questions and gauge what they absorb and how they grasp the conversation.
- Ensure an open and 2-way conversation which will help make kids feel trusted and heard and lead to more confidence in opening up.
While there’s still a long way to go before we leave race-based discrimination behind us, there is a lot as parents we can do to not only help our kids be better prepared should they face racism but also to be better prepared to stand up against the injustice.
A chat between Livi and Parul on growing up and dealing with racism
We invited Livi and Parul to exchange their views on what the other mom wrote, across the 12 time zones that separate them from one another. They found they had more in common than they initially expected when we invited them to participate in this dialogue. Below is a transcript of their chat.
Livi Bivens: I’m a wife and mother of 3. We are located in North Carolina in the United States. I’m a full spectrum doula, writer, author, and assistant for work while also attending school online.
Parul Mathur: I’m an Indian expat, mother of now 6-year-old twin daughters living in Bangkok. I am a qualified engineer and was working as a project manager before moving to Thailand and started writing.
Parul Mathur: I strongly agree with your point that teaching kids about racism is NOT optional, even for white or privileged people. It’s not a choice but a must.
Livi Bivens: Yes, truly.
Livi Bivens: My favorite part of what you wrote was that you pointed out that parents need to acknowledge differences! So many parents think teaching colorblindness is the way to go, but it truly does a disservice. Even in many anti-racist articles I’ve read they often skate over that it’s okay to acknowledge and see differences and just skip to “We all bleed red.”
Parul Mathur: Thanks! Kids do notice the differences and if parents do not guide them to help them understand, they might either try to understand themselves, which might lead to further confusion, or worse if they are guided by random online information via social media.
I was actually surprised to read about the microaggressions you received in college. It got me thinking how different and yet so similar the underlying racism is across the globe as I often receive comments like, “You are a ‘good’ Indian.”
Livi Bivens: Thinking back it started as early as elementary school.
I was always the “safe” Black girl and I thought that was a good thing. I was quiet enough, I wasn’t loud about my Blackness, so I was safe enough to keep around as a token friend.
Do you ever think back and realize it may have actually happened earlier, but it was just so covert?
Parul Mathur: It may have! It is just wrapped up in such a way that it takes a while to unpack and comprehend.
And since I never actually received any such reactions or never had to try and fit in, as I spent a good amount of time growing up in my hometown, it took me a while to understand how these statements make me feel.
Livi Bivens: I was somewhat surprised that it hadn’t happened sooner. From research, I assumed colorism was still such a rampant issue where you are.
Parul Mathur: It is, in fact even outside India here in Thailand, I see lots of Indian mothers trying all sorts of home remedies to make their daughters fairer and whiter. Luckily, in my family, it was not an issue. Or maybe, I was “fair” enough that no one pointed it out to me.
Livi Bivens: It’s so interesting exploring all those nuances. All my children are on such different ends of the color spectrum. Discussing race is such a huge ongoing conversation.
Parul Mathur: You mentioned all your kids being different ages, the conversations must be intense. What sort of questions do your kids come back with in such conversations?
Livi Bivens: For the most part, my son just runs off somewhere lol. My daughter, who is the lightest, often asks questions about her being so much lighter than everyone. “Am I white or black?” is a regular question.
Parul Mathur: I understand. It still shows she is participating.
Livi Bivens: For sure! She surprises me with the understanding she has, especially to ask questions. It can be scary.
Parul Mathur: What was shocking for me was when my daughters first talked about being left out for their color and when I reported that to their teacher and then to the parents concerned, their first reaction was denial! They were trying to convince me that it can only be a misunderstanding!
Livi Bivens: That can be frustrating to not be heard. Did you have to escalate to a higher-up or did you continue to work with them and educate?
Parul Mathur: I might have expected it from the parents, but a teacher denying such an act made me doubt if I can trust them. They wanted to hush the affair I guess, but I kept pursuing, which led them to take some actions.
But it got me thinking, this impulsive reaction of denial is one of the main reasons we can’t get over racism as lots of people choose to not even acknowledge it in the first place.
Livi Bivens: Yes, it’s so uncomfortable. Which is weird, because, in this instance, it’s really simple and easy because it’s children. Adults are the hard part.
Parul Mathur: Agreed. It’s easier to mold a kid right than to fix an adult.
Livi Bivens: Do they ever mention the incident at all or they moved on pretty well?
Parul Mathur: It stayed with them for a while but they don’t mention it anymore.
In my research, I also noticed that unlike in other cultures around the world, there were very few incidents where Indians came forward and reported racist acts against them.
Livi Bivens: Any ideas why? Maybe the lack of support like you experienced?
Parul Mathur: I talked to a couple of fellow Indian moms about these incidents. And they all told me, “Yes, it happens. Kids need to learn to live with it.” I feel it is becoming more ingrained in kids from early childhood to learn to fit in and be accepted, even in Indian communities.
When I talked to these moms, some of them even mentioned that their kids feel like dressing, talking, and behaving like their peers to fit in and at times mock their own culture as funny since that’s what their friends do.
Livi Bivens: Yes,I 100% understand. That’s definitely a thing here. I was the same. I made fun of other Black children that fit the negative stereotypes to “other” myself and make myself better. Here it’s called anti-Blackness and respectability politics.
Parul Mathur: Oh, that must have been hard.
Livi Bivens: Yeah, because regardless, I didn’t really get any further socially because I’m still Black in the end.
Parul Mathur: Does it leave one with a confused feeling of belonging? I mean a kid pretending to be unattached to his own culture to get attached to another more acceptable one, but still not accepted 100%?
Livi Bivens: Eventually, yes. Classmates who see me now are shocked. I’ve done a 360. For a lack of better words, I’ve said, screw it. There’s no reason to adhere to respectability politics. I might as well love me and my Blackness. Self love is a huge key in the fight against racism, I truly believe.
Parul Mathur: Couldn’t agree more. Self love is the key indeed.