Why it’s important to talk with your family about racism
It’s important to talk about racism with children and teenagers. And the earlier you start having these conversations, the better.
This is because children develop attitudes and beliefs about diversity and racism from a very early age. So talking with your child about racism can shape your child’s attitudes and behaviour, now and in the future.
Also, children can experience racism from a very early age, and racism can harm children’s health, wellbeing and development. Talking can help children understand their experiences. It can reduce the harms of racism for children and help them develop well.
For example, talking can help your child:
- value people of all backgrounds and treat all people respectfully
- develop healthy relationships with people from all backgrounds
- build empathy and compassion for people from all backgrounds
- build a positive cultural or ethnic identity
- learn to recognise and call out racism when they see it.
It’s especially important for families who don’t directly experience racism to talk about racism. Talking can help these families:
- recognise their own advantages
- understand how racism works
- call out racism in their communities and make them fairer for everyone.
All children have the right to grow up feeling respected, valued and safe. Talking to children about racism is part of creating environments that help children grow and thrive.
Preparing to talk about racism with children and teenagers: getting informed
Conversations about racism will go better when you’re prepared and informed. These resources can help you get started:
- All Together Now
- Beyond Blue – Educate yourself about racism
- Learn Our Truth
- National Indigenous Youth Education Coalition
- Racism. It Stops With Me
- Share our Pride
When you’re learning about racism, try to use resources that have been made by and with people experiencing racism and that are based on evidence. These resources are likely to be accurate and less likely to use racial or cultural stereotypes.
How to start conversations about racism with children and teenagers
Talking early and often about racism is important. The way you approach conversations about racism will depend on your child’s age, development, background and personal experiences of racism.
These tips can help you get started:
- Find out what your child knows and thinks about diversity and racism. For example, if you and your child are watching a movie that highlights diversity, ask questions like ‘What did you think about that scene?’
- Use books, TV shows or even toys. For example, you can point out diverse characters in a book or ask a question about stereotypes in a TV show.
- Tell stories about your own childhood. If you can, talk about your experiences and how you stood up to racism.
- Really listen to your child after you’ve started a conversation. Show you’re listening by getting close, making eye contact and using non-verbal language like nodding and keeping your arms uncrossed.
- Encourage your child to ask questions. If you don’t know the answers, tell your child you’ll find out. Come back to them when you know more.
- Correct any harmful and unfair views. For example, ‘It sounds like you think Black people can’t be doctors. That’s not true. Doctors can have any background or skin colour’.
- Avoid saying things like ‘We don’t see colour’ or ‘I don’t notice people’s backgrounds’. This might send the message that you can make racism go away by ignoring it. It also means you miss opportunities to help your child understand racism.
Early childhood: talking about diversity and racism
From birth to about 5 years, you can approach conversations about racism by celebrating people from diverse backgrounds. For example:
- Use simple and positive language. For example, ‘Zaynab likes to celebrate Eid al-Fitr at this time of the year. She spends a lot of time with her family and loved ones’. Or ‘The land that we live on has been looked after by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for thousands of years. Isn’t that amazing?’
- Talk about being kind and fair to people of all backgrounds. For example, ‘Everyone at preschool can play with the toys’.
- Acknowledge that people look different from each other and have diverse backgrounds, which is a good thing. For example, ‘We all have different skin colours, and this makes each of us special and beautiful’. Or ‘The families in our neighbourhood have many traditions and ways of celebrating. It makes our community a great place to grow up’.
- Talk about what people who look different also have in common. For example, ‘Max and Roshani have different coloured skin, but they both like playing soccer with you’.
- Read books about people from diverse backgrounds, cultures and countries. You could try Baby business by Jasmine Seymour, I love me by Sally Morgan and Ambelin Kwaymullina, Antiracist baby by Ibram X. Kendi, or Hair love by Matthew A. Cherry.
By 6 months, children can recognise differences in skin colour and hair texture. At 3-6 years, many children can identify their own cultural or ethnic background and other people’s. At this age, some children can start showing early forms of racial discrimination. For example, they might avoid playing with children from certain groups.
Primary school age: talking directly about racism
At 6-11 years, you and your child can start talking directly about racism. Here are ideas:
- Talk to your child about the achievements and contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Asian, Black, Brown and other racially marginalised people. For example, talk about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander doctors, dancers from Chinese-Australian backgrounds, or engineers and scientists from African-Australian backgrounds.
- Use accurate language. For example, help your child find the name of the land and traditional owners of the land where they live.
- Talk to your child about how people have been and still are treated unfairly because of the colour of their skin, culture, language or family background. Tell your child that this isn’t fair or OK.
- Talk about being kind and fair to people from all backgrounds. For example, ‘We have a new person coming to cricket training today. Her name is Gavinka. Could you introduce her to the other players and make sure she feels welcome, please?’
- Read books about people from diverse backgrounds, cultures and countries with your child. You could try Wombat, mudlark & other stories by Helen Milroy, Day break by Amy McQuire, Welcome to country by Aunty Joy Murphy and Lisa Kennedy, I’m Australian too by Mem Fox, Big rain coming by Katrina Germein, or The first scientists: Deadly inventions and innovations from Australia’s first peoples by Corey Tutt and Blak Douglas.
Teenagers: having complex discussions about racism
At 12-18 years, you can have complex discussions about racism with your child. Here are ideas:
- Share and discuss an example of racism in your experience. For example, ‘When I was younger, I used that stereotype a lot. Then someone told me it made them uncomfortable and that it wasn’t true. I apologised and stopped using it’.
- Watch a movie or TV show together and discuss the way it handles racism. For example, ‘Did you notice how the Black character didn’t have many lines and got killed?’
- Watch movies and documentaries together that talk about historical and current racism – for example, Looky looky here comes Cooky or Silence is violence: Complacency is complicity. You and your child can use these to learn together.
- Talk about current events or issues that relate to racism – for example, over-policing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament or the Black Lives Matter movement.
- Talk to your child about how racism affects their life and other people’s lives and what you can do to reduce its negative effects.
- Encourage your child to read books about people from diverse backgrounds, cultures and countries. They could try How to be a (young) antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and Nic Stone, The tribe by Michael Mohammed Ahmad, The yield by Tara June Winch, Growing up African in Australia, edited by Maxine Beneba Clarke, or Meet me at the intersection edited by Rebecca Lim and Ambelin Kwaymullina.
If you get distressed when you’re talking or thinking about racism, talk to your GP or health professional. You can also call 13 YARN on 139 276, Lifeline on 131 114, Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 or a parenting hotline. Or you can contact your local Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation or a community cultural group.