Talking to your children about racism

Published on
19 June 2020

By now, you’re likely to have seen the news of the killing of an unarmed Black man by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, US. George Floyd died after an officer knelt on his neck for nine minutes. Children are likely to have seen the footage or heard of George Floyd’s killing and the protests that have followed on from this. They might be confused about why people are protesting. It’s important to help them understand the issue that underpins this: racism.

Even if they haven’t seen or heard of this coverage of George Floyd’s death, it’s important to talk to children about racism. If you’re wondering how to start, read on for our tips.

Check in with yourself first

If you’re Black, this means looking after yourself. It’s hard to see story after story of brutality without it taking a toll on your mental health. Think about coping strategies before you broach a conversation with your child. You’ll be in a better position to support them, make them feel safe and answer any questions they have calmly.

For others, this will mean taking the time to challenge yourself and examine your own prejudices and privileges first. All of us carry some form of bias and prejudice - and the first step to progressing is to reflect and recognise that. It’s important to listen in to understand racism and experiences of Black people and people of other ethnicities if you’re not aware of them. There are plenty of helpful resources available to help you – here are a few to get you started:

Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh​​​​​​

Me and White Supremacy by Layla F Saad​​​​​

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race and About Race podcast by Reni Eddo Lodge

Think about how you might talk to your child about George Floyd if they ask, but be aware that it could be very upsetting to bring up the graphic details of how he died if they don’t already know. 

It’s natural to worry that you might get something wrong when talking about race, but take it one step at a time.  Remember that keeping the conversation about race going, rather than a single “talk” will help your child feel confident in asking you questions and telling you how they feel. If your child asks a question that you don’t have the answer to, don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. It’s fine to research and come back to them with the answer, or if they’re old enough, research and learn alongside them.

Don’t wait for them to bring it up

Some parents might think that the best way to raise a child to not be racist is to not talk about race at all. However, studies show that children notice patterns in the world around them from a young age: between the ages of three and five, they begin to apply stereotypes and express racial bias (Winkler, 2009), so it’s never too early to talk about it and to help them think critically about what they see. Use the terms of fairness to help - for example, you might ask if it’s fair that there aren’t any Black and brown characters on a television show that they’re watching.

Not speaking about race can make it seem like an impolite subject and can leave children to draw conclusions of their own, potentially helping to reinforce the notion that racial inequalities that exist are natural. Speaking about it regularly will also help to complement and enhance what they learn in school, see on the news and hear from friends. 

If they express a racial prejudice, ask about it instead of shutting it down immediately. You might ask, “What makes you say that?” to help get to their thought process and the root of it, so that you can examine it together.

If they’re confused about the protests, help to explain how protests have played a part in lots of social movements in history to help make things fairer. Reassure them most protests are peaceful and that people have the right to speak up if things aren’t fair.

Being ‘colourblind’ isn’t helpful

Asserting that you “don’t see race” doesn’t help as some might think it would – race is not the problem, the prejudice and stigma attached to it is. By talking about race, your child will learn more about the issue, think for themselves and be more comfortable about speaking out about racism.

It’s also worth noting that children of a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) background are likely to have experienced racism in some manner and be reminded of their race through this. Having the choice to not think about race is a privilege that only some of us have. 

Representation matters

It’s important for children to be represented in the stories they read and see. It helps them to see a place for themselves in the world. But many children struggle with this; a study by Centre for Literacy in Primary Education found that only 1% of children’s books published in 2017 had a BAME main protagonist and only 4% included BAME background characters.

Exposing your child to a diverse range of people, stories and characters from a young age can help to develop a positive attitude to inclusivity, widen out a child’s view of the world, make them less accepting of stereotypes and less intimidated by difference.  Think about the characters and stories in the books that they already have - could they be more inclusive? Introduce more stories that show different characters and deal with issues of race. Our practitioners suggest:

Look Up! by Nathan Bryon and Dapo Adeola​​​​​​

Baby Ruby Bawled by Malaika Rose Stanley 

The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Rauf

Something Happened in Our Town by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard 

For children who are moving on to young adult books, try these:

A Change Is Gonna Come by Mary Bello

Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman

The Life of Stephen Lawrence by Verna Allette Wilkins

When you’re reading, let your child talk about differences but also help point out the similarities between them and the characters too. Be mindful of content that reinforces racial stereotypes and avoid it where you can. If you come across racial stereotypes in stories, think about how you might discuss these and their harmful effects.

Our blog

Explore our other blogs for more content about the work Barnardo's does, or guidance and information for parents.

Helping families

Read about Barnardo's work and learn more about protecting children and supporting young people.

Talking to children about their feelings

Here are five tips for talking to children and young people about their feelings.