You may think racism doesn’t exist anymore. But it does and remains a significant social problem. The dangerous thing about racism these days is that it’s often not as obvious or ‘out there’ as it was in the past. Instead, it operates in a more subtle and cunning manner. This kind of hidden racial discrimination is known as covert racism.
Covert racism is as bad, or sometimes even worse than obvious racism because it discriminates against people through often unnoticeable methods, e.g. a person being ignored or ridiculed because of race. What’s more, covert, racially-biased decisions are often rationalized with an explanation that society is more willing to accept.
This type of racism is perhaps more dangerous when it comes to our kids – it is so sneaky and hidden that it can easily be internalized by your kids without them, or you, ever knowing. In fact, studies have proven that kids pick up racism extremely quickly.
Famous Jane Elliot experiment on learning racism
Jane Elliott’s famous classic “brown eyes, blue eyes” experiment is a good example of just how easy learning racism is for children.
On the morning after Martin Luther King Jr. died, a teacher named Jane Elliot decided to conduct an experiment on her class of third graders to show just how easy learning racism can be.
She first divided the class into two groups solely based on their eye colour, namely the brown-eyes and blue-eyes. She then managed to convincingly persuade her students that those born with blue eyes were more superior to those born with brown eyes. She then proceeded to give privileges such as a longer recess duration to the blue-eyed kids. She encouraged the blue-eyed children to not mix around with the brown-eyed children as well.
So what happened?
What followed was quite shocking. The personalities of the children changed drastically. The ‘superior’ blue-eyed children became more confident and arrogant while the brown-eyed children became more timid and subservient. Within hours, ‘brown-eyed’ was used as a derogatory term.
In a more recent study conducted by Rebecca Bigler and her team before Barack Obama was president of the USA, a group of 5-10-year-old children were asked why they thought all 43 presidents to date were White.
She offered possible explanations and a whopping 26% of children agreed that Black people could not be president because it was illegal! It’s doubtful that anyone taught their children that it was illegal for a Black person to be president so obviously the kids had internalised this notion from what they observed from being part of American society.
These experiments clearly show just how easy it is for kids to learn racial discrimination – whether obvious or subtle – scary isn’t it?
What can we, as parents do to prevent our kids from internalising racist beliefs and behaviour?
Teach your children the beauty of multiculturalism
Here are some tips that will help you talk to your children about racism.
Find teaching moments. If you’re not sure about how to raise the topic, here are some ideas. If your child comments on different skin colours, that’s an opportunity right there for you. Kid’s books that talk about race are also a gentle introduction. Or, you can look for examples from everyday life. For example, if your 4 or 5-year-old is helping you bake, show them how even though there are white eggs and brown eggs, once you crack them, they are the same inside. Tell your kids it’s similar to people. We all come in different shades, but we are the same inside.
Kids may make prejudiced comments, but that doesn’t mean your child is racist. If your kid makes a questionable remark, don’t panic. Kids often repeat what they hear. In a situation like this, ask them questions to understand why they said it and gently tell them that ‘I’ve heard people say X about Y, but my experience with Y people is…’.
Be a role model – Perhaps the best way to make your child colour blind is to lead by example. Have an inclusive home, showing your children that you have friends of all backgrounds. Introduce foods from different cultures to your kids, teach them about different countries and the people who live there. If you lead a multicultural life, it’s highly likely your child/ren will gain those important life skills too.
Practice empathy – Our children need to understand that other people may feel a certain way when treated differently. To develop this skill, ask your kids questions about how their favourite TV or book characters feel when faced with a certain situation. By actively encouraging your kids to think about other people’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences, you are helping them to identify situations in which someone might feel excluded or is in need of help. So the next time they see X making fun of Y in the playground and know that Y’s feelings will be hurt, they’ll be more likely to reach out and help him feel better.
We hope this article has been useful. Do you have any other ways of talking to kids about racism? Do share them with us by leaving a comment.