Talkin’ about a revolution: We need to talk about racism with our children

By Amalia Fawcett, CS#1’s Wellbeing Hub Manager


As the lockdown in the ACT is easing, the atmosphere is more positive and people are out and about. Things feel hopeful. Except I know that riots are raging in the USA and protests of support are being held around the world. Action sparked by the horrific death of George Floyd, but really due to entrenched, generations-old racism that permeates many communities.

Racism is alive in Australia and uniquely affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders because of their status as first peoples, Australia’s history, and the layers of vulnerability and discrimination First Peoples face. There have been 424 Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders who have died in police or prison custody since the end of the royal commission on that subject in 1991[1]. We still have a life expectancy gap of about 10 years and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are twice as vulnerable on two or more domains of the Australian Early Development Census than non-Indigenous children. Their experiences are distinct and require all of us to listen and learn.

Racism also affects other people of colour in Australia – my husband felt it on the soccer field when he was told to go back to where he came from, my son felt it at the age of three when he was told by another child he couldn’t play a game because of his skin colour. Their experiences, and worse, are sadly repeated daily throughout the country.

As a white woman living in Australia, I have certain privileges that mean I can use my voice to counteract racism in a way that some others cannot. This is not fair, but pushes me to use my privilege to support the calls for a robust conversation about race that involves us all. To do this we need to explicitly speak to children about race and racism.

The toll of racism on wellbeing

Racism has a detrimental impact on emotional, psychological and physical health.

“Racism is a social determinant of health that has a profound impact on the health status of children, adolescents, emerging adults, and their families. Although progress has been made toward racial equality and equity…Failure to address racism will continue to undermine health equity for all children, adolescents, emerging adults, and their families.”[2]

Studies show that racism increases psychological distress and can lead to anxiety and depression,[3] have a negative impact on systolic blood pressure and kidney function[4] and even leads to low birth weight[5]. There is also the almost unquantifiable loss of opportunity due to early disengagement from school, biases blocking employment and housing availability and the damage to self-esteem and confidence.

Racism takes a physical, mental, social and emotional toll on individuals and communities but is a subject we are not comfortable to discuss openly. To address it properly, we need to talk.

When does racism develop?

Often people assume racism does not happen in childhood because it is a social construct they are yet to learn. However, evidence shows babies as young as nine months old differentiate between faces based on race, and show a preference for their own race. This is not racism, as they do not ascribe different values to those of a different race; they are simply seeking out what is most familiar. As 90% of babies have parents who are the same race, this translates to a race preference.[6]

By the time children reach the age of four, however, this preference for the familiar can begin to translate to prioritising relationships with those of the same race, and prejudice can develop. The devastating impact of “you can’t play this game, you have brown skin” that shattered my child’s connection to his peer group is anecdotal evidence of this, but there are also studies that show these preferences are emerging in young children[7]. Many will say a three-year-old cannot knowingly be expressing racism, however the impact on the child who is being rejected is acute, regardless of the intention.

“The emotional pain created by experiences of racism look very similar to the patterns of brain activity caused by physical pain.” [8]

By the time children reach school in Australia, 1 in 5 school students experience racism at school and primary-aged students are 26% more likely to experience it than high school students.[9] This is not because children are more racist that adults, but because a strange silence exists around this issue so they are left to make sense of race in a vacuum of constructive information.

“Children will “naturally” grow up to be non-racist adults only when they live in a non-racist society. Until then, adults must guide children’s antiracist development.” [10]

How do you have that conversation

Race and racism should be a conversation parents prepare for, but we have little information about how to do this. Here are some simple steps to take to have the conversation and break the silence.

1.      Be honest about seeing skin colour

Although there is a persistent myth that you can be colour blind, it really is not true when it comes to skin colour. We all see it. Celebrating diversity and colour is a great way of acknowledging this in a positive way. Find ways to mark Harmony day, Reconciliation day and NAIDOC week together as a family and chat about why you are doing it. Explore different cuisines and speak about how they came to be in Australia. Openly speak about the beauty of different skin colours, check out National Geographic’s Race Issue for inspiration.

2.      Provide accurate knowledge and appreciation of other racial groups

This could seem daunting, but there are great, family friendly ways of doing this. Do an audit of your children’s bookshelves – how many books have children of colour as the main protagonist? It is great to have books that explicitly deal with race, but it is just as important to have characters of colour in books about other topics. There are also great movies that deal with race and racism for older children, and others that have a child of colour in the main role. See our list of resources here.

Seeing different races positively represented in books and media provides a counter-narrative to the absence of representation or negative representation. After reading the books or watching the movies you can ask questions like

  • What did you like about that character?
  • What were their strengths?
  • How are they like you?
  • How are they different to you?

For older children you can also explicitly speak about how those differences may impact the characters in different ways. Acknowledging the difference within a strength-based conversation sends the message that the difference is accepted, can be a strength and is ok to talk about.

For children who are of colour themselves, being exposed to books and movies like this can reaffirm their sense of identity and provide role models that look like them.

3.      There’s an app for that

If you would like a more structured way to have the conversation with older children then download the Everyday Racism app from the App store or Google Play. It is recommended that children under 18 do this with a parent as there is some confronting content, and it is more suitable for high school students than primary.  The app takes you on a seven-day journey that gives insight into racial issues faced by many in Australia. You can choose to play as yourself or one of three characters: An Aboriginal man, a Muslim woman or an Indian student.

4.      Turn bystander into a verb

Most people would agree that racism is not ok. However, many feel very uncomfortable tackling the casual racism of jokes and comments, let alone the verbal attacks we may witness on the street or public transport. Children will notice this inaction and can internalise a message that the offending action was ok, as no one stopped it.

The idea of standing up to racism is not to risk your own safety, but if you feel safe to do so, you can intervene. It is not necessary to combat, simply engaging is more constructive. It may be that you question your relative or friend for a racist joke by asking “I don’t understand why that is funny, can you explain it?” This can start a dialogue and often calls attention to the negative biases that the joke relies on, which, when made explicit, are not amusing. Shaming or arguing have been found to be ineffective. Gentle dialogue will have greater impact in the long run.

If in public, it might be easier to support the victim, than to engage the perpetrator. Simply asking if they are ok, offering to accompany them until the other person has gone, or let them know you are willing to call the police, may be enough. It tells other bystanders you do not accept the behaviour, provides support to the victim and may encourage others to take action too.

None of these actions will fix racism by itself, but allowing the silence to stretch on is doing damage. It may feel uncomfortable to discuss it, but not doing it may be fatal.

[1] The Guardian Australia












< See all news & events