Par­ent­ing – Your child vs racism

The world has be­come a global vil­lage — et’s help you teach your child to be tol­er­ant of dif­fer­ences and cel­e­brate di­ver­sity


Chil­dren, to­day, are grow­ing up in di­verse sys­tems and set­ups. And as a re­sult, it has be­come very im­por­tant to help them un­der­stand dif­fer­ences and to see them­selves as dif­fer­ent, says clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist Zamo Mbele. “In­stead of ig­nor­ing the con­ver­sa­tion and hop­ing it’ll go away, it’s im­por­tant to teach chil­dren about the dif­fer­ences and di­ver­si­ties that ex­ist in so­ci­ety be­cause to­day’s kids are grow­ing up in a global sys­tem where the con­cept of an in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity has be­come part of the agenda.” A 2018 study con­ducted by the In­sti­tute of Race Re­la­tions in South Africa re­vealed some key find­ings on the is­sue of racism in our coun­try. The study, ti­tled Race Re­la­tions in South Africa: Rea­sons for Hope 2018, sug­gested, amongst other things, that 63% of black South Africans think that race re­la­tions have im­proved since 1994. While this may or may not be the case, one can­not ig­nore the fact that as a coun­try, we are prob­a­bly in the most explosive era as far as the di­a­logue around race and racism is con­cerned. As such, one can­not sim­ply ig­nore the topic and more espe­cially, ex­plor­ing it with your chil­dren.


There are two very im­por­tant fac­tors par­ents need to con­sider be­fore hav­ing the racism talk. The first of these is un­der­stand­ing why you’re hav­ing the chat in the first place. The dis­cus­sion isn’t merely about high­light­ing the com­bat­ive­ness, prej­u­dice or stereo­types that ex­ist, but it is crit­i­cal to your child’s iden­tity as well. “We have so many di­ver­si­ties in this coun­try and chil­dren need to be taught about them early on so they can un­der­stand

what they mean, where they come from and where their dif­fer­ence fits into the big­ger puz­zle,” says Khosi Ntuli, principal at Tl­hat­lo­gang Sec­ondary in Soweto. “These con­ver­sa­tions are crit­i­cal in the on­go­ing process of know­ing who you are.” The sec­ond, and ar­guably the most im­por­tant thing to be aware of, are your own bi­ases to­wards the con­ver­sa­tion. It’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand what makes you un­com­fort­able and ad­dress that dis­com­fort. Oth­er­wise, you run the risk of lead­ing a con­ver­sa­tion that en­cour­ages ag­gres­sion and hos­til­ity. “Con­front the dif­fi­culty and dis­com­fort you might have with this con­ver­sa­tion so you don’t pass on your own bi­ases and prej­u­dice to your child. It’s not an easy topic, so you’re al­lowed to pre­pare,” Mbele ad­vises.


No child is too young to start en­gag­ing in race-re­lated con­ver­sa­tions, and it should be an on­go­ing one. The lan­guage used is very im­por­tant, so al­ways try to avoid mak­ing the other per­son the ‘dif­fer­ent’ one. “We con­struct con­ver­sa­tions from where we come from, and will often make the other per­son the ‘dif­fer­ent’ per­son; this is a mis­take. An en­light­ened con­ver­sa­tion is one that high­lights that dif­fer­ences ex­ist both ways,” Mbele ex­plains.


This is an im­por­tant foun­da­tional build­ing block you can use for your agenda. “At the tod­dler age, you can in­tro­duce the con­ver­sa­tion in any sit­u­a­tion. For ex­am­ple, when a per­son is crack­ing eggs, you can speak to your child about how eggs come in dif­fer­ent colours on the out­side, but on the in­side, all eggs are the same,” Mbele adds. You also must be de­lib­er­ate in exposing your child to di­ver­sity and dif­fer­ence. You can do this by or­gan­is­ing play­dates with a di­verse group of chil­dren and/or go­ing to places and spa­ces where there’s dif­fer­ence, whether racial, cul­tural or re­li­gious. “This will al­ready be­gin to un­con­sciously in­tro­duce the con­ver­sa­tion by let­ting the child see for them­selves that the world is filled with dif­fer­ences, and that amid the dif­fer­ence(s) he or she is still a wor­thy par­tic­i­pant in the world,” Mbele con­tin­ues.


From around age three, par­ents need to cre­ate an on­go­ing sense of curiosity in their chil­dren. Non-ver­bal ways of do­ing this in­clude watch­ing TV shows that are as di­verse as pos­si­ble and in­vest­ing in a range of toys that mir­ror di­ver­sity. For ex­am­ple, in­vest in not only a pale-skin doll but also a black doll for your child. Ver­bal meth­ods in­clude ask­ing ques­tions that drive a par­tic­u­lar point across. Mbele shares an ex­am­ple: “Ask your child to de­scribe his/her friends. Ask which ones are girls and which ones are boys; ask what colour each one of them is, and so on, with­out at­tribut­ing good or bad to any of your child’s de­scrip­tions,” he says. “In­stead, en­cour­age and af­firm your child’s cir­cle of friends by say­ing things like ‘wow, it sounds like your friends are all dif­fer­ent and unique, while at the same time they all sound like they are great’.”


When chil­dren start school, you can start in­tro­duc­ing the con­cept of fair­ness and un­fair­ness. With this, you can start speak­ing about how dif­fer­ent races have had, and some­times con­tinue to have, more re­sources than oth­ers. You can even link these con­ver­sa­tions to our var­i­ous pub­lic hol­i­days or cul­tural events and in so do­ing also be­gin in­tro­duc­ing the his­tory of your child’s her­itage and race to him/her.

“You might even be able to talk about how a lot of black peo­ple in South Arica are still liv­ing in poverty be­cause of his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stances. Bring your­self into this con­ver­sa­tion by say­ing ‘my gen­er­a­tion and your grand­par­ents ex­pe­ri­enced a lot of sepa­ra­tion and it was called Apartheid, and that’s why many white peo­ple had priv­i­leges that black peo­ple didn’t’,” Mbele ex­plains.

How­ever, he cau­tions against us­ing ab­so­lutes in your ex­am­ples for the pur­poses of ex­er­cis­ing the flex­i­bil­ity of the child’s mind. For in­stance, when say­ing some­thing like, “all white peo­ple” you run the risk of cre­at­ing a toxic hos­til­ity to­wards other races.


You want to en­cour­age crit­i­cal-think­ing, so you want them to ask ques­tions and do re­search. Ask them what their an­swers are be­fore of­fer­ing yours.

If, for ex­am­ple, a pre-teen asks you “Why are all gar­den­ers black?” your first re­sponse, be­fore you at­tempt an an­swer, should be along these lines: “How did you make sense of it?” and so on.


Teens are prone to some­thing called trans­ac­tive rea­son­ing, which makes them be­lieve that if peo­ple are alike in a way, for ex­am­ple skin colour, then they are alike in all other ways, Mbele ex­plains. This pat­tern of think­ing can lead to racial bias, so it be­comes your re­spon­si­bil­ity to dis­rupt this by teach­ing a teenager to think in more crit­i­cal ways. Ntuli re­minds us that it’s also im­por­tant for par­ents to ask them­selves what their con­tri­bu­tion is, has been and will be in the end. “Par­ents need to be­come more cau­tious of the lan­guage they use when speak­ing about is­sues re­lat­ing to racism, espe­cially what they see in the news or in traf­fic. Chil­dren pick up on ev­ery­thing we do and say, and they tend to mimic that.” Val­i­date your child’s ex­pe­ri­ence if they do be­come vic­tims of racism in their own spa­ces. “Recog­nise, val­i­date and em­power your child. If an in­ci­dent hap­pens, help them un­der­stand that it was wrong, ex­plain why it was wrong and seek to ad­dress the mat­ter in a non-com­bat­ive man­ner,” Mbele con­cludes.

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