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Black Lives Matter: How to teach children about anti-racism in a racist world

Blue Peter presenters were recently praised for delivering a segment on the show about racism and Black Lives Matter

Sabrina Barr
Tuesday 16 June 2020 17:07 BST
(Getty Images)

The Black Lives Matter movement was founded in 2013, but the recent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of a police officer, and the international protests that followed have placed renewed focus on the organisation and the ongoing fight against racism worldwide.

Thousands of people have taken part in demonstrations demanding an end to police brutality against black people and raising awareness of systemic racism that continues in the UK, the US and around the world.

The increased prevalence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the media will likely have been noticed by many children, whether they spotted the headlines on the news or their parents have spoken to them about the injustices experienced by black people on a daily basis.

Children’s shows like BBC’s Blue Peter have also been praised for delivering segments on racism and the Black Lives Matter protests.

Some parents and carers who are not black may not feel sufficiently equipped to speak to their children about racism and the Black Lives Matter movement, perhaps because they don’t feel educated enough on the subject themselves.

However, as coach and paediatric occupational therapist Nekole Amber explained in a video shared on her YouTube channel, talking to the children in your household about racism and the Black Lives Matter movement will likely involve facing “some really uncomfortable realities from within that maybe we weren’t willing to look at before, like inherent biases or prejudice”.

“If we are truly desiring to see a world where our children love one another regardless of what we look like and we can celebrate our differences and we can see beauty in every skin tone and we can connect with people who have different cultural backgrounds, beliefs, religions, and honour them, then it starts at home, it starts with us. It starts with a serious commitment that you will lead yourself through this,” she stated.

Sue Schofield, education team manager at anti-racism education charity Show Racism the Red Card, explained to The Independent that the organisation believes “that education is the key”, whether that happens in school or at home.

“What we say to parents is that racism is a learnt behaviour,” Schofield stated. “Children are not born with discriminatory attitudes, so we can help our children to develop anti-racist instincts.”

How can parents educate their children on the Black Lives Matter movement?

Childcare platform Yoopies UK recently created a guide for parents to turn to when approaching speaking to their children about topics relating to the Black Lives Matter movement, including racism, white privilege and the death of George Floyd.

The guide, which was created by writers who are white and people of colour, based on online and offline research, provides a series of analogies that parents can use to explain the Black Lives Matter movement to their children, while also explaining why the phrase “All Lives Matter” – which is said by those who oppose the movement – is harmful.

One of the analogies, which refers to an illustration designed by Kris Straub, shows a cartoon that depicts two houses side by side, with one on fire. The image shows a person with a hose pipe spraying water on the house that is not alight.

A second person in the cartoon states: “I agree, all houses do matter – but at the moment, the one on fire should get more attention,” therefore indicating that while all lives do matter, black lives are at risk due to racism, which is why “Black Lives Matter” is the correct phrase to use.

The page on the Yoopies guide also includes a sign that many people carried while taking part in Black Lives Matter protests, which reads: “We said: Black Lives Matter. We never said: Only Black Lives Matter. We know: That all lives matter. We just need your help with #BlackLivesMatter. For Black lives are in danger!”

During the recent Blue Peter segment shown on CBBC, presenter Mwaksy Mudenda said: “Now lots of you may have heard people saying, ‘Black Lives Matter’. And that’s not to say that all lives don’t matter, but it is to say that racism right now is affecting black lives all over the world.”

Schofield, of Show Racism the Red Card, said that when approaching discussing the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality against black people to children, it is important to answer questions “at their level” depending on their age.

“If it were me, I’d be sitting down alongside and I’d be saying, ‘Let’s Google Black Lives Matter, what does it look like, what can we learn from this?’” Schofield stated.

“If parents are well-aware of these issues, they’re going to feel more confident, while parents who are less confident might want to do some prep before they have the conversations. But I certainly wouldn’t ignore it, and I would definitely be wanting to have the conversation.”

Schofield added that “early intervention is so important” when educating young children, emphasising the importance of adults doing their own research into statistics such as how many black people are murdered in police custody, or are subject to stop and search, compared to white people.

How can parents educate their children on race and racism?

In the Yoopies guide, it states that “parents and caregivers must play an integral role in ensuring children have an acute awareness of white privilege, racial bias, and racial hierarchies present in society and the ways in which we can combat racism”.

It states that children may find it easier to understand racism if presented “through the lens of how a child experiences the world”, such as by using analogies where a person is treated unfairly.

“Use simple language and make it clear that you feel the treatment of George Floyd by a police officer was not fair, and that in our family we think everyone should be treated fairly,” the guide says.

“Personalising your explanation will help make it more tangible, and if you can relate the discussion either to yourselves, your children’s friends or your own family members and friends, it can help to bring these topics closer to home to highlight their importance.”

In the 2018 book So You Want to Talk About Race, author Ijeoma Oluo explains why it is important not to avoid talking about race just because you may feel uncomfortable doing so.

“If you’re white, and you don’t want to feel any of that pain by having these conversations, then you are asking people of colour to continue to bear the entire burden of racism alone,” Oluo states.

During the recent Blue Peter segment, Lindsey Russell, who is white, explained to their child audience that while “upsetting, uncomfortable stuff is happening around us, it’s really important to remember that you don’t need to have all the answers”.

“But it’s really really important – at the moment, now more than ever – that we educate ourselves, we speak out and we use our voices, and we try to understand… and at the moment listening and learning are our most powerful tools,” she said.

Margaret Hagerman, a sociologist and author of White Kids: Growing Up With Privilege in a Racially Divided America, explained that while it is important parents talk to their children about race and racism, it is also essential they are an example to their children through their everyday actions.

Writing in Time in 2018, the author stated that “everyday behaviours of white parents matter”, including “when to lock the car doors, what conversations to have at the dinner table, what books and magazines to have around the house, how to react to news headlines, who to invite over for summer cookouts, whether and how to answer questions posed by kids about race, who parents are friends with themselves, when to roll one’s eyes, what media to consume, how to respond to overtly racist remarks made by Grandpa at a family dinner, and where to spend leisure time”.

“These small actions send subtle yet powerful messages,” Hagerman said. “Parents may not even be aware that they are conveying ideas about race through these behaviours, but children learn from them all the time. In this sense, when it comes to communicating with white children about racism, parents’ actions often speak louder than words.”

Schofield told The Independent that she has had conversations with many black parents who have told her they have had to prepare their children for conversations about experiencing racism firsthand, explaining to their children that “they’re likely to suffer abuse”. “It’s just horrendous to think that a parent has to go through that,” Schofield said.

Jesse Hagopian is an author, activist, teacher and co-editor of the book Teaching For Black Lives. He told NPR that as a black man, he has “had to have some very difficult talks” with his children about police brutality, having been pepper-sprayed at a rally on the day of his son’s second birthday and having recently attended a protest with his wife and children, where police “shot a flash-bang grenade into the crowd”.

“[My son is] learning from our experiences, and what I try to do is give him some context to it, help him process his emotions. And tell them he is not wrong for being scared, that it’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Hagopian said.

How can parents educate their children on white privilege?

Another important aspect of teaching children about racism is educating them on white privilege.

In 1988, writer and anti-racism activist Peggy McIntosh published an essay titled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”.

In the essay, McInoths wrote: “As a white person, I realised I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught no to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.

“I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.”

As the Yoopies guide outlines, when saying that a person has white privilege, this doesn’t mean they have never experienced hardship in their life. However, it indicates that these hardships were “not a result of your skin colour”.

“It’s important to understand, and to explain to our children, that the concept of white privilege is not an attack on white people, but is a reflection of the reality that many communities across the world are affected by,” it states.

“As an individual, we can’t eradicate it completely from society as it is deeply ingrained into many of our systems and institutions. However, the biggest first step we can take is to recognise that it exists and then to reflect upon how that impacts ourselves and others in our immediate and wider circles.”

At Show Racism the Red Card, the charity focuses on educating children on different types of privilege, relating to attributes including race, gender, health, education and wealth, Schofield explained. “We get children to think about how they benefit and how other children don’t benefit,” she said, outlining that the organisation aims to teach children “skills of empathy”.

What other resources are out there for parents?

The National Literacy Trust has compiled books lists for children in different age groups, from babies up to late teens, by black authors and relating to the Black Lives Matter movement.

To take a look at the book lists, click here.

Several schools have also compiled resources to teach students about the Black Lives Matter movement, including Thomas Harding Junior School in Buckinghamshire and Woodmansterne School in Lambeth.

On Wednesday 17 June, Show Racism the Red Card is launching a page on its website dedicated to resources parents can access to teach their children about racism.

The page will include book recommendations in addition to explanations on why certain terms are racist and should not be used.

Schofield added that if a parent is unsure how to speak to their child about a certain subject, they should be able to contact a teacher at their school who can provide them with further guidance.

Furthermore, if they do not have access to the internet, a variety of books should be available at the library.

To read the Yoopies UK guide on speaking to children about racism and the Black Lives Matter movement in full, click here.

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