How to raise anti-racist kids

Suzanne Harrington shares her experience raising dual-heritage children and asks other parents and experts how we can shape our children's view of race 
How to raise anti-racist kids
Suzanne Harrington's daughter Lola Ray photographed at a recent Black Lives Matter rally. Photograph: Lotti Terry

The public killing of a black American by a white American in uniform, at a time when the whole world was stuck at home and watched it on their phone, created a global wave of revulsion. Made us look at ourselves. Made us take to the streets. Made us realise we are a very long way from post-racial. As veteran civil rights campaigner Angela Davis said: “In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”

So how can white Irish parents raise anti-racist Irish kids? How can we let go of the idea that Irishness is whiteness, with racist structures like Direct Provision still in place, and black people at the bottom of the job market? Like everything else that shapes our kids, anti-racism begins at home.

Dr Ebun Joseph, founder of Black Studies at UCD, says it’s all about education – starting at home. “Parents have a responsibility to teach the right things,” she says. 

We teach our children how to eat, how to walk, how to ride a bicycle. The things we care about, we teach them. It’s an issue of care – and there are practical things we can do. It’s the same as teaching our children not to steal.

Broadly, there are six things parents can do, starting with ourselves, because we are the ones from whom our kids learn. 

Speak up; if you witness racism, no matter how micro, don’t be a bystander – be an ally to the person who is on its receiving end. 

See colour; because pretending we are all the same is unhelpful, as it is avoidant, and only works if you are white. We are not all the same. 

Acknowledge your biases; we all have them, in multiple forms – realising they are there inside you (and everyone else too, as part of human nature) brings them to consciousness. 

Read diverse authors and characters; for empathy and understanding, so long as you don’t rely solely on books – being anti-racist is active, not passive, and takes more than reading.

Learn black history; as Irish people we have long viewed ourselves as the colonised, but now, post colonisation, with state racism like Direct Provision and an unequal job market, we have become colonisers ourselves. 

Listen when people of colour share lived experience; as white people, we have no experience of racism, only white privilege. In order to understand, we have to listen.

“If you see it, stop it,” says Dr Joseph. 

“If a child is having a birthday party, don’t invite the whole class and exclude the Traveller child, the Asian child, the black child.

“Help children not to perform in ways that can be racist to others – racism is a performance, it’s something that we actively do. And people can do racist things without being racist themselves – good people can still do bad things.

“Find teachable moments – when we teach sex education, we don’t wait until they are sixteen to formally sit them down. It should be the same with racism. We talk about moments in real life, like the death of George Floyd.”

Dr Joseph says that our education system needs overhauling. “If it is not responding to difference, how can things change?” she asks. 

“Our education system has been whitewashed, and tells us only one part of the story. The Western world is built on racism, our systems are structured on it. It’s not about fighting white people, it’s about changing systems and structures.”

Artist Sonia Bell is a parent of three young adults aged 21, 17 and 14. Growing up in Dublin, although white, she experienced daily discrimination.

“I had a Jewish mum and a Protestant dad so I grew up feeling constantly othered,” she says. “I got chased home from school every day. But children don’t notice otherness unless it’s taught to them within the family. I think it’s important to look at your own attitude to otherness – whether the other is Traveller, or black or minority ethnic.

“You can set an example for your kids by just having normal friendships and social relationship with people from other backgrounds. Not in a big-deal kind of way, just in an ordinary everyday way. Discussing things as they come up is also useful. 

And you have to call it out. If a popular or influential kid who has learned racist ideas from their parents is now influencing other kids, you can’t just let it slide. In the nicest, kindest way possible, you have to let them know that it’s not okay.

Academic Clodagh Harrington, from Cork, is the parent of a 10-year-old girl. “When she was about four, my daughter said she only wanted people at her birthday party who looked like her. So I gave her a personalised example – I gently asked her how her [mixed race] first cousins would feel about that, if they weren’t invited because they didn’t look like her? And her chin went wobbly and she immediately got it, and changed her criteria.

Dr Ebun Joseph, author, race relations consultant and module coordinator for the first-ever Black Studies focused module in Ireland at University College Dublin. Black Studies and Critical RaceThinking perspectives in Education will examine the histories, social movements and contributions of people of African descent, as well as look at contemporary forms of Blackness in society and around the world. Photograph Moya Nolan
Dr Ebun Joseph, author, race relations consultant and module coordinator for the first-ever Black Studies focused module in Ireland at University College Dublin. Black Studies and Critical RaceThinking perspectives in Education will examine the histories, social movements and contributions of people of African descent, as well as look at contemporary forms of Blackness in society and around the world. Photograph Moya Nolan

“For parents, it’s no longer enough to be passively benign. We need to be proactive, to become conscious of our unconscious biases. There are aspects of Irish society that are still shockingly racist. I’d hoped my daughter would learn about racism in history books at school.” That it would be in the curriculum – it isn’t.

Medical journalist June Shannon, a Corkonian based in Dublin, has a 4-year-old daughter. “I try to encourage her to see that we are not all the same, and to appreciate that that is a good thing as I tell her that life would be very boring if we were all the same,” she says.

“My general parenting mantra to her all the time is to ‘be kind’ – to treat everyone with kindness and care for each other.

I don't want her growing up to think that anyone should be treated differently depending on their colour, ability or social status, so rather than going into the detail on racism, I simply try to impart the mantra of kindness to everyone and embrace differences for now.”

Sarah Thorne is a London Irish parent of a 16 and 18-year-old, and says that because her children’s kindergartens and schools were ethnically diverse, “Their friends had nothing to do with colour, but who they had fun with.”

My own daughter, Lola Ray, 19, is dual heritage – Irish / British Asian. Aged 13, she was racially assaulted by a white stranger and took them to court.

“It’s not enough to just accept or ‘tolerate’ other cultures and races – we have to start educating our young people on what racism actually is,” Lola says. “We can do this with age-appropriate books. Nobody is ever too young.

“For a white parent to be accepting of whoever your child brings to play after school, while positive, is just not enough anymore – we need to be actively anti-racist, by educating the next generation on what racism means, the history behind it, who benefits from it, and how not to be a part of it by using your white privilege to help create a generation that’s hyper-aware of racism at every level. That’s what we need to make the world better for everyone, and not just white people.”

Some reading suggestions for children & teens

  • The Same But Different by Karl Newson (recommended by Clodagh, age 4)
  • Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman
  • Talking Turkey by Benjamin Zephaniah
  • The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce
  • This Book Is Not Racist by Tiffany Jewell
  • Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah
  • Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman
  • The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan
  • Persepolis 1 & 2 by Marjane Satrapi

 

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