By Saajida Kharwa 

In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist (Angela Davis). 

Recently, my 3-year-old son asked me (referring to a boy he knows), “Mama, why are his hands black?” He asked this with no judgement, simply the curiosity of a child. Still, I was blindsided-taken completely by surprise! I thought I’d have at least a few more years before I had to deal with such impactful questions. 

But in light of everything that’s happening right now- the pandemic, the spotlight on racism, the worldwide protests- there’s no better time to talk about this issue than now. The truth is, children notice details like skin colour, and compare themselves to others to find common ground. Their awareness of racial differences and the impact of racism begins quite early. In fact, infants are able to distinguish faces on the basis of race, and show preferences toward faces of their own race. [1] 

The need for having such conversations is becoming clearer. However, parents sometimes avoid having talking about race and racial differences with their children because it makes them uncomfortable. They reassure themselves, “I’m not racist, so my child won’t be racist either”, or, “my child doesn’t see race”. This is a misconception, though. Research shows that children don’t only become racist if they are taught to be; they can develop racial prejudice unless their parents actively teach them to be anti-racist. [2] 

Racial prejudice was demonstrated in the infamous 1940s Doll Test conducted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark. In the experiment, children were shown white and black dolls and asked to identify which one they preferred. Most of the children preferred the white doll and discarded the black doll. [3] 

How do kids develop these racially-charged attitudes? They are influenced by early socialisation experiences and socialisation agents, such as parents and teachers. [4] Children also notice how different race groups are represented (or not represented) in the media. Princes and princesses, politicians, heroes, figures of authority and ‘good guys’ are usually white. Kids grow up internalising these ideas. 

There is no denying that racism is embedded and normalised in our South African communities. For example, kids know that they are allowed to play with friends from other races at school, but are not allowed to bring these friends home. In some cases, domestic workers are treated no better than servants. They are allowed to clean up after us, but are not allowed to sit at the same table and eat with us. An elderly domestic worker once visited my home. When I asked why she was refusing 

to eat lunch with me at the table, she told me that her employers always made her eat on the floor. 

There are also other examples. The older generation often refers to black adult males as “boy” or “garden boy”, and black adult females as “girl”. At some point, we have all heard black people being referred to as “lazy”, “entitled”, “dirty”, “kariyas”, or “kaffers”. The younger generation sometimes engages in such name-calling, too. 

So how do we begin to unravel and challenge the racist ideas that form in our kids’ minds? Firstly, we need to take a careful look at our own inherent biases, and work on them. Children are influenced more by our behaviour than by what we explicitly say about race and prejudice. [5] 

We must also be willing to have open conversations with them about race and skin colour. Full disclosure: when my son first asked me that question about skin colour, I was tempted to shut the conversation down. I told myself that he was too young, that he wouldn’t understand. But when the topic came up again (in a book we were reading), I realised that this was happening for a reason. Kids are naturally inquisitive, and shushing them sends the message that race isn’t something they’re allowed to talk about. [6] They should be encouraged to ask questions, share observations and experiences, and be respectfully curious about race. 

Lastly, it’s important to bring diversity into their lives. Look at the books, movies, and TV shows your child is consuming. Are they only representative of certain races and ethnicities? Try to include content in your home library that is inclusive of diversity. Children also need to be exposed to people who are different from them. Parents can achieve this by encouraging diversity in their social circles. 

Children are our future; let’s strive to do better for them. 

Sources Consulted

Cole, K., and Verwayne, D. (2018). Becoming Upended: Teaching and Learning About Race and Racism With Young Children And Their Families. YC Young Children, 73(2), 34-43. learning-race-and-racism Accessed: 11/07/20 

Moyer, M.W. (2020). What White Parents Get Wrong About Raising Antiracist Kids- And How To Get It Right. The Washington Post. about-raising-antiracist-kids-how-get-it-right/Accessed: 11/07/20 

Pirchio, S., Passiatore, Y., Panno, A., Maricchiolo, F., and Carrus, G. (2018). A Chip Off the Old Block: Parents’ Subtle Ethnic Prejudice Predicts Children’s Implicit Prejudice. Frontiers in psychology, 9(1), 110-115. Accessed: 13/07/2020 

Weatherford, C.B. (2017). Hearts and Minds: How the Doll Test Opened Schoolhouse Doors. The Southern Quarterly 54(3), 164-168. Accessed: 14/07/2020 

[1] racism 

[2] wrong-about-raising-antiracist-kids-how-get-it-right/ 




[6] wrong-about-raising-antiracist-kids-how-get-it-right/