How to Teach Your Kids About Race, Racism and Diversity

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With the riots in the US after George Floyd’s death, racism and discrimination are dominating the news as well as our social media feed. Black lives matter. Closer to home, we’ve had our own issues relating to race and discrimination like prejudice and police brutality against Indigenous Australians as well as anti-Muslim sentiment, discrimination against African Australians, anti-Semitism and now hostility, some physical towards Asian Australians during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Let me first say that I am by no means an expert. I’m not an educator or child psychologist. I’m a woman of colour who is raising a biracial 10-year-old child. But here are my suggestions of what we can do as parents to teach our kids about race, racism and how to embrace diversity and encourage tolerance. (If you have any other suggestions or things that work for you and your family, get in touch).

After experiencing racism myself, I’m committed to promoting multiculturalism and tolerance so that other kids (and adults) don’t face the pain of prejudice. I want this moment to be bigger than just a hashtag and a black square. We need to talk about racism.

“The real reward is when everyone is talking to their mates, to their families and to their children, having those conversations and educating others about racism. What it looks like, how hurtful and how pointless it is, and how we can eliminate it.”

Adam Goodes, January 26 2014 – Australian of the Year

Speak to your kids about race

Wondering how to explain race and diversity to your children? You’ll find kids are curious creatures and they might ask why their friends look different to them. Use this question as a starting point to speak about race and diversity.

Photo from when my daughter first started asking about skin colour

You can use crayons or flavours to explain the different shades of people to younger kids. I’m of Sikh Indian ancestry while my husband is white. When my daughter was three, she asked why we were all different colours.

We explained it in terms of flavours. I was chocolate, my husband was vanilla and she had come out as a shade of caramel. As she got older, we explained that a person’s skin colour is due to how much melanin is in one’s skin and that the colour of a person’s skin has nothing to do with their worth, intelligence, beauty or supremacy.

Speaking of crayons, Crayola has introduced a Colours of the World crayon package representing 40 different skin tones. Although it’s currently available only in the United States, we look forward to it being distributed in Australia so kids of all shades can draw and colour themselves.

Talk about racism

They are hard conversations to have but discuss the concept of racism with your kids. You can explain that adults and kids can be treated differently due to the colour of their skin. Unbeknownst to you, they might already be aware of discrimination and bullying and may even be experiencing it themselves.

As a child growing up in England and Canada, I experienced prejudice. At different times, I was called a paki, a n**ger and told to go back to my own country. It hurt then and it still hurts now thinking about it. 

Unfortunately, prejudice is still continuing. I know of several situations in primary school where young kids have faced hurtful comments. In one case, a kindergarten girl told another girl that she didn’t want to play with her as she was dark while a friend told me how her child was on the receiving end of anti-Muslim comments.

Encourage your kids to speak up and tell you or their teachers if they are experiencing racism or see it happening to their friends. Let them know it’s unacceptable then follow up with the school. Australian schools have access to anti-racism and discrimination educational materials that can be used to educate kids and prevent further racism. It can also happen outside of school like on the sports field. That’s not on either.

Facebook comment from Jamie: This is a great starting point. I think it is also important to teach our children to be good allies; to be able to just listen to their friends who are experiencing racism, validate their feelings and to do so without judgement or opinion. The ability to hold space for others is so invaluable.

If you have older kids, watch this video with them and then discuss. New Zealand director Taika Waititi brilliantly demonstrates how easy it is to be casually racist in this YouTube clip as part of the Give Nothing to Racism campaign.

Encourage diversity

As we’re a multicultural family, we’ve made an effort to promote diversity. My daughter has learned about her Indian heritage as well as her Irish heritage and the persecution the Irish have faced.

We’ve also made an effort to learn more about other cultures. We’ve attended Riverlights Multicultural Festival in Maitland, Chinese New Year celebrations and the Unity in Diversity Festival.

Our circle of friends is diverse as well. I’m not suggesting that you go out and find people to be friends with based on their colour or culture  – no one wants to be the “token” friend but be open to your kids being friends with children of different backgrounds and culture.

Eat around the world

Learn about different cultures through food. Here in Australia, we are blessed to have a wide range of international food to enjoy. Eat from around the world serving food to your family like sushi, laksa, spaghetti, red curry, butter chicken, fajitas, empanadas and spanakopita.

At My Family Table

Mandy dos Santos from Little People Nutrition based on the Central Coast has written a beautiful picture book called “At My Family Table.” In this book, she shares four families from around the world who are sitting down to eat a family meal. She explains that “Although the family meal choices or dynamic might be different to our own, we all share the common adoration of enjoying a meal with our loved ones.” She recommends that families use the book as an opportunity to discuss culture, language and international cuisine.

Play with diverse dolls

Teach kids about racism

I remember growing up and all the dolls were blonde with blue eyes. There were no dolls that resembled me at all. Now thankfully, you can find dolls of different colours. Miniland Dolls available locally at Lollipop Kids feature beautiful dolls of different genders and ethnicities including Asian, African, Caucasian and Latin American. You can also find different skin-colour dolls at Kmart.

Even Barbie now has a more diverse group of friends with her Barbie Sisters and Chelsea Dolls collection. Having dolls of different colours just normalises skin colour for kids and helps them understand no matter what we look like, we’re all the same underneath.

Listen to world music

Music is a wonderful way to introduce culture and language from different parts of the world. Also, it can be done from an early age. Putumayo World Music is a New York City-based record label that specializes in compilations of world music. They have a range of music that is targetted specifically for kids.

The Putumayo Kids division was created to introduce children to other cultures through fun, upbeat world music. Titles include World Sing-along, Kids World Party, Kids African Party and Australian Playground which features music from Aboriginal groups and singer-songwriters. Either purchase through their Australian website, listen to their Spotify channel or borrow CDs from your local library.

Read diverse books

Kids books diversity racism

Introduce concepts of race, diversity and inclusion by reading books about different characters and families. Here a range of books for different age groups which cover different representations of colour, creed and culture.

Ten Little Finger and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox

This book was a favourite of ours when my daughter was young. With its rhyming text, this book written by Mem Fox and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury is a delight to read to a baby. The illustrations are beautiful featuring babies from different lands. Ages 1 – 3. Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes is published by Penguin Viking. 

Hello by Tony Flowers

Meet 12 Australian friends who can speak different languages. They tell us how to count from 1 to 10, say hello and goodbye and lots of other words in their languages about play, food, hobbies and clothes. This book is an introduction to 12 languages spoken most frequently in Australian homes, plus three Indigenous languages. Ages 3 – 6.  Hello is published by National Library of Australia Publishing.

I Love Me by Sally Morgan

This book by Aboriginal artist and writer Sally Morgan is a celebration of individuality and joyous self-esteem, in bouncy, rhythmic prose and riotous colour. It encourages kids to love all parts of themselves including their body, skin colour and hair. Ages 4 – 6. I Love Me is published by Fremantle Press.

Multicultural Me by Taku Mbudzi

Multicultural Me is a children’s book full of cartoons to celebrate the cultural diversity and friendship of kids in Australia. After doing a talk at a school on Harmony Day Taku who emigrated from Zimbabwe decided to write a book that highlights the things that ARE different about us, but also the wonderful things we have in common with each other. Multicultural Me is available on iBooks. 

I’m Australian Too by Mem Fox

I’m Australian Too celebrates multicultural Australia and its rich diversity of citizens. No matter what we look like or where we’re from, Mem Fox reminds us that we’re all Australian with our own story. From an indigenous Australian boy reminding us that his mob has been here forever to a refugee hoping to be granted a visa, the book is filled with different Australians sharing their stories. Ages 4 -8. I’m Australian Too is published by Omnibus Book, a division of Scholastic Australia

The Little Refugee by Anh Do

Anh Do’s inspirational story about his family’s incredible escape from war-torn Vietnam and his childhood in Australia, told especially for children. Ages 4 -8. The Little Refugee is published by Allen & Unwin.

An Aussie Year by Tania McCartney

An Aussie Year: Twelve Months in the Life of Australian Kids is a picture book bursting with national pride. It covers an entire year and features a month-by-month feature of culture, lifestyle and traditions across our country. It features five Australian kids who represent a multicultural blend of culture and race that make up modern Australia. Ages 4 – 12. An Aussie Year is published by EK Books.

My Culture and Me by Gregg Dreise

Beautifully written and illustrated, My Culture and Me is a heartfelt and stirring story of cherishing and sustaining Indigenous cultures. It covers the importance of pride, respect and maintaining culture. Ages 6 – 8. My Culture and Me is published by Penguin Australia.

WeirDo Series by Anh Do

Follow the adventures of Weir Do. With an unforgettable name, a crazy family and some seriously weird habits, fitting in won’t be easy. There are 11 books in total to enjoy. Ages 6 – 12. The WeirDo Series is published by Scholastic.

Bold Australian Girl by Jess Black

Do you know what my Mum whispers as she straightens out a curl? ‘You can do anything. You’re my bold Australian girl.’ This picture book written by local Newcastle author Jess Black encourages girls to do anything. Focusing on a nurturing relationship between a young Indigenous girl and her mum, this book celebrates everything from football to friendship, reading to surfing. Ages 7+. Bold Australian Girl is published by Scholastic.

The Anti-Princess Club Series by Samatha Turnbull

Set in Newcastle, these books follow the lives of 10-year-old best friends who are from a range of ethnic backgrounds: Emily Martin, Bella Singh, Grace Bennett and Chloe Karalis. It’s a fantastic series to encourage girls to stand up and buck stereotypes. Their motto: ‘We don’t need rescuing!’. There’s five books in the Anti-Princess Club series. Ages 7 – 10. The Anti-Princess Club series is published by Allen & Unwin

Our Australia Girl Series

Set against the backdrop of Australian history, the Our Australia Girls series features brave and diverse girls. The books cover pivotal moments in Australian history including the convict era and colonisation, European migration, and the Stolen Generation. Age 9+. Our Australian Girl series is published by Penguin Australia.

Thai-Riffic series by Oliver Phommavanh

This series written by Thai-Australian writer shares the challenges of growing up in Australia to immigrant parents. Albert s finding it hard being Thai, especially when you live in Australia, your house is a Thai cultural shrine, your parents run a restaurant called Thai-riffic! and you’re desperate for some pizza! Funny but poignant. Ages 9 – 12. Thai-Riffic Series is published by Penguin Australia.

Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

When sixteen-year-old Amal makes the decision to start wearing the hijab full-time, everyone has a reaction like her parents, her teachers, her friends, people on the street. But she stands by her decision to embrace her faith and all that it is, even if it does make her a little different from everyone else. Ages 12 – 14. Does My Head Look Big in This? is published by Pan Macmillan Australia.

The First Third by Will Kostakis

Life is made up of three parts: in The First Third, you’re embarrassed by your family; in the second, you make a family of your own; and in the end, you just embarrass the family you’ve made. That’s how Billy’s traditional Greek grandmother explains it, anyway. She’s given him her bucket list (cue embarrassment), and now, it’s his job to glue their family back together. Ages 13 – 16. The First Third is published by Penguin Australia.

Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta

In this classic book and film, a young Italian-Australian girl must deal with her cultural identity, racism, family and interracial relationships as well as meeting her estranged father in her final year of school . Age 13+. Looking for Alibrandi is published by Penguin Australia.

Living on Hope Street by Demet Divaroren

The YA book Living on Hope Street takes place on an ordinary street in suburban Australia. On this street, everyone comes from different places, but to find peace, they will have to discover what unites them. The characters include a Turkish neighbour who takes in a mum and her two kids escaping from family violence. Also on the street is an African refugee and a Vietnam vet with their own memories. Ages 14 – 18. Living on Hope Street is published by Allan & Unwin.

Young Dark Emu by Bruce

Young Dark Emu: A Truer History reveals that Aboriginal culture was much more advanced than originally thought. In this non-fiction book aimed at kids, Bruce Pascoe uses first-hand accounts such as diaries and sketches of early British explorers and colonists to explain that the Aboriginals weren’t just nomadic hunter-gatherers as commonly believed. Instead, indigenous people had communities and built permanent homes, dams and aquaculture systems and farmed the land with grass crops, yams and wheat. It offers a different version of traditional Aboriginal lifestyle and the history of British colonialism. Ages 9+. Young Dark Emu is published by Magabala Books.

Watch Diverse TV & Movies

Here are TV shows and movies that feature diverse casts as well as promote cultural understanding and tolerance. There are also movies which deal specifically with racism which are worth watching with older kids and teenagers. All of these TV shows and movies provide a starting point to talk about race, diversity and ultimately tolerance.

Play School

For over 50-years and counting, Play School has entertained and engaged children, exploring the world through play, music, art and the imagination. As Australian society changes, so has its presenters. It features a diverse cast of presenters which is great for young kids.

Sesame Street

This show for young kids has always featured a diverse cast of different races along with characters like Big Bird, Oscar, Elmo, Bert, Cookie Monster, the Count. Educational and promoting diversity. (ABC iView)

*** Sesame Street is holding a special town hall in America to address racism. The 60-minute special “Coming Together: Standing Up to Racism. A CNN/Sesame Street Town Hall for Kids and Families” will air on Saturday, June 6, at 10am Eastern Time in the US. The show will talk to kids about racism, the recent protests in the US, embracing diversity and being more empathetic and understanding. They will be joined by “Sesame Street” characters — including Big Bird, Elmo, Abby Cadabby and Rosita — and other experts answering questions submitted by families. Although it will be late at night in Australia, when it airs, you can watch it on-demand afterwards on cnn.com. ***

Mustangs FC

This Australian comedy drama is about an all-female team. As well as promoting gender equality in regards to sport, the show features a diverse cast mirroring modern Australian society. (ABC ME)

What’s For Dinner

With a big spoonful of creativity, a pinch of tradition and a dash of fun – these Australian families have all the ingredients they need to answer the all-important question…What’s For Dinner? Great TV show for families to see how diverse families across Australia enjoy dinner. Rated G.

My Neighbor Totoro

This is a lovely film to introduce kids to the magic of animated films from Japan’s Studio Ghibli and wider Japanese culture. Two sisters move into a new home and discover that there are magical creatures that inhabit their house and neighbourhood including the large Totoro. It’s a wonderful movie (dubbed in English) about the power of friendship. Rated G.

Moana

Follow Moana, a Polynesian island chief’s daughter who sets off on a quest to save her people. Along the way, she meets demi-god Maui and adventures ensue. Packed full of Polynesian mythology and music, this film demonstrates the power of self-belief and courage. Rated PG.

Coco

This movie showcases Hispanic culture. Despite his family’s ban on music, a young boy Miguel pursues his love for singing. On the Day of the Dead, he stumbles into the Land of the Dead and learns about his great-great-grandfather who was a legendary singer. Rated PG.

Rabbit Proof Fence

This movie about the Stolen Generation is based on a true story. It’s about three half-white, half-Aboriginal girls who escape after being taken from their home to be trained as domestic staff. They set off on a journey across the Outback back to their home in Jigalong. Rated PG.

Hidden Figures

Based on the inspiring true story of three brilliant African-American women who worked at NASA in the 1950s and ’60s as “human computers”, this movie reveals their contributions that helped launch the manned spaceflight program. This empowering film explores the issues of racism, the civil rights movement and sexism. Rated PG. 

The Sapphires

Based on a true story, this movie follows a talented Aboriginal music group who audition to entertain soldiers serving in the Vietnam War. Great message of having pride in your heritage in the face of prejudice. Rated PG-13.

The Hate U Give

In this movie based on a bestselling book, 16-year old Starr sees her childhod best friends shot dead by a police officer. It’s a timely movie for older kids to watch as it grapples with race, police brutality and activism. Rated PG-13.

The Final Chapter

This documentary uses archival footage aired at the time to show first-hand the racism that AFL footballer and indigenous leader Adam Goodes faced in the final three years of his playing career from football crowds and media personalities. It makes for difficult watching but it’s important for older kids and adults to watch. Great movie to kickstart a conversation about racism.

The Australian Dream

The Australian Dream also covers the remarkable story of Indigenous AFL legend Adam Goodes. Through the backdrop of Goodes’ journey, the feature documentary explores race, identity and belonging in Australia today. Available on iView.

Secrets of Our Cities – In this SBS TV show, Greig Pickhaver (HG Nelson) is on a mission to discover the secrets of some of Australia’s most iconic cities. As part of this, he speaks about the waves of migration and how it transformed Australia. Available on SBS On Demand.

First Contact – More than six out of ten who call Australia home have had little or no contact with Aboriginal people. This TV series shines a light on this deep divide by taking a group of six non-Indigenous people, from different walks of life and with strong and varied opinions, and immersing them into Aboriginal Australia for the first time, revealing Aboriginal Australia in all its beauty, hope, culture, history, tradition and tragedy. Rated M. Available on SBS On Demand.

Sunshine – Sunshine is a high-stakes crime TV drama that explores the hopes and heartbreak felt by South Sudanese in Melbourne forging a new life in a foreign land. Rated M. Available on SBS On Demand.

East West 101 – This Australian drama set in Sydney follows the personal and professional clashes in the city’s Major Crime Squad. Driven detective Zane Malik, a devout Muslim, and old-school superior Ray Crowley, an Anglo-Australian. Rated M. Available on SBS On Demand.

More resources

To learn about promoting diversity and tolerance, Indigenous issues and standing up against racism, here are some websites to visit:

Racism: It Stops With Me

Racism No Way: Anti-racism education for Australian schools

10 Positive Ways to Engage With the Indigenous Issues including finding out about the mob in your local area with the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia and learning about the 400 Indigenous people who have died in custody with not one person being charged.

Share Our Pride – a website that gives you a glimpse of how life looks from an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective.

Your Kids Aren’t Too Young to Talk About Race: Resource Roundup featuring American Resources

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