The first time somebody called me the N-word, I was eight. That wasn’t even my first experience of racism, but it’s one that stuck. I remember how powerless I felt against that word, how hurtful it was that somebody I knew, someone I shared classes with everyday, could single me out and shame me that way. You see, the person who flung that racist slur at me was a schoolboy in my year. Another child.
I can still feel the pain of that moment. However, I also feel sad for the boy who thought he could feel superior by using hate speech against another child. I wonder about his parents. If I were that boy’s mum, I would be horrified. However, his parents might have been overtly or implicitly racist themselves. Either way, I’m sure they hadn’t been taught much about race relations or learned how to have conversations about race at home or at school.
For decades, British society has tried to wrap a cloak of invisibility (and silence) around race. I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s as part of the generation that thought it was kinder to be “colour blind”. So while racist thugs were stomping around and starting riots in ethnic neighbourhoods, more moderate citizens were pretending they didn’t see colour. I would cringe inside as some white people would go out of their way to avoid calling me Black, as if my identity was something unmentionable.
In 2022, more people are waking up to the idea that we can’t act like our identities don’t matter. The colour-blind approach might have been well-intentioned but it’s actually a form of erasure for people who look like me. I am proud of my skin colour, of my Nigerian roots. I am raising my kids to be confident and to embrace their whole selves too.
As a mum of two Black boys, we have frequent chats about race. They’re teenagers now but one of our most powerful discussions happened when they were just nine and 12. We had watched a football match where Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored and a Tottenham fan threw a banana skin at him.
My boys asked me: “Why, Mummy? What does it mean?”
I had to explain the long and ugly history of Black people being compared to monkeys and why racist football fans used bananas and monkey chants. I also showed them a photo of Aubameyang standing tall and proud, with the banana skin at his feet.
I told my boys: “They’ve tried to make him feel small. But look how he’s standing, like a king, because he’s proud of who he is and nobody can take that from him or from you either.”
I have to tell my kids the truth about the world. However, I also fill them with stories to empower them and to give them hope. We share ideas for how we can resist racism and become part of a global movement for justice.
Many white parents avoid talking about race with their children because it’s awkward. But if I’m having these conversations with my kids then they must have them too or we will never move forward as a society.
In a 2019 report on the impact of racism on children’s mental, social and physical health, the American Academy of Paediatrics described race as a “socially transmitted disease”.
Nobody is born racist but racist conditioning from society can infect our kids from birth. Studies show babies as young as three months old notice racial differences and by the time children are around two or three, unconscious bias creeps in.
If you are a parent or an educator, you need to talk to the kids in your care as soon as you can. It’s never too early or too late to have a conversation that matters. We have to be intentional about teaching our young ones how to be open-minded and inclusive, how to appreciate racial and ethnic diversity, and how to be actively anti-racist (not just passively non-racist).
Books and picture books with diverse characters can help guide these conversations and spark a child’s sense of empathy, curiosity and critical thinking. It’s also important for grown-ups to keep reading and learning and be ready to have some messy, uncomfortable, transformative talks with family and peers too.
Anti-racism is a lifelong journey and we can walk it together with our children, one step after another, one conversation at a time.
Uju Asika is the author of Bringing Up Race: How to Raise a Kind Child in a Prejudiced World and the new picture book A World for Me and You: Where Everyone is Welcome, out in paperback on 15 September