You can’t not talk to kids about race

Race may be an uncomfortable conversation for some parents but, in South Africa, whether we like it or not, things always boil down to us and them.

Is it a conversation that can be shelved?

Blogger on motherhood Nokulinda Mkhize does not think so. For her, it is important for children to know the truth about the world they live in. “And you don’t get to change the truth of something by ignoring it or acting as if it’s not important,” she says.

Mkhize, who writes the blog Homiematrimony, says black parents cannot claim to be raising their children safely and honestly if they do not reckon with the reality we live in.

“White people can pretty much get away with not ever confronting race,” she says. “We don’t have the luxury of raising children who are not aware of the world we live in because they are going to be affected whether we like it or not, whether we agree or not.

“And, while you might not want your child to necessarily watch Sarafina when they are three or read Biko to them at that time, there are age-appropriate ways of introducing complex topics to a child and, as [a] parent, it is important to do that with race, gender and everything.”

Honesty is the best tool with children, she says, adding that it is important to have these discussions often. “It’s not a once-off thing; you have to continue talking about it.”

Colin Northmore, the head of Sacred Heart College in Johannesburg, says those parents who do not deem it fit to talk to their children about race are nonetheless teaching their children about it with their actions. Children absorb lessons on all kinds of social issues, be it on race or gender, from their parents, and not from what they tell them but from how they behave.

“Children don’t see race, but they hear their parents talking about it,” he says. “Think about standing in a shopping queue and the price on the product is wrong, and the mlungu who is standing in the counter is complaining loudly about the uselessness of …” he trails off. “And the little white boy standing next to his mom is absorbing the lesson — because the people he sees putting things on the shelves are black people. What lesson does the child absorb?

“The trouble is when you are under pressure you always revert to your most basic instinct. So you can’t stop it from happening, it is systemic. Society creates these stereotypes; society reinforces these stereotypes.”

Northmore says schools and parents have a duty to teach children about the “fundamental humanness of all people” rather than focusing on the colour of their skin.

“I’m not worried about race. You are human, I’m human. You cry when you get hurt, I cry when I get hurt, you laugh when you are happy, I laugh when I’m happy. Let’s rather focus on what we have in common rather than what makes us different.”

But he also cautions parents to reflect more on the things they say around their children so they don’t enforce negative stereotypes.

Professor Joseph Seabe, an educational psychologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, agrees with Northmore that parents should be teaching their children basic values — such as respect and love for others — rather than focusing on differences. Children need to be taught about human relations before they are taught about colour.

“We don’t want children to be colour-blind but at the same time it can do damage if you are going to introduce them to all these differences without laying the foundation. At around two and three [years old], let’s first lay the foundation. Before we can talk about the different racial groups, let’s teach them about loving and respecting one another. We need to see the person first rather than colour,” Seabe says.

“But at the same time we cannot be colour-blind, because if we turn a blind eye and say they will learn everything in the street, unfortunately the world is not safe and they will be exposed to all these things and they need to know how to respond if they are treated unfairly.”

Seabe says there comes a time when children start asking questions and observing that they don’t have the same skin colour as their friend at school. At that stage, when they are about three and four, the topic of race can be introduced.

Mkhize says, although it is important to lay the foundation of respect, ubuntu and empathy, parents cannot avoid the conversation about race if they want to prepare their children for the world.

“Children can see the differences, but they may not be able to know that it’s a race thing. Race is not a simple case of a black person and a white person. It is how we talk to one another, light-skin people, dark-skin people, who lives where in this country, who has what resources in this country, and kids will see that.

‘They will see that masise makhaya abekho abelungu — why? [When we are in rural areas there are no white people]. They may not know what it is that they are looking at, but they will see that they are looking at something,” Mkhize says.

Race, gender, power and class are some of the things that are so obvious that you cannot avoid having discussions about them, she says.

“Kids are very observant and very intuitive. So they can see patterns and they can see associations without having the words to describe it. So, when they see those things, it is important for the parent to be open and honest, and it is also the responsibility of the parent to learn enough to be able to talk to your children. You can’t just act like something is not an issue when it obviously is.

“If you want your children to grow up equipped for the world, sensitive to the world and respectful of other humans, you have got to have these conversations,” she says.

Northmore says it is a shame that children don’t see a white gardener or cleaner at school. But it is the responsibility of the schools and parents to instil in their children that just because the gardener or cleaner is black and the teachers are white does not mean any race is superior or inferior to the other.

“The gardener’s job is as important as anyone at the school. I asked for the names of our cleaning and gardening staff to be embroidered on their uniforms. But I deliberately said I do not want their first names, I want their surnames embroidered there, because I do not want a young child calling me Mr Northmore and calling the gardener Jack. If I’m Mr Northmore then he is Mr Somebody as well. He is just as important. If that does not happen at home, that’s sad, as long as it is happening at school,” he says.

Seabe says children must be taught that ability must not be equated to race. And that, in conversations about race, children need to understand the history of the country and its effect on black people.

“You need to highlight the issue of opportunities and say to your kids: ‘Just because Ntate Magubane is a gardener, it’s not because of his skin pigmentation, it’s about the opportunities that he might not have had as opposed to your teachers who are all white.’ You need to be specific and focus on the issue of opportunities as opposed to abilities because of race,” he says.

Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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