How to talk to children about colour

ReutersThousands joined a rally against hate speech in Boston on Saturday.

Barack Obama's tweet in the wake of the far-right marches in Charlottesville was its most-liked ever. The former US President posted an image of himself greeting children of differing ethnicities through a window, alongside the quote 'No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion...' While his presidential successor was becoming conspicuous by his silence over the matter, Obama's response drew worldwide acclaim; at time of writing the message has been retweeted 1.3 million times, and liked by 3.3 million users.

Obama's tweet struck such a chord because it helps to illuminate a question that is being asked across America and around the globe right now: how is racism formed? Regardless of your view on original sin, there's no doubt that small children aren't born with a sense of colour prejudice. Racism isn't genetic, it's something that we develop because of external influences. And while those influences are deeply complex, that doesn't mean we're powerless to influence how the children and young people around us grow up. We can't stop a child from becoming racist, but we can make a significant impact on what they hear and understand about race.

I'm obviously a white man, steeped in privilege and living in one of the cosiest places in the world. You might understandably ask why I'm even writing this; after all, wouldn't a black writer's perspective be more helpful? Yet while I'm fairly sure my perspective is only of limited help, we all have a responsibility to push past the discomfort we might feel about this subject and ensure we have these conversations if we want to avoid a future filled with further Charlottesvilles. So here's at least how I'm going to try to ensure that my own children don't grow up with the belief that one race is superior to another. I hope it's helpful to you too, at least in triggering your own thought and conversations.

Don't teach 'colour-blindness'

You may be familiar with the idea that we should try to teach children to be 'colour-blind'; to equip them to somehow look past the colour of a person's skin and see them only as a fellow human. While there's obviously something really noble about this approach, it's also flawed and reductive. God created ethnic diversity not as a mistake, but as another beautiful detail of creation, reflected in the image of heaven presented in Revelation 7:9. What this approach inevitably tries to do is make all people white, rather than different to white; what we're really saying is that we don't see the difference between a person of colour and a white person. But black people, Asian people, and people of all nations and ethnicities have their own incredible heritage and stories, and by teaching children this idea of colour-blindness we risk airbrushing all of it away. Instead, it's important that they understand that there are many different cultures and skin colours, and that God created all of these people equal.

Give them a diverse experience of the world

It's easy, especially when you live in a monocultural bubble, to give your children a monocultural experience of the world, which then naturally leads to a warped view of race. If your media is white-dominated, if all the people you encounter are white, if the stories you read at bedtime all feature white characters, then how on earth are you meant to develop a balanced view of race? Since institutional racism is deeply entrenched in Western culture, we have to be intentional about ensuring that children positively experience different cultures than their own.

Lift up heroes beyond their skin colour

One of the really positive developments in mainstream culture over the last few years has been the broadening-out of hero figures. After decades of white male domination, it's now much more common to see female-led action movies and non-token non-white TV characters. Yet sometimes we can slip into thinking that these are simply for the benefit of the people who look like them – as if Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games is there just to help girls to know that they can be tough and heroic too. In fact, heroines like this help us all to readjust our perception of who can be a hero or take the lead. In the same way, black superheroes aren't just for black kids, and books with asian protagonists aren't just for asian readers. By ensuring the ethnic diversity of the cultural influences we feed our children, we slowly defeat the ideas of segregation and otherness that can naturally take root otherwise. This is also a good point to remember that Jesus – like the vast majority of Biblical heroes – wasn't white; it's helpful to help our children to understand that too.

Talk to them about racial justice

We don't need to mislead our children by pretending that the world is a fabulously fair and just utopia. It's important that they learn that historically certain races have been oppressed in abhorrent ways, and even that the legacies of that oppression still has implications for today. It's the way that we talk about this to children – who often naturally seem infused with a strong sense of justice – that will help to shape their commitment to ensuring that history is not repeated.

Model integration to them

Children and young people learn much more from our example as parents than from what we tell them. And while it might sound a bit twee and right-on to suggest we should ensure the people we mix with aren't all from the same ethnic background, how else will children learn that the diverse, multicultural dream we're selling them can actually be a reality? It might mean making an effort to be somewhat counter-cultural, especially if you live in a mono-cultural bubble, but it's actually really important that our kids see that people of other races aren't just worthy of delivering our dinner, but sitting and eating it alongside us.

Barack Obama's words in that popular tweet weren't original; they were taken from the mouth of Nelson Mandela, a man who actually saw the levels of racial prejudice significantly subside over the course of his lifetime. What Mandela oversaw after becoming President of South Africa was a very intentional period of recalibration, which involved significant cost for the white people who had previously held all the power. A move toward a truly post-racist world won't happen by accident; as Charlottesville teaches us, the long legacy of racism still bubbles beneath the surface of Western culture.

There's an apocryphal story about a small white child who comes home from school and tells his mother he's made a new friend. The name is African-sounding, so the mother casually asks: 'Is he black?' The child pauses before replying: 'I don't know, I'll ask him.'

As Obama's tweet suggested, our children really do offer the hope that we can move to a new place, past the sinful sickness of racism – it's our job as their parents and other influences to ensure they have every opportunity to take us there.

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. Follow him on Twitter @martinsaunders.