Talking to kids about racism

14 Jun 2020

Straits Times, 14 Jun 2020, Talking to kids about racism

Six-year-old Elizabella Bonnett's parents recently sat her down for a conversation about racism.

They talked to Elizabella, who is half-black and half-Chinese, about the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, which erupted after an unarmed black man, Mr George Floyd, was suffocated while being arrested by the police on May 25.

That night, her parents read to her from a book, A Kids Book About Racism (2019), which explains the concept to young children.

This was a conversation her mother, Mrs Imelda Bonnett, 34, an Australian expatriate, feels has been years in the making for their mixed-race family.

"We don't have the luxury of not talking about racism because Bella faces it herself. We talked about the protests in an age-appropriate way, building on previous discussions we've had about discrimination.

"I hadn't pointed out the particular word 'racism' before. But the first time she told me she hated her skin was when she was 2½ years old, which broke my heart," she says.

The regional auditor at an international bank comes from an Indonesian Chinese family. Her husband, Mr Merrell Bonnett, was born in Trinidad and Tobago. The couple, both raised in Australia, moved to Singapore from Melbourne in 2017. Mr Bonnett, 45, is currently engaged in postgraduate studies.

Against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has seen protests against racial discrimination in many countries, families like the Bonnetts have been talking to their children about racism and how to combat it.

It is a topic that is uncomfortable for many parents here. However, observers note that discussing racism with kids, even as early as at pre-school age, is beneficial in preventing racial bias.

Shortly after the Bonnetts moved here three years ago, a child called Elizabella, then three years old, a "monkey", an offensive term with a long history of being used against black people.

When she was a toddler in Australia, her best friend, who is white, told Elizabella she had "dirty" skin.

Mr and Mrs Bonnett have been equipping their only child to deal with such encounters, by boosting her self-confidence and widening her circle of friends.

Of late, there was an online furore when an old photograph of Raffles Institution students in blackface surfaced on social media, sparking expressions of hurt and outrage.

The photo, taken in 2016, depicted a group of Chinese students - some with their faces darkened and some wearing black masks - celebrating the birthday of a schoolmate of South Asian descent.

In the photo, they also posed with props such as a paper bag labelled "whitening kit", posters of the movie Slumdog Millionaire and wads of cash. The students involved have issued an apology.

In his first public comments on the photo, Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung stressed in a Facebook post earlier this month that such acts of racial insensitivity or micro-aggression against a person of another race are not condoned.

Noting that the photo had probably resurfaced because of what is happening in America, Mr Ong urged people to be mindful of how the situation in Singapore differs from that in the US, which has "a painful history of slavery, a civil war and a civil rights movement that had to struggle against racial segregation".

Singapore, on the other hand, was founded as a multi-ethnic nation regardless of race, language or religion after gaining independence in 1965.

He added: "That is not to say racial differences do not exist simply by decree. Tribal instincts are part of human nature."

Yet, against this wave of international activism on race and racism - with the dictionary definition of racism being revised by Merriam-Webster to include a reference to systemic oppression - some Singaporean parents interviewed by The Sunday Times say they do not intend to broach the subject with their children.

In a 2018 paper titled Racism In Singapore, which was published in the Journal Of Pacific Rim Psychology, academic Peter Chew notes "the reluctance of Singaporeans to discuss racial issues".

The senior lecturer in psychology at James Cook University Singapore says this reluctance is due to several factors, such as strict laws that prohibit racism like the Sedition Act, which makes it an offence to promote ill will and hostility between different races and classes.

While such laws do not forbid all discussions of race, other reasons for a paucity of public discussion on the topic include a belief that racism is no longer an issue in Singapore, says Dr Chew.

He adds: "It tends to be Singaporean Chinese, individuals from the majority race, who are unwilling to talk about racism. Some Malay and Indian individuals have been quite proactive in raising such issues. There's been a shift towards speaking out more about racism, especially among the younger population."

Lawyer Grace Chacko, who is in her 50s, and her daughter Shauna Gul, 16, have seen generational differences in their own discussions about racism.

While they both support the Black Lives Matter movement and condemn the racism on display in the Raffles Institution photo, Ms Chacko says that she used to accept racial insensitivities that her daughter now decries.

Ms Chacko, a Singaporean with Malayali roots who is married to an Arab, at first did not find anything wrong with the brownface advertisement last year, which prompted an outcry as it featured a Chinese actor-deejay painting his face brown to depict an Indian man, as well as dressing as a Malay woman wearing a tudung.

She says such "exaggerated" portrayals of Indian people were common when she was a child growing up here.

In contrast, Shauna criticised the portrayal of "minstrels" in Singapore - which refer to an American form of entertainment developed in the 19th century, where white performers used "blackface" make-up to depict black people.

Shauna maintains any "normalising" of racist ideas is harmful. She has borne the brunt of discriminatory remarks since she was five, when her pre-school mate refused to play with her because of her "brown skin". As she grew older, comments that she is "pretty for an Indian girl" were also lobbed her way.

She says: "I feel that a lot of people, especially brown people, find it uncomfortable to speak out in such cases when the other person has good intentions. They think others mean well, when actually it's micro-aggression. It's emotional labour; it's hard for you to carry on explaining again and again."

Ms Chacko, whose husband is also a lawyer and who has a younger daughter, says that society can move forward in shaking off such stereotypes and discrimination.

She says: "A lot of my generation grew up being conditioned to many things that Shauna now perceives as racism. But I have to respect my daughter's view. If she feels it is racism, we talk about it.

"I think as a whole, society needs to listen to our youth's concerns and not try to placate them or say these concerns don't exist."

Other families take a more indirect approach in combating racial prejudices.

Mr Mohamed Sirajudin Mohamed Salman, director of Torch Tutors tuition agency, prefers to emphasise values such as respect for all.

"I tell my kids we have to embrace different cultures," he says. He and his wife, a stay-at-home mother, both 37, have two sons, aged seven and six.

He uses "teachable moments" to walk the talk. On Racial Harmony Day, which is commemorated in schools, his sons have dressed in Chinese traditional garments. On Good Friday, he guided his sons in Googling what the public holiday means for Christians.

Academic Nazry Bahrawi argues that a more targeted approach in educating young children in combating racism may be needed, pointing to a local study which found that preferences of one's own race possibly start from the age of three.

The study, which was published in 2017 and led by Nanyang Technological University academic Setoh Pei Pei, explored racial identity and bias among Chinese and Indian pre-schoolers.

It found that young Chinese children here tend to favour their own race, while their Indian peers had no particular bias.

Dr Nazry, a senior lecturer at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, says: "I think that Singapore needs to develop its own set of vocabulary when it comes to our experiences with racism and racialism.

"Parallels exist between different countries and we can certainly begin from these sites of intersections, such as using terms like privilege."

He suggests talking to pre-schoolers about bias, prejudice and differences, which would pave the way for talking about racism later on.

Ms Phua Li Ling, director of Chapter Zero, a social enterprise that advocates respectful and mindful caregiving and child-directed play, has been reading books about diversity and differences to her five-year-old daughter, Hannah.

These books feature not only people of different skin colours, but also persons with special needs.

"It encourages her to see value in everybody. Despite our differences, we have universal shared needs like love and acceptance," says Ms Phua, who also has a 10-month-old daughter. She is married to a photographer.

Hannah had noticed a black woman at the airport during an overseas family holiday when she was about two. The child had not seen a person with her skin tone before. Ms Phua, 36, talked to her about how people's skin colour differed, but that each is equally beautiful.

"If she's going to notice differences in people's appearances, I'd rather be the one talking to her about such differences, rather than allow her to make connections on her own," says Ms Phua.

When Hannah was a pre-schooler, she noticed that most of the princesses in cartoons were white and wanted to have lighter skin. Because Ms Phua has been guiding her daughter in appreciating differences in others, she says Hannah knows not to attach any value to how fair or dark one is.

Hannah enjoys books like The Colors Of Us (1999), in which a young girl realises there are many shades of brown. She once pointed to a cardboard box and told Ms Phua that its sandy colour was closest to her own skin tone.

Here are some tips to help parents talk to their kids about racism:

1. Ignoring the problem will not protect your kids

Dr Natalie Games, a clinical psychologist at Alliance Counselling, who works with many children, youth and families here, says: "It can be hard to talk to your children about racism. But, while parents may worry about exposing their kids to racism, it's clear, scientifically, that the earlier the parent starts the conversation, the better.

"Avoiding the topic doesn't protect your children. It leaves them open to biases that exist.

"Having honest and open discussions about racism, diversity and inclusivity - which will be different for every family - encourages the children to come to you with questions and worries. Listen to them without being defensive.

"If they see you as a trusted source of advice, they are more likely to engage with you on this topic."

2. Examine your own beliefs

Dr Games says: "In helping your child recognise and confront racial bias, you should first consider your own. We are their role models.

"Ask yourself, 'What are my blind spots? What specific actions will I take to make this a more just world? Am I willing to engage and to make mistakes?"

3. Treat everyone with respect

She urges that parents take every opportunity to challenge racism, demonstrate kindness and stand up for every person's right to be treated with dignity and respect.

While Black Lives Matter is very different from Singapore's context, there are many forms of discrimination and privilege, she says, such as how society treats domestic helpers, foreign workers and cleaners, for example, that are worth discussing.

4. Highlight similarities

Have conversations with young children about recognising differences and highlighting similarities among people, she says. Older children can learn to be critical consumers of news, media and other digital spaces, observing which groups these narratives include or exclude.

5. Read

Dr Games recommends the following books that celebrate diversity.

Children under five may appreciate books such as Whoever You Are (1997), about children around the world; and Global Babies (2007), which has photos of babies and their traditions and clothing, from Guatemala to Bhutan.

Children in primary school can try Resist: 35 Profiles Of Ordinary People Who Rose Up Against Tyranny And Injustice (2018), which features people such as anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, youth activist Malala Yousafzai and Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese man stationed in Lithuania during World War II who fabricated visas to aid Jewish refugees.

Teenagers may like Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, And You (2020), which highlights insidious forms of racist ideas and how to root them out.