Packed with fascinating stories, thorough research and helpful definitions, Dr Pragya Agarwal’s book, Wish We Knew What to Say, is essential reading for all educators, parents and care-givers when it comes to talking with children about race.
I remember a fancy-dress day during the last year of my last primary school, where we dressed like book characters. In a class of sixteen girls, three of us dressed as Cinderella. One girl, who was white, wore a huge, white meringue bridesmaid’s dress. Another girl, the only black girl in the class, wore a pale blue dress her parents had hired from a party-hire shop. As for me, I enjoyed the hard work of putting things together. I asked older neighbours if they had outfits from the 1950s I could borrow. I wore a second-hand white dress, a hand-me-down from a family friend, lace tights, gloves and a pair of pale ballroom dancing shoes from a neighbour. The most popular girls in the class chided me for being proud, telling me that the girl in the bridesmaid’s dress had the best outfit. I had never been a bridesmaid, having mainly attended Hindu weddings where bridesmaids and ushers aren’t a thing. My parents wouldn’t have spent money hiring an outfit. I thought I’d done pretty well putting together a Cinderella outfit with no money. My mother often dressed me in boyish clothes, and I was grateful for any excuse to dress girlie. It’s curious that I thought my outfit was the best in terms of effort and details, but the popular white girls were irritated that I didn’t agree with them that the popular white girl was the best. I didn’t understand why she was allowed to be proud, but I wasn’t. The black girl in the hired dress kept quiet and wasn’t drawn into the argument. I didn’t want to keep quiet; I didn’t think it was fair that we weren’t allowed to express our self-love as well.
If we look back at our formative years, many of us will remember incidents where skin colour played a definite part or where differences were unspoken but we felt their influence. For me, growing up as a brown girl in a brown family, in a predominately white town that would house the headquarters of the British National Party when I was a teenager, I was aware of being different. However, my difference sometimes felt like specialness – once I got used to the hurt of not being considered pretty or cute like the other girls in my first primary school, I instead learned to value being smart and funny, and I quite liked the specialness of being the only Asian or Black girl in the class and one of the only Asian or Black kids in the school. But without people who looked like me, I grew up with a partially white gaze. It was normal to look out at the street, the class, the teachers, and see only white faces. It was normal to watch television and see mostly white faces. What did the other people in the street and my school see when they looked at me and my family?
There is a common perception that racism is acting in a cruel, deliberate way. Which is perhaps why many people, understandably, will feel defensive at the suggestion that they are biased, prejudiced, or privileged. Race is a social construct, however, and growing up in a particular country and culture, living in a particular country, gives us our own complex understanding of race. Growing up in a very white area of London taught me that it was acceptable for me as a British-Asian girl to acknowledge I was clever or hard-working, but physical appearance mattered more and it wasn’t acceptable for me to have self-love for what I looked like.
How can parents and carers, teachers and other adults invested in children’s development talk about race and ethnicity with young children?
Dr Pragya Agarwal’s book Wish We Knew What to Say: Talking with Children About Race is aimed at care-givers and educators of early years and primary-school age children. Wish We Knew What to Say seeks to encourage them to have open conversations about race while children’s brains are still plastic and their understanding of the wider world outside of their family is developing, before they have developed stereotypes and biases. Steve McQueen’s recent photography exhibition, Year 3 Project, touched on these issues when he looked at an age he considered particularly formative and children are becoming more conscious of their race, culture and class. The book is accessible to anyone interested in how we learn about race, how we think about it, how we become biased in the smallest of ways. Agarwal, a behavioural and data scientist who moved to the UK from India twenty years ago, writes with empathy and compassion for all parents and teachers trying to navigate conversations about race, no matter their ethnicity or how multi-cultural or mono-cultural their community is.
Agarwal explains that “colour-blindness”, which is often seen as a virtue, is harmful, especially to children. It tells children that racial inequality doesn’t exist – how could it, if we are all the same? It also tells children that any experience a person of colour shares relating to their skin colour is not true. There are examples of this every day, but the recent outrage about Meghan Markle’s disclosure that she was othered within the royal family is one that most people will be familiar with, whether or not they had any interest in the television interview and subsequent commentary in the press and social media. You would think everyone commenting on Meghan Markle’s experience of racism as the first mixed-race woman in a white royal family a thousand years old was speaking from their own experience of being brown or black or mixed race. But it seemed by and large, her biggest critics were white British people who were angry that she was criticising the British monarchy and worse, that she had left it. Like Lady Macbeth, she was deemed a shrewd operator who pulled the strings on her marionette husband. Unlike Macbeth, Prince Harry wasn’t concerned with murdering members of his family to hasten his chances of becoming king, but with finding a lifestyle where his wife and child could live freely without the prejudices and inequality they had experienced within his family.
Agarwal notes that if parents live in and send their child to a school with a racially diverse population, they may think they don’t need to address race explicitly because the work is being done organically every day, as their child is immersed in diversity. She gives examples of comments made in her workshops such as, “We only use clothing colours or hair colour to describe or differentiate between people…I really like that [my children] don’t seem to notice skin colour.” But she remarks:
“It is not enough to merely tell our children that everyone is equal. We have to be actively anti-racist, particularly as they are growing up in a society where nationalistic identities and politics are increasingly taking centre stage…We are different, and still we are equal. No one should be treated differently or have different rights and privileges just because of their skin colour, or their racial category. Saying this to children would actually make them feel more comfortable in their own identity and their own uniqueness. And this sense of self-identity is really important for a child’s mental and physical well-being.”
There are sections for raising children of different ages, with checklists at the end for the reader’s own learning as well as what to look out for in a child at this stage of their development. She offers helpful advice for parents and educators of all races in different situations. For example, when a child expresses a stereotype or judgement about people of another race, rather than laughing it off, ignoring it, or saying “Don’t say that”, to ask why the child thinks that and where they got the idea from. She points out that when we don’t say something, children will use their imagination and understanding to fill the void. It’s a theme I’ve sometimes raised in my work as a bereavement counsellor when parents are, understandably, reluctant or scared to have discussions with children about their loved one’s terminal illness or death. By not discussing things with your children, you are not only leaving them with their own interpretation but also leaving them free to find out more via other people, television or the internet, which may lead to misinformation or confusion. But if you have the conversation with them first, you can shape the narrative and answer questions – and the answer might be, “That’s a good question. I don’t know. Let’s find out together.”
Agarwal uses her own experience as an Indian woman with a child who could, as she says, pass as white. She gives the example of this child at three years old saying she wanted to look more like her father than her mother. The author acknowledges her initial hurt and considers that while this may have been due to race – the child’s father is white and her mother is brown – it may also have been a natural part of children growing up and going through phases of attaching more to one parent than the other. She explores colourism amongst Asian and Black communities as well as among people of all races, describing the caste system in India, where traditionally the lighter your skin colour, the higher up in the caste system you are. She recounts the story where actor Lupita Nyong’o was featured on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine after winning an Academy Award for 12 Years a Slave, but appeared lighter-skinned than usual in the photo, leading to speculation about whether the photo had been edited or overexposed. Nyong’o went on to write a fictional picture book called Sulwe for young children about a girl who is darker-skinned than other people in her family and school, reflecting on her own experience of praying as a child to be lighter-skinned.
As well as her personal experience, Dr Agarwal recounts conversations with parents at her workshops. Her use of other research, from the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget to the teacher-turned-diversity-trainer Jane Elliott, is thoughtfully chosen and well-integrated, giving anyone who is interested in finding out more the jumping board for further learning.
At the end of Wish We Knew What to Say is a reading list, which I thought might be a little overwhelming for parents who have been home-schooling their children during the pandemic. It’s marvellous that there are four pages of books for younger children, but without descriptions of each book, I assume parents would have to do a lot of internet searching, especially while libraries – which are a vital resource for many people, but especially people who cannot afford to buy a pile of new books – are closed.
The book is only 160 pages, which may be a relief to frazzled and time-poor parents and teachers! But the pages are packed with fascinating stories, contextual history and children’s developmental changes, and useful definitions that are explained simply and clearly, such as the difference between race and ethnicity. It also has questions that children might ask at different ages, from “Why can’t I have blonde hair?” to “Should I make friends with children who don’t look like me?” along with ways to respond meaningfully.
For people like me who don’t have or teach children, we still have friends, cousins or siblings who do, and we want to be thoughtful, understanding and responsible when we talk to these children. And for many of us who grew up with shame or confusion about our identity and our place in the world because of the colour of our skin, this book has the potential to heal some of our pain, by acknowledging our experiences and how damaging they were. As Agarwal so eloquently says, “If we want our children to thrive and flourish in a diverse, multicultural world, we owe it to them to help them make sense of the confusing and emotionally charged messages they receive about themselves and others. We owe it to our children to work together to instil pride in their heritage and culture, and an unshakeable sense of self-worth and identity. This is how they will learn to support each other, and to stand up to injustice and inequality.”
Dr Pragya Agarwal’s Wish We Knew What to Say: Talking with Children About Race is published by Dialogue Books and is available to purchase now online and in all good bookshops around the UK. Click the links to follow Pragya on Instagram and Twitter, and visit her website here.