An award-winning medical doctor, researcher, and lecturer on human motivation, Dr. Shimi Kang offers the keys people of all ages need to succeed in the workplace, the classroom, and at home. With over fifteen years of clinical experience and extensive research in the science that lies behind motivation and wellness, Dr. Kang shows people how to cultivate the key 21st century skills needed to flourish both professionally and personally. This past winter, Dr. Kang wrote for US News about how parents can talk to their kids about racism:
Between the unrest resulting from police brutality by white officers involving black men to protests over President Donald Trump’s travel ban affecting citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations, cultural and racial tensions are especially high in America today.
While adults are typically able to think through their stance on issues of race and culture – even as divisions remain among people of all ages – children have an even tougher time processing their views about what’s going on. Bias from the media, and even within our own communities, can have a much greater effect than previously thought, resulting in the development of embedded prejudice and racist behavior in children before they even comprehend what racism means.
Racism and Prejudice in Toddlers
Harvard University psychologist and racism expert Mahzarin Banaji found in her own research that children as young as 3 years of age are susceptible to racist behavior within a few days of being exposed to it.
Children form biases early, and can quickly pick up on cues from adults as well as peers. Kids may be exposed to prejudiced attitudes at home, as well as at school. These learned biases can have a significant impact on how they perceive and treat others.
In the U.S. and around the world, such prejudices can affect how kids (as well as adults) treat others. The British Department of Education reports that approximately 20 children are suspended or expelled for serious acts of racism every day in the UK alone.
Blurring Lines: Is It Ever “Just a Joke?”
Often adolescent ethnic bullying is done under the guise of humor.
We’re all familiar with tasteless jokes based on racial or cultural stereotypes. To feel resolved of responsibility a person may say he didn’t mean anything by the joke or even note that his best friend is of a different race, or that she’s a racial minority herself. Others might simply say you’re being overly sensitive if you take issue with a bigoted wisecrack. We might even find ourselves laughing at those same jokes on occasion.
While this may appear harmless, being on the receiving end of racial humor can often have long-term adverse effects on one’s emotional psyche, self-worth and overall mental health.
When Prejudice Shapes Self-Esteem
While an adult with healthy self-esteem may have an easier time brushing off racism, for children or teenagers still trying to figure out where they fit in the world, being exposed to racism can inflict long-lasting emotional and mental damage.
According to recent studies and a 2015 review published in Plos One, there is a strong correlation between racism and poor health, increased levels of stress, depression, anxiety, aggression and even high blood pressure.
A University of Melbourne study found a strong correlation between racism and mental health outcomes. Having studied 461 individual cases of racism and their links to mental health issues, lead researcher Naomi Priest reports a significant and direct link on the impact racism has on children, and the way they view their self-worth later in life.
In another study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders by researchers Dana Sahi Iyer and Nick Haslam, 86 percent of the South Asian-American women interviewed reported experiencing racism as children through bullying and teasing. As a result, they suffered from low self-esteem, depression, poor body image, eating disordersand other feelings of self-hatred.
Empowering Our Children to Stand Up for What’s Right
As parents, the most impactful thing we can do is to prepare and empower our children to react appropriately when tough situations arise. By teaching our children to address these situations calmly and assertively, we put the power back into their hands. It’s important for children who experience racism to understand it’s not their fault.
By learning to confront the situation with calm assertiveness, and openly sharing their experiences with friends, authority figures and family, not only will our kids feel empowered, but they will also learn positive, non-violent ways to deal with negative situations. This will give them the confidence to stand up for themselves and those around them to ensure a better, brighter future.