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Review: Wish We Knew What to Say by Dr. Pragya Agarwal

Talking With Children About Race

Copy of the book 'Wish We Knew What to Say'
'Wish We Knew What to Say: Talking With Children About Race by Dr. Pragya Agarwal

I learned a lot reading this book and it is an understatement to say that it is an important and long overdue publication. It contains clear explanations, research and advice from a UK academic. In her introduction, Dr. Agarwal acknowledges that race and racism are sensitive subjects, explains why it is crucial that we move past our discomfort and fear in order to tackle racism and offers clear guidance on how we might do this.

“We live in a multicultural diverse society, but race is still a very sensitive topic to talk about.”

Written to help adults communicate complex ideas to children

The majority of anti-racism books that I have found are written to educate adults, but it is difficult to translate some of these complex ideas so that young children understand them and are equipped to recognise and challenge racism in all its forms. Even the most confident parents and experienced educators out there may feel inadequately prepared to answer children’s questions on race in an age-appropriate, clear and concise way, which is where this important book comes in.

Dr. Agarwal’s introduction reminds us all of the reasons for being proactive in talking about race with children. She cites data from research ranging from BAME representation in children’s literature to a study on the impact of racism on health. I was shocked by the statistics on the trauma-related health issues that arise from racism, which show that it can affect children even before they are born. Trauma occurs even when we witness a racist incident, which is far more common for children than most parents realise; microaggressions and prejudice occur with alarming frequency, and are witnessed by children whether we acknowledge them or not, so parents need to be prepared to talk frankly and openly about race and racism.

We need to be proactive rather than reactive

Dr. Agarwal tells us that while there is often a more urgent need for parents of colour to talk with their children about race and racism, white parents often only discuss racism when a racist incident occurs. Fear of getting things wrong or using incorrect vocabulary are often given as reasons for this at her parenting workshops, so ‘Wish We Knew What to Say’ aims to support adults by providing them with the research and vocabulary. That doesn’t mean that this book is specifically for white parents. Parents of colour are given advice on supporting their children's emerging identities, so that they avoid internalising racism and bias, celebrate their heritage and feel empowered to speak up against any racism that they encounter. Dr. Agarwal uses her own experiences as a parent of colour with children of dual-heritage throughout the book to highlight issues that have arisen in her own family. One example she gives is tackling her three-year-old’s wish to look more like her white father, which Dr. Agarwal acknowledges that she found upsetting but tackled head-on by having a frank discussion about why her daughter felt that way and why they all looked different in their "rainbow family".

“We all need to discuss race and racism with our children, no matter what our and their ethnic background is, as it is a determinant of their identities, and of their sense of belonging… It is not merely about kindness and compassion for others, although that matters. It is about children’s own self-identities, and giving them the ability to create their own stories and narratives rather than letting others impose these upon them. It is allowing them to flourish with a strong sense of self, whatever their racial identity may be. And in doing so, we are telling them not to ignore their own or other children’s ethnic and cultural identities, but to recognise and acknowledge differences and know `how to tackle them in a fair and equitable manner.”

('Wish We Knew What to Say', page 14)

A US study showed that many white parents adopt the colour-blind approach, which I remember from when I was younger. The well-meaning but misguided sentiment behind this is one of equality - that we are all the same - but, in fact, it is damaging because it invalidates the experiences of people of colour, denies white privilege and the structural racism that supports it. We do not all look the same and some people are treated unfairly because of the way they look.

"Saying 'we don't see colour' does not equate to meaning 'we are not racist'. 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 politics are increasingly taking centre stage. We are not all of us the same, we are all unique individuals, and every child has to know and understand this. We are different, and still we are equal. No-one should be treated differently or have different rights or privileges because of their skin colour or their racial category."

('Wish We Knew What to Say', page 10)

These are big, challenging ideas that need to be delivered with sensitivity and acknowledgement of children’s developmental stages, which this book explains clearly, with practical advice. It is split into useful sections as follows:

  • Introduction: the purpose of this book.

  • Section 1: useful definitions of race, racism, ethnicity, racialisation, white privilege, colour-blindness, intersectionality and white-passing.

  • Section 2: reference groups that enable and support children’s identities, including home, school , media etc.

  • Age related sections: birth to 3, four to six years, seven to nine years and ten to twelve years. These are based on developmental stages.

  • Notes, suggested reading for children and adults, suggested online materials.

Dr. Agarwal does point out that, much like any parenting book, the examples and stages of development should not be viewed as written in stone: all children are different and will mature at their own pace. All parents will know what their children are capable of understanding and when it is appropriate to have these conversations. Each section has examples of real questions that Dr. Agarwal has encountered in her work with children and parents. Of course, they are not an exhaustive list of the possible questions that children might ask or situations that may arise, but I found the clear, research-backed explanations to be useful in providing a foundation to work from.

Open and honest dialogue celebrating our unique individuality

My most important take away from this was that we need to start talking more openly about race and racism with children. We need to meet their questions and curiosity without becoming embarrassed or shutting down potential learning opportunities. Quite often, should a young child ask questions in public about someone who is different from them, parents will shut down the conversation for fear of causing offence. Dr. Agarwal advocates recognising and celebrating what is different and unique about us as individuals and for us to not be afraid to discuss racial injustice. We have to move past fear and bring the conversation out into the open, so that we can educate children to be better than us. So that they can recognise and challenge racism, be allies to those who are victims of racist behaviour, acknowledge privilege and try to dismantle the systems that promote it, and to be proud of their own identities and sense of self.

Whilst this book is written with parents in mind, teachers and other adults will find it an invaluable resource to support them in tackling racism or answering the questions that children have about race and racism with confidence. It is a vital resource for home and school.

Get the books:

Further Reading:

'How do I talk about race with children in the Early Years setting?' by Liz Pemberton. This is an excellent article with really practical advice useful for anyone working with children. Follow Liz Pemberton on Instagram @theblacknurserymanager for practical advice and inspiration.

'Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire' by Akala. This is a fascinating, informative and deeply personal account of musician and activist Akala's experiences with racism growing up with dual heritage in Britain and his exploration of the social, historical and political factors that led us to where we are today.

'Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race' by Renni Eddo-Lodge. This was one of the most honest and compelling books on race that I have read and vital reading for anyone seeking to educate themselves on race and racism.

Notes on 'Wish We Knew What to Say'

My Book Notes: I have begun to keep notes on my non-fiction reading and have decided to give access to Spread Book Joy members. These notes cannot replace reading the book, but may give you a flavour of the text, just in case you are on the fence about purchasing it.

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