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‘Colourblind parenting is a myth’

We should mention differences in skin colour to our children because only then can we talk openly about prejudice and racism – and how to prevent them. This is what Professor Judi Mesman says in her book ‘Opgroeien in kleur’ (Growing up in Colour), which offers advice to parents. ‘Why is there only one skin-coloured pencil?’

‘Many people are completely unaware that certain comments are hurtful to others.’

In your book you say that most people want to raise their children free of prejudice, but that this is difficult to avoid. What can parents do?

‘Begin by challenging your automatic assumptions because we all have our prejudices. I catch myself at it sometimes too, like the time I was at a dressmaker’s and a woman came to pick up an academic robe. For a split second I thought it must belong to her husband. Then I thought: what a silly thing to think! I myself am a woman and I have an academic robe. Many parents are more likely to associate a black man in a school with a cleaner than with a head teacher, for example. It’s not surprising though: on average, people of colour are more likely to be a cleaner than a head teacher. But be aware that your assumptions can be wrong and that they affect how you treat someone. And, regardless of colour, are you as respectful of the cleaner as you are of the head teacher? See things from the perspective of the other. What does prejudice and discrimination do to people who experience them? Listen to or read about their stories in the media or books. Many people are completely unaware that certain comments are hurtful to others.’

Perhaps this is putting people into boxes, but who is the book for, white parents in particular?

‘That’s the main target group. I wrote the book because many white parents want to know how to raise their children not to be racist. Many parents think that a “colourblind” approach is best. But families of colour usually do talk about colour and differences because it is part of their everyday experience. My book also has tips on how to discuss prejudice in families of colour, how to deal with it but also how to be critical of your own possible prejudices.’


How do you ensure your family can talk openly about prejudice?

‘If you are raising your children with a partner, discuss it together. Parents discuss where they stand on diet and screen time, but don’t tend to do the same with racism or antiracism. Decide together what your position is because only then can you raise your children consciously. Discuss whether you will choose an ethnically mixed school, for example. What are the considerations or are you acting on autopilot? Why doesn’t a diverse school appeal to you? That’s possible because it’s not without its challenges. Another topic is Zwarte Piet. You can discuss which Sinterklaas news and which procession is your child going to watch? And there are plenty of other topics. You don’t have to have a clearly formulated opinion on everything because they can be complicated subjects. But then you both know that and you can say to your child: “Mummy finds this difficult.” Then you can explain the  different sides to the issue.’

So you do have to take the time to discuss the matter with your child.

‘You don’t have to schedule a meeting. Discuss the subject of colour and prejudices when you’re watching TV together and something strikes you, if your child comes home from school with a particular tale to tell or if a family moves into your area that seems to come from a different ethnic background from the other families there. These can give cause to talk about looking at colour. Be aware of your choice of words. Many people don’t think twice about saying, “that was an ordinary person” when they really mean a white person. As if non-white people aren’t ordinary people.’

Be aware of your choice of words. Many people don’t think twice about saying, “that was an ordinary person”.’

Is it better to avoid talking about a “black man” if you’re referring to someone but don’t know their name?

‘If the man is black, there’s nothing wrong with saying so. Lots of white people want to be colourblind and some claim they are. The idea is that you don’t see colour because seeing colour only emphasises the differences. But the problem is that neither we nor our children are colourblind. Avoiding naming colour sends the message that this is something we’d rather not talk about. Research shows that colourblindness doesn’t benefit the relationships between groups and organisations. Because if there’s no colour, you can’t talk about why certain groups are disadvantaged and what racism means. It begins with recognising differences between people and the different treatment that people receive based on that colour.’ 

Judi Mesman

What research did you use for the book?

‘This research is in its infancy in the Netherlands. As far as I know, I’m the only one here who is researching the influence of parents on prejudice in children. My research is about if and how parents in the Netherlands talk to their children about topics like these. We are looking at different ethnic backgrounds: white families, Turkish-Dutch families, Afro-Dutch families and, recently, Chinese-Dutch families. To what extent does the way that they think and talk correlate with children’s prejudices? The research is still being carried out, but we have seen that young children between the ages of six and ten already have prejudices. They use ethnic characteristics if they are allowed to choose who they want to sit next to and who they would invite to a party. They preferably choose someone from their own group. We saw that in all groups, but the effect is less strong in children of colour. 

‘We also researched the relationship between mentioning colour and prejudices in children. This was with a picture book with different characters that parents looked at with their child. If parents mentioned physical characteristics, without judging these, such as, “look, this is a girl with a hijab,” or, “this is a brown man,” the children actually had fewer prejudices. Mention it if it is pertinent, but you don’t need to devote a whole story to skin colour, unless you actually are talking about something like racism. Our results correspond with international research in the US and England: a colourblind approach generally doesn’t result in fewer prejudices in children.’

‘I spent half my childhood being told to go back to my own country.’

What is your own experience of prejudice?

‘I’m a person of colour myself. My mother is Indonesian and my father a white Dutchman. I spent half my childhood being told to go back to my own country. My three children, all teenagers, also get asked about where they really come from, despite us all being born here. Colour difference is a visible thing in our family – my husband and their father is a white European – and we’ve talked about that since they were young. But we’ve also discussed from an early age how we talk about others.’

Have you learnt anything from your own children and used their insights for your book?

‘Definitely. Their generation is much more explicitly aware of colour, thanks to the Woke and Black Lives Matter movements. On social media, which I’m hardly ever on, they come across all sorts of stories and opinions, and people talk about it in a very different way there. They point this out to me and I learn from it. Like how extremely people react to things like cultural appropriation. For instance, if a white celebrity has box braids or, like Adele, wears Bantu knots, that can spark an strong reaction in people of colour who tell them they’re not allowed to wear it. It’s a part of black culture that has often been ridiculed. Now white celebrities wear it and it’s suddenly fashion.’


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Should it be banned? 

‘I don’t want to represent all the views on whether that kind of thing should or shouldn’t be allowed. My book is about consciousness. That things like box braids have a cultural and for many a historical background. In England and the US there are schools where pupils aren’t allowed to wear them because they are seen as a kind of expression of ghetto culture. I also learn from my children when we’re watching tv together. I had a fairly “woke” upbringing – although the word didn’t exist in the 90s – but there are still lots of things that we found normal then. Like the role of gender and colour on tv, or the lack of it. Take a popular series like Friends. We really enjoy watching it in our family. But my children say: “It’s not right is it, Mum? There’s hardly any people of colour in it”. I only notice that now and we talk about it, about what it says about the representation of colour in the 90s.’

What else should you be aware of as a parent?

‘The words that you use really do matter. How often do people ask in families or at school if they can have the “skin-coloured pencil”? They nearly always mean the one salmon-coloured pencil, when that is only the skin colour of a limited part of the world. Why is there only one skin-coloured pencil? That is a typical example of small things that you can be aware of. Nowadays there’s a fantastic coloured pencil set with the whole range of skin tones.’

Is it a good idea on social media to do the odd like with a brown thumb?

‘Ha, that’s a dangerous one. The idea is that you choose your own skin tone. It can be taken the wrong way if a white person uses a black hand. I know from my daughters that this can be sensitive.’

To what extent can a bit of humour make it easier – or more difficult – to talk openly about the subject?

‘It’s not up to me to say if something is or isn’t allowed. But humour about groups that are marginalised in society is difficult. It’s possible but it does take a level of finesse that the average person doesn’t possess. Think about the message that you are getting across with jokes. Humour that is well thought out and gives a good depiction of the awkwardness of the situation is fantastic and if you ask me there should be room for this. But a crude pub joke may do more harm than good.’

Text: Linda van Putten
Photos: ANP/David Rozing

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