What is race and racism?
Race can mean a person’s colour, nationality, ethnicity or citizenship. It’s a protected characteristic in law under the Equality Act 20101 in England, Scotland and Wales, and the Race Relations Order 19972 in Northern Ireland.
This means it’s illegal to discriminate against someone, or treat them differently, because of their race.
It’s important to remember that someone’s ethnicity or national origin may not be the same as their current nationality. For example, someone may have Indian national origins and be living in Britain with a British passport.
Race also includes different ethnic and racial groups. This means a group of people who all share the same protected characteristic of ethnicity or race. General examples of racial groups include White British, Black British, British Asians, British Sikhs, British Jews, Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers.3
Racial discrimination or racism is when someone is treated differently because of their race, ethnicity, nationality or colour. Any type of racism or racial discrimination is abusive and distressing for children and young people who experience or witness it.
If someone commits a crime against you because of your race it is considered a hate crime and is against the law. Instances of bullying that are racially motivated but not a crime are considered racist incidents.
Types of racism and racial discrimination
Racism, racial discrimination and racial bullying can take many forms and children and young people may experience more than one type of racism.
For example, a young person experiencing racial bullying in school could also be sent abusive comments online, and face racial discrimination at their workplace.
Racism can also happen alongside other forms of discrimination or abuse.
Racism or racial discrimination can include:
How racism affects children
Racism and racial abuse or bullying can be really distressing for children and young people. When a child is bullied or treated differently because of their race, it can lead to feelings of isolation, depression, anger or even shame about their race or how they look.
In 2020/21, Childline delivered 285 counselling sessions where racist bullying, racism or being bullied for spiritual, cultural or religious reasons were mentioned. In the same year, there were 36 contacts to the NSPCC helpline from adults with concerns about these issues.
Racism or racial bullying can be overt or openly hostile, such as being called racist names or being sent threats.
Or it can be covert or harder to recognise, involving subtle comments that put a child or young person down and devalue their experience or identity.
Both types of racism are equally distressing for children and young people and can have a significant impact on their mental health.
Covert racism can affect young people’s self-esteem and support the idea that’s it’s okay to challenge a person’s experience.
This type of racism is subtle and can make it seem like it’s okay to dismiss racial prejudice or discrimination with comments like, ’it’s in your head’, or telling someone they’re ‘playing the race card’.
These comments can be very subtle but they are no less abusive, painful and humiliating for children and young people.
How to talk to children about racism
Children and young people will have seen images and stories in the news around Black Lives Matter.
They may also have heard or taken part in recent conversations around racism since the murder of George Floyd and many others in the US.
However, some children may not fully understand what’s happening and may have questions. It’s important to encourage positive and open conversations about race and racism with children and young people.
And to have them often, not just when Black Lives Matter is covered in the news, to keep the conversation going.
We have advice to help.
Sometimes we feel uncomfortable talking about things we don’t know much about. If a child asks you a question which you don’t know the answer to, it’s okay to suggest that you learn together. The following resources can also be a great way to improve your understanding of race and racism:
Learning about race, racism and privilege can lead people to consider what else they can do to combat discrimination. Sometimes, the next step can involve committing yourself to becoming actively anti-racist but it’s not always clear what that means. But when people talk about being anti-racist, it includes:
- listening to people with lived experience of racism and accepting it as truth
- calling out racism and discrimination wherever you see it and using your own privilege to draw attention to it
- continuing to learn about inequality and how it affects others
- regularly assessing your own thoughts about racism and discrimination
- passing on what you learn to those around you, including family, friends and colleagues.
While many parents or carers may feel afraid of saying the wrong thing, having an open conversation will help children learn about how racism still exists, and to recognise how it affects them or people they know. Talking openly can also help a child to feel more comfortable sharing how they’re feeling with you, and to confide in you if they’ve experienced or seen racism or racial abuse.
We have support and advice for starting these conversations on our Talking about difficult topics page.
While many parents may be worried about speaking to younger children in an age-appropriate way, research shows that children can internalize racial bias between ages 2 and 4.6It can help to describe racism in a way that your child will be able to understand. For example, you could talk about fairness, being kind, accepting others for who they are.
For older children, let them lead the conversation so they feel confident sharing their ideas or experiences. It’s important to provide a safe and comfortable environment for them to express themselves in by listening and asking questions without judging them.
It’s important to show children that black history isn’t just slavery, oppression and segregation. You could tell them about black contributions and stories that aren’t linked to the struggle of slavery and civil rights.
It could also help to diversify the books your children read and films or tv shows that they watch. Some recent campaigns and websites that might help you start a conversation include:
- A parent's guide to Black Lives Matter - resources and activities for you to use to work towards racial equality.
- 56 Black Men – a campaign challenging the negative image of Black men throughout mainstream media.
- NSPCC shop - we have a range of children's books on racial diversity and black history.
It can help explain to children that we aren’t all the same, the human race is diverse and that is a good thing. The world would be a very boring place if everyone was the same. This can help children to notice race and appreciate it. It encourages conversation, understanding and empathy with people who are different from them.
- NSPCC shop - we have a range of children's books on racial diversity and black history.
“I am struggling with the racist bullying I get at school... I feel like everyone is against me. School is a quite an isolating place and nobody has ever stood up for me.
"I don't really want to address it to the school because that'll create more drama and it will make more people turn against me and my school life will be even more miserable. I'd rather the school did a talk about racism and its history.”*
*Girl, aged 12.
If you're worried about a child experiencing racial bullying
If a child tells you they’ve experienced racial bullying or abuse, whether they’re being called names, excluded because of their race, attacked or threatened, it’s important to know how support them. We have advice to help.
Listen to them
Show them you care
Decide how you'll support them
Help them get support
Report hate crime to the police
Childline: support for young people
- Racism and racial bullying - advice on what racism is and how to get support
- Discrimination, hate crime and equality - support to help young people recognise and get support if they're experiencing discrimination
- How you look - support around body image and developing confidence with how you look
- Understand me - a campaign challenging racial sterotypes and discrimination
- Get support - contact Childlline counsellors, online or over the phone.
- Bullying and discrimination message boards - a safe space where children can get support from other young people.
More support and advice for parents
Bullying and cyberbullying
Get advice on how to support a child who's being bullied or if you're worried your child might be bullying someone.
Children's mental health
Read our advice on how to support children struggling with their mental health.
Work or volunteer with children and families?
Visit NSPCC Learning for information, resources and training to help you respond to child abuse and neglect and protect children and young people across the UK.
Snapshots are based on real Childline service users but are not necessarily direct quotes. All names and potentially identifying details have been changed to protect the identity of the child or young person involved. Photographs have been posed by models.