Wish We Knew What to Say Book Review

My 7 year old daughter was in a pharmacy with her mum (my wife) and, whilst they were waiting in the queue together, she pointed out that it wasn't fair that all the women on the boxes of hair dye were white. I was so proud to hear her question the status quo. It showed she had empathy for others, which is a trait I often thinks many adults lack.

As I talk openly about colonialism, privilege, and the construct of race to my own children and to the children that attend inclusion and antiracism meetings at my school, I simultaneously become more hopeful that children have the apparatus to understand issues that society largely dismisses, and frustration that so much potential for social progress remains untapped. Yes, the government, and society at large, could be doing much more to encourage progress towards racial equity, but parents and schools can actually make the biggest changes. As this book argues, children understand so much more than we give them credit for and, if we are not proactive and careful in when and how we teach them about racial issues, we fail to prevent racism in the adults they become.


Wish We Knew What to Say is a book about talking to children about race and racism, regardless of what 'race' the child is. Author Pragya Agarwal uses her experience as a mother and a scientist to use non-judgemental, objective language, whilst still keeping it relevant and accessible. I have been so impressed with Agarwal's honesty and concise communication in work she has done before: I have read her book Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias, and have listened to her on Derren Brown's psychology audiobook Boot Camp for the Brain, and I am pleased to see that she has kept her style and eloquence in this book.

"In talking openly about race and racial justice, we are helping our children understand that even though our history has shaped certain power imbalances and that we are all part of this system, they have the power to break some of these cycles, that they can readdress these imbalances, and that they can feel empowered to make positive change."

Early on, Agarwal talks about how children can influence change. Personally, I think we need to be careful with how much pressure we put on children to deal with things too much - after all, they will be growing up in a world alert to climate catastrophe, deep global inequality and racism. But this book goes on to make the compelling argument that, actually, we owe it to humanity, and to our children, to properly equip them. It also provides a wealth of excellent information for adults who find race confusing. For instance, with simple explanation, she teaches adults about privilege and about institutional racism. As such, I would actually also recommend this to adults who don't have children.

"A quote from the American Academy of Paediatrics President Dr Sara Goza says that: 'Racism harms children's health, starting from before they are born. A growing body of research supports this, and we cannot ignore the impact'. Prolonged exposure to stress hormones such as cortisol leads to inflammatory reactions that predispose individuals to chronic disease."

The book is laid out in a sequential order, starting with how to approach race with very young children- from birth, even. Talking to toddlers, or making them aware of race and racism from such a young age could be dismissed as unnecessary but Agarwal is quick to point out that racism has an impact on children's health even before it is born. The impact of racism has been linked to birth disparities, from low birth rate to sleep disorders, stress disorders and anxiety. We also learn that even witnessing racism can cause trauma-related stress. Countering and tackling racism needs to happen as soon as possible.

"Often parents think that children are too young to tackle complex concepts such as race and racism. But research shows that be the time children are six years old they already have well-formed attitudes that mainly stem from their environment and parents. By the age of nine, many of the racial stereotypes have been laid down very firmly and have grown harder to dislodge. Thus, by the time parents perceive their children to be old enough, the children's attitudes may already be well established and more resistant to change.

This is such a crucial point. It is also a signifier of privilege that white parents deem it unnecessary to talk about it until children are older, if at all. We should all accept responsibility to bring about social justice - it should not just be on marginalised people to shoulder the weight of it all. A succinct quote from Harry Brod, 1989, adds:

"We need to be clear that there is no such thing as giving up one's privilege to be 'outside' the system. One is always in the system. The only question is whether one is part of the system in a way that challenges or strengthens the status quo. Privilege is not something I take and which I therefore have the option of not taking. It is something that society gives me, and unless I change the institutions which give it to me, they will continue to give it, and I will continue to have it, however noble and egalitarian my intentions."

This book provides evidence of why we should talk about race but also informs how we should talk about race. One of the main points this book is very keen to address is the notion that seeing everyone as the same, regardless of the skin colour, can actually be harmful. Parents with the best of interests, saying to their children "Treat black people just like you would do any white person", are actually, perhaps inadvertently, teaching their children to ignore the culture, history, identities and significant challenges that come with being a black person (for instance) in a majority-white country. This colour-blind approach avoids tackling the huge barriers of systemic racism that people of colour have to content with.

"Moving away from the colour-blind ideology is actually an important step to acknowledging white privilege and towards anti-racist activism. Colour blindness is silence around skin-colour, saying that 'we do not notice skin colour'. Silence is also complicity in racism. It whitewashes the systemic oppression that people of colour carry, and it dismisses white privilege."

The reason I recommended this to all people, even if they don't have children, was because this book stresses the importance of everyone addressing their own racial traumas and experiences. Everyone needs to do this because your prejudices or experiences could affect how you interact with others. Parents, especially, must challenge the status quo even more urgently though. If parents continue raise children without encouraging them to look at their own whiteness and the privilege it brings, we risk perpetuating the same systemically unjust systems that hold marginalised people back today.

"For white children. there can be an inherent sense transferred by social cues that whiteness is the standard, and that they are higher up in the social hierarchy. This is great for their own self-esteem because they see people like themselves everywhere, they don't have to doubt or question their own place in the world at a young age, but it can lead to a heightened sense of bias against those who do not look like them."

We should be avoiding a colour-blind approach and instead actively recognise the construct of race and talk about it.

In response to a question like "Why is she so brown?" or "Why is that person in a wheelchair?": If an adult gets embarrassed about a question about brown skin, a child is likely to assume that there is something to be ashamed of"
Are white people bad? "No. Racism was not your idea. You do not have to defend it. You do not have to feel guilty about it. Because that will not solve racism. But racism exists. White privilege exists. Some white people do abuse this power.
You have the power to learn about it, acknowledge it, and do something about it. Staying silent is not the solution. Not talking about racism is not the answer.

I am a teacher and try to use my position of influence to make a difference. Because I teach ages 11+, I found the section concerning children 10-12 particularly affirming. Up until this point, adults are providing the foundations for children to build their empathy and their understanding. It seems that as they approach their teenage years, they "Start forming a deeper sense of morality and social justice, especially if you have engaged them in such conversations from a young age."

Around the age of nine or ten, children form a sense of autonomous morality or moral relativism, which means that they can see morality from other people's point of view too, and that people may differ in how they understand and approach the same moral situation or problem.

I try to capitalise on this search for moral identity but this makes me reflect on the importance of encouraging younger students to join in with discussions concerning antiracism. The older teenagers who attend often already have their views cemented. It is those younger students who haven't considered an antiracist position yet that I should perhaps shift my attention on.

"According to Lawrence Kohlberg, a developmental theorist, children at this stage are progressing through a conventional level of morality. In the first stage of this developmental phase, children start grasping that their moral decisions will be judged by other influential group members. Because they want to be considered a good person and be in favour of their peer group, or with those who are influential in their lives such as teachers of parents. their decisions will be based on whether their actions will be approved by these people. So their peer groups, and what they see and hear from you and their teachers, matter a lot."

Near the end of book, Agarwal suggests going through a range of scenarios with your child or discussing relevant questions such as "How does institutional racism benefit white people?" or "How does cultural appropriation link to structural racism?".

In summary, this book provides a near-complete toolkit for discussing race with children. Antiracism does not involve one quick fix, though. The reality is that responsible teachers and parents should examine the history of race as a construct, the impact of colonialism, the contributions of marginalised people, as well as the complexities of institutional racism perpetuated by the state. This book is a fantastic, helpful resource though. It provides lots of thoughtful questions and prompts the reader to act with well-informed urgency. With objective, accessible language, free from guilt or judgement, made relevant to so many adults, Agarwal really has achieved so much.

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