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Children and ethnicity

Updated Friday, 30 August 2019
Dr Paul Connolly explores the role the ethnicity has on children and their development

Dad, Mum and child

‘Ethnicity’ plays a major role in many people’s lives. It can often have a positive influence, providing us with a sense of belonging and identity and helping us to understand who we are and where we came from. However it can also play a much more negative role in creating and/or sustaining divisions between groups of people that can result in prejudice and discrimination and also, at times, conflicts and wars.

The survey on this website – Like Me, Like You – provides a unique opportunity to see what influence ethnicity has on children’s attitudes towards others and whether children from different parts of the country have different ideas. To complement the survey, this brief essay explains what ‘ethnicity’ is, what the research evidence to date can tell us about the influence it has on children’s attitudes and identities, and what parents can do to help their children develop positive attitudes towards ethnic diversity.

What is ‘ethnicity’?
While there is much debate and disagreement about the concept, ‘ethnicity’ is generally understood as representing a shared sense of identity and history. An ethnic group is therefore a group of people who see themselves as being distinctive in some way from others and of having a common heritage or background. What makes an ethnic group different from others will vary from one group to the next. For some it can be skin colour while for others it can be nationality, religion, language or shared cultural traditions. In many cases it is actually a combination of two or more of these.

In all cases it is important to realize that there is nothing natural nor inevitable about ethnicity. Ethnic identities will develop and change over time. What emerges as an important way for people to organize themselves in one period, whether that be skin colour or religion, may turn out to have little significance in another. Particular ethnic groups therefore tend to emerge and change over time as a consequence of particular social and political developments.

There are two common misconceptions about ethnicity. Firstly, we tend to think of ethnicity in Britain as being mainly about ‘race’ and skin colour. However, there are many ethnic groups that are not distinguished primarily in terms of skin colour. These include, for example, groups defined mainly in terms of religion (i.e. Jewish people or Muslim people) or nationality (i.e. Scottish, Welsh, or Irish people). Moreover, if we look at Northern Ireland for example then we find two main ethnic groups defined by religion – Protestants and Catholics – each tending to see themselves as sharing different cultural and political traditions.

The second misconception concerning ethnicity is that it relates solely to minority groups. This is most commonly seen when we talk, for example, of ‘ethnic jewellery’ or ‘ethnic art’. However, the fact is that we all have an ethnic identity or identities. Being ‘White’, for example, is as much of an ethnic identity as being ‘Black’ or ‘Asian’. The problem is that because White people are the majority in Britain then their ethnic identity is often simply taken for granted and regarded as ‘the norm’ and thus is rarely questioned.

Similar arguments are true in Britain in relation to the English in comparison with the Welsh or Scottish. It is because of this that it has always been that much harder to pin down what it means to be ‘White’ or to be ‘English’. Interestingly, and in both cases, because they are hard to define and because both ethnic identities constitute the majority then we often find slippages in people’s descriptions where ‘being British’ becomes associated with ‘being White’ and/or ‘being English’.


Dad, Mum and child

Where do children learn about ethnicity?
There are many different ways in which children come to learn about ethnicity and consequently to develop a sense of their own ethnic identity. Parents and the immediate family will obviously tend to have a strong influence on children’s developing ethnic identities. The family is, after all, the first experience that most children will have of being a member of an ethnic group and we already know just how influential parents can be in shaping children’s ways of thinking, interests and tastes.

However it is important to understand that it is not just the family where children learn about their ethnic identity. As mentioned earlier, ethnicity is about groups of people, often communities, which tend to have a shared culture and sense of history and belonging. Children’s sense of ethnicity will therefore also tend to be influenced by the events around them in their local community as well as by what they see on television and the ways in which ethnic differences tend to be portrayed.

These influences can also begin from a very early age, as we found in research on young children in Northern Ireland. Whilst these children tended not to begin to explicitly see themselves as Protestant or Catholic until about the ages of five and six, the influences of their respective communities were found to have begun much earlier than this.

By the age of three, for example, Protestant and Catholic children tended to already demonstrate notable differences in terms of which national flag they preferred and also whether they liked particular cultural events in Northern Ireland that tend to be associated with one or other of the two communities.

In the above cases, these same children showed very little knowledge of what the flags or the specific events they expressed preferences for actually represented. What all of this tends to show is that children are already picking up the cultural ‘habits’ and preferences of their own ethnic group even before they become fully aware of what these represent.

Alongside the family and wider community, the other main influence on children’s emerging ethnic identities is the peer group. Once at school a significant part of children’s day is spent mixing with other children. The influence the peer group can have on children’s attitudes and behaviour can be as strong, if not stronger at times, as that of the family. So, in terms of ethnicity it isn’t surprising to find that children learn much about themselves and others from their peers.

Moreover, children don’t simply repeat passively the negative attitudes and prejudices about other ethnic groups they may have heard elsewhere. In fact, even at the ages of five and six, children in England have been found to adapt and re-work existing stereotypes to make sense of their own experiences and sometimes to justify their own actions. The peer group is therefore a place where children actively make use of existing ideas and beliefs to construct their own meanings.

So what can parents do?
There are three main things that parents can do in helping to challenge any negative attitudes their children may have towards other ethnic groups and also encouraging them to be more open to and inclusive of others. Firstly, it is important for parents to learn more about other ethnic communities themselves in terms of their differing histories, traditions and cultures. The more parents know, the more they will be able to answer any questions their children might have and the more they will also be able to recognize and correct any mistaken beliefs or prejudices the children may express about those communities.

Secondly, it is important for parents to make sure their children have the opportunity to learn about other ethnic communities and gain positive experiences of different cultures and traditions. This can include reviewing the books that their children have at home and asking whether they make reference to and include people from other ethnic groups. It can also include trying different types of food and taking part in celebrations and other local events hosted by particular ethnic communities. There are always opportunities available for parents to help their children learn about and experience other people’s cultures and traditions.

Thirdly and finally, there is a need for parents to challenge any negative attitudes or prejudices their children may have towards others. In doing this, however, it is important not to simply ‘tell off’ children and warn them not to say such things again. This rarely works, with children tending simply to keep their existing attitudes intact but learning not to express them in front of their parents.

What parents need to do instead is to use occasions where their children may say something negative as a learning experience. To do this parents need to create an atmosphere that is open and relaxed and one where children feel free to talk about whatever concerns them. If they do make a negative remark they can then be encouraged to think about the implications of what they have said and how it makes others feel. Research has shown that it is possible to have meaningful conversations even with very young children and, through these, to challenge in a constructive way any negative attitudes they may have.


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