Race and ethnicity in the early years FAQs



What is the difference between ethnicity and race?

We firstly need to define ethnicity and race. There is a common assumption that only people from certain groups have an ‘ethnicity’. However, because people mostly only use the term ‘ethnic’ when talking about ethnic minorities or when talking about such concepts as ‘ethnic foods’, we may not realise that in fact everybody has an ethnicity. In other words, all foods come from one or more ethnic cultures or communities and it is wrong to say ‘ethnic food’ when one means food from particular minority communities. The same applies when talking about ‘ethnic people’ when one means people from a Black, Asian or other minority ethnic community.

We are, of course, all ethnic. The implications for young children are that they all have an ethnicity that may be composed of such unifying features as a culture, religion and language. This means that all children and families attending early years settings (Black, Asian, White and other ethnicities) should be encouraged to be proud of and value and celebrate their ethnic heritages.

The word ‘race’ can be applied to the entire human race. But it is problematic when used about different groups of people because there is no scientific evidence for categorising people into different races, despite the fact that it is a term that is commonly applied to different groups. It is for this reason that ‘race’ is often written in speech marks.

Therefore, when talking about different groups of people who share common features (such as language, religion and culture) it is more correct to talk of people with different ethnicities rather than different ‘races’. Perhaps the reason why the word ‘race’ is still commonly (mis)used when refferring to groups of people, is because terms with a similar root (such as ‘racism’ and ‘racial’) are useful terms which continue to be used correctly.

Racism describes all those practices and procedures that, both historically and in the present, disadvantage and discriminate against people because of their colour, culture and/or ‘race’, language or ethnicity.

In the UK, most social, economic and political decisions are made mainly by white people – this means that the majority of white people in the UK rarely suffer from individual, institutional or structural forms of racism. However, racism is complex and it would be overly simplistic to describe racism as ‘white’ people discriminating against ‘black’ people because it can also happen to white people in some (but much less common) circumstances.

Tensions also occur between different ethnic communities and within those communities. A common pitfall is to see all members of an ethnic community as united, when in fact some communities can be very divided. There may be factors that draw people together (for example, Muslims from Africa and Asia may feel connected through their common religion) while other factors may keep people from the same communities apart (for example, Gujarati Hindus may be united by their common background but may be divided by caste differences between them).

This whole issue is very complex. Perhaps the important thing is for practitioners to be sensitive to every individual’s situation and to respond to the individual concerned without allowing pre-formed assumptions to interfere. The more culturally informed and sensitive you are, the more you will be able to respond to the individual needs of people from all communities.

Early Years settings should ensure that all staff attend training on raising awareness and understanding about racism and cultural sensitivity. This can help with developing understanding and strategies for approaching what can be complex situations.

What does the term refugee mean?

The term refugee is widely used to describe people who have been displaced from their country of origin. People may become displaced for a number of reasons such as war or religious, political, social or ethnic conflict in their homeland. These people are unable to return, or are fearful of returning, to their homeland and choose to seek protection in another country. People are only formally described in the UK as refugees when the Immigration Office has accepted their claim for asylum. While people are waiting for a decision on their claim, they are called ‘asylum seekers’. Refugee status is only given to those that have been granted ‘indefinite leave to remain’. For information on child refugees, visit the United Nations (UN) Refugee Agency UNICEF.

What is an unaccompanied child?

The UN defines unaccompanied children as ‘those who are separated from both parents and are not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom, has responsibility to do so’. These unaccompanied children can be further divided into a number of groups:

  • Those who enter the UK and apply for asylum (local authority departments are usually aware of these children).
  • Children who stay with family or friends in private fostering arrangements (in many cases social services do not know of these arrangements).
  • Children who arrive in the UK with family but whose care arrangement ends after arrival.

These children not only have to deal with possible loss and suffering in their homeland but then need to deal with the complexities of entering a country where they may encounter different situations and traumas, which they have to deal with alone.

For further information, visit the Refugee Council.

We have a family using our setting who do not speak English? What should we do?

Here are a range of different things you could do to support the family:

  • Ensure that all relevant policies and procedures are up to date, accessible (and translated where possible), and address all aspects of ethnicity and racism.
  • Learn a few words of the family’s home language. Ask the family to write the words down for you and check the pronunciation, which may help them feel involved.
  • Ensure that all documentation and publicity (such as posters and letters home) use simple English, and wherever possible include images that help convey their content.
  • Use posters that have been translated into the family’s first languages (e.g. Alliance welcome poster).
  • Use tested online translation services such as Free Translation. You can then get translations of day-to-day phrases from English into many languages.
  • Find out about local translating and interpreting services. Your local authority is likely to have the details of such services.
  • If you have any other users of the setting who speak the same home language, then the ‘new’ family may feel comfortable with a member of the other family interpreting and translating (if they agree to do so).
  • Tell the family that it is important that they continue using their first language at home. Their child is likely to pick up English quickly, as soon as they start mixing with English-speaking children. It is widely accepted that bilingualism confers intellectual advantages and the role of the first language in the child’s learning is of great importance.
  • For more information and support you may want to look at the Alliance publication Bilingualism in the early years which guides the best way to support bilingualism.

We are a setting in a rural area. We know there are some families from minority communities living in our area and want to know how we might attract them?

Be aware of who does not use your setting. Once you have identified who they are – it can be easier to identify strategies for attracting those groups. Possible strategies include:

  • Making contact with the communities concerned. You may want to contact with community leaders to tell them about your service so that they can tell other members of their community.
  • Publicising your setting in places where members of those communities congregate, such as places of prayer, community centres, cafés or shops.
  • Contacting the communities or if you do not have the details, ask the local authority or local support groups to make contact for you.
  • Recognising that some communities may not use local childcare services, and  instead use their own nurseries or rely on family and other informal support. This is, of course, their choice and you need to make it clear to them that your setting welcomes their inclusion.
  • Offering other ways of making a partnership with the community, such as providing to support them with childcare for special community events.

The important thing is to reach out to the communities concerned. Talk to community members and let them know about your service and, if appropriate, discuss ways you could adapt your service to fit their needs. Sometimes we have  becoming comfortable delivering services in a particular way, which means that the services are ‘hard to access’ for some people. For example, some outreach projects that work with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities offer sessions on their site. We need to think ‘outside of the box’ when trying to reach ‘new’ communities.

How can we support the identities of our mixed heritage children?

Demographic data research reveals that mixed heritage pupils are the largest growing ethnic group across England as a whole. Their needs may sometimes still be poorly understood – though this is a necessary precondition for the development of their full potential.

Here is a list of factors that can assist early years practitioners in recognising the issues that particularly impact on mixed-heritage children:

  • Ensure that your setting has books, posters and other resources that include mixed-heritage children and families so that mixed-heritage children can see themselves reflected in their play environment.
  • It is important for practitioners to acknowledge all the heritages of all the children in our settings; this includes, of course, the heritages of mixed-heritage children. Practitioners may feel pressured to recognise one heritage above others (in the case of a black/white heritage child, possibly the black rather than the white part of the child’s heritage). However, we would recommend acknowledging both or all parts of a child’s mixed heritage identity.
  • Support parents to understand the setting’s approach toward acknowledging all parts of a child’s heritage, as mixed heritage children need their families to acknowledge all parts of who they are (some helpful website pages for parents of mixed-heritage children can be found at Be Someone and Intermix. As it says on the Intermix website: “Being a parent is hard and being part of a mixed-race family can be even harder.”
  • Recognise that mixed-heritage children may feel uncertain about which group(s) of people to identify with. Others may want to pigeon hole them as having a particular racial identity. By giving them information about all sides of their heritage, they can reach their own conclusions as to who they are and where they belong.
  • Prejudice and racism from others can interfere with a mixed-heritage child’s self-esteem. Such prejudice and discrimination – like all forms of prejudice and discrimination – should be robustly and sensitively challenged.

For more information on race equality including children from mixed heritage please visit Early Years Equality.