silencing children who ask why people have different skin colours can create a sense of taboo and lead to racism later in life, according to an anti-racism project in Falkirk.
Elaine Watts, race equality support teacher for Falkirk council, has been visiting nursery and primary schools to tackle racism and explain the statutory obligations arising from the Race Relations Act. A key aim is to propagate the message that skin colour is not a banned topic.
Some teachers can be reluctant to undertake anti-racism projects, claiming "children don't see colour". She dismisses this, saying, "It's the first thing you notice about someone." She cites an example of a toddler asking his mother about a man nearby, "Why does he have brown skin?" Though the mother might silence the child out of embarrassment, that creates an awareness in the toddler that skin colour is not to be discussed.
"Immediately they know it is something we don't talk about," she says.
Ms Watts argues that children are aware of racial difference when they come to school. "We need to be proactive, not reactive. Racism exists, children know it exists. As soon as you give children opportunities to talk about it, they know the language, and who is subject to racist taunts or bullying."
Themed weeks focusing on a particular country are traditionally seen as a good way of creating awareness of other cultures, but they may not help tackle racism. "I'm not a big fan. You could know everything about Sikhism and still be racist. It can lead to tokenism and stereotyping."
Ms Watts is particularly critical of using themed weeks to raise money for charity. "Racial equality isn't about fundraising or charity - we need to stop this colonial thinking we have," she says.
After such a week in a Falkirk primary, she asked the headteacher if she could carry out a mind-mapping exercise in which the child was asked what words he or she associated with various topics, including black people. To the head's horror, the children responded with "stupid", "ugly" and "poor".
"It wasn't a scientific study, I simply wanted to measure children's attitudes before and after," said Ms Watts.
She challenged the children (who were all white) to explore the differences and similarities they had with people whose skin was a different colour. By the time she left the school, the pupils' use of language had changed. One child said she used to call her local convenience shop the Pakis but didn't any more, though her mother still did. The girl realised that the term was insulting.
In nursery schools, Ms Watts uses photo packs. One example is of a black girl called Cecilia, from Kenya. She says it encourages children to talk about Cecilia's life in relation to their own. "The first thing they noticed was that Cecilia has brown skin," she said.
Although the class were all white, she got them to look at their hands and compare colours. "There was lots of discussion about getting the right colour to paint pictures of Cecilia. It's good to talk about skin colour - it's not something we should shy away from."
Where schools have children from other countries, they can benefit from first-hand knowledge, but they need to be wary of stereotyping or highlighting the child's differences, she says.
Tackling racism in this manner is key to paving the way for smooth racial integration.
"Scotland's population is set to become even more diverse," says Ms Watts.
"Even if there isn't a wide ethnic diversity in your area, that will change. You are missing a trick if you don't use Vikings to talk about migration."
Toolkit "Educating for racial equality - a toolkit for Scottish teachers" is a useful website, sponsored by the Scottish Executive under its One Scotland, Many Cultures banner. It offers:
Definitions and glossary
Anti-racist education FAQs
Faiths and festivals
Examples of good practice
Dealing with racist incidents
Staff development exercises