"Where are you really from?" Using books to talk to children about race

Published on: 11 October 2023

Author and geneticist Adam Rutherford explains how books can help tackle this tricky topic with children.

Celebrating differences instead of reinforcing stereotypes

People are different. We all look different, and have different hair and skin colours and speak different languages. Children know this, but it is my belief that while they can see difference, people have to be taught to be racist, or to learn to associate those differences with stereotypes, either positive or negative. It is hard not to absorb these ideas because they are baked into our culture.

Race is real and is important. This needs stating because sometimes – and I have been guilty of this in the past – well intentioned anti-racist people make the mistake of saying that race does not exist. What is meant by this is that race is an invented, socially constructed way of describing people. The reason this is important to me is because it was biology (or rather, biologists) that invented racial categorisations, but it was also biology that later showed that those classifications were not based in our DNA. The very root of the biological sciences in the 18th century was to serve European expansion, white supremacy and colonialism, but ultimately it was genetics that dismantled those ideas. Such is science.

But the legacy of that trajectory is that the racial categories that we continue to use today are also rooted in scientific racism of the past. In the names we call people and populations, and in the stereotypes we associate with race – in sport, or academia or even in behaviours. Therefore to us now, race is real.

Illustration: Erika MezaIllustration: Erika Meza

"Why do you look different to some people?"

The reason I wanted to write Where Are You Really From? is because this history and the underlying biology are not obvious (and is nowhere to be found in the school curriculum), but children need to be equipped to have this conversation. The title is a question that people with different coloured skin from the majority get asked all the time. I’m mixed-race myself, as is my co-author Emma Norry, and we’ve got dozens of examples of this, as will so many of the kids and parents who I hope will pick this book up. It’s a funny, awkward question, sometimes well intentioned, often malign – often it's code for ‘Why do you look different to some people?’ But it’s so hard to answer. When do you mean? I was born in Ipswich, but have spent more time in London. Where am I really from? Erm… Ipswich.

So the idea was to tell the whole story of evolution, from the beginning of life on Earth – so children have the absolute definitive answer to that question, and the knowledge to back it up.

My book is non-fiction, but fiction can also be used to start conversations with children about race and lineage. Reading books about protagonists with a different culture to the reader, or a different skin colour, engenders empathy. The more that children are exposed to a variety of backgrounds and ways of living through books and stories, the more they see how similar humans are. Scientifically, humans are incredibly closely related: every single person shares ancestry within the last three or four thousand years – and if you’re of European descent, within the last thousand.

We are all definitely, mathematically, and absolutely, descended from royalty.

Books show children how connected humans are, and from that, discussions can be had about differences and similarities. These chats are important to have with children from all backgrounds, so that in the future, hopefully, stereotypes can be quashed and no one will be asked ‘Where are you really from?’

Where Are You Really From? by Adam Rutherford and EL Norry, illustrated by Adam Ming, is out now.

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