Parenting

‘Racism is stupid’: How author Nikesh Shukla is teaching his children about race


Author Nikesh Shukla chats to us about teaching children about race, feminism, the climate crisis and more (Picture: Nikesh)

When Nikesh Shkula started writing Brown Baby: A Memoir of Race, Family and Home, it sparked a process of catharsis.

In the book, the author, who edited fan-favourite The Good Immigrant, writes letters to his children – specifically his eldest daughter – as he navigates their upbringing while simultaneously mourning his mum.

The dad-of-two lost his mother ten years ago, shortly after his first novel came out, thus beginning his conflicted journey of grieving in private while presenting the polished literary figure in the public.

In writing this memoir, Nikesh says he becomes the child and the father as he considers the lessons he learned in his childhood and the ones he wants to convey to his daughter, whom he refers to as Ganga.

Ganga is named after the Ganges river in India where Nikesh scattered his mum’s ashes, feeling that her spirit (and a likeness of her hands) was reborn into his daughter.

‘It was hard to write,’ Nikesh tells Metro.co.uk over Zoom. ‘My mum died a week before my first novel so I tried to distract myself. It was only when my first child was born that her absence just got louder and louder. The book is about me having a kid and it becomes a book about being a kid.

‘In order to write it, I would have to deal with my mum’s death. So through writing I had to resurrect her and have her die, and have the rawness of that crash around me in order to write it. it was really painful. Being a child and a father is inextricably linked, I couldn’t separate the two.’

The book launched during the pandemic, which Nikesh feels has been good for him, in that it has allowed a stillness not usually occurring after a book launch. It allowed Nikesh to be insulated from constant heavy discussions about death, racism, and other triggering concepts.

Those conversations certainly take a psychological toll. Nikesh highlights his unhealthy relationship with food as he writes about grief, racism, environmentalism and general family life.

Despite dealing with such serious themes, Nikesh hopes the book will help people find joy when the world feels bleak.

Nikesh’s memoir address several themes – race, feminism, environmentalism (Picture: David Fisher/REX)

As a dad trying to impart his lessons on life to his daughter, Nikesh addresses race throughout the text – how to talk to her about her race, her mixed-race heritage and inevitably, racism.

In doing so, he provides somewhat of a template for other parents – whether Black, brown or white – to explore how they address the topic, imploring them to do so.

He approaches the topic of race when Ganga asks about the Bristol Bus Boycott – protests that began after the Bristol Omnibus Company refused to employ Black or Asian bus crews.

‘I explained the Bristol Bus Boycott, which happened not far from where we live.’ he starts. ‘In order to explain that, I had to explain what racism was. I said to her it’s when someone hates someone because of the colour of their skin. She’s six so she was like “that’s stupid”. It didn’t make any sense to her.

‘I was about to say “someone might be racist because…” but I stopped myself because I thought “hang on you’re putting all your cynicism, and weariness and jadedness about the world onto your daughter and making her see the world through your eyes”.’

Instead, he thought: ‘If you see the world through her eyes, how she’s been raised, her family, friends, her conversations – racism is stupid, its the only way to explain it. It really taught me a lesson in ensuring that I’m seeing the world through her eyes rather than my own and that gave me hope, because sometimes the cynicism weighs heavy on your soul.

‘If she can only see it as stupid and be proud of her identity than that is a better start than me trying to push my cynicism onto her.’

Despite the memoir being a series of letters to Ganga, Nikesh doesn’t want his children to read his book. He hopes they don’t need to.

‘If I raise them properly, in the way that we intend to, then they don’t ever need to read this book, it’ll be a sign that we did it right,’ he says.

‘I knew the book had to be honest and soulful, I wanted to talk about big things in a way that was vulnerable and fallible. I don’t know any of the answers. These are all the things that keep me up at night and cause me pain, anxiety. I wanted it to be readable. I want white parents to read it too.

‘The book teaches white parents, too, the importance of raising children in anti-racist ways, for fathers to read about how to raise daughters.

‘I do that epistolary thing of just addressing my daughters (I had to make it accessible and less academic about things).’

The book is out now (Image Nikesh Shukla)

We speak with Nikesh the day after the Oprah interview with Meghan, a day when everything feels heavier for Black and brown people.

This is all the more reason to have joy in our lives, says Nikesh: ‘Joy is hard to come by these days. I knew that parents and all of us are thinking how do we think about the future when everything feels bleak, how do I teach my daughters to be joyful – that was the thing that kept me going. If I always come back to answering that question, I’m doing a good job.

‘How do I help my daughters have a boundless view of what it is to be a girl and what space do I occupy in that conversation as a man?

‘It’s a hopeful book. This is an act of love towards the next generation. I have to write as hopefully as I can. I found that being vulnerable and open and honest was the best way to be hopeful. It allowed for closer intimacy on the page.’

Feminism is another important theme in the memoir. Nikesh is an outsider in these lessons – as a straight man – but also an insider, as a dad trying to be an ally.

He is cognizant that becoming aware of feminism as a dad of daughters is a cliche. His female friends point this out to him.

‘I am learning and unlearning all the time – we all are,’ he notes. ‘What I see in the world is that people don’t show up because they’re scared to get things wrong because that thought makes them uncomfortable.

‘Equally, what I wanted to show was that white people – you need to show up and say stuff and get stuff wrong – it’s what you do next that counts. Don’t just show up because it’s relevant to your life.

‘I wanted to go “yeah I felt uncomfortable in the moment but my female friends are right, I am a dickhead. I was uncomfortable for a few moments when they called me out, my friends cussed me but it was okay”.’

One of the striking lessons on feminism come when Nikesh contends with the South Asian tradition of having babies and children passed around doting family members.

Though this is an innocent and often endearing act, there are some darker connotations when we allow babies to be held by ‘family friends’ or strangers, says Nikesh.

At one point when Ganga is in physical distress over being picked up by an unfamiliar uncle, Nikesh also feels uncomfortable. He compares the moment to the culture of rape and how girls, especially, are taught that their bodies are not their own.

‘I wanted to tell that story to show how I felt,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want it to be a slippery slope. I don’t want them to feel that my daughters’ bodies aren’t their own. I had to watch this moment and live in it.

‘I want the affection I show my kids to be their choice. I love tickling them, and you just do it sometimes because as a parent you don’t think about it. My youngest says she doesn’t like it and tells me to stop. I respect her by honouring her choices.’

As his children are of mixed-white heritage, Nikesh wants them to embrace both parts of their identity.

He says: ‘What I don’t want them is for to feel like they’re half anything, I want them to feel whole. So much of the work I’m doing – my book Good Immigrant, for example, was never representative of all communities but it aimed to stretch the landscape for conversations and what’s considered literature and who gets to write it. With this memoir, I wanted to stretch what it is to be brown, in a contemporary British context.

‘So with my daughters, they’re both aware they’re mixed race and that they’re brown babies. What I want is to raise them and make them think about however they choose to define themselves as they get older, to realise that they’re whole people – not half and half’.

Nikesh has more recommendations for parents hoping to teach their children about race – Wish We Knew What to Say by Dr Pragya Agarwal, Stamped Ibram x Jason Reynalds and Bringing up baby by Uju Asika.

Nikesh’s book Brown Baby: A Memoir of Race, Family and Home is out now.



The State of Racism

This series is an in-depth look at racism in the UK in 2020 and beyond.

We aim to look at how, where and why individual and structural racism impacts people of colour from all walks of life.

It’s vital that we improve the language we have to talk about racism and continue the difficult conversations about inequality – even if they make you uncomfortable.

We want to hear from you – if you have a personal story or experience of racism that you would like to share get in touch: metrolifestyleteam@metro.co.uk

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