It’s lunchtime on a weekday in September. I’m at home. The phone rings and I answer. My daughter’s Senior Kindergarten teacher says “Hello.” It’s only the second day of school, so I’m surprised to hear from her. I feel the immediate rush of fear that’s prompted by any unexpected call from school or daycare.
The teacher quickly assures me that my daughter is physically fine, and then says, in a slightly nervous and apologetic tone, “There was an incident at circle time this morning that I wanted to tell you about, just in case your daughter mentions it to you. A child said to your daughter that ‘Black people are dirty and smelly.’” The teacher continues to speak. I hear her but, I mostly just feel time slow down. With every new detail my heart breaks and my blood boils.
My gut reaction is to go get my daughter immediately. I want to pluck her right out of the public-school system and start home schooling her right away. The impulse is not new: It’s something her father and I discussed at length before finally choosing French immersion for our child. We’re both Black people who’ve gone through public schooling in Canada. We know that in spite of Canada’s proclamations that it’s a fully multicultural and just society, anti-Black racism has long existed within its educational institutions.
I stand very still, leaning against the doorframe, as the teacher continues to speak. My eyes rest on a print on our wall of a brown-skinned black girl with her hair wrapped in pink-coloured cloth that belonged to my dad; on the two paintings of black men playing cricket that one of my husband’s aunts gave us; on the black earthenware dish displaying rocks and dirt from the parish in Jamaica where my mom is from. My husband and I have intentionally created a safe, affirming and beautiful home for our family, and still racist words said to my child have managed to infiltrate our loving space.
And then, I’m immediately reminded of the obvious––there is no protection for Black children from anti-Black racism. Anti-Black racism in Canada is a well-researched and well-documented historical fact and ongoing occurence, from York Region School Trustee Nancy Elgin calling a Black mother a ‘nigger’ to a Toronto District School Board principal reprimanding a Black child for wearing her hair in a natural style. The anger I’m feeling is not directed at the child who made the comments to my daughter. How could it be? That child heard those racist ideas somewhere and saw my daughter and her brown skin as an opportunity to practice what they’d learned. My anger is firmly aimed at the adults in charge of that child’s life.
And my question is: What are people, especially non-Black people in Canada, doing to teach children about equity? And not in that dangerous laissez-faire I-don’t-see-colour way. But head on, in age-appropriate ways.
The teacher tells me, “I had the child apologize to your daughter, and your daughter said ‘It’s okay,’ but, I told her that it wasn’t okay because what the child had said to her was wrong.” At this point, I’m numb. The teacher publicly chastised my five-year-old daughter’s response to racism. Are you kidding me? Any response my daughter had had would have been the right one. In instances of racism, the emphasis should never be on modifying the reaction of the victim. In instances of racism, the emphasis should always be on correcting the attitudes and behaviour of the person who said the racist words or did the racist deeds. Period.
The teacher mentions something about a French school nearby being more diverse than my daughter’s school and thus possibly a better fit. A better fit for whom? I think. The child who made the racist comment? Because surely the solution she’s offering is not that my daughter change schools. But that’s precisely what the teacher meant, because again, in instances of racism in Canada, the emphasis is all too often on managing the victim instead of the perpetrator of the hate.
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I call my husband. He’s devastated when I tell him about my conversation with the teacher. So much of our focus as parents is on building our daughter and son’s self-confidence. We want our Black children to thrive. What will be the impact of the child’s racist comment and the teacher’s correction on our little girl?
That evening, my daughter asks her Dad, “Are Black people dirty? Are we smelly?” And so, we talk about the lies people tell and believe about others based on skin colour and features. We talk about how thinking that way makes people small and robs them of a full life. Later she asks, “Why are we Black?” We talk about melanin and the many different skin colours and features that people have.
This conversation isn’t new. I started it with her around the same time she started learning colours. I’d tell her, “Our skin is brown and we’re also Black.” I started age-appropriate conversations about skin colour, features, ethnicity, difference and justice at home so that we’d have a context to discuss all kinds of things—including anti-Black racism in Canadian institutions.
That evening, my husband and I also talk to both our children about our family, our lineage, our communities, and the importance of our daughter and son’s place in each of these spheres.
In the days following the incident, we consult with family members, colleagues and acquaintances. Then we meet with the principal, teacher and teaching assistant at my daughter’s school and make a series of requests, including that the visual and reading materials in the classroom reflect the diversity of our country and that the principal make clear public statements about equity and student conduct at student assemblies. Our requests are met.
But the parents and guardians of Black children in Canada are too often called upon to assess what overlooked resources they have to advocate for. They have long had to strategize about how to deal with the various instances of anti-Black racism that Black children in Canada experience, because the protocols are lacking—or not being implemented.
At random moments in the weeks and months that follow this incident at school, our daughter continues to ask my husband or me questions about the racism that she experienced. In each instance we talk about the lies some people tell and believe, and we reaffirm her importance in our lives and communities.
* * *
Jump forward about two years, and my daughter is seven now. As we head home, one evening, I tell her that I’m writing this story. It occurs to me that I hadn’t asked her for her permission. I do so now, and she says “Yes.”
I also ask her if she remembers the incident. “Yes,” she says. “I think about it sometimes when I’m feeling sad.” She continues that she knows the child’s comments were wrong; that it’s just melanin and we all have more or less of it. Then she starts talking about a card of apology that the child gave her a few weeks after making the racist comment. I am taken aback. I’d never heard her comment about the card—she’d just brought it home and said very little at the time. My daughter says, “All the card said was ‘Sorry,’ not ‘I’m very sorry I said those things, I won’t do it again and is there anything I can do for you.’ It just said ‘Sorry.’”
I didn’t realize that my daughter knew the difference between a simple apology and a full-throated one. I tell her that I think her assessment is fair. I also had no idea that she had such high expectations of people and their capacity to be thoughtful. There is a purity to her expectations that inspires me.
Children are having conversations about race. And the adults who directly and indirectly influence children’s lives need to be thoughtful and intentional about how and what they teach children about skin colour, features, race, ethnicity and equity. If you’re already thoughtful and intentional about these things—thank you for the work that you’re doing to build a just society. And for the record, I’ve changed as a mother, since my daughter experienced anti-Black racism, as a kindergartner. I’m following her lead and setting my expectations higher for people to be thoughtful and intentional. Much higher. I know Canada can do better.
Dr. Naila Keleta-Mae is the mother of a 7-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy. She is also an assistant professor of Theatre and Performance at the University of Waterloo where she researches race, gender and performance. Dr. Keleta-Mae is a leading scholar on Beyoncé and has discussed the artist and other aspects of popular culture in media outlets including the BBC, CBC, Business News Network, and The Canadian Press.