Talking about racism

What do your kids know about race and racism? That depends -- on their age, their experiences and the messages they get from you

Simone Assad was a grade four student in Calgary, one of the few Caribbean-Canadian children in her school, when two girls in her class called her the N-word. “At the time, I didn’t know what it meant,” she says. But she knew it wasn’t nice, and when she got home, she asked her older brother about it. “Get on my bike,” he said. She did. He pedalled furiously back to the school, where he grabbed the two girls and held them in place. “Punch them,” he said.

“I didn’t even really know how to throw a punch,” says Assad. “But I hit them both once, and he let them go and we went home. And they never called me that again.” It was schoolyard justice, though Assad is clear that, as a parent now, she wants her own kids, Lola, six, Luca, three, and four-month-old Coco, to stand up for themselves with words rather than fists.

Whether it’s a mom cringing when her curious preschooler comments loudly on someone’s accent, or a dad bristling when his preteen is presumed to be athletic because of his skin colour, dealing with issues of race is complicated for parents. It can open old wounds or push parents to examine their own biases, even their own racism. But it’s important for parents to separate their baggage from what their kids are going through. “The challenge is to recognize that our kids aren’t us,” says Alyson Schäfer, a Toronto-based psychotherapist and the author of Honey, I Wrecked the Kids, whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower. “Kids may not have the same experiences, hurts or prejudices we do, so we need to meet them where they are.”

And while kids tune in to difference according to their developmental stage — initially by simply noticing it, later by understanding the social implications — what they think and feel about race has a lot to do with the messages we give them. No parent gets it right all the time, but understanding how kids’ attitudes develop and learning from other families’ experiences can boost the chances of getting it closer to right, more of the time.

Noticing difference

From the outset, it seems, we tend to gravitate to the familiar. Research at Harvard’s Laboratory for Developmental Studies found that by three months old, a baby raised in a white household prefers to look at white faces while a baby raised in a black household prefers to look at black ones. That may help explain why Marisa Latini’s then-18-month-old son Julien (whose dad is Asian and mom Italian) reacted fearfully when the family’s new Caribbean-Canadian cleaning lady showed up at their Toronto house for her first day of work. “Julien was terrified, hiding behind my legs, clinging to me,” says Latini, who admits to being embarrassed by her son’s reaction, which was more extreme than his occasional shyness with other new people. Over the following days and weeks, she dealt with his reaction by singing the cleaner’s praises (“Isn’t it nice that she cleaned this for us? Wasn’t it good that she put the toys away?”), and Julien’s fear disappeared.

But preference doesn’t always point in the parents’ direction. “Lola was obsessed with straight, blond hair,” says Andrew Assad of his six-year-old daughter. “No matter how much we said her curly black hair was beautiful, she didn’t believe us.” Until, that is, the family moved from Calgary to Scarborough, Ont., and Lola had her first day at kindergarten. “She came home saying ‘There’s a girl there who looks just like me!’” says Andrew. A few months later at a gymnastics class, a straight-haired little girl told Lola her hair was “crazy.” Lola retorted, “Well, your hair’s crazy too,” and continued on with the class. “Before she’d have been upset,” says mom Simone, “but it just rolled right off her.”

Then there’s the “Mommy, that man is really black!” pronouncement from your three-year-old while you’re standing in line at the bank. Schäfer suggests ignoring your own embarrassment and meeting the comment head-on: “A simple ‘Yes, he is. Isn’t it neat that people come in all colours?’ tells your child that noticing is OK,” she says.

Repeating stereotypes

When Colleen McLelland’s* eight-year-old son, Phillip, made a joke parroting a Chinese accent, the Mississauga, Ont., mom didn’t let it slide. “Phillip has a Chinese friend named Ben, and I asked him if he thought it would hurt Ben’s feelings to hear him,” says McLelland, whose roots are Scottish. “Phillip really hadn’t thought of it that way.”

It can be tougher to make the connection when the stereotype appears to be a positive one. Not long after Heather Trim’s daughter Nicole, then 12, started at a new school, she came home and announced that the Korean kids in her class were all brainiacs compared to white kids like her. “I said, ‘Well, maybe they’re not all smarter, but maybe school work is more of a priority for them and they don’t spend hours playing hockey like you,’” says the Toronto mom. “I’m not sure it was the right thing to say, but I wanted her to think about it a bit more deeply.”

Repeating stereotypes is a common step in a child’s development. Kids learn to understand the world by grouping and categorizing just about everything — including people. And while it might seem as if they’re sucking stereotypes out of the air, the fact is they’re picking up cues about what differences mean, and which ones matter, from family, friends and the broader culture. Which can sometimes strike terror in the hearts of well-meaning parents, concerned that they might say exactly the wrong thing.

That was the thought that passed through Sheila Donovan’s jet-lagged brain after a 41-hour journey from Dieppe, NB, to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for her brother-in-law’s wedding. “Dieppe is pretty white,” says Donovan, whose family is Scottish-Canadian. Son Andrew, then nine, had never seen a woman in a burka before, and asked his mom why many of the women in the airport were wearing them. “Through my fog, I realized that what I said could really influence his perceptions of Muslim women,” says Donovan. “So I told him, ‘That’s an outfit women wear in the place they’re from. It’s part of their culture.’” And that answer satisfied his curiosity.

It’s important to be aware of our own biases too. Tracey Jones-Grant, manager of ESL, literacy and diversity services with the Halifax Public Libraries, recalls reaching for a black doll to buy for her six-year-old niece when the two went shopping several years ago. Her niece declared, “I don’t want that black Barbie!” As Jones-Grant, who identifies as indigenous African-Nova Scotian, tried to coax her, another shopper — “a big white man” — came down the aisle. Jones-Grant braced for a negative comment, but instead the man knelt down to look her niece in the eye and tell her how beautiful the black Barbie was, and how beautiful she was too. Instead of a foe, Jones-Grant encountered an unexpected ally that day. And it was a powerful message for her niece. “She’s 26 now and still remembers him,” says Jones-Grant.

*Names changed by request.

Standing up for what’s right

The Skinner family is a study in diversity: Christine Way Skinner and her husband, Michael, are white, their oldest daughter is part aboriginal, their two other children are part African-Canadian. As well, two Caribbean-Canadian children of a friend live with the Skinners. “Family tree projects get complicated,” says the Newmarket, Ont., mom. She thinks her family probably discusses race more often than others do, starting from the time daughter Beth, then a preschooler, pointed out that dad Michael wasn’t so much white as pink.

The family makes an effort both to cook foods from a variety of cultures and to participate in activities that reflect the children’s heritage, as well as Mom and Dad’s. “We’ve introduced them to Irish music,” says Skinner, “which they mock.”

And while Skinner says her children haven’t faced a lot of overt racism, she sees it in more subtle forms: people who say “how lucky” their children are that the Skinners “took them in,” or the teacher who once asked if the attitude of their Caribbean-Canadian teenager was “cultural.” “I was so caught off guard, I didn’t know what to say,” she says. “But later I thought, yeah, it’s cultural: teenage girl cultural!”

Jones-Grant recently had a similar experience when attending a parent information night at her son’s new junior high school. The only parent of colour in the audience, she asked the principal about the school’s extracurricular programs. “He looked at me and launched into a description of the sports programs,” says Jones-Grant. “When he finished, I said, ‘That’s interesting. What about the academic programs?’” Challenging subtle racial attitudes with a pointed question or two is a tactic that Jones-Grant favours. “Asking someone why they think something is ‘cultural’ is a way of holding people accountable for ‘polite’ racism,” she says.

By the time they reach their tweens and teens, kids understand that stereotypes — especially negative ones — are generally frowned upon, and will reality-check them against their own experiences. Still, with peer influence more evident, parents often wonder if they have any impact. “All we can do is try to reinforce our values at home,” says Donovan. She tries to make connections her children understand: When talking to her son about discrimination against gays and lesbians, she spoke about the negative attitudes some people have toward French people. “Well, that’s stupid,” said Andrew, who is in a French immersion program. “You’re right,” said his mom. “Discrimination is stupid.”

Helping tweens and teens understand the history of racism is something Jones-Grant supports as well. Her father was a Canadian Black Panther and her mother a civil rights activist; they talked to her about social injustice and equipped her to deal with violent racists by making her a leather bookbag with a detachable strap. Her mother told her to use it if she had to fight back. While Jones-Grant hopes her sons won’t meet racism with violence — at least in part because she fears young black men are more likely to be blamed for violent behaviour even when they don’t initiate it — she has talked to them about “turning racist words back on the speaker” by challenging racist statements and questioning the attitudes of the person using them. And when that doesn’t work? “I tell them it’s OK to suck their teeth, say ‘You’re not worth shit’ and walk away.”

In the face of explicitly racist behaviour, Schäfer says it’s important to empower all children — no matter their background — to take action. Encourage them to start discussions at school and form groups that work for change or hold governments accountable. Pushing schools and other institutions to respond to racist behaviour is equally important, says Jones-Grant: “Our kids need to know that we don’t accept racism.”

Not that it’s always kids who need that reminder. Last spring, a 15-year-old Asian student in Keswick, Ont., was suspended from high school and threatened with expulsion after defending himself from a white student who called him a “fucking Chinese” and then shoved him. A week later, 400 Keswick High School students held a rally of support for the Asian student: Wearing black, they marched out of their classes and protested in front of the school. Grade 12 organizer Mathew Winch was quoted in news reports, saying the students wanted to stand up against bullying and racism. And while the incident is proof that racism hasn’t disappeared, it’s also clear that, sometimes, it’s the kids who set the example for the grown-ups.

Conversation starters

Preschoolers “Every culture has a Cinderella story,” says Tracey Jones-Grant, manager of ESL, literacy and diversity services with the Halifax Public Libraries. In her past role as a children’s librarian, she frequently searched for stories from a variety of backgrounds. “What does your Cinderella look like?” she’d ask as she and the children explored tales from around the world.

School-agers With children awash in media messages, it’s tempting to try to control what they see. Schäfer offers another route: Use the negative images you see as a springboard for conversation about why they’re negative.

Tweens and teens By the time children are older, no matter what their background, they’ve likely experienced exclusion or bullying. Connecting their feelings of being targeted or left out to what racism feels like can be a powerful moment of empathy and understanding. “Most teens are ready for deeper conversations,” says Schäfer, “even with their parents!”

For students who have been on the receiving end of racist remarks or actions, Jones-Grant says it’s important to encourage them to challenge the remarks — but for their own safety, to do that in a non-violent manner and walk away, something she acknowledges can be easier said than done.

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