It begins early. When her daughter was in Junior Kindergarten, Stoney Creek, Ont., mom Christabel Pinto says she would come home from school every day in tears. The kids were calling her names; they wouldn’t play with her because, “brown people get diseases.”
“I’d go into the basement and cry,” says Christabel, an accompanist and music director. The teacher’s response was almost worse. “She told the other kids ‘she’s just different from them,’” says Christabel, who withdrew her daughter from the school.
At this point you might be asking, what year was this — 1968? 1975? No. This was in 2010. Christabel’s other children Kambria, 10, and Krispin, 8, still regularly sit alone at lunch.
Kiera Silverglen, 14, of Hamilton, says she’s grown used to racist comments such as “How was the slave ship?” “How was it when you were a maid?” She copes by writing poetry and short stories (she received first place for poetry in this year’s Hamilton Public Library’s Power of the Pen — a prestigious writing contest).
Name-calling is bad enough. Far more insidious and harmful are the negative perceptions and derogatory stereotypes too often associated with people of colour.
“I was almost arrested in Walmart for looking at a DVD,” Kiera says. A salesperson came up to her and asked, “Were you going to steal that?” She had to call for her mom (who is white) to get the manager.
Kiera’s adoptive mom, Catherine Silverglen, is a teacher and anti-racism educator. Catherine shares an example of the sort of attitude her family frequently gets from teachers: “We met with the teacher because Kiera was having some challenges in a particular subject,” she says. “The teacher made a joke that went (with accent), ‘She is just a little bit slow. I don’t want to use the word lazy but I was in Jamaica once mon, and they are all so laid back, maybe it’s cultural.’” (Kiera was adopted from Chicago).
To combat negative perceptions in her classroom, Catherine introduces positive images of non-white cultural groups. “I’ll talk about the incredible histories and contributions of the African continent; Egypt, Benin, ‘the city of Gold.’ Why don’t kids learn any of this?” Too often, we only hear about these cultures in a piteous light – which is an unfair and biased view.
“I think as white people, we really need to challenge ourselves to get to know non-white people,” says Catherine. She suggests also reading a few books by authors from different cultures about their own experiences. Books like The Help and To Kill a Mockingbird are about racism in the U.S. south, for example, but they are about how a white person stood up for a black person. They shouldn’t be the only books on our reading list.
According to Statistics Canada data from 2012 (released in 2014), black populations continued to be the most commonly targeted group for police reported hate crimes motivated by race or ethnicity in 2012, accounting for 42 percent of racial hate crimes. Hate crimes are criminal acts motivated by hate. They can be either violent or non-violent in nature, and affect not only the individual victim but also the groups targeted. Hate crimes also occur in Arab, Asian, Jewish and Aboriginal populations.
By almost every indicator, Canada’s aboriginal population is worse off than African-Americans in the U.S., according to figures compiled in a recent Maclean’s magazine article. After the summer of 2014 — which included riots in Missouri and New York because two unarmed black men were killed by police — this is a pretty grim comparison.
From those riots, emerged the movement #BlackLivesMatter. Canadians, too, have embraced the message (and expanded it to #BlackBrownandRedLivesMatter). Everywhere in the home, in classrooms, in communities across the country, the need for anti-racism education is urgent.
Talk, discuss, converse
It’s never too early to start educating children on how to respond to incidents of racism.
“There are subtleties that kids are amazing at picking up on. If left unexamined, they’ll internalize the wrong message,” says Anita Bromberg, CEO of Canadian Race Relations Foundation (CRRF-fcrr.ca) in Toronto. “It will come out, much to the shock of parents and teachers.”
Anita notes that all animals, including humans (and even infants) have learned to make distinctions about people and places because it was a matter of survival. “You needed to know as a baby that it was safe to pat a dog, but not safe to hug a bear.” She says that while it is not wrong to recognize differences between people — it’s what you do with it.
“Ignoring it, or reprimanding it can be the wrong approach. The best thing parents can do is talk openly to their kids,” says Anita.
Anita’s organization focuses on building harmonious relations within Canadian values of democracy and multiculturalism. ‘Our Canada’ is their most recent initiative to engage communities across the country on conversations about inclusion and diversity. “When we will achieve a truly equal society is when we value each person for who they are. That’s what inclusion is all about. And we are certainly not there,” Anita says.
Rachel Edge and Michael Abraham are youth workers at New Generation Youth Centre (NGEN) in Hamilton. They also use discussion as a key tool in addressing racism.
“Dialogue is one of our most effective ways to engage young people, helping them deconstruct language, or deconstruct lived experiences they are going through, and tying that into potential privilege and power,” says Rachel. “It’s normal to come in the lounge to see a white girl from the west end, and an Arab youth from the core getting really heated but having a staff member facilitate the conversation, and I think that is where a lot of learning and unlearning can take place.”
What you can do at school
Consider especially the amount of time youth spend in schools. “That’s where the majority of students’ experiences and identities are shaped,” says Michael.
Ideally, social justice awareness should be integrated into all levels of education. “Parents have an important role to play. They could put pressure on the school board with a proposal on how education could be more realistic about racism,” Michael says. Christabel’s situation is a perfect case in point: teachers need to be trained how to handle racism with meaningful words and actions, not “she’s just different.”
Rachel and Michael propose that there is a difference in celebrating diversity by honouring and valuing a faith or culture, versus simply appropriating holidays. If the latter is occurring in schools, we need to be aware that there is a high risk for misrepresentation, miscommunication and therefore indirect racism.
“Sometimes, to show honour and respect means to acknowledge that maybe I am not the best person to be teaching a particular topic,” Rachel says. So parents can suggest that community members from diverse cultures and places be invited into the classroom to share their knowledge, or set up other events to give kids context and a friendly image of other cultural groups.
What teachers can do
Getting information from one cultural group doesn’t allow for different perspectives. Rachel suggests encouraging your child’s school to have many different voices, not just a white perspective, if that is the dominant culture at the school. “Kids usually respect and enjoy guest speakers who share new information from a different perspective,” Rachel says.
A social worker in training, Michael believes that Indigenous studies provides a starting point to talk about racism since we live in Canada. What does it mean to be residents on land that was taken, what is that history and how did we get to here?
“It makes it very tangible and presents real lived experiences to help students comprehend the issues,” Michael says. “When you acknowledge colonialism, you can also bring up neo-colonialism which is happening right now; and how we are still benefiting today from that past,” Michael adds.
Although we are making strides policy-wise with anti-racism training and numerous anti-racism toolkits are available for educators, it is still up to individual teachers whether or not they want to implement racism awareness in the classroom.
Nassim Elbardouh is a Vancouver-based schoolteacher. She has taught Grades 3 through 10 and is currently teaching at a school where most of the kids are First Nations. They are all learning their own languages like Cree and Haida”
“What I like to do in a classroom is to address anti-racism education through an intersectional framework,” Nassim says. In contrast to a ‘multi-cultural’ framework where schools celebrate a few times a year (for example, Black History month), or have curriculum add-ons where diversity is a ‘one off,’ Nassim will ask the students, “What are the power structures that exist in our classroom?” She gets kids to think about what power and privileges they have.
Guiding students, and exposing them to the different realities of how privilege operates and is rarely challenged helps them to better understand how systems of oppression function to benefit some, while disadvantaging others.
“If we want to build more resilient communities, ultimately, we need to be talking about white privilege,” Nassim says.
Nassim notes that while there is a lot of talk about bullying, she’s not a fan of the term. “I think it masks homophobia, sexism, ableism, classism and racism,” Nassim says. “As long as we don’t name racism for what it is, we are going to keep experiencing it.”
Nassim tries shifting the culture in the classroom to one of collective accountability, implicating the entire group instead of one person. For example, changing “Hey did I just hear you saying this to Z?” to “Hey, is everybody comfortable with the way Z was just treated?”
“Wouldn’t it be cool if at a very early age it becomes a really valued tool to be someone who stands up for everyone and to not just witness when oppression happens?” she asks. “Ultimately it is a way of addressing racism, how it exists in our society, and what are you going to do when you leave school so as not to contribute to it.”
What you can do at home
There are many ways to expose children to diverse cultures. Gary Pieters of Urban Alliance (urbanalliance.ca) suggests attending cultural events, riding on public transit, talking to people, watching multi-cultural shows on TV, picking up papers that are in a different language to English.
“Check out the school library. Does it have a good selection of books featuring children of different colours and backgrounds?” Gary asks.
Selecting children’s books where the main characters just happen to be Muslim, indigenous or black and where that is not the main story is a great way to normalize people of colour.
“It is important that children are able to make meaning of their own lives through the material we expose them to and that those materials be reflective of the country’s diversity, but also the global diversity that they are living in,” says Gary. “We cannot insulate them from reality.”
Nor should we. Take popular music. Gary points out it rarely ever looks like the mainstream: “Many kids listen to the type of music that is not what their parents listen to.”
Grownups have much to learn from children, because they have something to offer, says Gary. “Each of us has something to learn from each other but also something to share and to give to each other.”
Want to learn more about how to end systemic racism?
The Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre (ACLRC.com) has developed Calgary Anti Racism Education (CARED), a resource that offers people “support in developing a critical understanding of the systemic nature of racism, its historical foundations, and current impact, particularly in terms of the formal education system.”Linda McKay-Panos, Executive Director at ACLRC, says “We should be educating all Canadians about Canada’s history, good and bad, with respect to racism and discrimination. We need to include education about systemic and institutionalized racism for educators, students and the public. Parents and educators need to address their own biases (which we all have). We have to learn continuously as this is an ongoing process and should, more than anything, set an example for our children through our continued learning.”
Hamilton, Ont. writer Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko is a bi-racial mother of mixed-race teens. She is a frequent contributor to ParentsCanada.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, April 2015.