A discussion of RACE
When I was 10 years old, I recall being shushed or scolded by my parents whenever I pointed out people’s differences such as skin, clothing and hair colour. I grew up black and have been black my whole life. From birth to death to filling out forms, having to tell the world your race and colour is always in the face of black people.
It lead me to thinking how do we discuss race? Where do we start? The following dialogue is meant to bring about open-ended discussions that can lead to healthy awareness of culture and race. So, let’s engage in open, honest discussions about race and racism.
As trusted educators, caregivers, and parents, we need to engage in open and honest conversations with children about race and racism. To begin, we must fully understand Canada’s legacy of slavery (yes we had slaves in Canada from 1629 and 1834) and how systemic racism maintains and feeds racial inequity in our country.
Much of this initial anxiety can be managed by examining your own understanding of race by reading books about race and racism, talking with and listen to experts, watching documentaries, and learning how (and committing) to address anti-racist policies and actions within your own community. Recently, I came to the realization of my daughter not understanding the N word. What a time to be alive when you have no idea what the word means.
I have taken it upon myself to teach my daughter about her culture, her colour and about "the word", through documentaries that come recommended and safe for children. One that came highly recommended is called; Slavery and the making of America. It is a four-part series documenting the history of American slavery from its beginnings in the British colonies to its end in the Southern states and the years of post-Civil War Reconstruction. By focusing on the remarkable stories of individual slaves, it offers new perspectives on the slave experience and testifies to the active role that Africans and African Americans took in surviving their bondage and shaping their own lives.
I find that many parents and teachers are worried about saying the “wrong” thing or not having the “right” answers. This is common. The first step in getting comfortable with the uncomfortable is to increase your own knowledge. By learning more, you’ll be better prepared to raise and teach socially conscious and conscientious kids.
I learned the hard way to teach children about race early
I researched the best year to inform children about race. Studies say as early as three years old, many children begin to verbalize what they notice about differences including skin colour, hair, visible disabilities, and gender. Children also want to talk to you about what they notice. As any parent knows, these observations or questions come up at the most inconvenient and unexpected times - while you are busy getting ready for work, while riding the bus within earshot of many other people, or while waiting in line at the grocery store.
It is important to acknowledge a child’s questions and observations, even if you don’t have the answers or feel uncomfortable. Some back pocket responses are: “I’m so glad you brought this up, let’s talk more about it when we can sit down together,” “I love that you are curious about this and I don’t have all the answers right now, but we can learn together.” and “Hmm.. that’s a good observation. I wonder where you came up with that idea. Let’s explore.”
Social awareness and empathy are learned behaviours
When we keep the conversation going, we let our children know their observations about the world are important. It helps them develop social awareness and empathy. It helps reaffirm that it is OK to notice differences and to be curious about others. The discussions they have with the trusting adults in their lives are the most influential in shaping how they see themselves and others. Based on these conversations and my own experience as a black mother and advocate, here are some to help you on this journey;
Examine your own understanding of race.
If race wasn’t discussed in your household growing up, do some research on your own and reflect on what it brings up for you. The more you understand what race means and how it permeates our society, the better equipped you are to teach your children about it.
Become comfortable with terminology and familiar with how certain concepts are used.
For example, race and culture are not synonymous. It’s important to be explicit and provide children with accurate terms so they can learn how to apply them properly.
When your child brings up a topic related to race, don’t be afraid to keep the conversation going. This lets children know it is okay to talk about what they notice. Instead of telling kids to keep quiet, refrain from using particular words or make specific observations out loud, talk to them. Ask them what they noticed and discuss it.
Find opportunities to ask questions. For example, when reading a book to or with your child, ask them why someone is being treated a certain way? Is it because of their gender or skin colour? Let this lead into a rich conversation.
Involve your children in activities to help them learn about their own cultural, racial and ethnic backgrounds. This will help them develop a greater sense of who they are, which will then enable them to create more positive interactions across various racial-ethnic groups.
Help your children to think critically. It is common for children to focus on concrete and visible features to describe others, such as skin colour or assumed gender. Challenge them to think about other important personal dimensions. For example, if your child refers to a friend as “my white friend” or “my brown friend,” ask them to tell you more about their friend (e.g., “What does your friend like to do?” and “What kinds of things do you play together?”).
Recognize your child’s limits and know when to stop. Depending on age and attention spans, conversations with children about these topics may only last a minute or two. But keep going as we are planting seeds for future conversation.
Sometimes black parents do not grow up discussing race or racism, so there is quite a steep learning curve. It has to do with colonized teaching, but that's another blog. If you are a person of colour and you have to explain why stereotypes exist, let your child know you are still figuring out how to talk about these important topics too. The way you grew up (if your black) will be a different experience then those who aren’t black.
Just know this learning is a life long process which I am committed to and that I am so happy I get to have these conversations with my family together. You can’t wait for things to change themselves. You have to push for change.