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Charleston and Subtle Canadian Racism

How do I talk to my children about racism in light of Charleston? I thought it would be easy for me to answer as I do not shy away from real topics with my children. However, I couldn’t come up with something for this blog. I asked my children if I ever talked with them about racism and they looked at me with questions in their eyes and responded, “no”. I talked about the blog with my colleague and told her I was having trouble with this assignment and I couldn’t even answer the questions. I realized that perhaps I didn’t talk with my children about overt racism because of the sheer violence but I do address the subtle racism that exists in our lives. Here are a few examples.

Last year, I was in the passenger seat while my husband was driving. We were stopped at a light and I was people watching. I noticed one lady with a walker trying to cross the road.  It was rather difficult as the road was slippery and slushy from the melting snow. The lady fell and to my shock, one pedestrian kept walking and the other pedestrian, a mother and child, stepped further away from the lady and didn’t do anything to help. The lady couldn’t get up by herself and she was getting wetter and wetter. Oh, the light was taking so long. Finally, the light turned green and my husband turned so we can help. At this point I was appalled that no one was coming to the aid of this lady. You see, the lady was Aboriginal. Makes sense now that no one came to help, doesn’t it? This is subtle racism. 

Another time I was talking with a friend and she was telling me how she hadn’t been out with another friend recently but she didn’t mind as this other friend tends to “go Native” on her. I had a similar conversation about my friend’s brother who doesn’t drink to avoid “going Native”. For both scenarios, I understood the implication of the phrase“going Native”. This phrase was used in simple conversation and both friends didn’t think it would be offensive. This again is subtle racism.

There was another time when someone I knew in passing was walking down the street. I said hi to him and asked why he was here getting his food at this McDonald's when the one downtown by the university is more convenient and accessible for him. His response was that there was a Native man hollering and causing a scene at the one close to the university, so he left to come to this one. He specifically had to say he was a native man instead of just a “man”.  It was as if that extra description was enough of an explanation. Was that necessary? Again for me this is subtle racism.

When I was about 9, I was living with my mom, my auntie, and my cousin. We were living in a house in the suburbs with a car just like everyone else. The difference was that we would wake up to garbage strewn all over our front yard in the middle of the night. I couldn’t understand why someone, our neighbour, would go through the trouble of getting up in the middle of the night to touch garbage and throw it all over our yard. My cousin, who was a few years older than me, explained that our neighbour was prejudiced against us. What for? I don’t know.  

So how do I speak with my kids about incidents like these? I tend to focus on the outcome and the empathy. I try to teach my kids to always consider what other people might feel on the receiving end of their actions, or to ask if they would like something if it were done to them.

In our lives, we face both subtle and overt racism. When we face overt racism, instead of focusing on why someone would do something so horrible, I ask my kids if the actions of that person were the right way to handle the situation. This was done to another person, period. Was it right to do this to another person? I tend to try to teach my children that they have to make their own decisions, in line with what we have taught them as parents. In terms of subtle racism, I talk about how our actions, words, body language tell people a message. I hope they learn to always ask if the message they are sending to people is being understood correctly. Instead of focusing on the racism we face, I would rather that they focus on making sure that they are respecting people.

Overt racism sparks outrage and rightly so. But the examples I gave were more subtle. How many of you can relate to experiencing this subtle racism? How are our words, slang, expressions and body language perpetuating racism? 

I have a final example to share. Recently, my mom was outside in the driveway as her grandchildren were just coming inside for the evening. There was a neighbourhood child riding his bike in our driveway and on his way out, he asked my mom if she was an Indian. I heard the question from inside through the open windows and for a moment I wondered if I should go out and help my mom with this or let her handle it by herself. I chose to wait. My mom’s answer was, “Yeah, I am.” The child’s response was, “No you’re not, you’re nice.” There was a subtle implication that “Indians” are not nice people. As a parent, what are the cues that your children are picking up from you about racism? This is what I ask of parents—become conscious of the messages you subtly tell your children about the value of Aboriginal people. Start with yourself.

[Image: Flickr user AIDSVaccine]


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