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Talking to kids about race

You may struggle to answer your kids’ questions, but resources are here, and the struggle sends a message

“The world is big enough for all of us. There is no reason to hate.” – Marsa Blossom Yarmeto, author

When her daughter, just four years old, came home from school at Kitchener, Ont., Marswa Blossom Yarmeto’s spirits sank. The more she learned, the more disheartened and sad she grew. Which of us wouldn’t?

Her daughter was upset by how the other children were treating her. They told her they didn’t like her hair and that they couldn’t play with her.

Sometimes the aggression was also physical.

“Every parent wants school to be a safe space for their kids. School is the gateway to the future,” says Yarmeto.

When Yarmeto reached out to the school, her daughter’s teacher was responsive and the situation improved but Yarmeto knew this wasn’t an isolated incident.

“This is a global issue,” she says. Children and adults everywhere are the targets of racism every day.

Wanting to make a difference, Yarmeto put her writing talents to use by publishing a children’s book, Black, Brown, or White — We all Feel, “to help children to be more kind, tolerant, accepting and inclusive,” she says. “We live in a diverse world and the world is big enough for all of us. There is no reason to hate.”

The response to Yarmeto’s book from educators and parents around the world has been very positive, including at the school where she works as an educational assistant.

The book helps parents engage in conversations with their children to teach them to be more accepting of another’s culture and race. It’s important for parents to have these conversations with their children before they start school to prepare them for meeting diverse people, says Yarmeto.

Waterloo anti-racism educator Selam Debs agrees that conversations with children about race should start when they are young.

Selam Debs. photo: Supplied

“The perfect time is now,” she says, adding that this is not a one-time conversation you have with your children. You need to integrate anti-racism into your parenting to help your children learn to self-examine and build a sense of awareness and a critical lens to recognize racism, she says.

“Racism is not an event. Racism is woven into everything we do … how we speak … the quality of life,” explains Debs.

From the moment children are born, the messages from the media, the news, television shows, movies and who they see in power have an impact on them.” explains Debs. “We are socialized and conditioned to think this way … we are all swimming in the same water.”

Debs was motivated by her role as a mother to create an anti-racism course. Growing up in Scarborough and Kitchener, Debs faced racism; she wanted to help change the system so her son could thrive.

There is a disproportionate impact on Black and Indigenous youth by negative outcomes in our education, housing, health care, employment and justice systems. “It’s all interconnected,” says Debs.

While it may not be evident to those who are white, there is racism and discrimination in all communities, says Dr. Clark Banack, acting director of the Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities at the University of Alberta. When Banack hears white people say “our community’s not racist,” he suspects they are thinking of the extreme examples of racism such as segregated schools, the Ku Klux Klan and objections to interracial marriage. “But there are many more subtle ways our biases can impact people of colour,” he says.

Racism isn’t always explicit, agrees Debs. Microaggressions are a form of abuse that has been called “death by a thousand paper cuts.” Psychologist Derald Wing Sue defined microaggressions as “everyday verbal, non-verbal and environmental slights, snubs or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” 

Microaggressions can be seen in jokes, insults, acts of belittlement, exclusion and invalidation of people of colour. Examples include saying things like: “You speak good English”; “Where are you really from?; You are so articulate”; “When I look at you, I don’t see colour”; and “I’m not racist, I have black friends.”

While it’s a start to teach our children to be nice, kind and tolerant, Debs says we need to go further. We can teach them to be anti-racist by modelling this behaviour. “It is essential that white people see racism and dismantling racism as a priority, not an afterthought.”

Debs gives some examples of how parents can model anti-racist behaviour: Do you speak up against racism? What books are on your bookshelves and on your children’s bookshelves? Who is invited to your home? What music is played in your home? You can also take your children to museums, festivals, businesses and restaurants where they can interact with diverse populations.

Gina Valle. photo: Supplied

The behaviour you model for your children is more important than what you say, agrees Dr. Gina Valle, founder of Diversity Matters, an organization that works with communities, corporations, schools and governments to make Canada a more equitable country. “Parents are the primary role models for their children from the beginning, for everything.”

What if your child asks you a question and you don’t know the answer? Here’s Valle’s advice: First of all, try to understand why they are asking the question. Ask them if they heard something at school. Did a friend say something they don’t understand? Does something make them feel uncomfortable?

Understanding the motivation behind a question will help you answer it for your child.

If you don’t know the answer to your child’s question, Valle recommends telling them that you are also learning and will find the answer. “Do Google searches, take books out of the library, ask the principal, ask your child’s teacher, ask a colleague or friend, do a personal journal entry to see if the answer comes to you.”

Valle also has some advice for helping parents discuss difficult aspects of Canada’s history such as the Indian Residential Schools, the Chinese Head Tax, slavery and racial segregation. Take books out of the library and ask your parent council at school or the community library to bring in guest speakers who have lived experiences and are representatives of racialized communities, she says.

There are many resources for families to help them get more comfortable with uncomfortable topics such as the tragedy of Indian Residential Schools, says Sylvia Smith, founder of Project of Heart, an organization that aims to educate all Canadians about the schools’ history and legacy.

There are many age-appropriate books that put the information in terms children can understand, Smith adds.

It’s important to learn about these issues, and to develop a willingness to listen, she says. After all, often, it’s not the children who have problems talking about these issues, but the adults who are afraid. 

Marswa Blossom Yarmeto (pictured at left). photo: Supplied

More Resources

Books for Children 

  • The Best of All Worlds — Le meilleur monde imaginable by Gina Valle is available in seven languages and endorsed by UNESCO for the inclusive way it celebrates diversity.
  • Black, Brown or White — We all Feel, a book by Marswa Blossom Yarmeto
  • Happy in Our Skin, a book by Fran Manushkin, read aloud on YouTube.
  • Not my Idea: A Book About Whiteness, a book by Anastasia Higganbotham 
  • When I was Eight, a book by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, read aloud on YouTube.
  • Not My Girl, a book by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, read aloud on YouTube.
  • Spirit Bear: Fishing for Knowledge, Catching Dreams (based on a true story), a book by Cindy Blackstock

Films for Teens

  • The Hate U Give
  • Hidden Figures
  • 13TH
  • When They See Us
  • I Am Not Your Negro

For Parents

  • 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act: Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, a book by Bob Joseph
  • Heart Beats Hate is a grassroots global movement started in Canada that aims to triumph over hate in all its forms to make our homes, schools, communities and the world better.
  • Anti-racism course with Selam Debs
  • Resources for parents at including a list of books that celebrate the diversity of Canada’s population and other resources.
  • Assembly of First Nations education toolkit
  • Legacy of Hope is an organization that works to develop educational resources to increase public awareness and knowledge of the effects of the Residential School system and the ongoing experiences Indigenous peoples continue to face. They have a large collection of residential school survivor stories
  • Project of Heart lists many educational resources for the Indian Residential School system including learning modules, films and historical documents.

About the author


Helen Lammers-Helps

Freelance Writer

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