Being a Parent of a Child of Colour: Part 3

In the last part of the series on "Being a Parent of a Child of Colour," Renira Vellos reflects on her  own experiences of talking about diversity to Vancouver students, argues about the importance of talking about race and provides  a list of further readings.

Part 3: Observations from living in Vancouver

As a teaching assistant for a teacher education program I was a person of colour walking into a class of students born and raised here, most from middle class backgrounds, starting with the topic of …white privilege. There was a deep silence with glued smiles on students’ faces as we talked about the readings. When I asked about the impact of the colour of their skin on their experiences of daily life, it was as if I had spoken of something few had heard about. This troubled me until I read of similar experiences by Tilley and Powick (2007) whose research at other Canadian universities with other teacher candidates, led them to suggest that “White students often struggled with the idea that their group membership grants unearned privileges not available to ‘others.’” (p. 8). It almost seemed that in bringing up the historic privileges associated with “whiteness,” my students had somehow felt blamed for the wrongs of the world. They, each of them individually, had not done those things, they had not hurt other peoples, so they were not directly responsible for the inequality other people experienced. They had all been raised to think, “we are all equal.” After all, we live in a multicultural society.

Yet, as the course continued, students of minority status in the class began delving into the activities of their daily lives and talking about how their experiences of schooling were not “mainstream.” For example, one student of Asian descent whose family had been in Canada for generations spoke about being on the bus with her husband, a young man from England, and being asked where she was from, but no one asked him where he was from. Another student spoke about the kinds of expectations teachers had of students from Asian descent, and how that impacted their relationships with other students who were from white Anglo-European backgrounds. Or of another student who on the bus, while having a private conversation in a language other than English with his friend, was asked to please speak English by an older white man on the bus. Polite as the question was, it speaks to assumptions often made about people who speak languages other than English.

On NOT talking about Race

Race and ethnicity matter, so what happens when as a society we choose to not talk about it? What are the implications of having teachers who have white skin but fail to see the privilege associated with that when teaching increasingly diverse classrooms? Research suggests that people fear that in talking about issues of race they run the risk of being called racist and people refuse to put themselves in a position to be called racist. Yet, if we buy into the argument that colour blindness erases issues of race then are we not, by default, making matters worst? Clearly the colour of our skin is not something we can hide so does ignoring it help or not? What should I, as a researcher and a mother do in these instances?

In ignoring differences that make us who we are, are we are also ignoring the individuality of people? I am who I am because I am a woman, a mother, a daughter, a wife, a graduate student, and a person of colour. Ignoring the colour of my skin impacts the kinds of experiences I have including being ignored. Does ignoring the colour of a person’s skin help to make every person’s experience similar? Research with children who were asked to report on a videotaped incident of racial bullying, showed that children were more likely to report more of the incident and be more aware of what was wrong with the incident if they had been involved in a discussion about race prior to watching the video. This is not to suggest that in speaking to issues of colour that we suggest that everything is about colour, but rather, the acknowledgement that colour matters. Not speaking about something as visible as the colour of our skin can lead us to believe that when we see people being treated differently, it is ok, and we find ways to justify that.

Examining the research, talking with future teachers, has made me both more fearful for my child’s experience of schooling, and more hopeful. Already inundated in the media with conceptions of beauty (white, blond haired, blue eyed, skinny) that are unattainable for most women, I hope that school will be a place where issues of difference can be presented and discussed meaningfully. While to my 3-year old the phrase “we are all equal” does not mean anything now, I would hope that as she grows, that the phrase becomes more nuanced. That she will be able to see that although some people are more equal than others, it is up to her and her generation to talk about things that matter and not vilify things they do not understand. It is up to us, now as parents to ensure that this future generation has the tools they will need to understand difference and how it impacts our lives. I am left wondering how my daughter will respond when she is asked, “where are you from” when she was born and raised in Canada, or is complimented on her accent, or lack thereof.

I hope that as parents we can talk across skin colour to other parents and to our children about the issues that they see more clearly than we do. I hope that as parents we invite our children to ask the kinds of questions that may take us beyond our comfort zones, but that are important to them. I hope that by the time my daughter and her friend are 6, which is the age suggested in research as the age when stereotypes about the colour of people’s skin become fixed for children, that these two girls will be more willing to use the phrase “it’s what inside that matters” meaningfully; all the while recognizing that the colour of a person’s skin speaks to a history, a lineage, and to particular sets of experiences.

Suggested Readings:

Bronson, P. & Merryman, A. (2010). Why white parents don’t talk about race. In Nurtureshock: New thinking about children (p. 45-70). New York, NY: Ebury Press.

Fine, M. & Sirin, S. R. (2007). Theorizing hyphenated selves: Researching youth development in and across contentious political contexts. Social and Personality Psychology Compass (1/1), 16-38.

MacIntosh, P. (1990). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Independent School, 49(2), 31-36.

Tilley, S.A. & Powick, K. (2007). "Radical stuff": Starting a conversation about racial identity and white privilege. In P. Carr & D. Lund, The great white north: Exploring whiteness, privilege, and identity in education in Canada (107-118). The Netherlands: Sense Publishing.

A wife and mother, Renira Vellos is a Belizean graduate student in Human Development, Learning, and Culture at UBC. Her work spans across human development, alternative education, educational policy, and uses critical discourse analysis to examine how people are positioned within policy texts.

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