Tuesday, April 17, 2012

That's So Racist: Irony, Kids and Racism in a (non-)Post-Racial Society

"That's so racist," I heard a friend of my tween daughters say not long ago. She was talking about another girl's preference for white over dark chocolate. Apparently these types of "jokes" are quite common among the girls and boys in my daughters' social circle, and they are uttered by white and minority kids alike. J and E claim not to make such comments (as J explained, "I like to stay safe on such issues"—on which, more later), but they have heard them, and reported them back to me often enough that it's clear they consider them "normal."

I confess I was initially taken aback by the seeming casualness of such remarks. But as I listened to the girls' anecdotes, I began to wonder if perhaps my white liberal, walking-on-eggshell attitude towards race was the problem. After-all, since 2008 when Obama was elected president, many seemingly intelligent people have argued that North America has become a post-racial society; it's not a stretch to believe that such a society would be one in which racial consciousness and any residual racism would be expressed—and undermined—through irony. In fact, I could see how the popularity of comics such as Russell Peters and Chris Rock, who draw heavily on ethnic stereotypes for their humour, could lend credence to the argument that the issue of racism carries less gravitas today than it did when I was a kid. At the very least the success of entertainers like Peters attests to the acceptability of a kind of ironized racist expression—albeit by people of colour themselves, in the context of comedy and entertainment.

So, I reasoned to myself, if we've entered a post-racial era, why probe my daughters about their views pertaining to race and racism? I had broached the issue of racism before of course, but trepidatiously and in an ad hoc manner because J and E seemed to be blissfully ignorant about racial stereotypes and epithets;  I wasn't convinced that I should be dredging up fraught concepts and words in a potentially unnecessary attempt at proactive anti-racist parenting.

But—big but: I simply don't buy that we are living in either a  post-racial society (that would be the utopia my Ismaili-Canadian friend jokingly envisions in which all people are a soothing shade of beige) or a post-racist one. The truth—less deniable than ever in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing in the US—is that ours is a culture in which subtle and overt racism is alive and well. And in fact, it didn't take all that much digging on my part to uncover a less innocuous vein of racist chicanery in the conversations that J and E overhear at school.

For instance, when I asked them if they thought anyone in their class was in fact racist, they hemmed and hawed, but finally said, yes, there was one boy who they thought might be racist. I asked what he said that made them think so, and they recounted how he frequently draws attention to certain kids' race—albeit, again, in what he thinks is a jokey way. They told me, for instance, that he'll often hold up a yellow object and say to an Asian-Canadian classmate: "Look, it's you." Or he'll hold up brown objects and say the same thing to kids of South Asian origin. I asked J and E what they thought of such comments. E said, "They're just stupid and annoying. But I think it would bother me if I were those kids." J added, "It would be as if I held up my carton of white milk and said, 'look O, it's you.'" Then, she added "I should do that! No, I shouldn't. Two wrongs don't make a right, right?" (Well, in this case, I'm not so sure...)

The irony is that this boy, though white, is not Christian and has (rightly) complained about the Christian orientation of school "holiday" parties (see here). What unnerved me about the situation (in addition to the simple, ignorant racism that it betokened) was the very real possibility that O's offensive actions and speech, and his seeming unawareness of his own contradictory position, stemmed from a lack of meaningful dialogue about race and racism in the home and classroom. I began to realize that J's attitude of "staying safe" about such issues—which she undoubtedly picked up from me—may be inoffensive, but it is not an effective way to promote interracial understanding or to combat racism. In a culture that is mutli-ethnic but clearly far from being either "colour-blind" or post-racial in any meaningful understanding of the term, is it not, I wondered, incumbent upon parents of all ethnicities to speak to their kids about race and racism in a manner that goes beyond the safety of mere tolerance and inoffensiveness?

I think the ethical answer is yes, but the question is, how does one go about it? I have told my daughters about my own history of growing up in a mixed (Jewish-Christian) family in a WASPy neighbourhood, where kids thought I was lying when I told them I wasn't baptized. But I have hesitated to tell them about the virulent racism against south Asians that I witnessed and was deeply affected by in high school. This was the era during which the epithet "Paki" (a slur which Russell Peters has referred to as "my N-word") was flung ignorantly and indiscriminately at anyone who was not white. It is that shameful era in Canadian history which prompted Clarke Blaise to remark: “Toronto has been a dark place. Vancouver has been a dark place.” But do I really want to teach my kids about a word they may never hear, one which is, one can only hope, dead and gone for ever? Perhaps not. Except, here's the problem: slurs have a way of re-surfacing. Not long ago, a man on our street—a father of two young kids—used the P-word in my husband's presence. (My husband was shocked into an embarrassed silence.) More recently, I came across an article in The Toronto Star describing a mother's reaction to hearing her mixed-race child use the word. "You're a Paki," the child said to his mother one day, having heard the term applied to himself at daycare. Post-racist culture, indeed.

Clearly, then, as parents, we cannot be vigilant or proactive enough when it comes to racism. The question is, what form should that vigilance take? I don't know the answer; I'm open to suggestions.


  1. The P word was huge when I was in school. It was THE number one racial slur. I feel sick thinking about it.

    However, I can tell you that as a white liberal mother to a Jamiacan son with a brown-skinned Filipino husband, we talk race all the time not just together but with my son's birthfamily and with my husband's family as well, and I love the frank conversations. I can ask them anything, and they just give the straight goods.

    My son's birthparents told us that in high school, skin tone heirarchies are still the norm.

    Even odder, I am white so people say things to me they would never say if they knew my family constellation, which just makes me so angry.

    Yes, this is in 2012 people.

  2. Harriet -- Thanks for your comment. I think frank, respectful conversations about race and racism are what we all need. Unfortunately, I suspect they're probably still not the norm in many families. I too I hear racist (and anti-Semitic) comments quite frequently. I'm always surprised (though I suppose I shouldn't be) and upset when it happens.

  3. I am white and my husband is black. Like Harriet, we talk about race a lot in our house. It comes up in conversation. My 4 year old has been describing people by skin colour since he could identify colour - "She looks like daddy" "That man looks like you."

    My son often hears things like "your afro is too big" or "don't you want your hair short? You can cut it, you know" or "your afro is kinda poofy" or "Ugh. Now, it just looks like gheri curl." All those comments were made by white people he knows and loves and trusts. All the micro-aggressions add up - throw in a comment like "I don't want to expose my kid to those poor, black kids because they'll bully him 'cause he's white" and I get my 4 year old asking me: "Mommy are black people bad?"

    Have you heard of "NurtureShock"? There is a chapter on why white parents don't talk to their kids about race. They are afraid if they bring it up, they'll introduce a concept their kids hadn't considered before. Truth is, they are already drawing their own conclusions based on what they see, hear, and watch on TV. Many white people say to me "but race shouldn't matter; we just need to stop drawing distinctions among people based on skin colour." But race does matter. It matters and "colour-blindness" doesn't make racism matter less or make it go away.

    I think it's important for white people to acknowledge race - the race of others and of themselves - and to talk about what that means and how it affects their lived experiences.

  4. Thank you for your comment, Sarah. I can understand how racist micro-agressions, as you so aptly term them, can add up and be damaging over time. Heart-breaking for the parents, and so difficult and confusing for the child.

    I hadn't heard of NutureShock, but I will look it up. I think part of what I was trying to get at in the post was that my approach of only addressing issues of race and racism as they arose was not really sufficient, given how strongly I feel about raising socially-conscious, non-racist kids. So, yes, you're right, race does matter. And white parents need to talk to their kids about it.

    1. Yes, I got that from your post! I went on a bit of a tangent and then tried to bring it back. ;)

  5. Interesting post and comments
    while I agree that we need to talk, I tend to think, perhaps incorrectly, that our culture in northTO is not the same as the culture where Trayvon Martin was killed.

  6. Anonymous -- You're right. Our culture in northTO is not the same, but racism is still a problem here, as I've found out.