HealthHeart to Heart: New Ottawans and racism concerns

Heart to Heart: New Ottawans and racism concerns

Heart to Heart: New Ottawans and racism concerns

Dear Adele,

We are a professional mixed race family, new to Ottawa, and are concerned about racism. We do not want our children to experience it and we also want ideas about how to ensure they do not become racist in their thinking or behaviour. We would appreciate your ideas.

Grateful New Ottawans

Dear Grateful New Ottawans,

You have come to the right person for a bit of information about the subject of racism and children in Ottawa.

I am an Ottawa born Caucasian mongrel who was a teacher in both major boards in this city for a full career and then helped roughly 1000 families of all races, adopt children of all races, from across the world for another 31 years. In addition, I was married for much of my life to a Black partner and have a ton of biracial relatives including biracial Black/White grandchildren and great nieces and nephews, as well as biracial Chinese/ White and biracial Hispanic/ White great nieces. Indeed my own adopted son discovered an Indigenous birth mother not so long ago. Added to that, I have always been an active involved person in my community with a wide social network of people of assorted races, ethnicities, religions and cultures.

Firstly, rest assured that in my experience, racism is not a big problem in this city.

In 31 years of teaching elementary school in about eight different school settings I cannot think of a single example of racism regarding my colleagues or involving one single student. I recently asked a black 27-year-old front desk employee and his youthful Chinese colleague if they had experienced any incidents of racism growing up in Barrhaven, and neither young man could relate one single story.

In my 27 years with a Black partner, I never experienced one racist incident nor did my partner ever tell me about one which occurred after 1990. I also never heard one story about this problem involving any of his biracial extended family or their children which happened after that date. In my multigenerational extended family, the same statement applies to all the biracial children in that network.

In my adoption practise I rarely met families with racist ideas. When I did, it was often a family born elsewhere with racist ideas entrenched in their cultures from countries where racism is still more prevalent. For example I had a White/ Asian couple who wanted to adopt a Chinese daughter from China at the height of the Canadian program in the 90’s. The eager young professionals who were raised by and large in Canada, were open minded and non racist. However, I received a call one day from the Asian, soon to be grandmother in that family, telling me that her people do not adopt, and that she would sue me if I continued to push her child into adopting an unknown quantity!

Occasionally a local family would express racist preferences such as requesting a child with a fair complexion or be assigned from a region of a country where the children looked a particular way, usually with lighter skin, or a particular facial or body structure, regardless of the race. I had only one family in my entire career  who were racial minorities themselves, who turned down a gorgeous Black healthy baby because of race. However it was extremely rare, so I cannot say it was a significant problem for my field of work.

Ottawa has a wonderful mix of people. Tolerance, warmth and acceptance for everyone seems to be the modus operandi here. That might not be true however in all communities in Canada, as we occasionally hear of racist incidents on the news elsewhere. I think our city leaders and schools have done a lot of work in my lifetime to eliminate racism and our people have responded. Is there anywhere in the world better than Canada to live and raise a family? How very blessed we are.

If you are searching for a way to explain racism to your children you might read and discuss stories and books with this theme. A fine example is an allegorical  resource entitled, ‘The Star Bellied Sneetches’ by Dr. Seuss. It was written in 1961, but is totally relevant today as a story about a whole group of Sneetches with stars on their stomachs who treated the plain bellied Sneetches as inferior. When a story character with Star- On and Star-Off machine comes along the picture changes pretty fast for both groups!!

For older children there are some wonderful films which depict racism that thrived in the past or which rears its ugly head in other places on the planet. I love the remake of ‘The Birth of a Nation’ as well as an older classic film entitled ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. A popular recent film on this theme is ‘The Green Book’ which also holds much promise, along with the aforementioned movies, as discussion starters for your family.

You cannot beat travel to other countries to educate children about the basic similarities of all people, and the history of oppression and conquest of various groups everywhere. On a recent trip to South Africa I learned a great deal about racism and talked to all kinds of people about how racism affects their choices in South Africa today. I  visited the Apatheid Museum where visitors were randomly assigned a ‘White’ ticket or a ‘Coloured’ ticket. Depending on which ticket you drew your tour experience was different. As a ‘Coloured’ ticket holder, I had to walk up more stairs, go further to a bathroom and at one point was not allowed to take any photos, for example. This was a powerful two hour experience for those who have never been discriminated against and could be the type of travel experience you might consider to educate your offspring. Travelling to other countries with such educative value trumps travel to resorts or theme parks in my opinion, and might be worthy of your consideration if your resources can support it.

If you are renting or purchasing a home in the Ottawa community, you might want to think about the racial and cultural mix of the neighbourhood you are looking at. As you know, human beings are quite tribal and often feel more comfortable around their own group. Because of that, some areas of the city are known to have a concentration of persons of a particular race, religion or culture. If you want to augment your chances of raising non-racist children then choose a community with racial and cultural diversity, so your children will interact every single day with all kinds of people. Racism is often rooted in fear of the unknown or ignorant stereotypes which quickly get dispelled when youngsters live next door, play on teams and attend school,with others who appear differently, speak differently, or worship differently. Put them together, especially when they are young and colour lines blur. Children then form friendships around common interests and personality connections. This allows your child to grow up in a climate of tolerance and acceptance of difference, which assists them to understand that it is not the colour of the skin, but the heart and mind that lies within, that is the essence of a good friend, neighbour and community member.

Something you might consider as well is becoming a foster family. You can do this through the Ottawa Children’s Aid Society and help a child whose biological,family cannot be there for them at that time. Foster parent positions which are long term, short term, or respite only on an occasional basis, are usually needed. Your family could request a child of a different background and race, which would allow your youngsters an intimate opportunity to live with and get to know a child who appears differently from them. Seeing how it is totally possible to live together, easily come  to like or love each other, helps promote non racist ideas.

Family meals, walks or car rides provide you opportunities to discuss topics related to racism and get your children thinking and forming their own ideas about racism and  how to combat the problem in our country and in other places too. Open up intellectual thought provoking discussions with questions like,

‘I see the government is going to provide extra funding for the education of Indigenous children. What do you think of that? Why do you think that is fair or not fair?’

Or perhaps ‘ Do you think the bar should be any different to get professional credentials or highly coveted jobs, for people of minority races? What are the pros and cons?’

Or maybe ‘ Do you think it is helpful to have special days celebrated for people of different races, such as ‘Black History Day’? Why do you think that?

Of course your children will be watching you as parents. You are their first and often most important influencer of their ideas, attitudes and opinions. Consider the impact of your own behaviour and communications. Do you yourself make friends with people of different races and cultural backgrounds? Do you choose to participate at places of worship, recreational activities, or shopping establishments for example where people of various races also participate? Do you avoid telling racist jokes or stories? Do you discuss people in the news fairly, focussing on the reason they are in the news rather than the colour of their skin?

I have a story to tell you which might be useful to you and my readers around this subject. It speaks to a common occurrence in which people assume racism is the reason behind the behaviour of others, when in fact it is not.

A biracial professional woman came to me for advice. She told me her supervisor called her in for an interview and told her there were complaints about her hygiene, in particular her body odour. She was adamant it was racially based. I asked her how often she bathed or showered and what kinds deodorant and products she used to address the universal human issue of body odour. She said she showered about once a week and used no deodorant because her skin was sensitive. As well, I personally had recognized that this woman often had an offensive smell about her when I had been in her presence. I was faced with a lovely middle-aged woman who didn't realize that most Canadians bathe almost every day and need to wear deodorant to combat body odour. Without that kind of hygiene routine anyone, of any race, is going to smell badly. Good hygiene is especially important to professionals who work with others and this woman’s supervisor was doing her job, and doing this woman a big favour by helping her realize that her odour was problematic. I tried my best to get this message to this woman in a kind way, and educate her about the fact that daily body washing and use of a deodorant were normal for all of us in Canada, and she needed to start putting that kind of self care into her routine. This problem had absolutely zero to do with racism. She needed to assess and reframe the situation correctly, rather than assuming it was a racist based incident.

A final thought which might be useful to you settling into Ottawa is contained in the old adage ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ While our society values and respects diversity and celebrates different cultures you will find that you and your children regardless of your race, will gain faster and easier acceptance if you learn normally practised Canadian ways and put them into your profile. Work on your English or French language skills, learn how polite well mannered people interact with each here, attend Canadian events and celebrations, join established Canadian groups and recreational activities, and help your children do the same. You will impress your new fellow Ottawans with your friendliness, efforts to become part of our community and I feel confidant you and your progeny will find Ottawa an amazing non racist place to call your home!

Welcome to Ottawa, by the way!

Sincerely, Adele

I'm looking forward to your questions! Email me at and please put Heart to Heart in the subject line. Note that all columns will remain anonymous.

Photo: Pixabay 

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