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COMMENTARY: The fight against racism starts at home

Crayola recently unveiled their new packs of crayons that represent the world's skin tones. The pack, called Colors of the World, contains 24 different skin-tone colours.
Crayola recently unveiled their new packs of crayons that represent the world's skin tones. The pack, called Colors of the World, contains 24 different skin-tone colours. Crayola

Children aren’t born racist. Racism is something that is learned, and it’s incumbent on parents to prevent their children from becoming racists.

In the last few weeks, we have seen an eruption of protests, across the United States and worldwide, that have called for an end to systemic racism, including right here in Canada.

It has put parents on high alert. Unfortunately, parents of Black and Indigenous children have always had these anxieties top of mind, with very real fears for their childrens’ lives.

COMMENTARY: How one Black mother is preparing her son for life in today’s world

But in this time of reckoning, parents of children of all colours are now wondering how can raise their children to oppose racism.

As early as three months old, babies can distinguish faces by colour, and by age three, children are able to fully grasp racial categories and even the hierarchies associated with them.

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Kids learn through categorizing, and that includes categorizing people based on their physical characteristics, including race. It’s important to accept that this categorization is normal and then keep it from morphing into racism.

Non-Black parents: Five tips for on how to talk to your kids about race
Non-Black parents: Five tips for on how to talk to your kids about race

As parents, so much of that happens in the everyday moments with our children.

I remember as a child often hearing the cautionary words, “stay out of the sun or you’ll get too dark” while being slathered with SPF.  Summertime held many negative associations for me as a child — it was that dreaded time when “I got even darker.”

But I have learned to love my melanin and am now very mindful that dark skin has positive associations for my own children. Basking in the sunshine is a celebratory activity, and we joyfully show-off and compare tan lines after a day in the sun.

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When it comes to the dolls and action figures we play with, the storybooks we read, and the movies and shows we watch, I ensure that strong Black and Brown characters are included. Both of my kids love to colour and like many children express their feelings through their art.

READ MORE: Crayola launches entire line of multicultural skin-tone crayons

Last month, Crayola launched its “Colors of the World” crayon set, with 24 colours to reflect the “full spectrum of human complexions.”

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the anti-racism protests, a box of crayons may not seem significant. But it is. When I showed my kids the crayons, they were thrilled.

“This is so cool! Before I had to colour everyone yellow or brown, and now I can actually find my real colour,” my eight-year-old exclaimed. “I think I’m deep almond. … I wonder who’s deep rose? I’ve never seen a pink person!”

My four-year-old was just as elated.

“This is smart, Mommy, because you know we have more than one skin colour,” she informed me in a matter-of-fact tone. “Before there was only one face colour, brown. Now we can colour everyone’s face on our paper.”

Books to support discussions on race and activism with children
Books to support discussions on race and activism with children

It is important for kids to accurately represent the colour of their skin and it brings a sense of belonging and acceptance, knowing that they can represent any one of their family or friends they choose to colour.

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Beyond our words, our actions speak volumes. Having a diverse group of friends and teaching our children through those relationships goes a very long way.

Research shows that the racial makeup of a parent’s friend network is highly indicative of the racial attitudes their kids will end up having. If you have a racially homogeneous set of friends, your child is likely going to have a narrow lens on what race is — and no, having that one token Black friend from work doesn’t help.

Our non-verbal cues also provide guidance to our children. Our body language tells our children what we view as negative or positive, even subconsciously.

From the moment I first heard Deitrick Haddon’s song I Can’t Breathe, these words have stuck with me: “I know I’m a strong Black man, but please don’t be afraid of what you see.”

My Black male friends have told me that they all too often see the disdain and unfounded fear in storekeepers’ faces when they enter their stores. I can’t imagine spending each day of your life with the presumption of guilt held over your head by society.

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Yes, I experience discrimination and prejudice. But I have never been looked at with scorn when I walked into a store. I don’t want my children to ever look at anyone that way based on the colour of their skin.

Change doesn’t happen overnight, but if we truly want it, we can make it happen. Seeing the power of protest from the past few weeks is proof positive. But it means that all of us must assess our internal biases and make conscious decisions about our behaviour moving forward.

READ MORE: Uncle Ben, Mrs. Butterworth embrace makeovers in light of racist past

We have to be mindful of the subtle images our children are exposed to daily, even at mealtimes.

PepsiCo Inc is changing the name and brand image of its Aunt Jemima pancake mix and syrup, and I commend dropping a mascot with a racist history. The logo features a Black woman named after a character from 19th-century minstrel shows. The offensive caricature is rooted in a stereotype of a friendly Black woman working as a servant or a nanny for a white family.

PepsiCo also said it would donate US$400 million over five years to support black communities and increase black representation at PepsiCo.

The makers of Uncle Ben’s rice and Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup are also pledging to review their long-standing brand images amid sweeping backlash in the United States against racist caricatures from the past.

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Aunt Jemima brand to change name and logo amid anti-racism protests
Aunt Jemima brand to change name and logo amid anti-racism protests

I think about what we “normalize” in our daily actions. When I was a child at school, we would begin the day with the national anthem and the Lord’s Prayer during the morning announcements. Now my children hear the land acknowledgements.

Perhaps this everyday action might help inform the conversations we have about the plight of Indigenous people, residential schools, missing and murdered Indigenous women.

As parents, we are our kids’ first teachers. So, let’s speak more openly. Let’s take a stand when we witness injustice and encourage our children to take action, too.

Let’s embrace curiosity. Children have curious minds. Let’s not shy away from their questions about differences among people because it makes us feel uncomfortable.

It’s about time we sit with some discomfort. We have much to learn and unlearn. Let’s work together to dismantle racism and prevent a next generation of racism.

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Meera Estrada is a cultural commentator and co-host of kultur’D! on Global News Radio 640 Toronto.