TORONTO -- For the past few months, most of the world has had its eyes fixated on the fight against the novel coronavirus. But attention is quickly shifting towards a different battle, one that’s been around for much longer – the battle against racism.

Protests erupted across the United States, Canada, and the world over the weekend, as thousands demonstrated against racism and police brutality, specifically towards members of the Black community. These demonstrations, in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, aim to seek justice for George Floyd. Floyd was killed during an arrest in Minnesota on May 25, after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Similar demonstrations have taken place for Toronto’s Regis Korchincki-Paquet. The 29-year-old died after falling from her apartment balcony in High Park on May 27 while police were present. While her death is still under investigation by Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit, Korchincki-Paquet’s family is questioning the role of responding officers in how she died.

These situations, and others like them, are sparking plenty of conversation about anti-Black racism as well as police brutality, explained Carl James, a professor in York University’s faculty of education. It is especially important to discuss these matters with younger generations, he said, describing them as being tasked with finding ways to spark change.

“Adults have demonstrated [and] Blacks have demonstrated for years, making particular requests for years,” he explained to over the phone on Monday. “Organizations, institutions [and] governments have responded, but not in a way that has brought about change, so the youth have inherited something that’s still going on.”


According to James, a former community and youth worker, understanding anti-Black racism means making a meaningful distinction between the racism experienced by Black people and that experienced by visible minorities.

“All of us have different histories and those histories are rooted in the stories that we tell and our relationship to the state so therefore, it’s not one blank all-racialized group,” he said. “We have to pay attention to some of these differences because those differences inform how we see the different groups.”

Keeping this in mind, James encourages parents to talk to their children about systemic racism, including the injustices faced by Black people as a result of it. The first step in doing this, he explained, is helping children understand who they are themselves.

“I have to understand and give attention to my own identity…and also give my child an understanding of that,” he explained. “When you say, ‘that person’s different,’ – different in relation to what and to whom? How is that person ‘other’ in relation to me? I would have to include myself as a parent in that and my own history and relationship to the state.”


He also points to the importance of educating children on contributions made to society by those of all backgrounds, not just those of a similar skin tone and certainly not just those made by white people.

In explaining current events to your child, for example, it may be helpful to do so in the context of Black history, while describing a past of slavery and segregation along with the impact of the civil rights movement and prominent Black leaders.

James emphasizes the idea of reinforcing to children that we do not exist independent of one another but as a collective and have all contributed to society in such a way.

“We’ve all made contributions – it’s not to identify one as making more contributions than the other, but how collectively we have been able to do so,” he said. “Then we recognize and come to understand and become part of this narrative of…a diverse society.

“It’s another way of putting multiculturalism into practice and the diversity we talk about as a strength.”


That being said, James also noted there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to these conversations. It’s just as important to take things such as age and social circumstance into account when having these discussions. It’s important that the information being shared is at a level the child can understand. It’s also important to have these discussions in relation to examples that reflect everyday aspects of life, using things such as television shows, books or daily encounters for reference points in explaining the impact of race.

But the bottom line, he said, is to help children understand the role that race can play in granting certain privileges and opportunities to one person and not to another. Equally as important is understanding how institutions play a role in facilitating this power imbalance.

“Bringing these understandings to children is not to make them feel like it’s them, it’s to understand how the culture in which they live might have contributed to what we are seeing today,” he said. “It’s not to see privilege as purely a personal thing, but how privilege is facilitated by a system in which we live that provides opportunities for people based on skin colour.

“You have to give children some understanding of the complexities of these things.”


While some parents may think their child is too young for such serious discussions, James said he disagrees.

“I think they’re underestimating the child and what they’re able to learn,” he said. “Children are constantly interpreting the world around them.”

Children as young as age three understand the difference between black skin and white skin, said James. One famous example of this can be seen in ‘the doll tests,’ conducted in the 1940s. These psychological experiments involved a number of Black children from across the U.S., and were meant to look at the psychological effects of segregation.

The children, age three to seven, were shown two different dolls – a white one and a brown one – and asked to identify which one they preferred. Most of the children selected the white doll.

James made a similar discovery back in 1992 when he co-led an identical experiment at Toronto child-care centres. Knowing this, James explains that children often form opinions surrounding their relationships with those around them early on, which can have an impact on thoughts and behaviour later on in life.

“Education has to start early because [children] are seeing this information and constructing ideas at the same time,” he explained. “How do we want them to understand this information? How do we want them to engage with it? What sense do we want them to have of the images they see, so that it informs their own understanding of their relationship to each other?

“It’s important for us to engage young people with these questions.”


Given this recognition at such an early age, it is especially important to start having these discussions early on. And for those who may not believe anti-Black racism or police brutality are as big an issue in Canada as they are in the U.S., James cautions against this type of thinking.

“We have to understand that racism in Canada and the Black experience in Canada is not unlike that of the U.S. because the colonial existence of Canada is not unlike that of the U.S.,” he said. “I would warn them not to see difference, but instead to look at what we can learn.”