This week on Checkup, Duncan McCue and special co-host Arjun Ram spoke to young Canadians across the country about racism they’ve encountered, and how they’re fighting back against prejudice.
Some were the targets of derogatory remarks from peers, whether in the classroom or the hockey rink. Others say they were disappointed by their elders, who dismissed their concerns about racism.
They’ve come away from those experiences with lessons about how they can fight discrimination with the help of peers their age, and the importance of educators and other adult mentors to talk openly about racism, even when it might be difficult to broach the topic to young kids.
Here are some of their stories.
Alexandra Mandewo was seven years old when a classmate asked her: “Did you roll in the mud and forget to take a shower?”
Mandewo, who is Black, was shocked and confused by the question. It wasn’t until after her parents contacted the teachers that the school spoke to the other student, who later apologized.
In her experience, Mandewo said most of the racism she experiences comes in the form of micro-aggressions: comments that may not be immediately obvious as hateful, but are still loaded with racial biases.
“Something like, ‘Oh, I didn’t expect you to be smart because you’re Black,'” she said as an example.
“They’re also hard for many to confront because they are usually disguised as a compliment.”
Mandewo, now a Grade 10 student in Coquitlam, B.C., said that educators should have more “tough conversations” with students about the unconscious biases and stereotypes that can fuel micro-aggressions, and encourage students to discuss these issues in anti-racism clubs.
Harlow Joy remembers classmates hurling racist remarks towards him as early as in kindergarten.
“Poop skin, nappy head, stuff like that. It was just really racist things that they didn’t know what they were saying, [but] it’s still problematic,” he said.
I think that was the first time that I actually felt like: ‘Oh, I’m worth something’ … and everything changed.– Harlow Joy
Looking back, Joy was more disappointed in teachers and principals, because he says they didn’t do a good job teaching students why the things they said were hurtful.
Enrolling in Freedom School, a summer program meant to teach students how to combat anti-Black racism, proved the key to Harlow’s success. While there, a principal said he wanted Harlow to transfer to his school in the St. James Town neighbourhood of Toronto.
“I think that was the first time that I actually felt like: ‘Oh, I’m worth something.’ And I got there and everything changed.”
That shot of confidence, along with a supportive community of classmates and teachers at the school, helped propel him to graduating as the valedictorian of his Grade 6 class.
“It really just changed my entire perspective on school, and what I can do in it,” he said.
Filza Ahmed says she hasn’t had many encounters with racism, but the few she did were serious enough to make her rethink her approach to her identity as a Muslim.
When she was in the sixth grade, she says a student called her names like “terrorist,” pulled at her hijab, and tried to choke her with it.
It was scary. I didn’t think I would ever have to go through that in Canada as a 12-year-old.– Filza Ahmed
“It was scary that I had to go through that. I didn’t think I would ever have to go through that in Canada as a 12-year-old,” said Ahmed, who is currently a Grade 10 student in Vaughan, Ont.
Her school principal apologized, and reaffirmed that she shouldn’t ever have to endure that kind of treatment. But she was still nervous about being targeted, and began wearing her hijab more loosely, so that it would fall off more easily if anyone else were to pull at it.
Once she turned 14 years old, Ahmed resolved to wear it properly, without fear. It gave her a new kind of confidence in herself and her identity.
“I can’t speak for other cultures, but … for me, being a Muslim, the hijab is really important to me. It’s part of who I am … and so having fear to wear the hijab is kind of having a fear to be yourself,” she said.
Logan Prosper of Whycocomagh, N.S., knows that trash talk is part of hockey. But last December, he went public stating that a player on an opposing team crossed the line, and targeted him with racist taunts for being Indigenous.
“I was told, you know, I looked like a turd in my helmet. And then he ended it off by saying all Natives look like turds,” Prosper recalled.
“I was angry at first. I wanted to just fight, you know? But that’s what he wanted, because he wanted me out of the game. I had to stop myself and calm myself down.”
An investigation earlier this year by Hockey Nova Scotia concluded that while the alleged remarks were insulting, they were not racist. However, they never made their full report public.
With the support of his father and his teammates, Logan started the red tape movement. A growing number of players in his league have tied red tape onto their sticks to acknowledge and raise awareness of racism in the sport.
Prosper says he’s received support from current and former NHL players, including Ethan Bear, Akim Aliu and Cody McCormick.
“There’s no room for racism in sports at all. And not even just sports — there’s no room for racism in the world,” he said. “We need to come together…. We all bleed the same. We’re all equal.”
Makye Clayton remembers the time when he applied for a job but didn’t get a call back — until he sent in a second application, which was identical except for the listed address.
“I had to switch my address to my friend’s address, [who] only lived up the street. And then they offered me the job,” he said.
Clayton lives in Uniacke Square, a public housing neighbourhood in northern Halifax with a historically large Black community.
“In my head at that point, I felt [was] they were trying to downgrade my community and make me feel like … my community’s less than it really is.”
In defiance of the preconceptions he says he’s encountered, Clayton graduated from high school this year as a valedictorian. He also wrote a song titled Black is Power in response to police violence and racism against the Black community, which he performed at an anti-racism rally in Halifax in June.
He hopes this will inspire others to discover what they want to do with their futures, even if it means breaking through unfair preconceptions or expectations others may have for them.
Written by Jonathan Ore, with files from Kirthana Sasitharan and Kate Cornick.