03/12/2014 05:27 EDT | Updated 05/12/2014 05:59 EDT

Helping Kids Turn Othering into a Critical Discussion

This post is a continued discussion from a previous blog. You can find that blog here.

Some of us are getting a little tired of the "What are you?" question. Many of us have learned enough about the world and have simply developed good enough manners to know that people come in many shapes, sizes, colours, and backgrounds and could be offended if quizzed about themselves in this fashion. But not all of us have taken this in.

I recall many years ago that when a young woman was introduced, the first question asked would be along the lines of "What does your father do?" The implication was, of course, that one could learn whether a woman was respectable or worth knowing by the answer to this question. Women were not worth knowing in their own right. Happily, I have not heard this asked for a few decades.

Still, people of colour can expect to be asked "Where are you from?" The implication is that everyone who is not white must have emigrated from somewhere else. Somehow, knowing the answer to this question is meant not only to satisfy curiosity, but also to be valuable when deciding whether the respondent comes from a "respectable," "exotic," or "dangerous" origin.

An African-Canadian woman I know became very tired of being asked which "island" she came from. Her family had lived in Canada for many, many generations, so her answer to this question was "Toronto Island."

A number of people I know whose mother tongue is English and who have darker skin are regularly asked what language they speak. When they explain to the questioner that, as can be heard, they are currently speaking in English, the second question is often, "No, what do you REALLY speak?"

Another friend, a woman from a First Nation, was questioned at the U.S.-Canada border. "Where do you come from?" she was asked.

"Canada," she replied.

"Where do your parents come from?" she was asked.

"Canada," she replied.

"Grandparents? Great-grandparents?"

"All from Canada and you can keep going," she replied.

She had a Canadian passport and no plans to offer up her "race" as an explanation to a border guard who only wanted to know the answer to "what are you?" Presumably, she did not "look" Aboriginal.

These women are adults and each has found a way to deal with the nuisance questions. But what happens when a child is quizzed in this way? What do we want our children to learn about how they are perceived by others? And most importantly, how can we help our children to think critically about stereotypes and those who believe in them? If we are not careful, our children will learn to internalize the assumptions that others make about them.

A friend and her partner, who together have a young child, come from different parts of the world. The two parents identify as coming from different races. Recently, their child has become interested in this and wants to know how to identify herself. When people ask her, "What are you?" she wants to know what to say.

TVO Parents and the Canadian Civil Liberties Education Trust have teamed up to help families whose children ask this question. We recommend employing critical thinking strategies to help children engage in the struggle against racist stereotyping. Often, the best answer to a question is another question.

Here are a few questions to consider asking the children facing the identity quiz:

- What do you think you are? How would you describe yourself?

- Why do people ask others "what are you?" What do you think they want to know?

- When you meet someone for the first time, what do you want them to know about you?

- What do you think are the characteristics that make up a person's identity?

- Should skin colour, religion, country where we are born, or language we speak at home make a difference to the way people are treated? Why or why not?

Even though most of us wish that the battle against racial and other forms of discrimination were finished and done with, that people were no longer "othered" because of their appearance, many of our children experience this every day.

Let's teach our children that by responding to the "what are you?" question with thoughtful and critical discussions, they can be at the forefront of the fight against ignorance, intolerance, and discrimination.


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