On Tuesday, Johnny Caesar-Chavannes, 11, was building a snow fort with his friends at school, as is the tradition for February’s winter weather.
The following morning, he found it destroyed. Someone had kicked the fort to pieces, and his friends had witnessed the demolition.
Minutes later, something happened. “The kid who broke it just ran right past us and yelled, ‘Have fun with your fort, n****r,’” Johnny, who is in Grade 6, told HuffPost Canada over the phone.
Johnny responded calmly: he asked the kid to apologize. When the boy refused and proceeded to curse at him again, Johnny reported the incident to officials at Jack Miner Public School in Whitby, Ont., and the boy, who was white, was promptly suspended.
“I knew that the kid would have pretty bad consequences,” Johnny said, “and I knew that, if I had retaliated in an angry way, I would have had consequences that might have been worse than his.”
Watch: Black Canadians unpack the weight of the n-word. Story continues below.
That Johnny was able to stay calm is both a credit to his natural disposition and to his parents, who, from long ago, began preparing him for the racism they feel is inevitable in the lives of Black youth.
“You do all of these things to affirm your kids,” Johnny’s mother, Celina Caesar-Chavannes, told HuffPost Canada. “You tell them they’re brilliant, smart, talented, that their skin is beautiful. But somebody is going to come along and say something about how they look, and they need to be ready.”
Caesar-Chavannes, a former Liberal MP who has been outspoken and unequivocal on the state of race relations in Canada, shared a Twitter thread about the incident, and said this preparation has been difficult.
The conversations about race she and her husband had with Johnny happened early, and covered things like why he should be careful with how he reacts to certain things and what measures he should take if he gets stopped by a police officer.
“These are terrible conversations to have with a kid who is eight or nine years old,” she said. “But it’s not even just about the n-word. We know that he’s a gifted student, that I’m a former Member of Parliament and that his dad works with the Durham Region Police. But he’s still a Black boy. So in spite of everything he has going for him, when people see him, he is a Black boy.”
Incidents like these are not at all isolated, and indicate a larger and more systemic problem.
An October 2019 survey commissioned by the CBC, which polled 4,000 students between the ages of 14 and 21, found that more than half of respondents who identified as visible minorities had been subjected to racist names and/or comments at some point in time.
For many Black students, schools may be the first place they actually encounter racial discrimination.
Kisha McPherson, a social science and humanities professor at Centennial College who has researched the experiences of Black girls in the education system, said Black youth are often forced to mature and become conscious of the world’s social mechanics far earlier than other kids are.
“There’s a different way that our parents talk to us in order to build a kind of resilience, because we have to learn and understand certain things earlier by virtue of our race,” McPherson told HuffPost.
When her daughter, who is now in university, was in grade school, McPherson took her own precautions to prepare her for these moments.
“We were always engaging with race, whether we were talking about social media, watching a TV show or seeing a movie,” she said. “I was always in her ear, just so she could understand what was going on beneath the surface.”
Part of this was to make up for what McPherson thinks the education system lacks: an objective of facilitating substantive conversations about race and racism.
She uses Harper Lee’s 1960 classic To Kill A Mockingbird — an enduring classroom staple — as an example. “That book is littered with the n-word, and it’s rare that teachers take the time or space to contextualize it and give it any meaning,” she said.
Without those literacy tools, she says, students will grow up without a solid understanding of race, history and colonialism in a time where Blackness especially figures largely in the popular culture and music we engage with every day.
What should parents do?
Both McPherson and Caesar-Chavannes see it as a twisted fate that young Black kids have to be primed for the racism that will be “inevitably” inflicted on them by other kids, who typically aren’t required to practice the same reflexiveness or understanding of history.
“We’re forcing Black kids to grow up in a way that isn’t fair. You have to do a lot of fast-forwarding,” says Caesar-Chavannes. “But I’m not going to take any chances.”
The alternative, she says, is an unawareness that leaves them at the mercy of the world: students or administration who make offhandedly racist comments, grocery-store clerks who accuse them of stealing, and, in the worst cases, police officers with implicit biases.
These conversations are always tough to have, but they’re also essential — and not just for parents of colour and their kids. It’s worthwhile for white parents to engage in the same discussions about race and discrimination with their own children, rather than to shy away from it, so the burden of preparation parents of colour are saddled with might be somewhat relieved
Caesar-Chavannes and her husband have always been careful to teach Johnny about what he might face as a Black kid, but they’ve also instilled in him that, should he ever see someone else being harassed — for their sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, religion — then they expect him to say something, too.
For white parents, McPherson says, “I think it’s just about cultivating a natural environment that doesn’t allow that sort of thinking, where kids are conscious about how race, class, gender and all those things work,” she said.
“Children are so smart. They will take what’s given to them — and that includes racism. The environments we grow up in and the people influencing them will have a lot to do with whether or not these attitudes and behaviours are maintained and perpetuated.”