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The Globe and Mail and We Charity have partnered to promote media literacy and education around global issues. This is part of a series of discussion guides and videos for parents and their children to read, watch and discuss.

In Canada, 1 in 5 people identify as a visible minority, and nearly 5 per cent of people identify as Indigenous, according to the 2016 census.

And while many would say they believe we are all the same inside, and that not thinking about someone’s race is the solution to combatting racism, the reality is people are treated differently based on race or other differences.

For example, in this Globe and Mail article, Hadiya Roderique tells of the struggle she faced as a black woman working as a lawyer on Bay Street as well as the prejudice she faced dating back to her childhood. In kindergarten, her teacher thought she might have an intellectual disability because it seemed all she wanted to do was flip through books; in reality, Ms. Roderique was reading to her classmates. The incorrect conclusion came out of her teacher’s assumptions about race. More recently, a middle-schooler in Louisiana was asked to leave class because her hair extensions violated the school dress code.

There are many more examples of how bias can affect people. Others include how black and Indigenous kids are often punished more harshly than their peers for similar infractions, leading to a higher rate of suspensions and expulsions – and sometimes, to incarceration; it’s a concept known as the school-to-prison pipeline. In 2013, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, Howard Sapers, found that black and Indigenous inmates in prisons are more likely to receive harsher penalties for infractions and are more likely to be denied parole than white inmates. And, as The Globe and Mail reported, a recent study by the Ontario Human Rights Commission confirmed concerns of racial profiling by Toronto Police and “found that black people (and specifically black men) were overrepresented in everything from investigations into use of force and sexual assault by police, to inappropriate or unjustified searches and charges.”

Even today, black and Indigenous children are overrepresented in Ontario’s child-welfare system, in part because of discriminatory bias, according to a report issued in April 2018 by the Ontario Human Rights Commission. It’s a problem across Canada. There’s even a term – Millennium Scoop – for the phenomenon of vast numbers of Indigenous kids being taken away from their families by the state.

How is race defined?

This is a complicated question, but the Ontario Human Rights Commission offers some insight:

“In the past, race was defined as a natural or biological division of the human species based on physical distinctions including skin colour and other bodily features. This notion of race emerged in the context of European imperial domination of nations and peoples deemed ‘non-white’ and was used to establish a classification of peoples.”

But, the Commission continues, science has proved this thinking wrong – that, in fact, there are more similarities between races than differences. Yet despite this, people continue to be separated into categories. It’s a process known as racialization, and it’s most keenly felt by marginalized peoples. If you are a white person, think back to a time when you were aware of your skin colour. It’s likely that few examples will come to mind. That’s because in Canada, white is considered the default, so while you may have received advantages based on your skin colour, you likely have never been discriminated against because of it, and you likely have not experienced racial prejudice in school or in the workplace

What is ableism?

Race is one way people can be discriminated against because of bias and assumptions, but disability is another. According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, ableism refers to "attitudes in society that devalue and limit the potential of persons with disabilities.” Some concrete ways that occurs include using words like “crazy” in a negative sense, or not making a store accessible for everyone. Entry to the work force can also be blocked by barriers for people depending on their abilities. Luckily, some companies have realized that different approaches to hiring can bring valuable people who might ordinarily get dismissed in the typical process on board. One example of this is the software company SAP’s Autism at Work program, which supports those on the spectrum both in the hiring process and during their employment.

Where does bias come from?

We all have biases, both implicit – meaning they are internalized and we may not realize we have them – and explicit, which are closer to the surface. Biases are developed through our experiences and through the messages we get about what is considered positive and negative. It starts when we are very young. A study out of the University of Toronto found that babies as early as six months old may develop racial biases.

To see which implicit biases you hold, you can take a free online test provided by Project Implicit.

Conversation starters

A study out of the Children’s Television Project at Tufts University in Massachusetts showed that of the more than 1,500 characters on animated children’s shows researchers examined, only 5.6 per cent were black. And they found stereotypes remained in terms of the way animators drew the characters they analyzed and how actors voiced them, with many villains having non-American accents. (Related: Did you know that the character of Apu on The Simpsons is voiced by a white actor?)

Have each member of your family name a movie, book or television show that they think might feature stereotypes concerning race or ability.

Ask each other:

  • What makes this a stereotype?
  • What effect do you think watching or reading about stereotyped people has on us?
  • What effect do you think having a more realistic portrayal of characters would have on viewers or readers?
  • Who is telling these stories? What impact could that have on how realistic the portrayal is?
  • Whose stories aren’t being told?

Can we overcome our biases?

Diversity consultant Verna Myers thinks so. Have a read of this transcript of her TED talk on the subject, and share your thoughts.

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