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Race, work and family

Three race relations professionals on communication with their parents and their kids

Rania Younes, 41, Burlington, Ont.

Background: Ethnically Egyptian, grew up in Kuwait, studied in Egypt, settled in Canada in 2000

Occupation: Programs director at the Canadian Arab Institute

Growing up: Younes said she and her Egyptian family never felt equal to locals in Kuwait. When they had uncomfortable run-ins or felt mistreated because of race, first in Kuwait and later in Canada, Younes was taught to simply brush it off.

“My parents were the type who would say, ‘It’s okay, they don’t understand us. Just smile,’” she said.

She can’t recall ever discussing race in any meaningful way with her parents, what it meant in different settings, how it would affect her life at school and later in the working world.

Advice: Younes doesn’t think her parents’ avoidance tactic is a model worth following with her three children, especially since news reports and social media have exposed them to the reality of how great swaths of the population see them.

Instead, she’s encouraged her kids to ask her lots of questions. She also advises them not to feel pressured to hide their Arab identities from peers, even if it seems like it would make life easier. “There’s no use in saying, ‘Let’s erase your background,’” she said.

She started these conversations with her older kids in late elementary school, and hopes to avoid it for a few more years with her youngest, now two years old. “I don’t think anyone should be talking about it until it hits because it’s bringing to their consciousness, awareness of something that really doesn’t need to be there.”

Dianne Corbiere, 49, Barrie, Ont.

Background: A member of the M’Chigeeng First Nation, grew up on a reserve on Manitoulin Island on Lake Huron.

Occupation: Lawyer exclusively representing First Nations clients, particularly on cases involving human rights or land rights

Growing up: Corbiere attended a mixed school off-reserve and said she was forced to think about race from a young age.

“If I got into squabbles with kids in elementary school, they always went for my race,” she says. “It wasn’t ‘Dianne, you’re a meany-face’ or anything like that. It was being called a squaw.”

Her dad would tell his children stories from his own childhood so they could know how to deal with racism, and encouraged them to bone up on their knowledge of both history, such as treaties, and community, including their living relations and ancestors.

“He would say, ‘If you know who you are, and you understand your relationships, you’ll be able to understand anything,’” Corbiere says.

Advice: Corbiere says it’s important for First Nations kids to know what’s worth celebrating in their culture. After she learned her son was reading a book in school that included outdated and offensive portrayals of indigenous peoples, she offered to do a presentation for his class on First Nations art and history.

When kids ask tough questions, it’s important to answer them frankly, even if the answer doesn’t offer much comfort, she said. One day, her son asked “Mom, why do people want to murder and take indigenous women? Is that going to happen to you and [my sister]?”

She replied bluntly that, yes, there was a chance. While she says she lives a cushy life and faces less of a threat than Indigenous women in different socioeconomic realities, letting her son believe his family was immune would simply be misleading, she explained.

“I don’t know what my daughter’s future is going to be. I hope she lives a life similar to me but that’s not always the case,” she said. “Hopefully the [missing and murdered indigenous women] inquiry has good recommendations so my daughter and First Nations daughters have a better future.”

Christopher Taylor, 30, Mississauga

Background: Canadian-born son of immigrants from Barbados

Occupation: Diversity and inclusion co-ordinator at Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney-General

Growing up: Taylor says he never had a conversation where his parents said, “you are this way because you are black.” Instead, theirs was a more subtle message – “be better.”

Taylor played baseball when he was in elementary school. When he didn’t make the highest level of rec league – despite being as good or better than many others in his predominantly white school – his dad broke the news to him, without specifically linking his rejection to race.

Rather than letting him quit, his father continued to take him to batting cages, to hit balls in the park, to practise even in the winter months.

Taylor now realizes race was the undercurrent of many conversations in which his dad pushed him to excel, to outperform his peers in order to get the same opportunities and accolades.

“I only realized recently that he was [encouraging me to work harder] because he understood I didn’t [not] make the team because I wasn’t good enough, it’s because I was black,” Taylor said.

Advice: “You need to let [kids] know that you will be treated differently because of how you look,” he says. That makes it easier, he says, to cope and to understand what needs to be done to get ahead in junior high, high school and beyond. “You already have this foundation of excellence that your blackness isn’t going to slow you down.”

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the name of Dianne Corbiere in some instances.

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