Even a Canadian Progressive like Tama Ward can be made a little uncomfortable with the role of Post-Colonial Parent.
At breakfast, in the glass-towered city of Vancouver, five-year-old Abigail looks glumly at her half-eaten bowl of cereal.
“What is it, honey?” I brush the bangs back from her face.
She lets out a big sigh. “I wish I wasn’t white.”
I start. Nothing in the parenting manuals has prepared me for that.
“All we’ve ever done is hurt people,” she continues. “I wish my skin was dark and that I had a culture.”
We live in a part of the city where immigrant families abound. Our neighbours are homesick, first-generation Mexicans, which means that salsas and pinatas and Aztec legends feature prominently at shared social gatherings. Our family regularly eats in Little India where we gush over the flavours of curry and dhal, and every February, we attend the Chinese New Year parade in the slanting rain. Plus, my husband and I are children of missionaries and harbour an acute guilt for the cultural imperialism of our forebears. To compensate, we’ve raised our children with a deep appreciation of non-Western cultures.
So when Abigail laments the colour of her white skin, part of me is programmed to protest. Is it not my moral obligation to tell her that her feelings of poor self-worth are nothing compared with the psychological ruin of real racism? Girl, everything about Canadian culture weighs in your advantage and you have no right to snivel!
Instead, I feel a sadness settle over me. We thought we were raising the enlightened child of the 21st century. We thought we were doing our part in setting the history record straight. Yet, in doing so, it seems we have robbed our oldest child of something primal to psychological health, something elemental to her well-being as a human being: cultural roots.
I don’t know what to say.
I consider the you-are-Canadian spiel: “part of a new society made up of the vibrancy of many cultures, etc.” Yet, “Canadian” is precisely the problem. What is Canadian? Her best friend is Canadian and Mexican. Her cousin, Canadian and Bengali. Even our Indigenous neighbours have a First Nation before they have Canada. To play the Canadian card will further neuter her culturally when what she’s looking for are deep roots that ground her to a people and place.
Seized by maternal panic I go in search of our oversized National Geographic Atlas and hoist it up onto the breakfast table. Abigail sits up and she leans in. “It was almost 200 years ago that your people came to Canada from this island.”
Abigail’s face brightens at that word: island. I know what she’s thinking. Islands are places of primal innocence and cultural distinctiveness, such as Haida Gwaii or Never Never Land.
But then when I speak the name of her island, Abigail’s full-body slump returns.
“Great Britain?!” she pouts accusingly. “Aren’t they the bad ones?”