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How can I raise an enlightened child without depriving her of her cultural roots?

facts & arguments

Postcolonial parenting

We thought we were raising an enlightened child, Tama Ward writes, but have we robbed our daughter of her cultural roots?

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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.

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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.

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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?"

Abigail's life to date has been spent absorbing the endless lament of her adults over the injustices of European colonialism. Earlier that summer on a cross-Canada road trip, at what seemed like every historical site, I made a point of highlighting how the colonizing British had brought Indigenous culture to the edge of extinction with their foreign diseases, their land-grabbing policies and their culture-negating residential schools.

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The moment Abigail leaves the house for full-day kindergarten, I dig out a box of wedding china. I know this is a stretch. After all, it's been six generations since my ancestors emigrated from somewhere in the Yorkshire region of England to Peterborough County in Southern Ontario. The only thing we know about them with any certainty is that they were poor to the bone and almost certainly didn't drink tea from porcelain cups and saucers.

When the school day ends, everything down to the white-linen tablecloth is set up in the front room. Abigail enters, stares, then slowly lets her Dora backpack slide to the floor. I explain that this is high tea, "one of the grand traditions of your people." She stands in stunned silence.

The plan is working.

I explain that high tea must be served right at 4 o'clock, not a minute sooner, and that sandwiches are to be cut twice on the diagonal with crusts removed in their entirety.

"Why?" she asks to all of the above.

"It's just our culture."

This answer pleases her.

At 4 p.m. sharp, I pour the tea and watch my white-skinned girl sip and nibble as I have instructed.

My husband walks by and rolls his eyes. He is half Ukrainian and half God-knows-what.

Later in the week, Abigail replicates the high-tea ritual for her teddies and dolls, and then in a crowning act of glory for her Mexican playmate next door. "It's from my culture," I overhear her explaining to Sofia. Sofia seems enchanted.

Ten years have passed since I introduced Abigail to high tea and all my fears have been put to rest. Now a teenage tour de force, she has not over-identified with British culture. She has become neither snobbish, nor repressive. She has her eye on a boy from Peru with brown skin. Knowing her tribe has given her traction to move into the fusion of Vancouver high-school life with a sense of being one among equals, someone who has something unique to contribute to the whole.

Tama Ward lives in East Vancouver.

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