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School is supposed to be a safe environment where children can learn, grow, and flourish.

Yet, studies and research point to a different reality for students of colour

Racism is embedded in our education system in a variety of ways. Students of colour are subjected to racist slurs. Black students are suspended at higher rates in comparison to other races. Educational curriculum that ignores people of colour and presents white experiences as the default. Anti-Indigenous racism from teachers. These are just a few examples.

Although many promote Canada as a nation that embraces multiculturalism, students of colour face racism every day.

Read on, and learn more about different ways racism in school can be prevented. This includes raising awareness about unconscious bias, creating culturally inclusive curricula, and implementing safe spaces for people of colour.

What we’ll be discussing:

How does racism show up in schools?

Racism is rooted in unequal power dynamics between racial groups, where assumptions about certain racial groups’ value and capacity are solely determined by characteristics of their skin color, hair texture, and culture. In the Canadian context racism often manifests itself through white supremacy where white people are deemed superior to all other races.

With this imbalance comes prejudice and acts of discrimination toward People of Colour at personal and systemic levels.

Our schools are not immune to this belief.

At an interpersonal level, referring to the racial discrimination that happens between people, students of colour may be excluded from activities, physically assaulted, or called racial slurs. A study commissioned by the CBC reported that more than half of racialized students were the victims of racist taunts. CBC included the story from one black student, he was called the n-word on several occasions and told to “go kill himself” by his classmates. It escalated to physical attacks that were filmed and shared on social media.

On a systemic level, referring to how racism has become embedded in institutional processes and policies, students of colour are inherently disadvantaged within our education system.

In the Peel region in Ontario (consisting of Mississauga, Brampton, and Halton) Black students make up 10.2 percent of the high school population but they represent 22.5 percent of students receiving suspensions. And a study in Alberta’s Rocky View Schools District uncovered that white privilege and racism by educators were a barrier to school attendance for many Indigenous Peoples. During the 2017-18 school year, 30 percent of students who identify as Indigenous were considered chronically absent citing cross-cultural anxiety between themselves and their educators as a key contributor to missing class. Of that, 80 percent were students who lived on a reservation.

Ways to Prevent Racism in Schools

School should be a safe place, where every student is celebrated and nurtured. This is not the case for students of colour. With an increase in hate crimes and racial discrimination, now more than ever, measures need to be put in place to make sure schools are safe and inclusive for everyone.

Here are a few ways racism can be prevented and eliminated in our schools.

1. Educate Teachers and Administrators About Unconscious Bias

Unconscious (or implicit) bias refers to the attitudes, assumptions, and stereotypes we hold unconsciously about different groups of people. These ingrained opinions can cause us to make quick judgments and assessments of others based on race. For example, a teacher may automatically assume a Black student is aggressive, troublesome, guilty, or dangerous whereas a white student is presumed to be gentle, innocent, or misunderstood.

This racial bias feeds into individual teachers’ actions and decision-making within our education systems, ultimately perpetuating systemic racism. For instance, in Toronto, 42 percent of Black high school students are suspended at least once by the time they graduate in comparison to 18 percent of white students.

Unconscious bias feeds on ignorance and silence – we can’t fix what we don’t know. That’s why it’s so important to educate school faculty about racial bias, how it presents itself, and what can be done to eliminate it.

If you’re a teacher, and your school hasn’t provided unconscious bias training, talk to your school’s administrators or school board. If you want to do it on your own, there are plenty of resources that you can take advantage of. For starters, you can take Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test (IAT) to learn whether implicit bias is present in your thinking and to what extent. You’ll also gain a better understanding of how these biases influence your beliefs, actions, attitudes, and decisions.

Many existing policies and laws in our society aim to address overt racism. But it’s just as critical to tackle unconscious racial bias. Too often, it goes unrecognized, creating inequality in our classroom — a place where all children should feel safe and free from prejudice.

2. Teach accurate history and culturally inclusive lessons

Many schools do not accurately teach Canada’s history. Most do not discuss the atrocities inflicted on Indigenous Peoples, such as the government-led assimilation that resulted in various racist initiatives like residential schools and the unjust treatment sanctioned through the Indian Act. They don’t cover the racism and segregation endured by Black Canadians, and the systemic racism that continues to create barriers in our society. And most don’t talk about the discrimination of Asians and South Asians in Canada, like how Chinese Canadians weren’t allowed to vote in provincial elections.

This needs to change.

School curriculums need to include Canada’s full history, addressing how White colonialism has shaped Canada and created systems of oppression that still exist today. Offering this type of education allows students to understand the reality of the world we live in, the privilege some students have, and the importance of eradicating racial discrimination. It could also inspire them to fight racism in their own way.

Students should also be exposed to the many important contributions of Indigenous Peoples and racialized Canadians. For example:

Harry Daniels

For many years the Metis Nation was not recognized in the Canadian constitution as Indigenous Peoples. As a result, their Indigenous rights and titles were not recognized. Harry Daniels, an Indigenous leader, successfully campaigned and lobbied to ensure the Metis were recognized as Indigenous Peoples and included in the Canadian constitution in 1982.

To date, in Section 35(2), the Constitution Act lists Indigenous Peoples of Canada as First Nations, Inuit, and Metis while “guaranteeing the existing Indigenous and treaty rights”.

Senator Anne Clare Cools

In 1984, Clare Anne Cools became the first Black Senator in the Senate of Canada. This position also meant that she became the first Black woman senator in North America. Senator Cools, retired from the senate in 2018. However, she was the senate’s longest-serving member and during her time she was a strong advocate for women and children, and survivors of domestic violence.

The Honourable Bardish Chagger

The Honourable Bardish Chagger is of South Asian Heritage and was born in Waterloo, Ontario. In 2015, she was elected as a Member of Parliament for Waterloo and became the minister of small business and tourism. In 2016, she was appointed as the Government House Leader in the House of Commons, making her the first woman to ever hold this position.

The Honourable Chagger is passionate about community building, assisting in anything from recreational sports to seniors programs. For her, “we get out of our community what we put into our community

The Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson

The Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson is of Chinese descent and was appointed as the 26th Governor-General of Canada in 1999. She was the first racialized person and first person of Asian heritage to ever hold that position. After retiring from being Governor-General in 2005, Clarkson and her husband established the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, offering programs and special projects that foster inclusion, create opportunities to connect and encourage active citizenship for new citizens of Canada.

Representation matters, and students of colour need their race represented and recognized in a positive, inspirational light. It can also replace some of the negative,
unconscious assumptions, individuals may have about certain races.

Young people have the power to create change, and this drive for social justice and acceptance should be fuelled in the classroom. But this can only happen when our school curriculums include accurate teachings on culture, heritage, and history.

3. Increase racial literacy in the classroom

Students are exposed to media coverage about police brutality and racist treatment on a regular basis. And some are directly facing it in their everyday lives. As these incidents increase and continue to be brought to light, the need for conversations about race and racism in the classroom grows.

However, as educators, it can be difficult to find the right words when discussions about race and racism naturally transpire in the classroom. Instead of awkwardly tiptoeing around these conversations or unintentionally downplaying the severity of racism, educators should become more racially literate.

Racial literacy refers to “having the knowledge, skills, awareness, and dispositions to talk about race and racism.”

So how can teachers become racially literate?

Particularly for white educators, start with examining your own privilege. White supremacy is deeply embedded in our institutions, creating inherent advantages for white people. By not recognizing white privilege we perpetuate the myth that our society is just and inclusive for all. By recognizing white privilege we acknowledge that systemic racism exists.

Self-reflection is important but has to be paired with reflection on larger social structures and how personal identities are influenced by knowledge and systems that oppress others. An essay by Teresa Anne Fowler in the Canadian Journal for New Scholars in Education explains how solely relying on self-reflection about racism as a professional development tool for teachers often keeps the focus on an individual’s experience in the classroom as a power figure. This not only isolates teachers from their students, making it harder to acknowledge the external systems and social constructions they are participating in within their classroom, but also clouds teachers’ abilities to acknowledge that students can still be victims of racism despite inward reflection.

To facilitate external reflection, commit to continually learning more about racism, how it affects Indigenous Peoples and racialized Canadians, and how it has been perpetuated throughout history. There are many resources you can start with, including a reading list from the Canadian Race Relations Foundation. Going one step further, take time to consume media that’s created by People of Colour and Indigenous Peoples. They offer a unique perspective that can help you better understand their experiences in Canada.

Lastly, become more mindful of the language used in the classroom. For example, removing language like “being colourblind” from our vocabulary. As stated by Dr. Tyrone C. Howard, “A colourblind approach says to students that you fail to see or acknowledge an integral part of who they are, their racial and ethnic background.”

Becoming more racially literate is an iterative and ongoing process, and within these discussions of race and racism, racial literacy also calls on teachers to be mindful of their students of colour. These students should not be put on the spot to share their experiences of racism or made to feel like they have to educate their classmates.

4. Create a Safe Space for Anyone Impacted by Racism at School

Many schools are working to create measures that prevent racism but these plans should also focus on how to create safe spaces for children who have been racially discriminated against.

So what exactly is a safe space? There are two ways of looking at it.

Create a collective culture of validation and accountability

On the one hand, a safe space is an environment that is free of bias, discrimination, criticism, emotional and physical harm for marginalized students. In this case, all schools should strive to be safe spaces. And if a student experiences racial discrimination, teachers and fellow students should validate a victim’s feelings. Too frequently, individuals of colour have to prove to White people that they were the victims of racism. Non-racialized students and teachers also shouldn’t minimize the situation or defend the racist behaviour. Instead, they should stand in solidarity, speak out against racist actions and learn more about racial discrimination. Lastly, the perpetrator of racism should face consequences for their actions and be required to learn more about racism and how it affects of people of colour.

Create a dedicated space for BIPOC students

On the other hand, a safe space is an actual place dedicated to racialized Canadians and Indigenous Peoples. In these spaces, racially marginalized students can openly discuss their shared experiences with others who are able to relate. It’s important to note that Black, Asian, or Indigenous-only spaces are different from White-only spaces. As explained in the Guardian, “self-organized “white spaces”…are made in opposition to diversity and multiculturalism – and that, coupled with the uniquely powerful positions white people hold in society, is why they are unacceptable and reek of segregation.” Instead spaces made only for marginalized racial groups “are founded on the basis of the true lived experiences of struggle.” Allowing and encouraging spaces like these in schools ensures students of colour have a physical place where they can bond with like-minded people, uplift one another, and escape from the racial oppression within our society (even if it’s just for a few minutes).

5. Establish Effective Anti-Racism Policies in Schools

To date, systemic racism continues to be embedded in Canada’s education systems and policies. There are still gaps in teaching materials that highlight Canada’s full history. Specific races are punished more severely than others. And children still face vicious racial taunts.

Now more than ever, there is a need for stronger policies that prevent racism both subtle and overt. But what makes a strong anti-racism policy?

A study led by doctoral candidate Britney L. Jones at the University of Connecticut examined various anti-racist policies from different countries. Using her findings Jones shares different areas of focus policies should have. This includes:

    • Creating an inclusive school environment through developing a more cultural and racial inclusive curriculum.

    • Implementing a system for reporting and addressing racial incidents. In addition to disciplinary actions, it would also include specific ways to support victims.

    • A focus on hiring a more diverse staff who have the skills and knowledge to have thoughtful conversations about race and racism.

    • Conducting studies to identify any barriers to racial equality, and allocating funds to meet equity goals.

By incorporating these focal points, Jones believes anti-racism policies can be effective — if they are enforced. But equally important is the need to strike down existing policies that perpetuate systemic racism.

Well-intended Policies: Africentric teaching excluded from virtual learning

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Toronto District School Board provided its public schools with the tools and resources to conduct online learning for its students and prevent the spread of the virus. However, the option for online programming was not made available for alternative teachings, which offer students something different from the mainstream curriculum. This directly impacted the Africentric Alternative School, which delivers teachings in a way that caters to Black students and their experiences.

In response to the backlash, the Board stated “At this time, alternative programs will not be available through Virtual School,” the statement reads.

“With more than 77,000 students in the TDSB Virtual School, we do not have the resources to support the instructional focus of each of the TDSB’s alternative schools in the virtual school environment.,” wrote Ryan Bird, media relations manager for the board.

And while this may seem like an innocent explanation, we have to understand that “curricula and teaching practices have been unable to create inclusive learning spaces for Black students.” As a result, Black students were twice as likely to drop out of school than other students and were under-represented in gifted programming in Ontario schools.

By removing access to africentric teachings, the Board perpetuates an environment that has continued to disenfranchise Black youth. Unfortunately, this policy did not change during the pandemic. And although schools have reopened, this is a prime example of how policies that may not seem racist, can be racially discriminating – which highlights the need to examine policies from an anti-racist perspective.

Anti-racist Policies in action: Phasing out Academic vs. Applied Streams

Another example is the issue of academic streaming, where students are grouped based on academic ability between an academic or applied (non-academic courses) track when starting high school. A 2015 report found that students taking applied courses in Grade 9 were less likely to go to university and only 40 percent would graduate within 5 years.

Data confirmed that Black students were disproportionately streamed into the applied track. 53 percent of Black students were in academic programs in comparison to 81 percent of White students. And 39 percent of Black students were enrolled in applied programs, compared to 16 percent of White students. In 2021, Ontario’s Minister of Education announced that streaming would be phased out in an effort to combat the systemic discrimination that is embedded in the education system.

Support the Anti-Racism Fund

Schools are supposed to be safe places where each individual can flourish. But for many, it’s a place where they are discriminated against and harassed because of the colour of their skin. We must eradicate racism in our schools and implement measures that prevent racial discrimination. This includes increasing diversity among faculty, filling gaps in our curriculums, improving racial literacy, and providing unconscious bias education.

We all play a role in fighting racism. But the task at hand can seem overwhelming. That’s why Unite for Change created the Anti-Racism Fund.

This Fund supports multiple programs that tackle racism at the institutional, interpersonal, and internal levels to create real change. Some of the programs offer training to educators, increasing their racial literacy and equipping them with the tools needed to combat racism. The Fund also supports initiatives centered around research to help highlight the existing issues related to racism within different sectors. Additionally, the Fund supports advocacy efforts, community building, intersectionality, and much more.

At Unite for Change, we empower Canadians to come together and make real change. With our Anti-Racism Fund, you can tackle racism head-on, and help eradicate it in all areas of our society —including our schools. With your donation, you are standing in solidarity with People of Colour, including all the students who have ever experienced racism at school. You are helping to prevent racism and supporting programs that offer healing, increase inclusion, and advocate for long-lasting change. Join us in the fight against racism. Donate today.

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