Thursday, July 21, 2022

We Need to Discuss Systemic Racism in Schools

In The Record article, "Waterloo Region District School Board Trustee Mike Ramsay speaks up about sanctions against him," Mr. Ramsay writes that he is concerned that education has shifted from a focus on literacy and numeracy to White Privilege and Critical Race Theory (CRT).

As a teacher at WRDSB this year, it is clear that anti-racist education is definitely part of the board's mandate since significant Professional Development time was provided for teachers to learn about how racial prejudice affects our students, but I have yet to see any evidence that the amount of time discussing race in our schools has in any way remotely outpaced or distracted from teaching curriculum. Our PD aimed to impact any implicit bias that teachers might have, information that is vital to student equity in our classrooms. Understanding prejudice means really understanding that we can never extrapolate information about a group to better understand any one individual within that group. We can't know a person until we get to know them. One PD video in particular, The End of Average!? reiterated that message specifically. The ETFO resource Mr. Ramsay berates, "Rethink, Reconnect, Reimagine," encourages teachers to see all students for who they are, for their unique skills and abilities, and to "create schools where all students are seen and remembered for their diverse identities, experiences, and talents." Becoming better teachers doesn't take any time away from the curriculum.

Mr. Ramsay suggests we're actively teaching white kids that many of their successes might have more to do with their skin tone than personal effort, but that's a concept we all learn from life, isn't it? We live with this uncertainty when we're deciding if we got that job or high mark or friend because of our looks or connections or actual merit or even because we own the best basketball net. That's not a new concept or anything people need to be instructed on in order to grasp. It's obvious that people get ahead because of so many factors besides ability. Anti-racist education means making sure that in schools, at least, all students are evaluated on how well they can demonstrate understanding of the course material, not on who they are.

More common is the concern that some kids might feel guilty for benefiting from a history that exploited others to get all the jobs or scholarships or land. Yup. Going through the process of understanding our history and working towards making amends can be difficult, but it should be clear that it's not an individual burden we carry, but a societal one. We're part of it, and it's all our responsibility to work for change on this front, but we're not alone. Discussing white privilege can make white students uncomfortable, which is certainly an issue to address, but I'd argue that how kids feel hearing racist slurs on the schoolyard or in the hallways is an even bigger issue. Not discussing racism and bias can make it all so much worse, and opening up an impromptu dialogue can be done within an atmosphere of respect and compassion.

I've taught courses that deal with social issues directly, following the curriculum to discuss these issues for over thirty years. While only two courses actually mention CRT, many include topics of prejudice and discrimination in the Ministry Guidelines. As a student teacher in the early 90s, I planned a unit on homophobia for a discrimination unit only to be told by another teacher that it was absolutely disgusting that I was talking about such a thing. At a time when people went out "gay bashing" with baseball bats for kicks, that comment made the importance of the lesson incontrovertible; we must discuss dismantling discrimination of every kind in the classroom as part of prescribed units.

As a corollary, Mr. Ramsay says, "students of colour are taught that despite personal effort, their chances of success are significantly diminished because society is systemically racist and therefore inherently biased against them," and, again, that's not something students are told in lectures but something they unfortunately learn along the way as they bump up against a wall that simply isn't there for others. Anti-racist education helps to remove these barriers. Learning about systemic discrimination is necessary to effectively give people the words and voice and education to petition governments or to know how to talk to Human Resources or Human Rights Commissions to dismantle a roadblock.

For kids hitting barriers to success--from students who talk over them to the teacher who won't hear them out or the boss that overlooks their efforts--understanding that it could possibly be an issue of discrimination and knowing how to tell the difference can help them use the right tools to break through. The alternative, believing that they just didn't try hard enough yet again, can be defeatist if they're watching other kids getting more credit for producing work of lesser quality over and over.

I didn't believe in systemic sexism until my 20s, so I understand Mr. Ramsey's unease that it makes people unwillingly into victims. I was strong and independent and able to make it on my own; I wouldn't dare be pinned with the victim label. Then I got a job in a huge corporation with about 70% women in the building, yet the boardroom was almost entirely men. I watched a new male employee get courted by male bosses, invited to lunch and golf in a way that none of the rest of us had ever experienced. He wasn't better than us or smarter or faster at doing the work. It became undeniable that his maleness affected his rapid success and that my femaleness had affected my slower progress. That realization didn't make me give up; that awareness of being overlooked didn't make me become a victim, but instead it helped me to speak out about the injustice on display. When everybody understands the workings of systemic discrimination because it's understood by teachers and an in-depth part of specific courses, it helps to keep those in power in check for a more equitable path forward.

Implicit racism isn't natural but a part of our social conditioning. Many studies have shown that people in countries like Canada have an unconscious bias towards everything from white dolls to white sounding names on résumés or on grade 2 assignments to affecting teacher expectations. These studies were conducted before and after that pivotal moment that Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the wildly misunderstood term "Critical Race Theory," which is a methodology, not an ideology.


What we're really talking about here is systemic discrimination: that we're conditioned by our society to think a little higher of white skin, which can show itself in sneaky ways, like affecting who the teacher is more likely to call on in class. Mr. Ramsay says, "This theory is a set of unverifiable, self-serving arguments, not based in evidence. One of its core beliefs is that if people of colour are not on the winning side of the equation, it is due to racism." But there is significant evidence that systemic racism exists and is a formidable force to untangle. It's not as extreme as he posits, however, that systemic discrimination ties success exclusively to race, but that, in our society, race can have a pernicious effect on perception, which can affect success.

We begin to undo this subversive form of prejudice by learning about it. Once we recognize that everything from feature films to car commercials has already had an effect on how we see the world, the covert education we unwittingly received begins to crack, letting in the light.

As a private citizen, I'm not privy to the 'in camera' information that has Mr. Ramsay on suspension, nor should I be. There's often a good reason some things are kept private, and it's curious that Mr. Ramsay calls for his colleagues to break the rules and speak out instead of just sharing the details himself. But I do find it ironic that he doesn't want schools teaching about privilege, then accuses other trustees of using their privilege against him. Clearly, we all need to be better educated on these concepts. If privilege and systemic prejudice aren't actually affecting us, then I'd hate to think what other explanation Mr. Ramsay has for why so many white men disproportionately end up as bastions of success. 

Cross-posted at

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