Racism has no place in education

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When it comes to experiencing racism, for many Black folks, some of our earliest and strongest memories are those we face in the classroom.

Students raising hand in classroom (Maskot/Getty Images)

Johnathan, now 34, grew up in Jackson Mississippi where ‘racism is the air you breathe. It isn’t more pervasive than anywhere else, it’s just more obvious.’ To give you a sense of what that means, he attended Jefferson Davis Elementary School named after the president of the confederacy. Jonathan, at just 34, is only one generation removed from legal segregation as his father and aunts first integrated to the local school in their city.

He states that, ‘you can’t exist as a Black person or [an] Indigenous person in [the United States] without experiencing racism.’ 

For him, he first remembers it happening in third grade when the teacher divided the class in two, to complete a group project which they would then present. What he noticed, however, was the class was divided by race. All the Black kids on one side and the White kids on the other. He remembers, in particular, how the disciplinary system put in place was never applied to the White students; only the Black students were being reprimanded for behaviour that both sides were exhibiting.

Yamiesha, now 26, grew up in New York, NY and remembers being in kindergarten when, during the afterschool program, an 8th grade girl called her the N-word. Even at five, while she may not have understood the full gravity of the word, she knew it was bad and hurtful and oftentimes, when said by a White person, was ‘followed by physical violence’.

Now being a teacher herself, she believes, ‘silence is violence’. When instances occur in her own classroom, she takes the opportunity to address them publicly and then continue the conversation with individual(s) privately. Because she understands how ‘as a kid, experiencing something and watching the adults around you not take care of you is devastating. As an educator and as a human, my role is to support the victim.’

 

'Everything you read here only begins to touch the surface. All of us were confronted with racism, either overt or covert before even reaching our adolescent years. All of us, as children, had adults who failed us.'

 

Too often in academic settings Black and Brown children are dismissed when reporting their experiences, and the incidents are often downplayed. They are told that the student who had done or said the racist thing ‘didn’t really mean it’. These students are given the benefit of doubt in ways that Black and Brown children often are not.

The first time I was called the N-word was in fifth, maybe sixth grade. I went to a parochial school that was easily 98 per cent white. During lunch, I noticed the students were being particularly standoffish. Small groups would look at me and laugh. I did my best to ignore it.

At recess, it continued. Eventually, one of my classmates came up to me. She said, ‘I think you should know what everyone is saying about you... they’re saying ‘take the t off of tigger and add an n, and that’s what you are.’

Although I spoke to an adult about what happened, I remember the recourse for these students being limited, if anything at all was even actually done.

Veda, 36, of San Fernando Valley, California was called the N-word at age five during recess by another classmate. Like Yameisha, she may not have understood the full significance of the word; but knew it was bad, particularly by the way the other child said it. She remembers a certain amount of panic from the teacher who brought her inside and gave her a stick of gum from her purse to console her. At no point was Veda’s guardian contacted, in fact it wasn’t up until recently when Veda recounted the story to her mother did she learn the event occurred.

Maria, age 12, of Northampton, Massachusetts recalls a lesson about segregation, where her teacher thought it appropriate to tell her to stand up and go to the opposite side of the classroom, then telling all the other students to go on the other side. Maria, being the only Black student, stood alone when the teacher told the class that Maria wouldn’t be able to go to this school and she wouldn’t be able to play with any of you, ending the lesson there. As a result, during recess, her fellow classmates refused to play with her, echoing the messages of segregation that ‘Blacks can’t play here’.

And while the US certainly has its own particular brand of racism, these problems are not exclusive to American society.

Andriana, 26, grew up in Brampton Canada, where she feels the racism is much more hidden. As a result of the Black Lives Matter movement and ongoing protests happening in the US, there has been a massive wake up call for White Canadians too.  

In middle school, she remembers being one of only two Black students and being called names such as ‘monkey’ by other kids. Because she was a high energy child, her grade eight teacher said ‘it seems like you have a lot of testosterone’. Both of which are common insults thrown at Black girls and women.

 

'Schools should be reflective of the societies in which we live.'

 

Teachers in the school were well aware that this was going on and were sometimes participants in the bullying. Andrianna begged her parents to send her to a different school. Initially she didn’t explain to her parents why she wanted to make the move, but it was because she wanted to be in a space that included more people who looked like her.

Everything you read here only begins to touch the surface. All of us were confronted with racism, either overt or covert before even reaching our adolescent years. All of us, as children, had adults who failed us. 

Schools should be reflective of the societies in which we live. However, due to the long-term implications of structural racism that are part of our educational institutions, this is often not the case. Statistics in the US show that White teachers are overrepresented when compared to the student and general populations. 

For a system that demands its educators be well versed in differentiation and scaffolding, it fails to offer those same allowances when obtaining credentials, requiring a university degree and standardised testing as the only avenue for certification.

When it comes to teaching preparatory programs, be it at the undergraduate or graduate level, students have just a few classes on diversity and these courses hardly, if ever, dive into aspects of anti-racism. This becomes an even larger issue when many teachers themselves have not grown up in diverse environments and communities.

Add that to a general lack of understanding of what it truly means to be anti-racist, along with a failure to address the internal biases we all have in certain areas, breeds an environment that subjects Black and Brown children to the very experiences described above.

While all children may be concerned with who likes who, scraped knees, and what’s for lunch, Black and Brown children have the added anxiety of dealing with a racist society.

 

 

 J O Acholonu J O Acholonu is a professionally trained African American educator committed to decolonizing the canon and curriculum. She has an M.Ed in educational leadership and has  traveled extensively which has not only informed her teaching practices but also her passion for food and exploration. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.

Main image: (Maskot/Getty Images)

Topic tags: J O Acholonu, racism, education, anti-racism

 

 

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Existing comments

Having grown to adulthood feeling I could never be included in a group I now wonder if racism is actually a part of the ‘human condition’. The need to feel superior is clearly part of our white culture. I now ask friends “is it possible for another people to have an equal morality - belief - knowledge of truth - law and culture equal to our own? Answers are both guarded and defensive. I am of mixed European descent with an olive skin. Primary school was torment however I longed to be thought of as an aboriginal. The teasing may have been for other reasons particularly low self esteem and the politics of my mothers family. Pastor Doug Nicholls spoke so profoundly at the Alphington Methodist Sunday school thought I could change attitudes simply by following his leadership: now 70 years later I acknowledge I have had no success in reversing the wrongs of Colonialism. Children their observations innocent but hurtful, reflect the attitudes of their parents and wider society. I wonder whether our underpinning racism comes from actual envy of a happier stronger and more talented image we have of darker skinned neighbours.
Rosalind Byass | 21 July 2020


Your final sentence strikes a chord, J O. In my class at primary school (long, long ago!) I remember my plight: a small, skinny kid whose surname did not match that of my mother and step-father. There were two girls named Sylvia, one tall and the other short so they were "Big Sylvia" and "Little Sylvia". Doubtless, these burdens were slight compared to those of the children of ethnic and Aboriginal origin. School was the place we learned to cope with the injustices of life as best we could. However, racism is a nasty beast and the impact well-trained and empathetic teachers can have cannot be over-estimated. Memories of schooldays linger and the good moments should far outweigh the difficulties.
Pam | 21 July 2020


"To date aborigines as welcomed to excel in sport, painting and dance, but very few are willing to move into the wider society. This is where progress is and Education is very likely the key". This was recently the end of a comment here on Eureka Street. Sounding to my ears as nonchalant as a racist comment. But hey, who am I to judge? Nobody. Though, I remember reading in a widely read book, we can judge the words and actions of all man, though not the man. As he, being created in God's Image, is sacred. And indeed we must pull up each others socks, when need be. The word 'wasp' comes to mind. But I guess that word is no longer in use. Shame, could be of some use 'to know what that word was,' to children old enough to objectively see and repudiate such evil errors of the past, still no-doubt lingering on subconsciously today as unexamined shadows of many a man's opinions.
ao | 21 July 2020


I am a retired teacher I spent most of my career in Catholic Education spanning some three decades.I taught History and as it was required, Religious Education/Studies. My wife is also a secondary school teacher. I had a very diverse range of students in my closes , both Indigenous and non indigenous as well as students from a variety of ethic backgrounds. As my wife is of Filipino origin, my children as Filipino-Australian, were subject to racism, even in Catholic schools. I was also the subject of covert racism from students and some teachers because of my choice of partner . Sadly racism is very much alive in our Catholic schools. However I wonder as I reflect on this article, what relevance the author's experiences in the U.S. have for us here in Australia. American culture and history and its education systems are vastly different to ours.
Gavin O'Brien | 21 July 2020


Thank you for your article. It makes very human and easy to understand the concept of systemic racism: the hurt that is caused to black and brown children and the beginning to participate in racism by their classmates.
Marianne McLean | 22 July 2020


Thanks for the article but I think the body of the document misses the premise of "racism has no place in education"; the various anecdotes cite examples of (albeit very young) racists of a sort but aside from school settings the -ism has little correlation to education. The article does prompt me to ask how certain powerful texts should be dealt with under the premise. How does Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" fit with this education exclusive of racism notion; does it still carry weight in an educational environment for the literary value or will it be consigned with Confederate statues as a relic of a past some choose to dismiss? Would it be allowed "in" because of the books underlying abhorrence of racism or should it be on the "out" list because of its use of racial stereotypes for characters?
ray | 27 July 2020


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