Racism is a loaded term that may trigger strong feelings of defensiveness or denial. In Canada, the belief that there is no racism is widespread. Evidence of inequality between dominant and racialized ethnocultural groups in Canada belies that assertion and there is increasing reference to “the colour of poverty”. Knowing the systemic roots of racism (see Racism, Sexism and Homophobia) can incite individuals and professionals to explore what we have unwittingly learned as products of our society and to commit ourselves to “unlearning” that which is false and hurtful.
Racism is founded upon the notion of biologically different human “races” with differing hierarchical value justifying unequal power relations between them. In Canada, as elsewhere, the belief in white superiority is reflected in the dominance of civilizations, languages and cultures of European origin and the preference for beauty, intelligence and values that represent whiteness. The premise of white superiority can lead to “shadeism” among members of racialized groups, whereby individuals experience prejudice based on darker or lighter skin shades.
We can see the effects of racism in our society in the economic, social and cultural inequality of marginalized ethnocultural groups.
Reflecting on what I have learned about people from racialized ethnocultural groups
Pay attention to some of your immediate, unfiltered reactions to people from different ethnocultural backgrounds that you encounter (either in your personal life, the school environment or through the media).
- What are some of the things I have learned about people from ethnocultural groups that are different from my own?
- What are some of the things I have learned about people from my own ethnocultural group?
- Where do I remember learning those ideas (media, books, family, school, etc.)?
- How do those ideas affect others and me?
- What have I done, or what could I do, to unlearn those ideas?
Since schools are a microcosm of our society, we can expect to see such attitudes and power imbalances manifested and reproduced in that milieu. Racism in schools is manifested by a range of negative attitudes and behaviours against marginalized groups such as: visible minorities (racialized skin colours); religious groups (for example, Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism); linguistic groups (for example, people who speak English with an accent); and ethnocultural groups.
Prejudice and discrimination based on immigration status or citizenship can take a number of forms. Newcomers may be subjected to abuse and discrimination, while visible minority groups may feel excluded by assumptions that they are new arrivals. The history and particular Aboriginal status is erased when their group identities are conflated with those of immigrant groups in discussions about multiculturalism.
In a school setting, conscious or unconscious beliefs about racial superiority can reinforce and reproduce ethnocultural inequality in many ways. This can lead to blatant expressions of disdain or hatred, for example:
- mocking people’s accents, customs or dress;
- racial slurs;
- physical violence or threats of violence;
- racist cyber-bullying on Facebook;
- racist websites.
They can also lead to treatment that is blatantly or subtly unfair such as low expectations, less encouragement or differential disciplinary measures (including extreme forms such as suspension or expulsion that may disproportionately affect racialized student groups). And they can lead to stereotypes that are accepted and normalized, such as expectations that people from marginalized groups will live, act, think, dress or speak a certain way. Such treatment may be a result of conscious or unconscious prejudice based on evident and easily identifiable differences among students, such as skin colour, clothing, hairstyle, zone of residence or accent.
Ethnocultural dominance is not always explicitly aggressive. Some attitudes and behaviours may inadvertently serve to maintain the status quo by reproducing power imbalances. The denial of racism (“There is no racism here”) and the assertion of racial neutrality (“It doesn’t matter what race you are. Everyone is treated the same.”) perpetuate silence about the issue and suppress differences. As a result, some needs may go unmet, such as when tests and evaluation methods favour particular learning styles or cultures. Ethnocultural dominance can take a passive though insidious form when the history and culture of certain groups is absent in the curriculum, given attention only on special occasions.
The reality of racism in our society and schools highlights the need for dialogue. Teachers can encourage initiatives in schools, (see Resources/Resources on Equity and Inclusive Education/Racism) providing safe forums for those of us who are members of racialized groups (students, staff and parents) to:
- give voice to our needs and experiences;
- be heard and have our experiences and concerns validated by the school community;
- engage in a process with all members of the school community at every level to build bridges and create a climate of fairness and belonging for all.
For resources to facilitate discussion about racism with students, visit osstf.on.ca.
Discussions about power and privilege may be emotionally challenging, triggering feelings of guilt or defensiveness. However, it is important to recognize that in our society, skin colour and culture are key factors in determining power and status, such that it can be an advantage to be white. As a result, those of us whose skin is white and whose ethnocultural origins are European have certain automatic, unearned advantages. These advantages tend to give white people greater access to certain social, political and cultural benefits, such as higher social status and income levels, positions of authority and greater control over decision-making. This privilege reinforces and perpetuates the power imbalance between white people and racialized groups. The advantages incurred may come to be seen as “normal”, thereby reinforcing beliefs in the superiority of white people of European origin.
The school environment is no exception. For example, the privileged group in a school may be native-born Canadians, while those who are excluded may be newcomers. The teaching staff may be largely white, native-born Canadians whose social status allows them to reinforce their dominant position by disseminating their own values as well as the visibility of their ethnocultural group.
Of course, power dynamics are never this simple and individuals wield power over others for a host of reasons (see Intersections: Power and Privilege). Nonetheless, the benefits of social power and privilege do confer certain advantages that increase an individual’s opportunities.
We are not to blame for privileges we have due to our ethnocultural origins and skin colour. Often there is nothing we can do to eliminate our privilege. As individuals and as teachers, we can take stock and responsibility for how we use them by attempting to offset the imbalance of power they reinforce. Gaining awareness of the ways in which we benefit from our privilege helps ensure that we do not perpetuate conscious or unconscious racist or ethnocentric beliefs.
Privileges that benefit white people in our society
To learn more about the privileges that benefit white people in our society, read “Adapted white privilege”.
For a few examples of how white privilege may play out for teachers, click here for 1-page document "White privilege in schools”
Like any other form of inequity and exclusion, racism impedes the social, economic and cultural participation of those who experience it. This experience leads to negative consequences for an individual’s mental and physical health, standard of living and well-being.
Racism causes feelings of distress, rejection, self-deprecation, marginalization, self-doubt, shame, insecurity and distrust. Those who are the targets of racism may feel powerless and angry, leading to violence directed against oneself or others. Depression, hopelessness and broken self-esteem are further repercussions.
Racism in schools interrupts the healthy social development of young people. Students who experience racism may feel typecast or reduced to a category or stereotype, their individuality erased. They may be forced into a painful and stressful process of questioning their identity and sense of belonging. Focusing on the curriculum may be of minimal importance to a young person undergoing such a wrenching personal experience.
Predictably, such confusing and devastating feelings lead to a range of indicators that young people are in difficulty. Teachers may witness such signs as absenteeism, low achievement, high drop-out rates and self-destructive behaviours such as drug and alcohol abuse. Gang involvement may fill a need to belong, to feel validated and to reverse a sense of powerlessness. Among young people in Aboriginal communities, we see the most tragic end result of racism in higher rates of suicide.
Teachers, especially at a secondary level, can no doubt think of students in our schools who exhibit reactions of resentment, betrayal and fear of school staff. Other “difficult” students seem to have no interest in learning and their behaviour may further marginalize them. Such indicators may be due in part to the lack of positive cultural reference points in their environment. These young people do not recognize themselves in their school or social environments.
Teachers can become allies of challenging and troubled students by digging deeper, beyond the negative labels. Placing such behaviour in the larger social context is a starting point.
- What other consequences of racism can I identify?
- What manifestations of racism have I seen (or experienced) in my school?
- What are some small steps I could take in my own life (e.g. personal and professional interactions) to share more evenly my power and privilege as a white person (if that is my identity)?
- What kinds of strategies can I identify (or have I implemented in my school) that can facilitate the development of young people’s ethnocultural identity?