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?

Targeted groups

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.

2 teachers with student puppets


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.

(See David, Fawzi, James.)

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.

(See Kevin.)

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.

(See Janine.)

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.