The Racism Card

I’ve been noticing a trend in our school for students to play the “racism card”.  We have a very diverse, multicultural, multi-faith population.  The majority of my students are first or second generation immigrants, and the generations-deep Canadians are the minority. It’s really neat.  The teachers, however, are predominantly white, been-here-a-while Canadians.  And all female except for one,  but that’s how it seems to go in elementary.  We have one teacher from Lebanon,  and she’s a Muslim, but as she specifies, “the drinking kind”.  (Hilarious.)  Because we are mostly a bunch of white, deep-rooted Canadians, accusations of racism are inevitably slung  our way.

Before I go any further, I should clarify my stance on a few things. I absolutely believe that white privilege is ingrained in our social structures, whether intentionally or consequentially.  I understand that my hair products will be found in the general and not “ethnic” section of Shoppers Drug Mart, and that band-aids are made to match my skin colour, and the shade “nude” looks kind of like naked me.  But I also believe that Arab privilege exists in Middle Eastern countries (I don’t think my white skin would get me any favorable treatment in most places there), and I’m going to guess that in most (but not all) countries, privilege exists for anyone who embodies the physical or social characteristics of the dominant founding or colonizing people.  Please correct me if I’m wrong.  I haven’t read enough about the topic, and I’ll explain why in a moment.

The thing with this concept of “white privilege” is that it is now being used as a criticism and judgement against white people in a way that is entirely counterproductive, kind of like when “feminists” start vilifying men.  I wholeheartedly believe that white privilege needs to be acknowledged and considered when decisions are being made about the well-being of all people living in Canada.  But I don’t believe that it should be used a as method of devaluing the ability of white people to work with people of other ethnicities and cultures, and this is what I’m noticing in teaching as of late.

Last summer an article went around the Ontario teachers’ group on Facebook about how white teachers are inherently racist, even if they think they aren’t.  We’re racist by virtue of ingrained, subconscious beliefs we can do essentially nothing to correct.  I voiced my concern that this argument is really just another form of racism, because telling me I am “inherently” and inescapably anything because of who am I culturally seems, well, kind of racist to me.  And if not racist, at least unfair.  If you’re saying I can’t do anything about it, then why criticize me for it?

One especially patronizing commentator suggested a few books I should read to enlighten myself, like Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  What this fellow educator doesn’t know about me, among many things, is that I have a mother with a Ph.D. in education who has taught me about such philosophies and has raised me to think about them constantly.  I grew up  questioning all of my beliefs.  She took me to church but let me make of it what I wanted.  What this fellow educator also didn’t know about me is that for the last twelve years, I have read extensively about Buddhism, Taoism, and New Age thinking.  What you learn when you read about these philosophies for twelve years is that all these concepts like “white privilege” and  “cultural appropriation” are what Hamlet would call words, words, words.  They are different labels for the same thing.  Ultimately, what we’re getting at, what we’re always getting at, is the need to return to a  love for all beings.  Unconditional, unfiltered, unrestrained love. This is what the Buddha teaches; this is the ultimate lesson of the Tao.  Just take a moment and think of any conflict between people. It can be boiled down to a lack of love, and a prevalence of fear, in their hearts.

The last wisdom that my dying grandfather imparted on me was that for any idea to work, it has got to be simple (his emphasis – I can still hear his slow and wise voice saying it).  He was a man who had thought about the world, philosophy, religion and life at great length. His words stay with me because I know he was right.  Everyone yearns for simplicity.  The best products are simple or create simplicity.  The Tao preaches living a life of simplicity, of removing complexities from your life.  What I’m getting at is that I don’t think I need to read Freire’s book or other complicated philosophies (which are available only to the fairly educated, I might add, and could also be viewed as privileged concepts) to understand that what has caused white privilege is quite simply a lack of love in the hearts of the humans of the world.  If you want to delve into it, I think you could find a correlation between the rise of Christianity and the existence of white privilege.  I don’t want to get into it, though – it’s too complicated.

The article I mentioned before cautioned white teachers against saying things like, “I’m not racist, I look at all my students the same – I’m colourblind,” because it implies that you don’t acknowledge the uniqueness or diversity of your students.  You should see their many colours and their cultural particularities and their idiosyncrasies.  I agree with that, just as you should acknowledge the many differences you can find within two white or two Asian students.  In my class, I sometimes notice more commonalities between an Arab and a white student than I do between two white students who come from extremely different home lives.

Quite simply, I love children.  My whole life, beginning with babysitting, I have been good at working with them because they sense my love for them.  You can’t fake it.  So I find it frustrating when I’m trying to help children grow as people and I am accused of being racist.  I have one grade six student in particular who claims that any attempts to discipline him are “biased” or “racist” (ideas we later learned were being ingrained at home when we had to suspend him for essentially strangling another child).  The thing is, I love this kid.  Even though he drives me bananas, I feel it well up inside of me when he grins at me or does something cheeky.

This child has a lot of social difficulties and has an incredibly hard time seeing things from someone else’s point of view, almost the way a child with autism does.  You cannot reason with him or help him see how he contributed to a conflict.  This makes it very difficult to work through his issues, and he ultimately falls back on the accusation of us being racist, and so does his mother.  The other day he left scratches and broken blood vessels on another student’s neck after dragging him by the hood across the basketball court.  He was definitely and unquestionably provoked by that student through taunting and, allegedly, spitting (although we have yet to get a straight story about that).  What he and his mother couldn’t understand was that the retaliation didn’t fit the crime.  According to Canadian law, self-defense must be “reasonable in the circumstances”.  If someone calls you a mean name, you don’t get to strangle him or her.  The mother accused us of being racist because we only suspended her child for the strangling and we didn’t suspend the white student for provoking the strangling.  But I know for certain that had the roles been reversed, we would have suspended the white kid.  It’s about the strangling, not the colour of the skin on which the blood vessels were broken.

We also have a group of Muslim males in grade eight who tend to throw out accusations of racism when they don’t agree with a disciplinary measure.  It’s exhausting because we’re just desperately trying to prepare them for high school and keep the school safe and functioning.  Thankfully, our drinking Muslim teacher will step in and try to help them see it from a teacher’s point of view, sometimes with success and sometime without.

Throughout my teaching career I have caught myself on a few occasions wishing I were one of two things:  male, or not white.  I try not to speak in absolutes, and remember that this blog is just my perception, but I have noticed that parents and students tend to question male teachers’ decisions less, and I have especially noticed that from the Muslim males I have taught (but of course, not all).  I have also wished I weren’t white so that I didn’t have to feel like I’m always walking on eggshells, paranoid of inadvertently offending someone with my whiteness.  I just want to teach.  Ironically, I just want to teach my students to be open-minded and to question everything the way my mom taught me.  When I catch myself wishing I were male or black in order to have more cred, I realize that I’m not practising what I preach.

When students and parents play the racism card unfairly, it makes it very difficult for us to do our jobs of raising responsible youth.  In fact, I think that unfairly playing the racism card is ironically in itself an act of racism against white teachers who are simply upholding the standards of practice of the Ontario College of Teachers.  (Freire would probably argue that those standards of practice are ingrained with white privilege, too.  But I can’t be expected to single-handedly fix that. I can’t even fix the photocopy machine.)  I don’t think I’m wrong to assume that an Arab or African teacher taking the same disciplinary measures would not be accused of injustice.  That does make this a matter of race.  I know that history is cyclical, and perhaps with our changing Canadian population we are seeing the rise of Arab or other privilege, and maybe it’s simply our turn to experience prejudice.  But if I’m teaching my students anything at all, I hope it’s that history doesn’t have to repeat itself.  That we can learn to view each other from a perspective of love rather than race.  Anyway, I won’t stop trying.

Dunce 2

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7 thoughts on “The Racism Card

  1. So…. I love your blog, and I actually think this is really engagingly written. However, as someone involved in equity work, I feel compelled to comment and challenge (not sure if I am “right” here, just putting it out there). I agree with you that in other countries, etc. non-white people would enjoy systemic, unearned privilege and power, however, aren’t we trying to do something different in Canada? And the constructs behind anti-racism work apply to other areas as well: Battling homophobia, Islamophobia, prejudices against those with disabilities… etc. So, while I am tempted to agree that much could be solved if we’d all just LOVE one another already, could it be that your comments are easier written because of the white, middle-class (assuming, b/c of reference to Mom with PhD), maybe even straight privilege you enjoy?

    Just a thought. Looking forward to further dialogue, if interested. 🙂

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    1. I do fully and completely agree with you! I’m just trying to write as honestly as I can from my very obvious position of white privilege. I almost didn’t publish this post but then thought that at the very least open-minded people like yourself could share their opinions. I find it frustrating that I can never really know what it’s like to be anything other than me.

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  2. Very interesting read.

    I think you hit on a powerful, personal, and yet very relatable idea. I myself am a white teacher, and often wonder and have a hard time distinguishing when a decision I make is driven by my own privilege, or inherent racism, and when it is objectively the way I would react to any other student in any other scenario. I think it’s an interesting and important question to explore because I do believe that many of my actions are impacted by systems and assumptions and beliefs that are not wholly just my own. I have been fundamentally shaped by my upbringing in a colonized country that valued my skin colour over others and has afforded me lots of privilege in many situations. The fact that I haven’t been similarly saturated by any other culture has limited my ability to understand what people of other skin colours and histories experience within this culture. Maybe if I had grown up white in an Arab county, I’d understand systemic discrimination and personal racism better, and would be better able to relate to my racialized students. But I didn’t.

    What does that mean?

    While I disagree that white teachers can’t minimize the impact of their inherent biases, and am fundamentally hopeful that we can, I do think it requires a lot of reflection, persistence, and recognition of various forms of resistance.

    What I see within your post is some resistance to the idea that it’s possible that your decisions *are* impacted more than you would like by your experience and your race and your privilege. As you state you are familiar with Buddhism, I feel confident that I can advise looking into the resistance. I truly feel this will be fruitful for you.

    Further reflection on the issue is needed. If accusations are consistently being leveled by a certain set of students, perhaps it’s time to open a dialogue with the students, not during a tumultuous time, but when things are relatively good, to get a deeper and more fulsome idea of their side of the story. Try to be the objective observer that closely monitors your emotional reactions to accusations leveled at you as well as the content of what is being said. Sometimes, all it takes is to hear someone out openly. Perhaps it’s time to build more rapport.

    Perhaps it’s time to invite or solicit ideas from parents and guardians and the wider community about how to address the students’ repeated concerns. I would be interested to hear more from the black student’s mother about her perceptions of the effectiveness of the school and teachers at treating her son fairly. Maybe she has a point. And she definitely has a story: perhaps you are not the first people that have, to her mind, mistreated her son. Perhaps learning more about her story will help you to be more responsive to her, and her child.

    Perhaps its time to investigate systemic racism and the influence it has on the perceptions of students at your school: as you remark, your colleagues are almost all white and female – are they really the best positioned to judge the objectivity of any situation when they’re all in the same boat? Perhaps a little diversity of perspectives, cultures, backgrounds, ages, would offer much needed perspective. And when you can’t hire it in, invite it in, in the form of inviting families and soliciting other community opinions.

    Just some thoughts…

    So while I agree that sometimes leveled accusations that all white teachers can’t teach all racialized students are bogus, I also think there might be more to this story. Perhaps, sometimes, it *IS* racism that we’re enacting, and we need to hear that and bear that burden. Being falsely accused is a relatively small price to pay for years, centuries, of privilege. And wouldn’t you want to know if the accusation is objectively true? So you can fix it? My advice: Keep dialogue open with those who critique your practice, more so than with those who agree with it, so that you can keep improving and growing. We learn very little from heads nodding in agreement.

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    1. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment! I need to clarify that I DO know my actions as decisions and beliefs are affected by my culture and privilege, and essentially I’m just expressing my frustration that no amount of reading or thinking or willingness or even my own suffering will ever change the fact that I can’t connect on a real level with people from other cultures or even socio-economic status. I don’t claim to know anything for sure, but my heart aches when I’m accuses of racism by someone I genuinely feel love for. But I just keep loving them – that’s all we can do. I think it’s interesting that you mentioned the idea of resistance because I have been thinking about it a lot lately, and it’s kind of a black hole. There are a lot of things I resist – war, pollution, cruelty to animals… how do we not resist such ideas? If no -resistance is the ultimate goal then it has to apply to everything. Anyway, these are the things that keep me up at night 🙂

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  3. As I read your first line, my first thought was… I’ve noticed it too, from a parent’s perspective. I’ve noticed my children say ‘that’s racist’ for things that are not. And, as a parent, I try to explain the difference to them. In conversations with other parents, we’ve noticed this trend as well. Last year, as a School Council asked for input on things to direct a grant to, we were told that how the school addresses diversity was a frequent question. That took us by surprise, because we were under the impression that the school has a long standing tradition of diversity which we all believe enriches us. At this particular Council, there were several immigrant parents and it took us all by surprise, because we have felt our children have been incredibly supported in their learning. Parent groups are so much more than fundraising committees or volunteers for field trips, this would be such an important conversation to have together. While I understand and agree that sometimes you can’t make another child/parent see a different perspective, I also believe this is an opportunity of something for parents and teachers to work through together. If teachers are noticing it, and parents are noticing this trend too, perhaps it is constructive to have conversations together. It all starts with honest communication and respect, and we can find a way to support each other.

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