Combatting Racism in Schools: What Can Teachers Do?

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Susan Melkisethian via Compfight cc

This article really hit a chord with me. I have followed the events that have happened in Ferguson, a lengthy ordeal that has been plastered all over the news; it even has its own Wikipedia page now. What has happened there and is still happening seems unbelievable and, quite frankly, it terrifies me. I thought we were past this. I thought that the Civil Rights Movement, led by the great Martin Luther King, had staunched this. Of course, I had known that there was still racism in the world, but for it to have reached such an extent in Ferguson – and at the hands of law enforcement – is truly sad.

What does it mean that there is an entire website – gaining great momentum – dedicated to the hashtag #blacklivesmatter? It means that white people – like me – thinking that racism does not exist is baseless; it’s only to appease our own minds. You hear stories about people’s fight with racism and you think, “Oh, it’s not that bad,” or, “Oh, they’re exaggerating.” That’s white privilege talking. How many events like these have to happen to convince us that racism is still alive and well? My university education and, of course, the Ferguson shooting, has certainly changed my perspective on racism. As a white woman, I understand that I will never be able to fully comprehend the racism that people of colour face on a daily basis – it would be an insult to them if I claimed that I did – and now, I will never diminish the hardships they face by thinking that they’re not happening.

While discussing Ferguson within my circle of family and friends, I have heard comments suggesting that these kinds of things only happen in the USA – they’re gun crazy, they’re wackos, they don’t value human life. I used to think that as true, when I was young and desperately wanted to regard my country as the best. We stand for multiculturalism here, right?

As I grew older, I understood: Canada has its own problems. What about the residential schools that were enforced by the Canadian government? By us? They were operated for more than 100 years. People might respond to this by saying, that happened a long time ago. But is 1996 really such a long time ago? That was when the last residential school closed. And the effects of them will be everlasting. It was a cultural genocide. Most of those who went to residential schools have been emotionally scarred for life and have been plunged into a plethora of socio-economic problems. No, Canada is not without its racism. And when Regina’s main crime is centred in North Central, a community in which 1/3 of the population is First Nation, we are faced with a problem not so different than that in Ferguson.

This, now, poses a question: What can we, as teachers, do against such hate?

It starts in the classroom. Schools are one of the most important tools that can be used to fight racism. Our jobs as teachers is to be culturally aware and socially responsive; we must adopt as society adopts and that means raising new issues in the classroom as they arise. Our role as teachers does not only lie with helping students do well academically, but also teaching them how to be respectful, responsible citizens. Part of that also means cultivating an ability to think critically in all students; that, I think, is one of the most important things needed in the fight against racism. Oftentimes, racism is passed on from family and so the child does not know what is right or wrong; however, if students are able to dissect a family’s words and actions and cross-reference it with what they learning in school, then they might actually be able to dismiss this prejudice or stereotype on their own. Ultimately, as teachers, we can’t force students to not be racist; it’s THEIR decision. We just have to present them with all the facts that they need to know that racism is wrong and make an informed decision.

The article presents an excellent unit plan addressing racism, one that teachers would be wise to implement. What I like the most about the proposed lesson plan is that it revolves around real world events: the shooting of Michael Brown. The reality is that racism is a real issue in our society today and I think it would be beneficial for students to focus on these facts rather than on abstract ideas. By doing this, it will also cultivate a sense of social responsibility in students: we are part of society, this is happening in society and, ultimately, it is in our hands to stop what is happening.

It’s no easy task, it’s true, especially when a child may learn certain stereotypes and prejudices for his/her family. But there needs to be change in society, real change, in order for events such as the Ferguson shooting and racism that First Nations face in Regina to stop. It’s scary how easily something like Ferguson could have happened in Regina, especially when the RCMP felt compelled to pen an open letter to citizens who were worried about racism in the police force in the first place. You desperately want to believe that these kinds of institutions are without stereotypes but when our own government didn’t shut down the last residential school until 1996, then perhaps there should be some fear.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue – specifically, about how to combat racism in schools. I am by no means an expert on social justice or on racism, but these are just some of the ideas that have been swirling around n my head for a while. I hope you enjoyed the article, and if there is anything you disagreed with, please feel free to comment!

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