When we emigrated to Canada from England, I taught at a private Montessori school in Toronto for a couple of years. I remember a family approaching me to say that it was the first time their Black child had been exposed to any form of culturally responsive learning while in school. At the time, I had thought it was part of common teaching practice. Today, I recognize that my efforts towards anti-racism were not nearly enough.
When Malcolm X visited Smethwick, England in 1965, he inspired hope in the communities of colour, by sparking conversations around the deep racism he witnessed there. His visit helped gain solidarity and just a short year after his visit, legislation for the Race Relations Act was passed. The freedoms we enjoy as a South-Asian family were built on the activism of Indigenous and Black lives. We have benefitted from racist systems due to privilege, which have concurrently oppressed our Black and Indigenous community members.
In studies by U of T Professor, Kang Lee, babies as young as 6 months old recognize racial bias and a lack of exposure to other races may be the cause. If babies only see certain people as the dominant image, then it makes sense that those images will build their understanding of the world around them. Who will they like? Who might hurt them? Adults in their lives, hold power with responsibility, for whose voices we share and whose will be left out. Ashia Ray of Books For Littles reminds us that “When we refuse to talk about race at an early age, children absorb our silence as shame.” We should then, navigate our discomfort and talk about race as early as possible.
Our family moved cross-country from Ontario to British Columbia in 2011 with high expectations of liberal west-coast values. With a young Kindergartener in tow and leaving a decade of classroom teaching practice behind, made this a pretty big life move. I was not prepared for the fierce advocacy work ahead to ensure equitable access to a public-school education for our son. I quickly understood the systemic racism and culturally UNresponsive mindset in place, which would make our work mentally and physically exhausting. White fragility was rampant. Yet, I had privilege – a teaching background, knowledge of IEPs and becoming a stay-at-home Mum – which offered me knowledge and time to advocate fearlessly. Still, I was afraid. And when I looked around at the silence of my community – the largest demographic of this school district – I recognized that we were complicit in building these racist systems. For an introvert, this would require pushing through a whole lot of discomfort at once.
Another thing that stood out for us was the absence of Black people. We rented for a while in Vancouver before moving out to more “affordable” housing near the Washington-Blaine border, but the absence of the Black community was consistent. I began to wonder why?
Black settlers were being displaced due to “slum clearance” policies. Systemic racism sounds familiar here – this policy promised urban renewal. Yasin Kiraga Misago, founder and director of the African Descent Festival shares his knowledge of what happened, “At that time, the city of Vancouver passed a resolution at city hall, that the police should remove all undesirables”.
Being labeled undesirable is not a term lost on the South-Asian community.
As we looked for a home, we came across what Vancouverites nick-named, the “British Properties”. Out of curiosity we looked it up. Historically, this region had a strict “whites-only” policy, clearly defined in the property titles. People of African or Asiatic race or descent were barred from purchasing these homes. Apparently, a number of titles still hold this discriminatory language today. The racist clause also existed on Vancouver rental agreements as recent as the 1990s.
It was no surprise then, that the vast number of Panjabi immigrants in the suburbs included professional builders. When we searched home listings, the description “Made by European Builder” was familiar code used to disregard homes built by people of colour. We responded to these Ads to ask for a definition of “European Builder”. We never received a response, but we were beginning to understand that the only way our community were navigating systemic racism on this coast, was by creating safe community pockets, trying to preserve their culture, traditions, language and dignity by working hard as model-minority citizens. Power was being equated to financial and social stability, rather than wider community liberation.
One afternoon, we found a truck parked steps away from our home, with the back draped in a confederate flag. It was sickening. A rush of fear overcame us. Since street parking was common in our area, the truck could have belonged to anyone. But the someone was loud when they left and then, we knew. My partner did not hesitate to walk over to inform our neighbour of the racist trauma associated with that flag. The conversation made an impact. We did not see the flag again. It felt unsafe to speak out, but if we talk about being intentional allies, then it comes with some heavy lifting.
As we settled, I found a not-for-profit drama group that was inclusive of all abilities. I learned about the Founder – Barbara Howard – she was among the fastest women of the world and the first female Black athlete to secure a spot for Team Canada in the Empire Games of 1938. Her goal was to win Gold in the Olympics but WWII took away that opportunity. She went on to become the first person of colour (visible minority) to be hired as a teacher by the Vancouver School Board. As an educator myself, I am ashamed to say that Barbara Howard was a Black Canadian icon I had never heard of before. It was time to grow my thinking.
After homeschooling for several years, we moved back to Ontario. I no longer had the will to hear about the good intentions of the school system that failed our child. The impact had cut too deep.
A lack of culturally responsive practice (not multiculturalism), erasure of immigrant history within Canadian curriculum and general silence (exhaustion?) around systemic racism has already caused too much pain from coast to coast. Black scholars, educators and activists are tackling the enormity of work to change outcomes here in Ontario. But as Desmond Cole states, “Canada insists on being surprised by its own racism.”
Today, it is time for us to unlearn what we think we know and do the work of learning from the experiences of the Black community. Let me be clear, that does not mean reaching out to our Black friends and asking them to teach us. It is not their weight to lighten. It means we have to locate resources and do the work of learning ourselves. That begins with learning more about what and how to leverage our power and privilege to do anti-racist work. That will involve disrupting the status quo.
Let’s have some real talk here. Anti-Black racism exists within the South-Asian community. We need to raise our voices to break those cycles, otherwise our complicity will continue to play a role in oppression. Start conversations with the book suggestions listed in my next post, but please don’t let that be the end of your interest. Kids are well equipped to have much larger conversations than we think. Give them space to ask their own questions. Give them space to process in small chunks if needed. Consider the community you are creating around them. Who do they interact with? Books can help think through big topics but simply adding titles to your library collection will not help solve racism. Talk about why Black children have to learn how to react when stopped by the police. Call out anti-Black racism when you see or hear it. Share books that reflect experiences different from your own all year long, so the conversations can impact many tomorrows in positive ways.
Here are links to human beings who work tirelessly to help me (un)learn something every day:
And so many more!
If you have questions about how to begin conversations around race with young people, please reach out. I’m here to help you (I speak Panjabi too, if needed).