The following anecdotes have been provided by our own anti-racism facilitators. Each story has been given a heading to help you navigate through these experiences.
I remember being in a situation as a student when a teacher unintentionally used a racist example in the class and became quite angry and defensive when I pointed it out to her in front of the class. Although I had rehearsed my response many many times, it was difficult to challenge her in front of the class albeit in what I thought was a respectful fashion - I was revisiting something that she had said in a previous class. Although she was angry she did listen to my explanation and in the end agreed that the example she had used was racist. At this point she admitted her mistake and decided that we might spend some time right then in class to talk about racism. To me, the white student in the class who was at the beginning of my process of understanding racism (see also Anti-Racism) and my whiteness, thought that it was great she had been open to my critique (which when I think back she handled very well), and now we were going to have a conversation about racism in the class - this was a win/win. In my ignorance because I certainly didn't see what was going to happen. I wasn't prepared, and neither was she - also white, and yet here we were diving into the conversation. Within the first few minutes the class erupted - angry voices, tears and general lack of control, and in the mist of all of this the lone student of colour, my friend paid the price. She, not me who began the conversation, was the brunt of the white anger. This discussion was shut down by the teacher who was neither equipped nor prepared to deal with the issues that came up. The subject was never brought up again in that class. My friend, the student of colour, told me to back off and made it very clear that I had started something that I had not been equipped to deal with. She was very hurt, embarrassed, and isolated by the whole incident. I did not go back to the teacher - intersections of my racial identity development at that time, my whiteness and institutional power. There are many layers of learning in this example and there could have been great learning in the class if the teacher and even I, as a mature student at the time, would have been prepared for the conversation. This is not to say that it would not have erupted but the ability to unpack the feelings and words would have provided students with an understanding of what was going on for them and an understanding of how race and racism affects the lives of all people. And, importantly this example shows how unsafe it is for people of colour and Indigenous people to talk about racism with people who do not have the depth of understanding to do so.
This is a situation where a teacher made a mistake and admitted it (so began the process) but was unprepared for what happened, and in the end caused more stress to her and pain for students. And, in the very end neither the teacher nor the mature student (me) did not have the resources (by resources I mean understanding of the situation and how to deal with it or how to get help dealing with it) or the will to revisit the discussion which would have helped students work through their emotions and feelings.
Safety and Well-Being
Each time I begin, I am nudged or pushed into a conversation about race or racism, I catch myself contemplating how it might go. These conversations happen in my family, my community and my workplace. Here is an example; I am teaching a class online and the race/racism conversations or the beginnings of them have already come up. We, the students and I, are at the edge of the conversation that will take them and me on a journey. I have noted the openings and am thinking about how and when are the best times/ways to move forward (this is an online course which is quite different than being in the room with the students). Interestingly, before I begin the "racism conversation," I find myself reflecting and often making assumptions about how it might unfold as often there is a pattern to how the conversation and resulting change takes place [racial identity formation for people of colour and white people]. Having said that there is the rocky road between now and the change and I find myself once again, thinking about how I am going to attempt to create ways for the students and myself to move through the process and come out the other side. This beginning part of the process can be on the one hand exciting and on the other hand daunting. The exciting bit is about being part of the students' process of making sense of their world - of having students come to a point where something clicks and makes sense in a way that it hasn't before. The "light bulb" moment that changes the way they see the world around them. The daunting bit is dealing with difficult and uncomfortable conversations, the anger, both mine and the students,' and the resistance which plays out in many ways. The daunting bits as I have labelled them cause me stress.
Multicultural Educator vs. Anti-Racism Facilitator and Conflict
My teaching partner and I experience this moment often, and it is connected to the liberal strategy of not believing that a person of colour is Canadian, hence the question: "where are you from?" Students, both white and some students of colour, will argue that asking a person of colour where they are from is just a way to get to know them better that they are not intending to imply that the person is not Canadian they are just trying to understand more about the person. Even when I explain that I am white and never get asked the question because people who look like me are viewed as a "normal Canadian," and even when other students of colour explain how it makes them feel excluded or not a "real" Canadian when they get asked that question, the argument continues. As we continue to move through this conversation we are able to see some students begin to understand while others remain fixed in their views. The conflicting notions can cause stress for facilitators and for students. One way to address the help with the stress is to ask students to sit with the ideas/tension and to ask them to reflect on why they think it is difficult to believe what the facilitators and some of their classmates are saying. We are asking students to understand their own emotional responses through our conversations and our debriefings while at the same time not taking on their stress. Coping with stressful discussions might mean staying in the moment and sometimes, like when we ask the students to sit with their stress, we are providing "breathing spaces" and processing time. As part of processing time we might ask students to journal about their feeling and the larger issues connected to them. And, it is important to suggest to students that you will revisit the discussion with them if necessary.
Multicultural Educator vs. Anti-Racism Facilitator
The following is an example of how this can play out, and it happened in a classroom I was working in 2009. We were facilitating a school wide poster contest at a Junior High as part of our Students For Change program at that school. I was visiting classrooms to talk to students about the contest. We were asking students to make posters that depicted their cultures and were encouraging them to talk about some deep culture issues - I was sharing examples of deep culture, what research they might do, and how they might share their ideas in a way that might deepen understanding in the school generally about their specific family/racial/cultural background (a rather big expectation of Jr. High students as I think back). One of the white students put up her hand and asked "what if you don't have a culture?", and one of the students of colour put up her hand and asked, "what if you don't want to talk about your culture?" These two very simply-put put yet extremely complex questions provide an example of why the multicultural approach does not work because without examining this situation from an anti-racism perspective these questions might be viewed as no more than two students questioning an assignment. When I asked the student of colour to talk a bit more about why she didn't want to talk about her culture she replied that she just didn't. In a multicultural classroom where there is no discussion of race and racism, the student of colour might have appeared to be obstinate as she appeared to be saying that she just didn't want to do the assignment because she didn't - no particular reason. In this case there could have been any number of reasons for her not to want to talk; she may not have felt safe to explain in the context where I, the instructor, was white, nor, what was she safe to say while I was facilitating the discussion (trust issues; See Whiteness) or she may have felt that saying something might isolate her in the classroom, or she may not have been able to put in words how she felt, and so on. When I asked the white student why she didn't think that she had a culture she continued that she was from here and so were her parents and felt that she had answered my question. In the case of the racialized student she may have felt that her identity was almost always tied to her race and culture - she stood out and was judged based on her culture and on how she represented that race/culture. In a Jr. High where students want to "fit in" is it any wonder that she might not want to be identified yet again by her culture? The white student was allowed to be invisible because of her race - whiteness does not get interrogated: she was normal while the other student was different. Although the atmosphere in the room was a bit tense after the two students asked the question and made their initial responses, once they realized that their responses were valid and "normal" we moved into a deeper discussion. Students wanted to talk and had questions, concerns, answers and ideas. We began a conversation about race, racism, colour and difference. In this case we moved below surface culture and addressed some deeper issues and, in this way, were able to help students make sense of their lived experience.
Multicultural Educator vs. Anti-Racism Facilitator
When my daughter (white, blonde hair) was in Grade Seven (2010), she brought home a worksheet from her Social Studies class. Her task was to imagine that she was a homesteader in southern Alberta (late 1800s, I think), deciding which parcel of land to live on, based on factors such as the location of rivers and lakes, roads, railway lines, and towns. Setting aside for the moment the issue of whether or not white women had any role in this decision making process (and assuming she was being asked to imagine herself as a white man), I proposed that she write down the following: "I wouldn't choose any of these because this is Blackfoot territory and it belongs to them." My daughter looked at me, clearly vexed. I know from many previous conversations (at home) that she understands, and is troubled by, the history of the colonization of First Nations people and by ongoing injustices. What she said, though, was: "I don't think my teacher would like that." I was angry. And I was saddened. Clearly, this (white) teacher had forestalled any productive discussion of Indigenous/non-Indigenous relationships in Canada, in Alberta, and here, where we live, and where Blackfoot people STILL live! I have no doubt that her signals to the class about what is appropriate or not appropriate to raise are the result of a combination of fear of taking this on, and her own lack of knowledge. And this teacher is not alone in this. And yet I also suspect that she would confidently describe herself as a practitioner of "inclusive education"! For me, this brief incident in my daughter's long process of "education" speaks volumes about how "additions" to the curriculum (such as the "new" curriculum including First Nations and Métis history in Alberta) will continue to function as "add-ons" to the dominant story of white dominance (and in the guise of Inclusive Education) if teachers are not taught, in our own education, how to identify, name, and truly challenge racism - in our own lives, in the curriculum, in their classrooms, and in the system in which we work.
Reverse Racism is a Myth
I am white, middle-class, able-bodied. I would like to think I'm a good dancer, even though even my family and close friends have yet to agree with me. Though this has not happened, If a person of colour or Indigenous person were to say in a public setting (or even to me alone) that "white people can't dance" and therefore I can't possibly be a good dancer, it would, indeed, hurt my feelings. The statement "white people can't dance" is an example of racial prejudice because it makes an assumption about an entire group of people based on an assumption about skin colour/race. However, the articulation of this statement in no way affects my life in any material way--I can continue to dance unhindered, because there was little "power" behind that statement to change my real opportunities to dance. Moreover, I can sign up for/pay for dance classes; I won't be questioned about my ability to pay, and I would bet the classes would be filled predominantly by people like me (white, female, middle-class, able-bodied).
The phrase "white people can't dance," I think, refers to the emergence of hip-hop dancing (or perhaps even with breakdancing). It circulates as a joke, and maybe a critique of white people's historical (and current) power to determine what constitutes "dance" and who can participate. (And it is a celebration African-American artistic creativity and expression, and resiliency).
After all, for how long have European/North American ballet companies been dominated by white people and white dancers, and why? Who tells who they can't dance, in ways that literally ban them from doing so?
I am a white woman and often work with my teaching partner who describes herself as a woman of colour. The issue of racial discrimination and racism comes up in our sessions, either through a white person saying that they have experienced racism or a person of colour saying that they know lots of people of colour who are racist. When this happens either my teaching partner or I will present these scenarios. I, the white woman, might present it this way; in scenario 1, my partner, the woman of colour is the office manager and I am going in for an interview. If she decides that she is not going to hire me based on my colour difference from the other employees who are mostly people of colour, she is discriminating against me based on my race and that is racial discrimination. In scenario 2, I, the white woman, am the office manager and my partner is interviewing for the job. I decide not to hire her based on the fact that most of our employees are white and it just doesn't seem like she, as a person of colour would fit in - this is an example of racism. Why is it racial discrimination when the person of colour discriminates against the white person and racism when the white person discriminates against the person of colour? In Canada white people have cultural power and cultural power is what changes discrimination into an ism. Although in the specific situation where my partner, the woman of colour is in the power position of manager and I, the white woman, do not have power, when I leave her office I regain my cultural power - I benefit from being white. The situation is different for my teaching partner when she leaves my office because, as a woman of colour, she does not have cultural power.