One question I loathe being asked is, “Where are you from?”
Because if one of my white friends were asked that, they’d answer by stating their hometown, and that would be the end of the discussion.
Were I to do the same thing, I’d get, “Yeah, but where are you from?” Because I couldn’t possibly be born and bred here. And it says to me that I can never quite fit in.
This came to mind when I read the most recent post of my fellow blogger, Phil Loses His Mind … who nearly lost his mind over an column written by the Toronto Star’s Royson James on Sunday, which dealt with the issue of possibly creating a black-focused school in Toronto to tackle the problems with black at-risk students.
Now, what I’m about to write isn’t because I have any grand solutions to the dilemma. But here’s how I’m feeling.
I agree with Phil in the spirit of his post – to a point.
I went to a Toronto-area public high school. No fancy-schmancy school for the arts or avant-guarde alternative school. Just plain old high school, where half the answers in the back of the math books were wrong, and the class sizes were huge and unruly. Despite it being fairly multicultural, I was only one of a handful of black kids on the attendance sheet, in a number of classes I took.
I studied the Canadian history courses. I read the Shakespeare. I understand what Phil’s trying to get at. Which is why it pains me to disagree.
Phil said in his scathing letter to Royson James that we weren’t taught European history. We were taught Canadian history.
Um … Canadian history kind of is European history. Although the multicultural make-up has changed, Canada has been a predominantly white country for decades. A large number of the people who came here and took over indigenous land, as well a lot of the later settlers in the 19th century and beyond, were Europeans.
It’s only been in recent years that kids have been starting to hear about the other cultures who settled here and on whose backs Confederation gained some of its foundations.
I often remember in school, when people would try and promote Black History month. Some ignorant fool once said, “Why do we need Black History Month? You don’t see us asking for White History Month.”
And I wish I could have said back then, “It’s because you have it everyday, dumbass.”
Except for a couple days in February each year, I never saw anyone like myself in history books, or literature (unless – to use Shakespeare’s example – you counted Othello … but then he killed his wife after being psychologically manipulated by another character, which is another can of worms).
Any of those faces I saw or voices I hear came in the books I had the luxury to read outside of school.
There were a couple of black teachers at my school – one in biology, the other in math. Looking back, it was impressive. But after I no longer excelled in either subject, neither of them were of use to me, sadly.
It wasn’t until my first-year university Canadian history class when I finally saw an entire paragraph, which acknowledged the fact there were free black people in Canada around the time the United Empire Loyalists came to town. It would be much later on in adulthood when I would read for myself about the slaves who were here in Canada before that.
But back to the bigger picture. Do I think black kids are missing out on this in the current public school system? Hell, yes.
Do I think there are enough role models in the system to try and guide them? Nope.
Do I support the idea of an Afrocentric school? No. I’m not sold.
Why such a traitorous statement? “Why not give it a try?” advocates are asking. “Something needs to be done.”
Because as much as I support trying to surround yourself with positive images, ideas, and people that reflect, enrich and empower you, how will that translate when it’s time to go into the real world?
Will post-secondary institutions value and acknowledge your education? How do you deal with an outside world that doesn’t have a particularly large number of black-focused universities or black-run businesses?
And how are you going to deal with other people? And by other people, I mean white people. Chinese people. Southeast Asian people. People of different beliefs. All kinds of people. Because when you leave school and enter the real world, you’re gonna have to.
Again, I grew up in the public school system. And I’m not from an affluent family, either. But I – and lots of other black students with a similar life story – did the work and got our diplomas. Some of us went to universities, others to colleges. And we’re doing not too shabbily.
So why did students like us succeed, while others today are failing? Were we better “programmed”? Did we get lucky with the teachers we dealt with? Because as far as I’m concerned – and not to say that it doesn’t happen at all – I don’t think that most of my teachers necessarily treated my white colleagues any differently than they treated me.
But I do think in a way the system is failing black kids. But because a lot of these kids are smart. It just seems like they don’t have the right medium to show their brilliance, to discover their true strengths and talents.
I think they’re up against a couple of things:
1) A government curriculum where a lot of teachers are making sure to get the required materials taught to these kids, on top of prep time and other duties. And they’re just pushing them through. They can’t spend the one-on-one time with kids that they might have used to. And I think this is across the board, not just with black kids.
2) I can’t say that I know what it’s like now to be a black kid in high school. But I’m sure when you show up to class, you’re already having to deal with a preconceived notion, held by teachers – not ALL, mind you – of what you can do.
All through elementary school, until I opened my mouth or put pen to paper, I’m sure those teachers thought they were dealing with just another cute black kid, who might disrupt class or have a hard time with readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic. (Or not. Who really knows?)
In a pre-university English class, one teacher couldn’t figure out why I was upset with the marks he gave me – until he opened my school file and saw I’d been an A+ student before I even parked my behind in one of his desks.
Can you imagine what a smart black kid from a single-parent family might have to try and prove, if he or she dares to take up that kind of challenge?
When you’re in an environment where you have to behave a certain way because you’re surrounded by it … or you do it for survival’s sake … when you’re placed in a category and told, time and again, this is what you are, some kids eventually believe it and start playing the role. Because Lord knows, sometimes it’s a lot easier to conform than trying to fight against the current. And that’s a shame.
I do agree with Phil on his point about there needing to be more programs and services helping to change these kids’ attitudes, about life beyond the streets. And thing is, there ARE services out there.
For example, earlier this week, I read about this group called The Black Pearls , who are trying to show that there are outlets f0r young black people – in this case, young black women – who show promise, and that if they have the medium to chase after what they want, they can make things happen. They can do their part to try and break the stereotypes which haunt them daily.
And I’m sure there are other organizations out there in Toronto, trying to do the same thing. It’s just they get only a little support. They don’t get a LOT of support.
Back to education: as it stands now, the first Afrocentric alternative school could potentially start in September of next year. If it does, there are high expectations that this has to work. Really. Because if they fail to produce results, the nay-sayers will be among the first to say, “I told you so.”
I do think this is a wake-up call. The educational system needs to be re-evaluated. And there has to be different ways of teaching youth. And there needs to be some way to enrich the existing curriculum. Not just with images of African-Canadians (although it’s way past due). But how about Chinese-Canadians, Indo-Canadians and so on? They were part of the fabric of this country, too.
And if we can do that, maybe the question, “Where are you from?” won’t be such a stinger to people like me. Because maybe one day, when someone asks that question, a student of colour can pick up a Canadian history book, flip it open and say: