Black-Focused Schools (The Epic Post)

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:

“Right here.”

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9 thoughts on “Black-Focused Schools (The Epic Post)

  1. stine says:

    I have to disagree, I do not think an Afrocentric school is going to solve these problems – and I am SHOCKED this comes up on the heels of an election where the biggest (and controversial) issue was funding faith-based schools (well, any faith, BUT Catholic schools which are already 100% funded)… and it was decided that Ontarians valued integration in the school system.

    But anyway, I think the solution is having BETTER teachers across the board. These teachers should be taking the initiative to incorporate culturally relevant material in their classrooms. For example, by choosing black history books or including black artists in an art class. And it should not stop there. Being a multicultural society, it should also include a wide range of culturals/races.

    The problem is teachers college is a joke. It’s so easy just about anyone with two brain cells to rub together can pass. All students would be served better if teachers had more life experience and chose the profession because they have the best interests of the students in mind.

  2. says:

    Hi Stine,

    Did you go to teachers’ college? Trust me. It ain’t (sic) easy.

    You’re just teacher bashin’ right now. If we ever get those BETTER teachers that you so want, you’ll find some reason to bash those BETTER teachers.

  3. Hey there,

    Obviously, I could go for miles on this one… Some points:

    1. If someone in Canada asks you where you’re from and you don’t have an accent (and they don’t mean your hometown) then they’re morons. Anyone who asks you this based on the colour of your skin is BEYOND moronic. If you DO have an accent, then this is a perfectly reasonable question and would apply to white Germans as well as black Haitians.

    2. “Canadian history kind of is European history” – no, it’s really not. When we were taught Canadian history, we learned about various Aboriginal tribes, the Plains of Abraham, and Upper and Lower Canada. We did not learn about the British royal family, we did not study the French Revolution, we did not study the Spanish Inquisition. If memory serves, Columbus was Portuguese, sailing under the Spanish flag; the French and English were amongst the first European settlers in Canada. I’m of Irish background. Just because those are all European does not mean they’re all the same. Even if we DID study the Spanish Inquisition, that is not MY history any more than it is someone’s of African descent.

    3. The terms European and “white” are not interchangeable.

    4. The terms Africentric and “black-focused” are not interchangeable, either – one of the things that drives me NUTS about the reporting on this subject.

    5. The “ignorant fool” who bemoaned the existence of Black History Month may as well have been me; I don’t agree with it, either – although I couldn’t be certain it’s for the same reasons. There’s this great West Wing episode where a female character (I can’t recall) is dead set against some kind of resolution that recognizes in black and white that women are “people” and are thus eligible for something or other (like I said, I can’t quite recall, but I remember it was profound). The other characters can’t understand it – why is this woman objecting to a resolution that will favour women? Well, it was because the woman refused to believe that women weren’t ALREADY recognized that way and resented the idea that anyone would feel the need to spell it out in writing. There’s no such thing as “more equal”. If you decide to recognize something as “special”, you make it distinct – that means it isn’t equal. So long as there’s a Black History Month, everyone will be reminded of the DIFFERENCE between races; that a concession was made to appease someone for whatever reason at some point. If people truly want to be treated equal, they should expect to be equal in every regard. If one race has a “day” or “month” then they all should. That’s equal. Personally, I don’t think any race should have a month. I regard so-called “Black history” as “history” – plain and simple. I was disgusted when I visited the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC and saw a display that featured “Blacks in Aviation” or something to that effect. Why could these exploits not simply form part of the regular aviation history? Clearly, this was some form of political correctness gone amok – this was apologetic; and that’s sad. “Hey look – we’re not racist! See?”

    6. If you don’t think there are enough “Africentric” references to be found in the textbooks these days, that’s one thing (you might want to blame the lack of funding for Education and new textbooks, for starters) but does that mean we need an entire school devoted to it? Can’t we work it into the curent system? Shouldn’t ALL kids be learning about ALL cultures – not just learn about whatever happens to be your own background? (I’m still not sure what the Potato Famine was all about) Why are we looking to divide? If Africentric schools are given a green light, then it’s only fair to have Latino schools, Asian schools, Indian schools, etc, etc, etc. You can’t argue for one and be against the other. Is this really what we want our school system to look like?

    7. There are two explanations for your A+ story: either your work wasn’t as good as you thought, or; your new teacher DID have preconceived notions, which would be sad – but seeing your old marks should not have influenced HIS marks – either your work was A+ or it wasn’t.

    8. I find the notion of The Black Pearls disturbing, frankly. African Pearls, I’d buy, but Black Pearls? As I indicated in my blog post, someone has to explain to me the definition of “black”. We all know there are “shades” out there – would Mariah Carey be allowed to participate? Just how diluted is your heritage allowed to be? Do The Black Pearls close the door on non-blacks?

    9. Do NOT get me started on “affirmative action”. Like I say in my post: Racism is bad. Period.

    Call me an idealist, call me naive: I just don’t think race should be an issue. EVER.

  4. dicampbell says:

    Appreciating all the posts so far …

    Just to answer, Phil, in regards to your response to my post:

    1. Basing my experience on this response, there have A LOT of moronic people. Some of them have been my peers, others educated adults. (No, degrees don’t necessarily equate social liberalism and common sense, but it would’ve been nice if it did.)

    2. Yes, we learned about the various tribes, the Plains of Abraham, and Upper and Lower Canada. But I’m pretty sure the Royal Family did figure in there somewhere, otherwise we wouldn’t know why we STILL “celebrate” Victoria Day. We’re a former British colony. People didn’t even consider to see us as a separate political entity the early 20th century!

    Did you know about Pier 21? Africville? The Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus denied entry at Vancouver Harbour in 1914? I’m sure I’m missing hundreds of other examples. But that’s ALSO Canadian history. And I know I sure as hell didn’t learn any of this when I was learning Canadian history in high school – and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t asleep during any of these classes, either. This is material that SHOULD be in history books, if they’re not already.

    3. European and white may not be interchangeable, but they’ve been misused by people like myself, black and white alike. So you can’t fault me too much for that.

    4. You said Africentric and “black-focused” aren’t interchangeable, either. Please provide, in your words, the difference. You didn’t really mention it in your post.

    5. I don’t agree with the fact that there’s a Black History Month, either. But as long as there’s a lack of material reflecting this in the school curriculum, it’s going to be around, whether it’s about Black History or a Heritage Month for all cultures.

    **6. Um, I DID touch on this question when I said:

    “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.”

    THAT’S where I agree with you. I DO think the school system needs an overhaul. I DON’T think we need a separate school. THAT was the point of the entire post … Which probably means I need to work on my writing. *sigh*

    7. Who really knows what this teacher was thinking? At the time, I was thinking he was being completely unfair. As I get older, I will always wonder: was it only a student-related issue, or was it something deeper?

    8. I hate to say it, but “black” will probably be one of those unresolved identifiers amongst people like me. Some people prefer African-Canadian. I don’t fully identify with it, because although I’m of African descent, I’m not African. When I hear “African-Canadian”, I literally think of the various people from the continent who immigrated here. Others prefer “people of colour”. Meh. Not sold on that, either. I’m not Jamaican-Canadian, either. My parents were Jamaican, but they’d tell you I’m Canadian, ’cause I was born here. “Visible minority”? Duh. I think the skin colour speaks for itself. So I go with “black” -not because I’m the actual colour of my shoes, but because it’s easier than saying, “I’m a Canadian of African descent.” It would be even easier to say “I’m Canadian”, but like I said in answer number one, there are a LOT of morons out of there, who would like to believe otherwise.

    As for whether the Black Pearls close the door on non-blacks, you’d have to ask them that question for yourself. They’re trying to get some of these kids off the streets, out of trouble, and looking at role models who don’t dribble a basketball or hold a microphone. Can you blame them for that?

    9. I’m not touching the affirmative action issue because that’s not THIS post.

    After all that babble, in short:

    Phil, I – as much as the next person – DON’T think race should be an issue, especially in this day and age. But sadly, it still is. And it’s silly.

    Am I on the fence on this issue? As someone from the community (general term, not specific) at the centre of this issue, AND as someone who would like to think she got to where she is today fair and square, hell yes. It’s troubling.

    As mentioned in my post, I’m not sold on the idea of an Africentric school. But as someone who sees the generation of young people of African descent fail where I’ve previous succeeded, I keep thinking there HAS to be another way to stem the tide. What that is, beyond re-vamping the school system, is beyond me.

  5. stine says:

    It is hardly “moronic” or offensive to ask “where you are from”. I’m second generation Canadian and I don’t have an accent – and I was asked that question time after time growing up, am still asked… hell, I even ask it myself. It is conversational. It’s getting to know a little about the person’s background. It’s also a way to connect with folks with similiar backgrounds. We are a nation of immigrants – and your background and family history is an important part of who you are.

  6. dicampbell says:

    Just to clarify:

    I didn’t necessarily agree with Phil in saying people who ask “where are you from?” are morons. I was trying to say, if I were to base my experience on his logic, then I’ve gotten this question from a lot of morons, because I’ve been asked this question MANY times.

    And yes, of COURSE we are all immigrants (save for the first peoples of this country, who continue to be marginalized to this day).

    But there is a succinct difference between, “What’s your background/heritage/where is your family from?” and “Where are you from?”

    I remember the first time I was asked this question, to which I answered, “I’m from here” (meaning Canada). To which the woman who asked me that question, asked again, “Where are you from?” I was thoroughly confused. I thought I just answered the question. I think she asked the same question several times before she asked the question to get the answer she wanted.

    You may not think there’s any difference between the sets of questions. But depending on the context, it makes ALL the difference. ESPECIALLY when I ask in return, “Where are YOU from?” and these same people respond, “Canada” or “I’m Canadian.” Um, how come I’m from somewhere else, and you’re just from Canada?

    Some people just don’t share the “we are a nation of immigrants” view. This is fact, whether we like it or not. And this is why I don’t like the question.

  7. stine says:

    Yeah, I hear you. I was talking more about: “What’s your background/heritage/where is your family from?” And I can see the difference in question.

    Did you ask her where she is from?

  8. dicampbell says:

    The first time I asked this question was in high school. The woman in question was a guidance counsellor.

    I never asked her where she was from, because I wasn’t expected to be repeatedly asked at length about where I was from.

    Hindsight is 20/20. But if I had the good sense and the mouth to match, I probably would have asked her.

  9. Cinders says:

    Sadly, I’ve experienced most racism IN Canada. I was born in Toronto. My first language was English. Second Cantonese. Third, possibly Turkish, but I’ve forgotten that by now. I’ve studied French, Spanish, Russian, German and Japanese. And I’ve travelled and lived in many other countries. But in every country I’ve travelled to, someone has asked me, ‘Where are you from?’ And I say, ‘Canada.’ They say, ‘COOL!’

    When I moved to my second elementary school, the teachers put me in ESL cuz I look Asian. I was there for 2 years. My ESL teacher KNEW English was my first language but let me stay cuz I enjoyed it more than my crappy regular classes. The new vice-principal, a few years later, when speaking to me, said, ‘Where’s your accent from? It’s not Chinese.’ I said, ‘I think it’s a bit Turkish…’ (Friend’s parents at lunch spoke to me in Turkish when I was younger.) He kicked me out of ESL. Drats.

    Another time, in high school, I was walking across to the mall and some ‘black’ guy said to me, ‘Go back to where you came from!’ And I just looked at him with an expression of ‘what the f*xk?’ And wanted to yell at him, ‘Why don’t you go back to where you came from??’ (The farm, the barn, wherever ignorance is born.) But I didn’t.

    Next was in university. My spanish professor asked in front of the whole class, ‘Where do you come from?’ I said, ‘Toronto.’ She said, ‘No, where do you come from?’ And I said, ‘Scarborough?’ And she said, ‘Are you Chinese?’ My parents are Chinese…Does that make me Chinese? I know how to read and write more of any of the other languages I’ve learned other than Chinese…I didn’t know where my parents came from. I never asked. And she went on comparing MY family to her ‘Chinese friend’s family’, which was nothing alike. She also made a comment to me one day asking if I’ve ever written an essay in my life (just cuz I contradicted her), even though the Head of the English department just gave me an A+ for an assignment I just handed in.

    Yes, I’ve never had so many problems with the colour of my skin, outside of Canada. Maybe I’m ignorant because I don’t really WANT to know the ancestrial history of my family’s background, or of any of my friends. I just accept them as who they are. They create their own histories, as I’ll create mine. I am Canadian. No matter what people try to say, you can’t change that.

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