Addressing Anti-Black Racism: Reflections on Classroom Experiences & Interventions

These remarks were delivered as part of a X University Faculty of Community Services Learning & Teaching panel discussion on May 27, 2021.

In some ways, I feel unqualified to participate in this panel discussion about how conversations about anti-Black racism have been taken up during the past year of online teaching, which has also been the year following George Floyd’s killing by police officers in Minneapolis. When I was approached by Nadya Burton about participating in this panel, I reminded her that I am not an expert.

I am a white person who may be viewed as a diversity hire. I came to the School of Early Childhood Studies in 2019, which means I have now been teaching online for longer than I have taught in-person classes. Early Childhood Studies students often do care work, and they are often women of colour.

My first semester of in-person teaching included teaching Families in a Canadian Context II, a course which focuses on diversity in race, ethnicity and culture and includes the experiences of refugee and immigrant families. I chose to teach this course because it seemed interesting, but I soon realized that my students knew much more than I did about the experience of being a refugee or immigrant, and how racism impacts children and families in Canada. So in effect, I may have learned more from my students in this course than they did from me.

My current courses focus on language and literacy. Last fall, I taught my graduate Minority-Language Children course for the first time online. The course discusses Canadian language policies, including the Official Languages Act that legally recognizes only English and French and the Multiculturalism Act that pays lip service to Indigenous and allophone languages without granting them equivalent status and protection to English and French. Instead, Indigenous and allophone languages, including languages spoken by Black Canadians, have token representation and status in Canada.

The discipline of language policy and planning emerged in the twentieth century following independence for African nations after colonial rule. Language planning was conceived as a solution to the problem of artificial borders between countries and divisions between languages, and the problem of having too many African languages. Retaining colonial languages as the languages of education and the government were seen as a solution to these problems. So we can see how colonialism continues in Africa today through language policy.

Similarly, Canadian language policy continues to “loiter on colonial premises,” to quote Errol Barrow, Barbados’ first prime minister after independence. For example, Quebec’s new Bill 96 to make French the only official language of the nation of Quebec continues to erase the languages of Indigenous peoples and of Black Canadians and people of colour, in a province that has effectively made it illegal to be Muslim. This issue is not separate from anti-Black racism but evidence of it. This issue reminds us that Canadian institutions and governments, including universities, are not always peaceful or rational, or innocent, as Teju Cole wrote.

Language and literacy teaching and assessment are often founded on white and normative language practices, and often involve policing the language practices of Black people. For example, young Black Canadian children may be placed in English as a Second Language classes even when they are English speakers from countries where English is an official language. Students who are not white and who speak other languages also do not always view their multilingual proficiencies as part of the early literacy curriculum. This reflects a dominant deficiency perspective on Black young children in early childhood education and care that our teaching and learning should work to address and overcome.

Conversations about anti-Black racism make my teaching more relevant for students and better in quality because they relate to current events and the reality of early childhood education and care for Ryerson students and the young children and families that students work with. My commitment is to continue and extend these conversations as much as possible.