Last month a 14-year-old Black student at an Edmonton school was the victim of an attack. In a video, several boys physically attack the student and call him the N-word. The incident left the boy in hospital with a concussion. The assault on the student was clearly a racist act, something community members and his family underscored.
The Edmonton Public School District called the incident a “hate-filled attack” and have recommended expelling the perpetrators.
However, the Edmonton police called it a “consensual school yard fight.” Around 200 hundred people rallied outside the police headquarters in Edmonton, calling on the police to retract their statement and apologize.
The discrepancies between responses are not surprising. Police in Edmonton and across Canada have repeatedly misunderstood and stigmatized racialized communities.
A recent report on the death of Colten Boushie and the treatment of his mother called on police to address “out-of-date beliefs” which “take root in organizations and systems, influencing the way things are done.”
Racism and oppression are not only entrenched in policing, but also other institutions like our school systems.
Lack of diversity
Current hiring practices within school systems do not reflect Black, Indigenous or People of Colour communities.
Canada has limited data on racialized individuals.
Where communities have documented experiences of Black students, such as in the Toronto District School Board, these students have described the negative effects of anti-Black racism they encounter at school. Racialized data from the United States also tells us that compared to their peers, Black children are more likely to be treated differently within the education system.
When incidents occur, Black students are less likely to be given the benefit of the doubt or to be believed. They are more likely to be strictly punished for minor transgressions, mislabelled as troublesome, or believed to have learning difficulties.
Implementing greater employment equity in our school systems is a necessary step toward addressing the lack of representation. Women, members of visible minorities, people with disabilities and Indigenous Peoples combined make up over 60 per cent of Canada’s labour force and yet are minimally represented in the school system’s administration or classrooms despite a movement towards decolonizing our educational systems.
The lack of diversity among educators is not reflective of the students in our schools. When Black and racialized people are employed in the school system, it creates a more diverse school community. Black people will have greater confidence in a system they feel represents them and stand a chance to benefit from these equitable practices.
Despite a focus on reconciliation and educators learning about colonial history, there remains a lingering racism in schools.
Simply talking about racism doesn’t make it go away. As anti-colonial scholar Kathryn McKittrick reminds us, “description is not liberation.” Movement towards racial equality cannot succeed through tokenistic practices like land acknowledgements by the same institutions where Black and Brown students are exposed to racism every day.
Instead of recognizing and addressing the serious issues in education, the government of Alberta has introduced a draft K-6 curriculum that white washes Canadian history. A white colonial history is being taught in the classroom while racialized children experience its outcome in the school yard. This is despite a long history of Black people in Alberta.
Impacts on mental health
Anti-Black racism within the education system negatively impacts the physical and mental well-being of Black children.
Anti-Black racism can lead to chronic stress which is associated with changes in hormones that cause inflammation in the body, a marker of chronic disease. Chronic and prolonged traumatic experiences can change children’s brain development. Children may suffer from issues with self-confidence, social isolation and disrupted sleep and eating patterns.
The Canadian Public Health Association, in collaboration with seven provincial and territorial public health associations, has declared racism a public health issue. The association provided recommendations for agencies and organizations involved in education, research and the provision of health and social services to address systemic racism in Canada.
Some suggestions include: a system-wide review of regulations, policies, processes and practices to identify and remove any racist systems and approaches; providing mandatory anti-racism and anti-oppression training for all staff and volunteers; collect race and ethnicity data in an appropriate and sensitive manner; and monitor their organizations for stereotyping, discrimination and racist actions and take corrective actions.
When an education system and teachers do not understand the cultural context of the racialized children in their care, the supports they design and implement to help those children will miss the mark.
With this latest incident, the public schooling and policing systems have yet another opportunity to respond appropriately to racialized violence. The Black community is waiting.