Ontario’s Minister of Education announced last summer that academic streaming would be phased out of the province’s schools in Grade 9. Streaming refers to students having to choose either an “academic” or “applied” track; it affects a student’s chance of going to a post-secondary institution. Teachers are guilty of assuming they will not do well in the advanced classroom.
Data shows Black students are disproportionately affected by being streamed to the applied track. Instead, Black students are encouraged and praised in athletics and are often not provided the resources and support meant for equal opportunity and academic success. It is in part a reflection of the messages and the hidden curriculum pertaining to racial stereotypes.
Black students have also repeatedly described the ill effects of subtle forms of discrimination and anti-Blackness as part of their socializing in classes and hallways. Statistically, Black students are treated less sympathetically than their white peers regarding their behaviours and rule violations and they are therefore continuously over-represented in school suspensions.
Within all of these conversations about racist practices, what often gets left out are stories about the ways school disciplinary practice and policies affect Black students’ emotional well-being and traumatizes them. Black students continue to be judged as inferior and dangerous. Even with “progressive discipline,” Black students who violate rules are seen as offenders rather than teens in need of support.
Almost 30 years ago, Ontario floated a blueprint for addressing these issues. But regardless of continued calls to action for an inclusive education, Black students continue to receive subtle negative messages. School boards have not found a systemic way to enforce anti-racism and equity policies to lessen the disruption in Black youth’s lives. However, educators working in kindergarten to Grade 12 spaces are in a unique position to correct the practices that are unjust for Canadian Black youth.
As a child and youth worker, I work directly with high school students that encounter school discipline. Many Black youth walk through our doors with diminished self-esteem when it comes to academics. They discuss the negative words and coded language teachers use to describe their perceptions of them. I have seen tears roll down these young people’s cheeks while they explain how they are often criticized for behaviours that are rarely pointed out in their white peers. Black boys and girls share how they are painted as “militant,” “rebellious,” “surly,” and/or having “attitude adjustment issues.”
Each story lays bare the impact of anti-Black racism in the schooling experience. The school discipline that leads to these heavy feelings is rarely overtly violent or threatening, but as professor of family therapy Kenneth V. Hardy notes, it can “lacerate the spirit, scar the soul and puncture the psyche.”
I am exploring the impact of school discipline on Black students in my doctoral research. In this, I recognize how dominant definitions of trauma invalidate the ways anti-Black racism can traumatize the Black students who are subjected to it.
Black students are forced to find ways to cope with the ongoing psychological and emotional stress of daily microaggressions, and the feelings of inferiority these negative interactions create. The stereotyping and expectations of how Black students must be and act upholds chronic patterns of oppression, isolation and alienation, which they carry as part of the race-related stress they experience. Researchers have demonstrated that when a person is subjected to situations that produce high levels of stress, trauma as mental, emotional and psychological injury may occur.
These brushes with school discipline are not a singular event. They stretch across Canadian Black youth’s entire life experience. It disrupts how they engage with the world and affects their families and communities as a whole. It remains stuck in their minds and bodies until it is properly addressed. If traumatic encounters with school discipline are only viewed as situational or coincidental, they will never register as valid to the people who have the power to eliminate and reduce their frequency.
A critical anti-racist approach
To work towards a solution, educators must gain clarity about problems Black youth face. This requires recognizing that the educators’ work is not neutral, but linked to a larger social, cultural, historic and economic contexts.
Educators must use a critical anti-racism lens to dismantle offending practices. They must question power relations in the school environment. They need to recognize the psychological harm and trauma that may undermine Black youth safety in classrooms. The ways that racism is experienced by Black youth in education must be identified, acknowledged and validated.
Educators who find themselves in classrooms with majority-Black youth have to understand that Black communities are not monolithic. In all classrooms, it is imperative that educators foster their own racial literacy, to help further their understanding about Black youth experiences. They must refrain from stereotyping. When teachers gain improved racial literacy, they become more practised in discussing race. They can then effectively lead discussions among all students, and interpret and teach curriculum in responsive ways.
To do this work, an examination of individual and institutional racism is necessary. Learn the historical roots of racial trauma and anti-Black racism, its definitions, its manifestations within schools and its impact. Teachers must not only equip themselves with relevant knowledge but they must also adequately prepare their Black youth to deal with racial oppression and other forms of discrimination.
Black youth’s voices, opinions and agency must be centred to reimagine the type of school environment they need to thrive. Our schools need opportunities that allow all students to engage in these conversations and access the support needed to reduce conflict and promote restorative practices.
Conversation among educators must shift from normalizing the ideologies of the dominant system to understanding that race matters in their interactions with Black youth. This should also include a deep understanding of anti-Black racism, how it is constructed in schools and embedded in policies and school discipline.
This approach may help to bring forth change and disrupt the racial trauma that goes unnoticed in school settings.