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What can be done to overcome systemic racial inequalities in the education system? (Unsplash)

How to spark change within our unequal education system: Don’t Call Me Resilient EP 3 transcript

Episode 3: How to spark change within our unequal education system.

NOTE: Transcripts may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Vinita Srivastava (VS): From The Conversation, this is Don’t Call Me Resilient. I’m Vinita Srivastava.

Carl James (CJ): So this idea of resilience, we use that and they become trapped in that idea because they can come back. So there is that fear I have about resilience and not enabling the policies and programs we have to make it possible for them to be successful.

VS: In this episode, we’re going to explore the impact of systemic racism within the school system. Even before COVID, education advocates were sounding the alarm about the future of racialized children in our schools. They said unequal education opportunities and deep-seated systemic racism were holding children back. Our guests today are longtime educators who say the pandemic has only deepened the divide. Carl James is a professor of education at York University and a former adviser to the Ontario minister of education, and Kulsoom Anwer is a high school teacher who works out of one of Toronto’s most marginalized neighbourhoods. I spoke to them both at the start of the school year about the injustices within the education system and how we might make small changes that could have a rippling effect in our communities.

Read more: Short-term anti-racist training is not enough to counter systemic racism in Canadian education

VS: So, both of you, thank you so much for taking the time to talk about this very important issue. Carl James, in your last article, you wrote something for us. You quoted some researchers that have called public schools racist sorting machines. What does this mean when you say racist sorting machines?

CJ: We have to think of school as one of the major institutions that enables possibilities and opportunities for young people and for Canadians generally. So schools play a significant role. How race comes into this? Because I think race matters in our Canadian society. And based on race, we have certain kinds of assumptions about the background of people who will do well and who will not do well, who have the possibilities of becoming a good student, a good math student, or who will be able to become the athlete in this school. Those kinds of things follow students and race is one of those factors that we might use in order to determine those possibilities. And, therefore, schools play a significant role, as we know it today, unless we change things, unless we start becoming much more equitable and pay attention to equity, then we are going to continue to sort.

VS: So let me just pause for a minute, because I feel like, you said we’ve got these systems in place in Canada, a multiracial society, multicultural everything. We’re supposed to trust our institutions, and we have a teacher with us today. We’re supposed to trust our teachers to treat all of our students equally and to equally help children move through the system. So Kulsoom, you’re a teacher. What’s your response to this?

Kulsoom Anwer (KA): So, as much as we want schools to be these equitable places, they absolutely aren’t. And all of that sorting happens and the evidence for that is in front of our eyes. I teach English and it’s a compulsory course and I teach Grade 12 university English, which every student who wants to go to university has to take that course. And I can tell you very plainly that you won’t see Black students, particularly Black male students, in those courses. So we don’t need any convincing about whether the schools are sorting or not. It’s happening.

VS: For those of us who don’t know, or for folks who might be listening that don’t know, can you describe your neighbourhood for us, your community?

KA: Yeah. So, Jane and Finch is probably the largest immigrant reception centre you’re gonna find in Canada. There’s a lot of diversity here, a lot of new Canadians. And it’s very racialized to the point where our school has very few white students. I would say the demographics are, the biggest group would be Black. We have Guyanese students, Vietnamese students, very multiracial, but it is a low-income community and it’s grappled with negative perceptions that come along with society’s disdain for the economically and racially marginalized.

VS: What could we say to somebody who says, for example, look, this is not the school’s fault. The schools are not the sorting machines. It is economics and it is just society. Kids are already sorted before they come to school.

CJ: Of course it’s not just school. What is the message that that child at age four or three is getting from the larger society? How do the media present the images of racialized people? In all this discussion of COVID, for example, do we present Black people as being experts in the medical area to talk to the issues? Do we present racialized professionals or Indigenous professionals as being able to tell us how to work with all children in the school system? So it’s not just the parents or the school. It’s the society. The more we can start thinking about the system and not just the school, but the school in relation to the the media, in relation to politicians and the policies they make, in relation to the justice system. If we see all this and we think that children are not just getting messages from school, we can do our best in schools to make the child feel welcome and inclusive …. But when that child goes into larger society and the messages that they’re getting in school are not reinforced, then the teacher might become suspect. And especially with a racialized teacher, it might be all about the teacher and not about reality. So, yes, we have to think it’s more than school. Yes I agree with you. At the same time, though, the school becomes complicit insofar that it doesn’t challenge that which the child is getting from the larger society.

VS: We’ve had some worldwide protests against systemic racism. And in response, I would say we’ve had some changes here in Ontario and in Canada. Local school boards are starting to realize that they may need to run some anti-racism education. Kulsoom, how is that going? Change is supposed to be coming. So how is that change going?

KA: Yeah, certainly there’s been response to the recent global protests, but efforts at equity and anti-racism training have been going on for years. I’ve been teaching for almost 15 years. And it’s remarkable how little has changed in those 15 years. Professional development that’s focused on equity continues to be really tense. There’s a lot of teachers who are on board and really seeking to learn, but there’s a lot of resistance as well. And we continue to hear from teachers who are certain that all they are doing is making objective decisions about the ability of the child and that they do not see colour and that these issues are not systemic. Because if you admit to systemic oppression, first of all, it’s really uncomfortable to realize that we represent the system that does these things. It also means that we have to confront privilege we may have. It means that our understanding of ourselves may not include our sense of our own biases. So it’s uncomfortable. So there’s a lot of resistance and that does impact students.

VS: So, on a personal level, for you as a racialized teacher, do you find these helpful? Do you find, maybe not on a systemic level, but say in your own school, do you find that these anti-racist trainings — do you find them helpful?

KA: I see some progress. I think they’re necessary. I don’t think that they - they are not any kind of panacea. They don’t instantly work. But, there’s going to be no progress if we don’t have these conversations. And I’ve seen some progress and also very little progress. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it’s both.

CJ: I agree that there’s some progress, but I’m not a fan of training. On one level, having the conversation, as Kulsoom said, is absolutely, absolutely critical. And all of us, even the racialized, the Black teacher, are all part of a system that he or she has to implement the testing, et cetera, et cetera. So we’re all a part of this. And therefore, we have to constantly remind ourselves that on one hand, we are having to challenge the inequity. At the same time, we reproduce that inequity. But it’s for us to think, how are we going to try not to reproduce that inequity? And that’s work. That’s work for all teachers and for racialized teachers as well. But training, though, sometimes I feel the training puts the issue — is the teacher not teaching good enough, is the curriculum? It’s about the teacher. And yes, the teacher is implicated in it. But it’s more the system of the curriculum has been set and how it reproduces inequity. How the system of grading that comes from above have the EQA that we expect students to respond to. If we don’t spend the time looking at that and paying attention to that, but just talking about our individual attitude and race, this is reproducing this thing, then we’re not going to go anywhere. And if we get people to think about it, it’s about them. And then people might spend their time trying to shield themselves from that which they have been living with and therefore never get to the system. Looking at the policies, the program and the legislation that reproduced the system.

VS: So, Carl, I hear what you’re saying, you’re calling for wholesale change. So, I’m wondering if it’s taken us so long to get to this point. So, how do we start to undo this?

CJ: I think the conversations, as Kulsoom said, that we all have to have. Within that conversation we have to also think about how we are all implicated in a system of inequity. You know, I always think that it’s not just the English teacher that brings biases to the work that he or she does. It’s not just a social science teacher, etc., etc. It’s not just a sociology teacher that has these biases. None of these are neutral. Science also has all these biases. Let’s admit that these structures inform the very questions that we ask. The references we make are the examples you bring up in our curriculum that has something to do with the experiences that as a person you bring to teaching and you bring to the understanding. And that’s what needs to happen. How we are all informed by an institution that’s informed by the society that produced certain kinds of ideas that we have. And we were.

VS: Carl, I keep thinking about what you’re saying, that you don’t think anti-racist training works. But in some ways, what we’re hearing from Kulsoom on the ground is that the teachers, even in early education years, are streaming students as early as kindergarten. How do you think parents can help?

KA: Parents can, you know, especially privileged parents like I am, like we are — we need to, as parents, support diverse, multicultural neighbourhood schools. You know, we need to divest from optional attendance. We need to stop shopping for high schools that are going to position our children in a way that’s going to enrich them somehow. We should be supporting public education for all, a standard of education that is uniform for all. I know these specialized programs in high schools are really popular with parents. And I’m a parent. They seem attractive. You know, it’s going to expose my child — prepare my child for a particular career or open their horizons. But what happens is a lot of schools are abandoned and streamed because you have the quote-unquote strongest students leaving the neighbourhood.

VS: That’s very interesting, what you’re saying is this idea of strongest children leaving the neighbourhood, right? That’s the system that the charter system in the U.S. or the you know, you get those special tickets to get out of your neighbourhood to go into a different school.

KA: Yes, that’s right.

VS: This is a really challenging question to me, too, because I am also a parent. And the question really is, how can we convince ourselves, how can we convince each other to participate in this? And what you’re saying, which is support public education, but also to start thinking more collectively?

CJ: You know, I always remember having this discussion with a colleague in Sweden and she said to me, this is not a dress rehearsal for my child. This is it. No matter what, we want our children in those communities, in those schools getting the kind of education that will enable that child to live the fullest life possible to realize their potential. And for us, as parents, to work and do the best and expect the best for our children. What we can do then is expect something that all parents would want the same thing for their children. All parents are working to do that exact thing for their children, and just like me. Now, then, we have to look at privilege. Of course, we’re not going to want to send our children to a school that does not have the best science lab, the best gym, the best opportunity. We’re going to want that for our children. Therefore, we should also think that those parents down the road want the same thing and, therefore, we’re going to have to do some work with convincing education administrators, the policymakers, the politicians are good enough to do the work to enforce that university people as well make this a bigger issue and not just simply my child. And so we can only do what we can because we want the best for our children. But we can insist that the system, as it is, responds to everyone in a way that helps all children to maximize their potential.

KA: And I would argue that that is in the best interest of our children. You know, when we support a system that is equitable and there’s high expectations for all that serves our children, too, and the society that they’re going to go on to be part of.

CJ: Absolutely. I like the idea it serves the society, because if all children are able to realize their potential and you can imagine how much money we would not have to put in prisons, how much money would we would not have to put into the health-care system because of the mental illness, because of not being able to understand the appropriate use of medicine. So all of us benefit because we can now live lives where we do not have to think about fear. We do not have to think of security because everybody is realizing the kinds of opportunities and potentials that they have. Everybody benefits.

VS: Carl, you’ve been talking about this for at least 20 years, you talked about the Stephen Lewis report. You said that, you know, there’s been report after report that has indicated the same thing, including many of your own reports that you’ve you’ve written that these schools are anti-Black, they’re anti-Indigenous, they’re systemically racist. And what I’m wondering is, what — of all the 20 years we’ve been talking about — we have reached this crisis now. We’re in the middle of of COVID-19, which just simply exacerbates all of these things that you’ve been reading about and talking about and Kulsoom for you, living it day to day. We’ve reached the red alert, an urgent situation now, and we all want the same thing for our children. What are some of the things that we can do now to start pushing this ideal that you speak about?

CJ: I’m thinking here of COVID that has exacerbated the problem. And children are not going to go to school. Some children are going to stay home. We will know that certain groups of parents will be able to hire a teacher to spend five hours with their children and bring their lessons to them. And those children can advance. And you think, you know about the last six months or five months that children have not been having the necessary care and support education possible? And we know that research shows that some students, especially students from low-income households after the summer, then fall back in their education. What’s going on? So you can imagine how much of this how much of education is special for low-income people are going to be exacerbated by COVID. And how do you tell parents not to hire the teacher that advances their children. And what do we do for those students who are not going to be advanced? If we have not been paying attention to equity, are really doing the job that we need with those students who need the extra support all along, what’s going to happen after COVID?

VS: And how do you feel about this Kulsoom? How do you keep your own? We talked about the sphere of influence. You said you had a little. How do you keep it up? You’ve been doing this for 15 years. You know, every day you grew up in this neighbourhood. You teach in this neighbourhood.

KA: The way to keep going is, as you say, is to recognize that you have impact every day. And I would say that teachers in neighbourhoods like ours have more influence and power in the lives of students than in more privileged neighbourhoods. And what that means is, you know, you can have a greater impact with your you know, your commitment to students and commitment to high expectations for those students. So, you know, obviously with COVID, all of the inequities that were already in place are just going to be exacerbated by the issues that Carl just talked about. The way to deal with that is certainly to show up. And it’s also to examine what you’re doing, because a lot of, you know, the standards that we’re we’re so desperate for these students to meet, some of those standards or are just problematic in the first place. So, you know, we need to question everything we’re doing to be an anti-racist educator, to be the educator we need at this moment is to be never complacent and just really, really questioning the way we’re doing things. We should embrace the discomfort and, you know, just just be uncomfortable because things are uncomfortable. Our students are uncomfortable.

CJ: I like the point that some of this has to do with uncomfortablity that we’re going to have to work with. And I would add to what Kulsoom just said. It’s not just the high school teacher and the high school students and the whole area of high school. What are the universities doing in order to also change the context, the messages, that go about possibilities for students? Who are the students who’re getting into university and how are universities enabling their success as well. So it’s — we have to think about this at all levels of the education system.

VS: Carl, I’m so curious. You’ve been doing this for a long time and education is absolutely the idea of education as an equalizer in society. It’s very clear that you’re very passionate about it. And I’m wondering, how do you keep yourself going?

CJ: Well, hope becomes cruel if we do not also think about how these things that we construct as hope also have some built-in inequities that might make it difficult for us to traverse. So I’m holding on to that idea of thinking about the possibilities. But at the same time, don’t want to see how the hope can be cruel without putting the structural changes in place to make whatever students have or what students want for their lives possible.

VS: I’m going to stop because that’s just beautiful.

VS: It’s what Carl was talking about with the cruelty of hope is very much in some ways what I was trying to say about this idea of stop calling me resilient. This idea that —

CJ: You know, a recent study about Black students talked about 93 or some high percentage of Black students very early thought that they would want to go to university and only about 60 or 61 per cent of them thought they would eventually get a university degree. For the rest of the population, about 80 percent or 82 to 87 per cent of them said they would go to university and 78 percent thought that they would actually do so, you know. So aspirations of the larger society of going to university was high and eventually thought they were. But the Black students did not have that possibility of going. And in that same report it also talks about the resilience of Black students, how much they all felt that they can come back after having difficulty. They can work hard. They can survive. And so the resilience of Black students was seen as much higher in this in the statistics when they ask those questions of whites and others that did not have as much quote-unquote resilience as the Black students. So, this idea of resilience, this idea of being able to confront the issues and become better is something that is talked about for racialized students and minoritized students and others. But we use that and they become trapped in that idea of their resilience because they can come back no matter what we do. So this system never moves to make possibilities because the system can remain the same. And their resilience will be able to bring them back to what what they were. And so there is that fear I have about resilience and the cruelty of thinking about that group as resilient and not enabling them, not enabling in the policies and programmes we have to change, to make it possible for them to be successful. And so this is my fear about the trust of resilience.

VS: Sorry, the last thing that you said. The what? The trust of resilience? Or the —

CJ: Yeah, the trust in — thinking that their resilience will always come back. And that’s OK.

VS: Yeah. We’ll always be fine no matter what you throw at us. The poisoned water is fine. We’ll just boil it. We’re resilient.

CJ: Yes, yes, yes.

VS: How about you Kulsoom? You wanted to say something about resilience too.

KA: Yeah, I would agree with Carl. I also think it’s patronizing. You know, the discussion of resilience. Because it’s just an attempt to absolve the system, absolve ourselves or responsibility. And to reinvigorate the idea of meritocracy and that if the students just try hard enough they can make it or they can make it in a way that’s best for them. I hear a lot of well, maybe the reason we don’t see the representation is students. There’s nothing wrong with the college train. There’s nothing wrong with the trades. And of course, those things are true. And when you bring up it’s that there’s not … nobody’s ever said anything was wrong with any of those things. But it seems to be the right answer only for some children.

KA: And so it’s like wanting what’s best for Black students within reason, you know. So resilience is part and parcel of those low expectations because it is essentially just a way to gloss over ongoing inequities and our role in them.

CJ: I agree.

VS: That’s it for this episode of Don’t Call Me Resilient. Thanks for listening. If you want to continue the conversation on education, hit me up on Twitter @writevinita and at @ConversationCA and use the hashtag #DontCallMeResilient. If you’d like to read more about systemic racism in education go to That’s where you’ll find our show notes with links to stories and research connected to our conversation with Carl James and Kulsoom Anwer.

This podcast is produced by The Conversation with a grant from the Global Journalism Innovation Lab, made possible by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. It is hosted and produced by Vinita Srivastava. The producer is Nahid Buie. Production help from Ibrahim Daair, Anowa Quarcoo, Latifa Abdin, Vicky Mochama, Nehal El-Hadi. Sound engineer: Reza Dahya. Audience development: Lisa Varano. Theme music by Zaki Ibrahim. Logo by Zoe Jazz. Saniya Rashid is our research assistant supported by MITACS. Our CEO is Scott White. Thanks to Jennifer Moroz for her advice. Launch team: Imriel Morgan/Content is Queen.

Thanks for listening, everyone, and hope you join us again. Until next time, I am Vinita. And please, don’t call me resilient.

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