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Black parents need to participate fully in their children’s education

After spending twenty years in education in Canada as a teacher and a vice principal, I saw firsthand that children whose parents were visible at school events and parent-teacher meetings received more favourable treatment from the teachers. Obviously, this should not be the case, but it was, and I would argue, still is. The politics of schools is not something that most people have likely given much thought to. But the superintendents who run school boards across Canada are often privileged to inherit such positions through social networking and political maneuvering more than actual credentials and experience. Put bluntly, they are politicians in the worst sense of the word and their politicking trickles down into the intuitional processes and mind-sets of the schools that they govern.

Case in point, teachers are loath to irritate the rich, influential parents who have connections to school board officials. Therefore, they tend to grade the work of those privileged and mainly white students more favourably than they do that of other students. What this amounts to is often covert discriminatory practices that can have a lasting impact on the students whose parents are not influential, visible or vocal in their schools.

I hope my example will illuminate what is at stake for young black students as they move through their educational lives. A black female student who was raised in the Greater Toronto Area in the 1970’s and 80’s received straight A’s from Kindergarten until grade 13. Excelling in all aspects of her academic life, she joined school clubs, played in the band, did French immersion, and participated in several varsity sports teams. Yet although she received several athletic awards, she somehow never garnered academic prizes. When she was in grade 8, I had a discussion with her English teacher, a fellow vice principal who had assigned her the final grade of 97% and 97.5% to a fellow student of South Asian ancestry, whose parents were wealthy doctors, active in school affairs. I asked my colleague to explain how he calculated the 0.5% difference between them, in an English curriculum over the course of a year and, of course, he could not explain. It was obvious to me that he was guided by his subjective judgements, racialized beliefs about the abilities, intelligence, and potential of the two students: a little black girl, and a little South Asian boy. The stereotypes of black intellectual limitations, born in slavery, were clearly operative for this white teacher, whether he was conscious of them or not.

Incidentally, the female student was my daughter Charmaine, the same person who founded this impressive magazine, Black Maple. She now holds a PhD degree and is one of Canada’s preeminent art historians and public intellectuals. She has been a professor since 2001 and recently established the nation’s first institute focused on Canadian Slavery which she now runs from her new post at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She has published seven books with four more actively in the works. She has gained an international reputation for her scholarship and was recently inducted as a Fellow in the Royal Society of Canada and elected as a member of the American Antiquarian Society. Although I am a proud father, I can objectively say that she is an amazingly high achiever.

But besides her hard work, determination, and intelligence, my daughter would also tell you that what enabled her to navigate the systemic racism of grade school and high school in Canada was having two parents – one who was a board of education insider – who actively encouraged her to stand up and assert herself in spaces where her white teachers routinely had low expectations of her, and taught her how to spot, critique, and unlearn the mainstreamed colonial histories that were a central part of her Canadian curriculum.

Even my presence as a member of the same school board at which she studied did not prevent my white colleagues from withholding from her the recognition that she so richly earned along her educational path. But it did prevent them from committing some of the more egregious crimes against her that I have seen derail other black students.

The lesson? Black parents and parents in economically challenging circumstances must be visible and vocal in the educational lives of their children, a presence on the PTA committees, and the parent teacher meetings. Be attentive, be vigilant, get involved, show up, speak out! Teachers, staff, and school administrators of all backgrounds need to depoliticize schools and re-centre fair treatment over networks, friendships, and favoritism coloured by racism and other prejudices.

Across my decades in education, I saw firsthand the power of a teacher’s influence. The kind or encouraging word could do tremendous good, bolstering the student’s confidence and letting them know that they were on the right path. The offhanded, insensitive, demeaning comments or unfair and biased actions do the opposite, and over time, can derail some students altogether.

The power of teachers is our constancy. Over the course of a student’s educational life, we often spend more time with a child than his/her very own parents and that knowledge that we accrue about these kids is powerful as we come to see their strengths, weaknesses, fears, and passions. But what happens when we let our personal biases and hatreds like racism impact how we treat these precious young people? The potential for long-lasting harm is huge. Do we educators feed their fears and weaknesses or light the fire that ignites their passions? The choice is ours.