On ending racism in education

White people, like me, talking about racial justice is fraught with difficulty because no matter what we say or do, we can’t really understand what we are talking about. That’s why representation is so important, why having voices of people who directly experience anti-Black racism be in the room, at the table, and in positions of power when the critical decisions are made. But representation is never enough, in part because it can easily slip into the painful trap of tokenism.

Racism is supported by a system (a culture) of white privilege, which is simply another word for white power. This power is unearned and undeserved, but it’s also a (falsely) innate characteristic of being white. (False because in a racist social system, like the one we’ve all inherited, “whiteness” – and all the power that comes with it – is imposed on some people and denied for other people in a completely made up way that is based on false ideas, all of which are inherently meaningless on any merits; the logic of racism is domination, not logic).

Just like being gay, I can’t choose whether or not to have white power attached to who I am. I am innately, in the social system of the day, white. But, unlike being innately gay, there’s no pride in this part of who I am (even though I am proud of my Euro-Irish-American roots and culture).

And there’s no shame, either. I am simply white by virtue of there being a dangerous and pernicious idea that makes me white – an idea that much of humanity is fighting to stave off because our very existence as truly human beings depends on the defeat of racism for everyone.  The only shame is in what I don’t do (or what I do) with the unearned and undeserved white power inherited to me by the social system of the day.

How I use my power determines where I stand on racism and colonialism.

Words as praxis or words as lip service: How do we know the difference?

You are reading my words now. If you don’t personally know me, you may have no real (or direct) way to judge these words – based on my actions. That’s because reading my words doesn’t let you know whether or not I am, truly, an agent in the struggle for racial justice. By reading my words alone, you can’t know whether or not I am using my voice to bring an end to racism, oppression, colonialism, and white privilege (white power), or if I am simply writing to make it sound like that’s what I am doing.

Words are easy to write. It’s easy to say: “I oppose racism in my community, in my school, in my local union, in my provincial union, and in all my work.” How do you truly know if that’s lip service or not?

But words are also important. They can be calls to action: Like the words #BlackLivesMatter and #IdleNoMore. Words like “I can’t breathe” are humanizing and shocking, testament to the cruelty of racism, and its roots in domination, violence, and control. Words allow us to speak and to listen to each other. Words also provide clarity, plans, and strategies for moving forward. In these senses, words are courageous and meaningful.

But just as representation is not enough, so too words are not enough. The test of whether I, or anyone, is only paying lip service is in what I do, not in what I say. I leave it to you to be the judge of that, of whether or not my actions speak louder than my words, whether or not my voice is simply for lip service or if it is for meaningful service.

Words are also a form of action. This post, a bunch of words that alone amount to nothing but if acted upon could amount to something, is meant as a contribution to the discussion on ending racism, in the labour movement of teachers and beyond, and on meaningful and productive action that builds on the anti-racism recommendations of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour in the teaching profession.

BCTF Issue Session on Racism: The Recommendations

Last fall the BCTF held an issue session on racism. Out of this session a series of recommendations were made to the union’s Executive Committee.

The recommendations called for specific changes in the union’s decision-making processes and structures, to achieve a greater commitment for, and representation of, the perspectives of Black/Indigenous/People of Colour teachers at all levels of the union and to work together to end racism in public education and the teaching profession.

The session called on the union to develop a comprehensive and long-term strategy for addressing racism and oppression within the union and the profession, to include making structural changes to union decision making processes and representation.

Specific measures also included training union representatives on worksite health and safety committees, providing ombudspersons at union meetings on a regional basis, ensuring that members who are Black/Indigenous/People of Colour have advocacy and support, making local unions more inclusive, developing mentorship on anti-racism perspectives, and expanding the notion of union membership to bring critical voices and perspectives to the table.

The session also called for supporting teachers to develop relationships with students who are Aboriginal or people of colour. To bring anti-racist learning into the curriculum and school practice, the issues session called for support by local unions for district anti-racism policies, support for anti-racism training for school district decision makers, conducting an audit on racism in public education, incorporating anti-racism and decolonizing training for teachers and other educators, and raising the issue of racial justice and reconciliation more critically in teacher education programs at universities.

The Report to the Executive Committee on the Issue Session on Racism is the right starting point for action by the BCTF, given that the report was developed for this purpose and according to a process that raised the voices and experiences of Black/Indigenous/People of Colour in the teaching profession.

The most important thing now, given how far we have to go to end racism in public education and the teaching profession, is to keep listening to, and elevating, the voices of those who understand racism and colonization directly: Black, Indigenous, and people of colour activists fighting against oppression every day.

The second most important thing is to join the conversation responsively, adding our own perspectives on the structure, culture, and make-up of the public education system.

Racism, colonization , and education policy

My background is in education policy, focused mostly on the policy of professional self-regulation, having been a policy advisor to Ontario’s self-regulatory College of Early Childhood Educators when it was being created.

Professional self-regulation is based on setting standards of practice that are based on a profession’s own body of knowledge and expertise, establishing entry criteria (such as training and education) to become a member of the profession, and collectively holding the profession, and individual professionals, to account, in the public interest and to maintain the integrity of the profession itself.

The government only recognizes professions when there is a public interest to do so, such as for the protection of the public or to support the values and outcomes that a profession achieves for society. Clearly, there is a public benefit in education, and students are clearly benefited by high standards of practice, conduct, and training for teachers. That is one reason why professional self-regulation is critically important to teaching and public education.

Unions are powerful and important voices in society, protecting employees at work, safeguarding civil society, and fighting for improvements in people’s working and living conditions. Unions do this by enabling democracy at the workplace through collective bargaining and union democracy.

But most unions do not choose their members: Employers choose members through hiring. And in a regulated sector like public education, employers must choose from a pool of workers determined by post-secondary teacher education programs.

Unions of professionals should have the power to professionally self-regulate and to help determine the entry requirements to their profession. They should also have the power to help recruit and retain qualified people of colour and Aboriginal people into their profession, especially when this is in the public interest. Affirmative action in teacher education at post secondary institutions and in hiring (recruiting, retaining, engaging, developing) must be a priority for the teaching profession as a whole.

All of the recommendations by the Issues Session on Racism require urgent consideration by all levels of the BCTF. One stands out as required for long-term progress to be achieved:

Recommendation 15:
That the BCTF recommend to the deans of education that their institutions act on systemic racism within the education system by: (a) actively recruiting members of equity-seeking groups as students and instructors in their teacher education programs; [and] (b) offering a mandatory anti-oppression course for student teachers.

Report to the Executive Committee on the Issue Session on Racism (BCTF, 2019, p. 8)

This recommendation matters because it offers a way forward to invite more people of colour and Aboriginal people to the teaching profession. But much more will be required, too. Affirmative action through recruitment and training is a needed first step but won’t work if it’s not followed up with the next steps.

These next steps must be about listening to, and empowering, the people of colour and Aboriginal people welcomed to the profession. The transformation of the system must go in one direction, from wider inclusion to transforming the rest of the profession – not the other way around.

People of colour and Aboriginal people who become teachers will quickly leave the profession if they are continually being shut down, ignored, or required to transform themselves in order to fit into the system as it is now. The point must be system transformation, not to bring in more people of colour and Aboriginal people for domination by the system.

We see the urgency to act on ending racism in the streets around the world. We hear it in angry cries: Why aren’t you listening? Why aren’t things changing for real? Ending racism and ending colonialism in our public schools must be at the heart of public education and the labour movement of teachers, if for no other reason than simply because the promise of public education depends on this. There is no meaning to public education if not for justice through education.

Education based in oppression or subjugation is simply not education; the integrity of the entire public education system depends not on what we say about racism, but what we do (and achieve) to end racism in our union, school, community, and society. So let’s keep working together to end racism in education.

Originally posted at TomKertes.ca