Why I’m Not Staying Silent About Race

I am white. My social media feeds are mostly of white people. I have very few friends who are minority ethnic and/or people of colour. I know two indigenous people, but not well enough to text them. I don’t have any black friends in the city where I live. So, I can’t even say the vaguely racist “some of my best friends are black” that people sometimes say to excuse saying and doing things that are structurally or explicitly racist. As a teacher I would occasionally read books about skin-colour. I have addressed issues that arose that I felt were racist. I have always felt I was an ally.

In my teaching this year, there was a particular overall expectation in The Kindergarten 2016 curriculum that I struggled to bring to life in our classroom:

27. recognize bias in ideas and develop the self-confidence to stand up for themselves and others against prejudice and discrimination

I wanted to do an activity, a unit, or have some sort of event. I had it all wrong. I now realize that this is not a one off event, it has to be part of the daily life of the classroom and part of decisions we make as educators. I also realized I made mistakes and had lost opportunities. For example:

  • When some students pulled on the corners of their eyes and said “I’m Chinese”, I told them that wasn’t okay and asked them how they thought that would make the students of Chinese descent feel. I should have invited a conversation about it. I should have linked it to our Best Part of Me project. I should have opened up the discussion, not shut it down.
  • When a student talked about a story she had learned at her Saturday school, I should have found out what it was and introduced it to the class.
  • We explored so many artists, but mostly art of white men. We studied one indigenous artist, but did I really highlight and celebrate that aspect?
  • How many books, pictures, videos that we shared included positive images of people of different skin colours? How many of those media were simply absent of anything but white people or cartoons with white features and white names?

In Anti-Bias Education for Early Childhood Classrooms, Katie Kissinger says “remember that silence, or the absence of messages and experiences in an identity category (such as race), is another form of internalization or socialization.” I will not stay silent and pretend that people don’t see colour. I want to invite questions and conversations with my little ones as part of their identity building and development as citizens. This thinking and writing represents a more intentional step towards implementing anti-bias education where my goal is to be honest and vigilant in my inevitably flawed but sincere attempts to “get it” and “act on it.” Like Kissinger says, “diversity is an empty word unless we make it an action verb.”

To my readers. Please give me feedback. Tell me when I get it wrong, I will own it and say sorry. Encourage me if you feel this is the right approach.

I thought I was part of the club: Racism and Feminism

I do see myself as an ally to people of colour. But, this is the first time I have really stopped to consider my white-privilege. I paused for a moment in 2016, or was forced to confront it, but I waved my feminist card as a pass. Here’s the moment: I was at a large education conference called the International Society for Technology in Education or ISTE. In fact, I am proud to say that I was one of the keynote speakers that year. During the week I attended an EduMatch event. I noticed that most people there were black people and people of colour. There were many speakers, and one of them got up and started talking about how there needed to be greater diversity in the people speaking and keynoting. A black woman standing next to me, leaned over and whispered: “They don’t mean you.” To which I replied, “I know, I have a vagina.” To me, racism and misogyny were the same club. I don’t think that black woman, or any black woman, would agree. I’m sorry that I made that comment. I think being a white woman gives me privilege and membership in a dominant culture. I am now starting to reflect on my white-privilege and think about it in my daily life and my teaching. My world is mostly white, except my world of teaching where my classroom is quite colourful, but we don’t talk about that, until now.

I wasn’t totally wrong to think that being a feminist was important to anti-racist thinking. Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, says this about her own experiences with feminism: “My feminist thinking gave rise to my anti-racist thinking, serving as a tool that helped me forge a sense of self-worth.” p. 151. This is meaningful to me, because I feel it gives me permission to use the words and tools of feminism to better understand racism. For sure I think feminism can help me understand anti-bias thinking as it relates not only to race but to gender diversity, family structure, sexuality, able-bodiedness, socioeconomic status, and culture. For today, I’m thinking about race.

Race and White-Privilege

What is Race? Race refers to skin colour and pigment. According to Katie Kissinger, it’s better just to say skin colour. I love that she says that everyone should have a rich vocabulary for talking about the special colour of their own skin. From my recent readings, I’m also learning that it’s best to say people of colour or black and minority ethnic (BME) and not non-white. Non-white reinforces that white is standard and all others are, well, others.

What is racism? Racism, according to Reni Eddo-Lodge, is prejudice and power combined. Racism can be seen explicitly in negative overt behaviour like extremism and N-word utterances. Racism also exists, below the surface. It’s the nice-white-people type of racism. Eddo-Lodge describes this structural racism which “is about the survival strategy of systemic power.” She goes on to say on page 64 that “Structural racism is dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of people with the same biases joining together to make up one organization, and acting accordingly.” And, this kind of structural racism is accompanied by white-privilege. What’s that? Reni Eddo-Lodge says the following on page 86 of her book:

“How can I define white privilege? It’s so difficult to describe an absence. And white privilege is an absence of the consequences of racism. An absence of structural discrimination, an absence of your race being viewed as a problem first and foremost, and absence of ‘less likely to succeed because of my race’. It is an absence of funny looks directed at you because you’re believed to be in the wrong place, an absence of cultural expectations, an absence of violence enacted on your ancestors because of the colour of their skin, an absence of a lifetime of subtle marginalization and othering — exclusion from the narrative of being human. Describing and defining this absence means to some extent upsetting the centring of whiteness, and reminding white people that their experience is not the norm for the rest of us.”

In a clip from the documentary The Color of Fear a black man says he has been made to feel like he lives in a world where everyone is saying to him “Why can’t we all just pretend to be white people.” (View the clip here.)

Next Steps:

Why aren’t I staying silent about race? Because to do so reinforces structural racism and white privilege. As a Kindergarten teacher, I want to create a classroom with my ECE partner which honours, reflects, and expands upon the diversity of my students. I want the spirit of inquiry and freedom to ask questions to include asking questions and exploring ideas about skin colour. We are going to talk about skin colour. I am going to work on the expectation I referred to at the beginning that I struggled with (Expectation 27: recognize bias in ideas and develop the self-confidence to stand up for themselves and others against prejudice and discrimination). This expectation will be on my mind daily.

Next I’m going to work on:

  • Creating a classroom environment that will support anti-bias education.
  • Developing an identity activity about names, inspired by Sara K. Ahmed’s book Being the Change.
  • Researching the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action that relate to education: Items 62–65

References and Acknowledgement:

I am grateful to the people and the readings that inspired my thinking. Where would I be without you?

The keynote speech delivered by Christopher Edmin at the SXSW EDU conference in 2017. In this talk, he used The Tribe Called Quest’s album We got it from here…Thank you 4 Your Service as the theoretical framework for his talk.

Sara K. Ahmed’s book: Being the Change. Thank you Danielle Cadieux, Audrey O’Clair, Ben Kovacs, Autumn Laidler, Carolyn Skibba, Jennie Mageira for the book and conversations.

Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People About Race, her original blog post, as well as her interview onThe Guardian.

Katie Kissinger’s book Anti-Bias Education in the Early Childhood Classroom.