Teaching Democracy Requires Teaching Antiracism

Mark T. S. Currie

Photograph “Democratic participation for a better world”, courtesy of Mark T. S. Currie

I’m going to start with my main claim: teaching democracy requires teaching antiracism. The first question to ask is, what is democracy? The right to vote? Yes. The right to free speech? Sure, although this shouldn’t be thought of as speech with freedom from consequences. I won’t go through every right that would be expected in a democratic society, but will suggest that while rights are core to a democracy, what a democracy is and how it works goes beyond this. Teaching democracy, then, is more than just teaching students about the levels and structures of government and about their right and responsibility to vote when they’re old enough (which, in Ontario, is at least two years later, provided it’s an election year, but that’s another discussion). In his 1916 book, Democracy and Education, John Dewey states that

a democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. The extension in space of the number of individuals who participate in an interest so that each has to refer [their][1] own action to that of others, and to consider the action of others to give point and direction to [their] own, is equivalent to the breaking down of those barriers of class, race, and national territory which kept [people] from perceiving the full import of their activity.

As with much of Dewey’s work, here we are over a century later and his messages are still worthy of consideration for how we can better our approaches to education. If we follow along with Dewey, teaching democracy becomes teaching about relational action and participation in society and the recognition that no one person’s right to exist and participate in society should supersede another’s.

Too often racist exclusions from democratic participation are thought of as something from America, whether during the Jim Crow era or in present day, as with Georgia’s new voting laws that will inevitably and negatively affect people of colour most. Canada, however, is not innocent of similar laws that enacted such exclusion within what is living memory for many. Although democracy is more than just voting, to use the right to vote as an example of participation in society, it was not until 1948 that all racialized Asian people 18 years of age and older were permitted to vote. And not until 1960 were all First Nations people 18 years of age and older permitted to vote regardless of where they live and without giving up their Indian status (the antiquated and racist term still used to “officially” validate an Indigenous person’s identity as Indigenous). Just in terms of voting, Canada has not been democratic for very long, and, arguably, Canada still has a good number of democratic shortcomings. For example, the overrepresentation of BIPOC bodies in unwarranted arrests and as fatal victims of what are supposed to be wellness checks suggests that the services that are structured by the elected government and funded with taxpayer money are not equitably fulfilling their roles.

Democracy is not something that is simply given, and it is something that must be (re)created. It is not enough for a person to cast a vote on election day or recycle their plastics or volunteer at a soup kitchen. To be sure, I don’t discourage any of these actions. However, democracy is not only ‘doing your part’ and also means contributing to ensure that no person is blocked from contributing to society as well. If people are excluded from participating and different racialized identities are deemed as naturally belonging while others are not, democracy begins to crumble. Antiracism may not be a fix-all, as other barriers exist in relation to gender, sexuality, religion, physical abilities, etc., but it can help to (re)create democracy by naming, disrupting, and ending any systems and actions that maintain white supremacist barriers against BIPOC identities.

Indeed, at least on paper, the Ontario Grade 10 Civics and Citizenship curriculum does frame the teaching about democratic society as educators guiding students in learning to be engaged, active, and responsible citizens within the local, national, and global communities to which they belong. The curriculum states that students will learn to “analyse key responsibilities associated with Canadian citizenship (e.g., voting, obeying the law, paying taxes, jury duty, protecting Canada’s cultural heritage and natural environment, helping others in the community) (Specific Expectation B3.2). The curriculum also lists that students should learn to “explain how various actions can contribute to the common good at the local, national, and/or global level (e.g., engaging in a non-violent protest can heighten awareness of an issue and pressure for change […]) (Specific Expectation C1.3). The Civics and Citizenship curriculum, however, mentions addressing racism only once, and only as an example — not a requirement — under the expectation that students will learn to “describe some civic issues of local, national, and/or global significance” (Specific Expectation B1.1). The actions that students are expected to learn are largely about upholding the national status quo (e.g., voting, obeying the law, paying taxes, jury duty, protecting Canada’s cultural heritage and natural environment, helping others in the community) while they are expected to learn to only “explain” and “describe” the possibilities for participating in the disruption of exclusions.

Learning to be a democratic citizen does not mean all students have to become activists in the streets. Some of them will, and that’s great, but all students need to recognize themselves in relation to other people and see their own (in)actions as having effects on other bodies (Donald, 2009). If students are taught to value and perhaps even champion democracy, they should inevitably be taught to acknowledge that they live in a society with other people who hold many different identities. As such, teaching democracy should mean teaching students to ensure that no person is excluded, which insists upon antiracism being an underpinning feature to teaching democracy. To bring it back to Dewey, if democracy “is equivalent to the breaking down of those barriers of class, race, and national territory,” teaching democracy equates to helping students find ways to participate in (re)creating society actively and intentionally every day.

References

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. Project Gutenberg. Retrieved from https://www.fulltextarchive.com/pdfs/Democracy-and-Education.pdf

Donald, D. T. (2009). Forts, curriculum, and Indigenous Métissage: Imagining decolonization of Aboriginal-Canadians relations in educational contexts. First Nations Perspectives, 2(1), 1–24.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2018). Civics and Citizenship. In 2018 Ontario Curriculum: Canadian and World Studies Grades 9 and 10 (pp. 149–166). Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/secondary/canworld910curr2018.pdf

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