When I was 12 and 13, I spent my days trying to be cool (which I was not) and navigating life as the child of Black Caribbean immigrants. I was woefully unaware of all the stuff that came with being Black in a predominantly white environment and being the child of immigrants who moved to provide a better life for me.
I grew up in Montreal, so add the label of English-speaking to that.
That, my friends, equals a lot. And a lot I just didn’t understand and was unprepared for.
When I was in Grade 8, one of my teachers said that I wasn’t going to amount to anything. The next year, a teacher said the same thing. I found it weird because I was a known bookworm, who was consistently on the honour roll. It hurt my feelings and I didn’t understand why they would say that to me. I mean, I was doing better academically than most of my peers.
I didn’t understand why my parents always impressed on me the importance of ‘speaking properly’, meaning speaking the Queen’s English without any hint of an accent or with any slang.
I didn’t understand why I hated how I looked. Full lips and kinky hair–I didn’t know why I wanted smaller lips or silky long hair, but I did. I didn’t begin appreciating the beauty of my features until I saw Naomi Campbell on the cover of Cosmopolitan in 1990.
I could see something was wrong, but I didn’t have the words to name it. Because I couldn’t name it, I couldn’t act on it or protest it. Our school’s librarian, Ms. Cuevas, was subversive and pressed books like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye into this bookworm’s hand. In my last years of high school, a Black vice-principal, Mrs. Townsend, came to our school and started sharing ideas that I hadn’t heard before. Things like Black History Week was introduced and we learned about Black history icons like Mary Ann Shadd and Mathieu Da Costa.
That’s when I started to grasp the concept of racism, individual, institutional and systemic, which played a very real part in my upbringing and in how I, a Canadian-Caribbean Black girl with dark skin, coily hair and big lips was perceived. I didn’t learn about colonization, white privilege and microaggressions until much later.
All that to say, on Wednesday, I spent the day at the White Privilege Conference Youth Action Project working with middle school students of all races and ethnicities who didn’t have to wait until they had negative life experience or hope that they would come across people in the school system who would help open their eyes to what racism, colonization, the treatment of Indigenous peoples on this land, and white privilege are and how they impact us every day.
The Youth Action Program’s goals are to SNAP (See, Name, Act, Proceed), giving young people the tools they need to see and be aware of forms of oppression, the courage and confidence to name white supremacy, white privilege and other forms of oppression; the ability to act by taking measures to dismantle oppression; and finally how to move forward as leaders and creating and leaving legacies for the next generation.
More than 200 middle school kids–and almost 200 high schoolers–came together on Ryerson University’s campus to share and learn…and it was amazing. The kids were regular middle schoolers, more interested in their phones and talking with each other than listening to a bunch of adults talk, but they were open to learning.
And the fact that the GTA school boards sent kids to this conference to become activists in their schools and communities and fight for change highlights that, while there is a lot of work to do to combat racism, white privilege and more, the school boards do recognize that these are necessary conversations to have.
Conversations are great, but we seem to lose the action piece.
The kids yesterday left their middle school institute armed with knowledge, now it’s time to start acting and making real change that will benefit all students.
For the years I worked in professional services, there was always a lot of talk about diversity and inclusion, but there was no real action. Lip service isn’t helping a soul. Regardless of the colour of your skin, open up to your kids about your experiences with racism, white privilege, colonization and all forms of oppression. Teach them that we live on stolen land and that Indigenous peoples are the rightful owners. Instill that they be brave and courageous when standing up to oppressive systems. Arm them with knowledge and encourage them to make a change.
And you do the same.
For more information, visit https://www.ryerson.ca/equity/