Anti-racism and the Education Crisis

Forging an an Anti-racist Response

By Enid Lee

The following is adapted from a speech presented this summer in Milwaukee at the annual conference of the National Coalition of Education Activists.

Some of the common descriptions of the crisis in education include words like, low self-esteem of students, lack of motivation, violent and disruptive behavior by students, and the problem of single-parent households. These are essentially victim-blaming terms. They locate the problem with the children and their parents. They pay no attention to the systems and the state that create the problem.

These explanations of the crisis are not a multicultural explanation. They are monocultural, racist, white supremacist ways of talking about the problem. A multicultural or anti-racist perspective would cause us to see the crisis in other ways.

In case you’re wondering why I use the term anti-racist, let me tell you. In Canada, the debate is between multiculturalism and anti-racism. Multiculturalism is described as the “soft” stuff and anti-racism as the “hard” stuff. In fact, when I do my workshops and people are trying to get me to do sessions, they say, “Enid, do you do the ‘hard’ stuff or the ‘soft’ stuff?” And I say I do the hard stuff. Because by the hard stuff, I’m talking about addressing the issue in terms of power, in terms of history, in terms of relationships, and definitely in terms of transformation.

The crisis, in my view, has to do with the systems and the practices in schools that contribute to low self-esteem. Low self-esteem is produced daily as the hand of the clock moves. And that is an image I want us to think about. We are working towards equality or inequality at every turn of the clock, at every time the hand moves to another number. It is not magical; it can be seen. It is taking place at 10 o’clock, at 10:15, at 10:30.

Possibilities of Transformation

When I think of it in that way, I know that I can do something. I know that when we take an anti-racist perspective, we are challenging all of those practices and ideas and explanations that keep people in their place based on the color of their skin. We are challenging all of those practices that deny people the opportunity to become more than previous generations of their social group have been allowed to become; to know more about those forces which have directly contributed to their oppression and to have more of the resources and the rewards to which they are entitled.

Taking an anti-racist perspective allows possibilities for transformation. And I want to spend some minutes now on what I think can be done to begin to reduce the crisis.

We often ask ourselves what we can do with our colleagues who are resistant. One of the first things is to realize that you are not alone. You might say to yourself, “Enid doesn’t know the kind of school that I work in.” Believe me, I do know. But it is absolutely important not to see the rest of the staff as an unyielding block.

Usually, every staff can be divided into three groups, and I can figure them out within five minutes of coming into a workshop.

You have the people who change because they feel a moral imperative. They see themselves as upstanding citizens, as good people, and so they want to do the right thing. And those people can be appealed to on principle. Then there are those who are entirely pragmatic, who will change out of enlightened self-interest. Things are not going well within the classes; they can’t control the kids. So they want to do something to change this annoying situation. And then there are those who will change because it’s legislated, because they are told they have to. So we have three motivations: it’s right; it will help me; I must.

In my experience, those three groups can be found almost everywhere. And I think we attack accordingly. I do use the word “attack” advisedly, because we are engaged in a struggle. We are attempting to reorganize the state of the universe, certainly the state of the school, and definitely the state of the class.

I think we need to remember too that, when it comes to change, people go through stages of awareness, analysis, action, and eventually attitude change. Remember, we were not born activists.

One of the sure signs that you’re making headway is resistance from the person you’re speaking to. I get very disturbed when people say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, that was great, that was great.” They’re trying to get rid of you. They’re trying to get you to stop. A much more healthy response is, “Yes but, yes but.” It means that it’s taking. It’s like a vaccination. So don’t think that you are not making headway because people are arguing with you. They’re arguing with you because you’re hitting home!

Above all, we must not assume a holier-than-thou attitude. I think that is one of the things that puts off many of our colleagues.

We need to remember that we are not the first people to have thought about these things, and that can be very humbling.

Whatever we’re doing in this strategy for change, we must have a healthy dose of self-interest in it. Because if we don’t do that, we will become overly discouraged.

We will feel that people are not appreciating us; we will forget the point of it. I hope that these changes that you are making in the school and in the society are for you, so that you can live in a society that is decent and fair. We also want to do it for the children, we want to do it for the generations to come, but you need to do it for yourself. So you do not have to wait for applause and approval. And it may never come!

A healthy dose of self-interest keeps you going. You’re not doing anyone a favor, and even if you are on the privileged side of the line, remember it’s a very narrow, thin, precarious line, because the day will come when those who have been disadvantaged will cross that line, and the privilege will no longer be ours. And I say this because to me, it is one of the key things that trips us up, that prevents us from making the change.

Changing Curriculum

I want to spend a few minutes speaking very specifically about changing the curriculum. And there are two kinds of curriculum: the formal curriculum and the hidden curriculum that comes from the general climate and culture of schools.

We need to ensure that, first of all, we uncover the bias that’s in the curriculum. We must get away from the notion that anything we’re doing is neutral, because that’s part of the problem. Everything we’re doing currently is political. The question is, who is benefiting from that political thrust? We need to uncover the politics in all aspects of the curriculum, whether it’s the yearbook and who’s in it, whether it’s the selection of texts, or whether it’s how parents are allowed to get involved.

In almost all cases, that curriculum has to be named as Eurocentric — as having more than its share of that which has come from Western Europe in particular. And that piece of the curriculum has to be moved to the side so that other pieces may become part of what the picture is. It doesn’t have to be moved out; it must be moved to its proper place. And its proper place is not the center; it is to the side so that all the other pieces of human experience can be placed along side it not in a spirit of negative comparison, but clearly as equally valid and valuable.

A true anti-racist curriculum requires that restructuring. It doesn’t require sprinkling bits and pieces of other cultures on top. It means rearranging in order to make space for the histories, the experiences, the values of Native Americans, of African Americans, of Asian Americans, and of Latinos.

Let me give you a concrete example in math, which people tend not to think about too much in terms of an anti-racist curriculum. In grade 10 in some cities, the math curriculum has a lot of statistics in it. And the statistics in that curriculum frequently deal with weather and sports, you know, those interesting topics that everyone likes to talk about. A math coordinator in one city said to me, I want to do some anti-racist math curriculum. And I thought, bold fellow, let’s get to it. So I offered him the statistics in terms of employment along lines of race in his school system. And he redesigned the math curriculum and took out the weather and sports and put those kinds of statistics in it.

And did he ever get discussion! We’re not just turning out numbers; we are talking about the social content of math. The students wanted to know why there was such a discrepancy in the rates of employment among certain groups. So we had to do a social answer book for the math teachers. You know, so they would know what to say

to a student when perceptive questions are asked about racism in employment. Anyway, a lot of interest got generated in the math, among the math teachers, among the students. They saw that statistics had to do with real people. No major infusion of money happened, yet this teacher took a unit and changed not only what was there, but also changed his way of teaching.

Student Talk

I also remember a school in another city, where I heard two boys in grade 4 talking about some experiment that they were doing. It had to do with putting foil paper into an empty roll of toilet paper. I’m not sure of the scientific significance, but I know that they were trying to do it to prove something.

There were two kids who couldn’t get the experiment and one boy said, “The paper won’t cooperate.” Another boy said, “I can’t do it.”

I don’t think I need to tell you the racial background of each of those children and the difference in who made which statement. I think you know who said, “I can’t do it,” and you know who said, “It’s the paper’s fault.” I think those two statements capture how it is our children see school; how it is they experience success and how they understand their potential.

Now for those two students, different things have to be done in order to assist them. We have to respond individually and differently to different groups of students in order to respond fairly. The kid who said, “I can’t do it,” he needs to know that he can do it. He needs to be provided with enough support and opportunity that he can get it done. It definitely didn’t need to be done for him. He needed to have a chance to do it himself. And he needs to know that if he can’t get it, then it’s nothing to do with him; he just hasn’t quite got it and someone needs to help him. And it is at those moments that we are making a difference in terms of expectations, in terms of outcome.

Classroom Organization

I go into classrooms and I look at the way in which they’re organized. I look at who is sitting where. And then when I’m asked, “How can you help us to improve the performance rate of the Black male students in the school?” I only have to take a look at where people are sitting. I will change it automatically, and overnight a different message could be got, and overnight a different result could be experienced.

So while we are waiting for a grand revolution, specific changes can be made that will make a major difference in what happens to students and in the messages that they get.

We need to look, as well, at the language that is part of the curriculum, how things are described. We need to challenge ourselves on such terms like ethnic literature. A person is teaching a course in ethnic literature, and then they are teaching regular literature. Well, every literature is ethnic.

It’s just that some ethnicities are not named; they just are. We need to recognize that when we say we’re teaching a course in music that’s classical, that we’re talking about Western classical music or European classical music, because every continent has had its classical period, and some of them we have missed because of our own limitations.

And you can go through your course description and your course outline. In fact, one day I was in a school and while I was there waiting to speak with the principal, I’m looking at this course description : “Eurasian Geography: Europe and Asia. For a Canadian student, the study of the geography of Eurasia offers an opportunity to investigate the fascinating variety of different people and places who make up the world’s largest continent. The struggling and crowded masses of south Asia, the successful Japanese, and the highly advanced Western Europeans all provide a highly interesting example of people with a different approach to life from us Canadians.”

I’m happy to say that this course description and the content have been altered. But I’m saying here that something as simple as a description is a beginning of looking at the bias of the curriculum. If we are to provide curriculum that reflects the human experience, it needs to be far more inclusive and it also needs to connect the relationships of various groups of people. Right now, what happens is that we have descriptions of isolated groups. We don’t talk about how those groups impact and affect each other. Even in this course description, these struggling and crowded masses didn’t just get to be struggling and crowded masses from the beginning of time and totally on their own. And these advanced people that we’re describing didn’t get to be advanced just through their entire genius and brilliance and everything else. Of course not. It needs to be talked about in context.

I want to say as I close that the unions need to attend to certain matters. Those of you in teachers’ unions have a particular responsibility to make sure that anti-racist language is in the bargaining arrangement. Because it is from that source that many decisions can be made and we can begin to change things that are unacceptable in the schools. I would say that an anti-racist environment should be one of the conditions of employment — in the same way that you don’t want to see people working with overcrowded classrooms or with low wages.

All of us, I think, have an opportunity to make some difference. We need to identify our points of power, to ask ourselves what is in my power to do, individually and collectively. And as we do that, remember to celebrate what has been accomplished.

Because part of our despair is that we are constantly beginning from the beginning and starting as though this were the first time that anyone discussed the topic. It is absolutely important for us to celebrate every single step that we take forward, every time change has been made, every student that has been rescued, every colleague that has been influenced. Every time we have made a breakthrough in the system, we need to publicize it and to celebrate it.

Part of why we forget to celebrate is that we loose sight of the facts: there are people who have gone before us; our time is going to end but others will continue it. You are one in a long line of people struggling to make a difference in terms of the crisis in education.

Enid Lee is a consultant in anti-racist education and organizational change. She works with community groups and government institutions across Canada and the United States. She is also author of Letters to Marcia: a Teacher’s Guide to Anti-Racist Education. For the full text of Enid Lee’s speech call her office at 416-869-1308.

The National Coalition of Education Activists is a multiracial organization of parents, teachers, students, and union and community activists who are working for fundamental education reform. This speech was delivered at its fifth annual conference that was held in Milwaukee this past August. 200 people attended the conference from 30 states and Canada. Rethinking Schools co-sponsered the conference.

For more information on the NCEA write PO Box 405, Rosendale, NY 12472.