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Systemic racism exists, now what?

By Ava Zardynezhad, August 3 2020—

An eight-minute and forty-six-second video was the spark that ignited a flame which soon spread like wildfire across the globe. On May 25, George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, fell victim to yet another instance of racially-charged police brutality, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The horrors that were exposed through the released recording were so impactful because they showcased the root cause of a series of earlier accounts of race-based assault and discrimination demonstrated against Black people across the United States. The brutal deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, the video of Amy Cooper who called the police on Chris Cooper an African-American man as well as stats showing over-representation of Black individuals in violent interactions with law enforcement convey that the race-based problems of our societies are beyond just a few “bad apples.” What Black people in our communities experience is a kind of racism that exists at the very core of the societies we live in. 

Over the past months, we saw, heard and participated in perhaps the largest organized series of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests yet. Despite various attempts at silencing these protests, not only did public discontent manifest itself throughout the United States, but we saw protests extending across the globe. The way the message seemed to resonate with people of various countries hinted that the consequences of systemic racism are not only specific to the United States, but that they are weaved into the history and social culture of many nations. Moreover, the movement hit home for other ethnic minorities who have long been victims to colonialist-based racism. In Canada and Australia, we saw the BLM movement paralleled and joined by Indigenous movements that addressed similar concerns of police brutality and systemic racism. 

Unfortunately, here in Canada we experienced more instances of police brutality at the height of these protests, with the surfacing of footage of RCMP officers assaulting the Albertan First Nations Chief Allan Adam, as well as the deaths of Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto and Chantel Moore in Edmondston, New Brunswick. These events further highlighted how deeply rooted these issues are in our society, and gave more reason for protests and call for reform. 

In recent years, our world has by no means been a stranger to such public demonstrations, especially when it comes to the BLM movement. Since 2014, there has been new cause for protest in the United States every year. Similarly, we have had protests here in Canada in 2014 after the shooting of Jermaine Carby in Brampton, in 2015 after the death of Andrew Loku, and again after the death of Abdirahman Abdi in 2016. 

However, the 2020 protest had a distinct feeling. From day one, we experienced a level of outrage and immediacy unparalleled by the demonstrations in the past six years. Not only did the message spread far and wide, but we started to see changes that seemed impossible in the previous years. There was a shift in culture and much called for self-reflection over the past month alone. We saw large companies such as Conde Nast being held accountable for their racial exclusivity. We had organizations such as the NFL and NASCAR admit past wrongs and engage in self-reflection. We saw long-standing monuments being torn down. We had many movies and TV-show episodes being removed from streaming services due to offensive content, with actors, creators and show runners coming forward and apologizing for their inconsiderations. We had companies rebranding their products and teams being renamed, all of which suggested there might be hope for bigger steps this time. 

The possibility for such changes implied a change in the public perception. Recent public opinion polls have confirmed greater public admittance of racism being a problem. On top of that, the nature of the pandemic has contributed to propelling this mass outburst of support and global solidarity. Having limited distractions and being constantly on the lookout for news updates created an opportunity for long-needed public awareness and education. The world was finally able to learn about the injustices against minority groups, which emphasized the importance of education in the fight against systemic racism. Our earliest structured introduction to society is through primary and secondary education. Schools socialize and educate us about the norms, attitudes and realities of our society. Through interacting with peers and teachers, as well as the various topics we study in class, we pick up on skills and knowledge that prepare us for “the real world.” However, what we often do not recognize is how our schools directly and indirectly reinforce societal systemic discrimination. Systemic racism in our schools manifest themselves in two main ways, through creating unnecessary barriers for racialized minorities, as well as through teaching a mainly Eurocentric curriculum. 

Even when Canadian schools are not showing blatant acts of racism, such as putting 6-year old Black girls in handcuffs due to showing “aggressive behaviour,” they are still very much a contributor to the oppression of racialized groups in our communities. Unemployment rates for Black Canadians are twice as high as the rest of the population, there is a persistent wage gap between the former and the latter and approximately 20 per cent of Black Canadians live in low-income situations. These factors put Black students behind their peers, limiting their access to resources that might contribute to their success, such as personal computers or receiving extra help with schoolwork. Moreover, many Black Canadian students have complained about teachers discouraging them from taking more challenging courses and expecting much less of them compared to their non-Black peers. Reports have shown that higher rates of Black students are being put in applied courses and less in academic courses. Black students also tend to have disproportionately higher rates of suspensions

All these barriers and limitations hinder students’ ability to excel at similar rates as their peers, leading to lower rates of Black Canadians achieving higher levels of education, thus continuing the destructive cycle of poverty and disadvantage. It should be noted that Canada’s Indigenous population also grapples with similar issues in the education system, with on-reserve indigenous students being most impacted. Not only Indigenous children on reserves must battle with the highest child poverty rate in the nations, their schools are often subpar in infrastructure, and are under-staffed and underfunded. In some areas, students are forced to fly out to big cities, away from their family and their community to attend high school. Together, these barriers and limitations lead to lower percentages of Indigenous populations in Canada obtaining higher degrees of education, further marginalizing this population. 

Despite these direct disadvantages that burden these racialized communities, the curricula taught in Canadian schools also contribute to widespread racism that these groups come to face in society, whether in the form of microaggressions or more serious acts. Personally, as a previous student in the Calgary Board of Education, it is a shame to admit that I never really learned about the history of Black people in Canada until my first year of University. Our school curricula have censored this part of Canada’s history for years. It’s rarely mentioned in our social studies textbooks, or even if mentioned, not elaborated on. Why are there no textbook chapters dedicated to the Underground Railroad, or the appalling conditions of Africville in Nova Scotia? We never talk about Black heroes the way white figures are talked about. Why are Black women and men such as Viola Davis Desmond, Rosemary Brown, Josiah Henson or Elijah McCoy not talked about more? Why is it that we do not discuss the history of slavery and racial segregation in our country or teach our children about how Black men and women had to fight for things that were birthrights for most white Canadians? Why do our books leave out the disparities that Black Canadians still experience? Similarly, despite the extensive discussion of  the reprehensible history of residential schools, why is it that we don’t talk about how Indigenous lives are still being subjected to discrimination, whether it is through birth alerts and over-representation in the foster care system, through housing and water issues, or the tragic cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, and the youth we lose to suicide annually?

Moreover, in other areas of study, such as in literature, we focus primarily on European perspectives. We study Shakespeare, and “the classics,” books written by white Europeans and North Americans, presenting and discussing life from the perspective of these individuals. A lack of exposure to Black and Indigenous perspectives prohibits students from understanding the struggles of these groups, and seeing the world from their viewpoints. 

Although the inclusion and discussion of the history of racialized communities in Canada will educate our children and the future generations about the struggles of these groups and create an understanding of their marginalization and the struggles that they face everyday, discussing their history and culture alone is not the key to eradicating the racism that lies at the core of our culture and society. Our schools and educational institutions must discuss racism, and train our youth to think about their own behaviours, teach them to be critical of their beliefs and actions, and to actively work towards growth and improvement. Only by teaching kids about the racism that lies at the heart of our society and how it affects various minorities, we are able to equip our adults with the tools to come to educated conclusions about how various social institutions must be reformed. Only by encouraging our kids to understand that there are other perspectives that are different to, yet just as valuable as theirs, can we hope they become more flexible towards listening to, and maybe even accepting other perspectives. 

That being said, education does not stop at our institutions. We as global citizens are responsible for constantly educating ourselves. We are responsible for learning that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected Black and Indigenous people of the world both in health and in economy. We are responsible for educating ourselves about the over-representation of Black and indigenous individuals in cases of racialized police-brutality and race-based hate crimes. We must keep learning and we must persist. A quick burning flame is impactful in many ways, however, a constantly burning fire has proven more effective in making long term changes. It is important for us to sustain this movement and not to let it die out. We have gotten used to movements that “go mainstream” for a certain period of time, but get lost in our memories until the next bush-fires, or school shooting, or death of a racialized minority under a policeman’s knee. Change is slow but change calls for persistence. Change calls for a perpetually burning flame. Change calls for a constant sense of immediacy, so that the next time we advocate for such changes is not because innocent people have been ripped of their most essential and constitutional right: the right to live. 

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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