Talking About Race

Everyone these days is talking about race.  This construct with no genetic basis, has had major impact on all societies since the beginning of human civilization.  Entry points and perspectives on the conversation differ radically.  Amnesty International first captured my heart and mind and imagination at a booth at Granville Island in Vancouver, British Columbia just after graduation from UBC.  I saw the possibility of working with people committed to human rights to create a fairer and more equitable world.  I was young, optimistic and newly empowered with a university degree.  I was in education and believed with all my heart that if people knew better, then they would do better. 

The premise behind Amnesty International is to “shine a light on human rights” and reveal the facts of imprisonment, abuse, miscarriage of justice, and extrajudicial killings to a wider audience.  The gold standard of social justice is the Declaration of Human Rights and Freedoms signed December 10th, 1948.  The goal of Amnesty International research is for it to document the facts.  It is checked with three reliable sources before it is published.  In most cases, people do not work on cases in their own countries to avoid reprisals.  Exceptions are made for Americans working to stop capital punishment and Canadians working against abuses of Indigenous People.

The most affirming part of Amnesty work has been meeting prisoners who had been released by their governments once letters from Amnesty members around the world started to arrive.  These governments still believed in the currency of truth and did not want to be embarrassed on the world stage by overtly ignoring human rights.  It was encouraging to work with community members and students who were fully engaged in learning about human rights and ready to work towards their vision of how they wanted the world to be.  Amnesty International training is also excellent.  I learned about “Unpacking White Privilege” with activities that were respectful of the different starting points into the conversation with people in my community and from around Canada and just as relevant today.

The most frustrating part of Amnesty work for me is writing on behalf of extra-judicial killings, capital punishment in the United States, and Indigenous Rights in Canada.  The same painstaking work to collect facts and triangulation was done.  The Declaration of Rights and Freedoms was still a reference point.  However, there was a vested interest in secrecy and skewing facts.  The investment in maintaining the status quo seems to over-rule truth in too many cases.  Governments did not step up to admit that a person had not been granted a fair trial.  They did not look at the systemic racism that put, too frequently a black man, on death row.  They did not expeditiously address the land claims issues or practice of dumping the drunk Indigenous person outside of city limits in the snow or address the question of why so many Indigenous women were missing and killed. 

Today the work has become harder because too many politicians seem to have traded the reliance on the currency of truth, in favour of the belief that they can garner votes by fueling people’s fears to intensify biases and racism in society.  I was encouraged when the book Just Mercy:  A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson was released as a movie and an audiobook.  And yet, this same story has been told by other people who have been unjustly accused or penalized far beyond what is just.  And money is still directed to systems of punishment rather than required support systems. 

The 1783 Act to Limit Slavery was the first legislation to limit slavery in the British Colonies and celebrated by abolitionists in Upper Canada.  British abolitionists had been engaged in protests against transatlantic trade in African people since the 1770’s.  In 1833, Britain passed the Slavery Abolition Act in Parliament which was targeting slavery in tropical countries.  Slavery was abolished in most British colonies, freeing more than 800,000 enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and South Africa, as well as a small number in Lower Canada.   By 1934, Canada became a destination for black people trying to escape slavery in the United States via The Underground Railway.  As a Canadian, this has been a point of pride.

Slavery has been present since ancient times and has been sustained in one form or another throughout history.  The British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and Belgian empires-built empires based primarily on plantation agriculture using people abducted from Africa.  Slavery in the plantation economies of the United States, Brazil and Cuba came later and flourished under slavery.  Today slavery continues with human trafficking and in sweat shops.  Clearly there is no one country or civilization that has moral high ground.  Slavery in one form or another has plagued us all.  The point here is not that we all need to feel guilty.  It is to understand that through-out history, people have been making judgements that some people are less than.  Who decides who has power? How is inequity justified?

David Livingstone (1813-1873) in his explorations / mapping of central Africa documented in his journals and spoke in Britain of the cruelty of the slave trade in destroying African lives but also the devastating impact on the British character:

“No one can understand the effect of the unutterable meanness of the slave-system on the minds of those who, but for the strange obliquity which prevents them from feeling the degradation of not being gentlemen enough to pay for services rendered, would be equal in virtue to ourselves.  Fraud becomes as natural to them as ‘paying one’s way’ is to the rest of mankind.” 

He points out that slavery has a double-edged sword.  It is devasting to the life of the person being enslaved.  It also has a devastating impact on the character of the person involved in the enslavement.  I would propose that racism also has a double-edged sword.  It hurts the recipient of racism. It also damages the character of the racist.  A world based on equity and respect is the only avenue forward.

All of the organized religions of the world have texts that speak of love and embracing community.  Most people would say they are good people who want to make the world a better place.  Hierarchy is beneficial when people create systems to achieve power and have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo to hold on to power.  If we are looking at embracing equity for all, we need to accept that no one gets to be “king of the castle”.  We need to embrace distributed leadership and the belief that we can accomplish equity through involving diverse voices and working collaboratively.  If we have societal problems or issues, they belong to all of us. 

The George Floyd video is not cause for one population to look at what is wrong  in one country, but a cause for all populations to look at what is happening in their countries.  We watched over the course of 8 minutes and 46 seconds of a black man begging for his life and then dying at the hands of same people we expect to protect us.  Only one knee was on George Floyd’s neck, but three other officers were also there bearing witness.  This was not the rash action of one racist officer, but a practice that had been condoned for use in a police force.  Firing the officers and filing criminal charges does not address the injustice, the frequency with which this happens, or the need for systemic change.  What is required is a societal shift and strong leadership that values the rights and freedoms enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Rights and Freedoms.  We have a responsibility to support and acknowledge those police officers who take the job of serving and protecting seriously, and act in respectful and caring ways.

The Black Lives Matter Movement has focused popular attention on the issues to be addressed.  COVID-19 has created a sense of powerlessness so that people want action now.  There are many conversations going on about race, injustice, human rights, systemic racism and bias.  As always, how people participate is mitigated by a number of circumstances.  I am not going to defy the Provincial Health Officer recommendation to avoid gatherings of over 50 people during a global pandemic when I am entrusted to protecting kids and staff.  However, I can still be an active participant.  I can inform myself by reading, attending online sessions, following pertinent Twitter feeds, entering the conversation and thinking about what I can do to create more equity in my learning community. 

One of the best books, I listened to, and then read was Ibram X. Kendi’s book How To Be An Anti-Racist.  I love books narrated by the author because you can hear their emphasis and passion.  I love his honesty in coming to terms with the fact that he could be racist and delving into the other arguments about race that are front and centre today.  He didn’t tell me what I needed to do because I had white skin.  I didn’t feel any accusations.  He did articulate that the problem with being passive about racism, is that you ultimately end up supporting it.  He provokes us to make a choice to be racist or anti-racist.  Kendi also provided the Racism 101 guide to the language in the current conversation and defined terms.  My vocabulary has grown to include BIPOC, LatinX, white fragility, white supremist culture, micro-aggression, and cancel culture.  I understand the conversation now.

My initial response to Black Lives Matter movement, and perhaps my arrogance, told me that we were more evolved in Canada in terms of race.  I don’t label friends as LatinX or People of Colour and racism doesn’t usually come up in our conversations.  We have embraced the notion of a multi-cultural society in Canada.  I believed our biggest task was to deal with the overt racism and institutional racism that has plagued our Indigenous People.  And then the overt racism started to be reported on the 6 o’clock news, in the newspaper and on social media.  The 92 year old Asian man with dementia pushed to the ground at the local 7/11 to racial slurs.  The Asian kid knocked off his longboard by a driver yelling racial slurs.  Asian people being spit on to racial slurs while walking or taking the bus.  My friend being worried about coming into Vancouver.  Reports of racial profiling by black Canadians.  I contacted the African Descent Society to tease out a Canadian context.   I learned that during the building of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts, the western section of Hogan’s Alley, the centre of Strathcona’s Black Neighbourhood and parts of Chinatown were razed.  I have more to learn.  I have more to think about.

I attended the Dismantling White Supremacy Culture in Schools Conference facilitated by Joe Truss on June 27th and 28 of this year, with 1000 people online.  Speakers presented thought provoking sessions that were abbreviated with break-out sessions.   We were put in “affinity groups” for break-out sessions based on the colour of our skin.  My initial question to the group:  “Is my affinity defined by the colour of my skin?”  Shane Safir, author of The Listening Leader, was the skilled facilitator in my group.  She raised the point that all of us have a number of different affinity groups.  Since then I have been thinking of the wide array of affinity groups I identify with and there are many:  feminists; feminists who wear lipstick; parents; mothers with daughters; mothers with sons;  parents with grown kids; wives; wives of husbands who respect strong women; daughters; sisters; sisters in blended families; children of divorce; educators; educators passionate about inquiry; educators passionate about innovation; social justice advocates; principals and vice principals.  The conversation does change when you are with a group of like-minded people.   It allows for expression that is not curated to ensure that no one is offended.  Yes, I realize I am sounding very Canadian.  I think of my reaction to being put in an affinity group in early July.  I think of being in a group where I am silenced because I have no affinity with the people in the group.  If we are going to have change, I believe we need to have honest conversations that are difficult and go beyond affinity groups. 

Joe Truss did raise an important point in his organization of break-out sessions. Safe spaces for BIPOC to express their pain, or anger, or experience, or perceptions is important.  These conversations require a supportive context where people do not need to justify their feelings.  The sharing of the stories takes a toll on the people reliving the memories of painful experiences.  A colleague of mine was a witness when the 1989 Mount Cashel Boys’ Home investigation of repeated acts of physical and sexual abuse of the children designated as wards of the state (through the Indian Act, apprehension by Social Services, and orphans)  by the Christian Brothers, was re-opened the 1975.  Each one of the witnesses was assigned a support person throughout the subsequent  trial due to the trauma of reliving the traumatic events of their time at the school.  For BIPOC people experiencing racism, there is an additional layer of complexity because it could be unfolding in a variety of ways in their current reality.  The path forward will need to include opportunities for healing, defined by the people who require it. 

The full burden of recounting history and working towards change cannot lie solely on the shoulders of BIPOC people.   The stories of BIPOC people who have experienced racist acts and institutional racism can help us better understand our context.  Conversations that focus on reconciliation and change, also need to happen.  Truth and Reconciliation processes have been used in over 30 countries since the 1970’s.  The Truth and Reconciliation process established by President Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu after apartheid in South Africa has provided a model for Truth Commissions.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that took place in Canada from 2007-2015 was eye opening for many Canadians.  The government spent $72 million and interviewed 6,500 witnesses.  Canadians learned the stories of residential schools.  That part of our history previously absent from curriculum is now taught in school.  It has also provided a catalyst for understanding the change and political pressure for changes needed in Canada to support our Indigenous people. However, the sharing of horrific stories took its toll on the Indigenous people reliving them through the sharing.

The path forward for white people is different.  To be an anti-racist, an honest desire to discover truth through reading, listening and reflecting will be required.  The starting point of the person and the level of engagement sought will determined the starting point on the path toward equity.  I don’t like the term “micro-aggressions” because it comes with an accusation that I believe causes people to shut down.  However, if the focus is on empathic listening, it brings it to the level of being considerate of other peoples’ feelings – a lesson that begins in pre-school and hopefully continues through our lives.   

In my pathway towards equity, I would love to work as an ally in a cross-racial group of people to develop an action plan that incorporates diverse perspectives and skill sets.  I would love there to be a freedom to share stories and ask questions without risk of harsh judgement.  I still believe in strong curriculum to engage students in learning about human rights and inquiry projects to help them ask difficult questions.  I still believe in working with community to move forward social justice work.  I would like to create multiple entry points for people to join the conversation and work collaboratively.  In a recent forum sponsored by The International Literacy Association, Ernest Morrell, made the statement:  “Excellence is equitably distributed, but opportunity is Not.”  In our school communities and societies, the goal to provide equity of opportunity for everyone is a good one.  Who knows where the excellence lies to create a better world?  What is your action plan to get there?  I would love to hear about it.

Talking About Race

Diversity : Celebrating Multiculturalism

Everyone these days is talking about race.  This construct with no genetic basis, has had major impact on all societies since the beginning of human civilization.  Entry points and perspectives on the conversation differ radically.  Amnesty International first captured my heart and mind and imagination at a booth at Granville Island in Vancouver, British Columbia just after graduation from UBC.  I saw the possibility of working with people committed to human rights to create a fairer and more equitable world.  I was young, optimistic and newly empowered with a university degree.  I was in education and believed with all my heart that if people knew better, then they would do better. 

The premise behind Amnesty International is to “shine a light on human rights” and reveal the facts of imprisonment, abuse, miscarriage of justice, and extrajudicial killings to a wider audience.  The gold standard of social justice is the Declaration of Human Rights and Freedoms signed December 10th, 1948.  The goal of Amnesty International research is for it to document the facts.  It is checked with three reliable sources before it is published.  In most cases, people do not work on cases in their own countries to avoid reprisals.  Exceptions are made for Americans working to stop capital punishment and Canadians working against abuses of Indigenous People.

The most affirming part of Amnesty work has been meeting prisoners who had been released by their governments once letters from Amnesty members around the world started to arrive.  These governments still believed in the currency of truth and did not want to be embarrassed on the world stage by overtly ignoring human rights.  It was encouraging to work with community members and students who were fully engaged in learning about human rights and ready to work towards their vision of how they wanted the world to be.  Amnesty International training is also excellent.  I learned about “Unpacking White Privilege” with activities that were respectful of the different starting points into the conversation with people in my community and from around Canada and just as relevant today.

The most frustrating part of Amnesty work for me is writing on behalf of extra-judicial killings, capital punishment in the United States, and Indigenous Rights in Canada.  The same painstaking work to collect facts and triangulation was done.  The Declaration of Rights and Freedoms was still a reference point.  However, there was a vested interest in secrecy and skewing facts.  The investment in maintaining the status quo seems to over-rule truth in too many cases.  Governments did not step up to admit that a person had not been granted a fair trial.  They did not look at the systemic racism that put, too frequently a black man, on death row.  They did not expeditiously address the land claims issues or practice of dumping the drunk Indigenous person outside of city limits in the snow or address the question of why so many Indigenous women were missing and killed. 

Today the work has become harder because too many politicians seem to have traded the reliance on the currency of truth, in favour of the belief that they can garner votes by fueling people’s fears to intensify biases and racism in society.  I was encouraged when the book Just Mercy:  A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson was released as a movie and an audiobook.  And yet, this same story has been told by other people who have been unjustly accused or penalized far beyond what is just.  And money is still directed to systems of punishment rather than required support systems. 

The 1783 Act to Limit Slavery was the first legislation to limit slavery in the British Colonies and celebrated by abolitionists in Upper Canada.  British abolitionists had been engaged in protests against transatlantic trade in African people since the 1770’s.  In 1833, Britain passed the Slavery Abolition Act in Parliament which was targeting slavery in tropical countries.  Slavery was abolished in most British colonies, freeing more than 800,000 enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and South Africa, as well as a small number in Lower Canada.   By 1934, Canada became a destination for black people trying to escape slavery in the United States via The Underground Railway.  As a Canadian, this has been a point of pride.

Slavery has been present since ancient times and has been sustained in one form or another throughout history.  The British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and Belgian empires-built empires based primarily on plantation agriculture using people abducted from Africa.  Slavery in the plantation economies of the United States, Brazil and Cuba came later and flourished under slavery.  Today slavery continues with human trafficking and in sweat shops.  Clearly there is no one country or civilization that has moral high ground.  Slavery in one form or another has plagued us all.  The point here is not that we all need to feel guilty.  It is to understand that through-out history, people have been making judgements that some people are less than.  Who decides?  For what purpose?

David Livingstone (1813-1873) in his explorations / mapping of central Africa documented in his journals and spoke in Britain of the cruelty of the slave trade in destroying African lives but also the devastating impact on the British character:

“No one can understand the effect of the unutterable meanness of the slave-system on the minds of those who, but for the strange obliquity which prevents them from feeling the degradation of not being gentlemen enough to pay for services rendered, would be equal in virtue to ourselves.  Fraud becomes as natural to them as ‘paying one’s way’ is to the rest of mankind.” 

He points out that slavery has a double-edged sword.  It is devasting to the life of the person being enslaved.  It also has a devastating impact on the character of the person involved in the enslavement.  I would propose that racism also has a double-edged sword.  It hurts the recipient of racism. It also damages the character of the racist.  A world based on equity and respect is the only avenue forward.

All of the organized religions of the world have texts that speak of love and embracing community.  Most people would say they are good people who want to make the world a better place.  Hierarchy is beneficial when people create systems to achieve power and have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo to hold on to power.  If we are looking at embracing equity for all, we need to accept that no one gets to be “king of the castle”.  We need to embrace distributed leadership and the belief that we can accomplish equity through involving diverse voices and working collaboratively.  If we have societal problems or issues, they belong to all of us. 

The George Floyd video is not cause for one population to look at what is wrong  in one country, but a cause for all populations to look at what is happening in their countries.  We watched over the course of 8 minutes and 46 seconds of a black man begging for his life and then dying at the hands of same people we expect to protect us.  Only one knee was on George Floyd’s neck, but three other officers were also there bearing witness.  This was not the rash action of one racist officer, but a practice that had been condoned for use in a police force.  Firing the officers and filing criminal charges does not address the injustice, the frequency with which this happens, or the need for systemic change.  What is required is a societal shift and strong leadership that values the rights and freedoms enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Rights and Freedoms.  We have a responsibility to support and acknowledge those police officers who take the job of serving and protecting seriously, and act in respectful and caring ways.

The Black Lives Matter Movement has focused popular attention on the issues to be addressed.  COVID-19 has created a sense of powerlessness so that people want action now.  There are many conversations going on about race, injustice, human rights, systemic racism and bias.  As always, how people participate is mitigated by a number of circumstances.  I am not going to defy the Provincial Health Officer recommendation to avoid gatherings of over 50 people during a global pandemic when I am entrusted to protecting kids and staff.  However, I can still be an active participant.  I can inform myself by reading, attending online sessions, following pertinent Twitter feeds, entering the conversation and thinking about what I can do to create more equity in my learning community. 

One of the best books, I listened to, and then read was Ibram X. Kendi’s book How To Be An Anti-Racist.  I love books narrated by the author because you can hear their emphasis and passion.  I love his honesty in coming to terms with the fact that he could be racist and delving into the other arguments about race that are front and centre today.  He didn’t tell me what I needed to do because I had white skin.  I didn’t feel any accusations.  He did articulate that the problem with being passive about racism, is that you ultimately end up supporting it.  He provokes us to make a choice to be racist or anti-racist.  Kendi also provided the Racism 101 guide to the language in the current conversation and defined terms.  My vocabulary has grown to include BIPOC, LatinX, white fragility, white supremist culture, micro-aggression, and cancel culture.  I understand the conversation now.

My initial response to Black Lives Matter movement, and perhaps my arrogance, told me that we were more evolved in Canada in terms of race.  I don’t label friends as LatinX or People of Colour and racism doesn’t usually come up in our conversations.  We have embraced the notion of a multi-cultural society in Canada.  I believed our biggest task was to deal with the overt racism and institutional racism that has plagued our Indigenous People.  And then the overt racism started to be reported on the 6 o’clock news, in the newspaper and on social media.  The 92 year old Asian man with dementia pushed to the ground at the local 7/11 to racial slurs.  The Asian kid knocked off his longboard by a driver yelling racial slurs.  Asian people being spit on to racial slurs while walking or taking the bus.  My friend being worried about coming into Vancouver.  Reports of racial profiling by black Canadians.  I contacted the African Descent Society to tease out a Canadian context.   I learned that during the building of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts, the western section of Hogan’s Alley, the centre of Strathcona’s Black Neighbourhood and parts of Chinatown were razed.  I have more to learn.  I have more to think about.

I attended the Dismantling White Supremacy Culture in Schools Conference facilitated by Joe Truss on June 27th and 28 of this year, with 1000 people online.  Speakers presented thought provoking sessions that were abbreviated with break-out sessions.   We were put in “affinity groups” for break-out sessions based on the colour of our skin.  My initial question to the group:  “Is my affinity defined by the colour of my skin?”  Shane Safir, author of The Listening Leader, was the skilled facilitator in my group.  She raised the point that all of us have a number of different affinity groups.  Since then I have been thinking of the wide array of affinity groups I identify with and there are many:  feminists; feminists who wear lipstick; parents; mothers with daughters; mothers with sons;  parents with grown kids; wives; wives of husbands who respect strong women; daughters; sisters; sisters in blended families; children of divorce; educators; educators passionate about inquiry; educators passionate about innovation; social justice advocates; principals and vice principals.  The conversation does change when you are with a group of like-minded people.   It allows for expression that is not curated to ensure that no one is offended.  Yes, I realize I am sounding very Canadian.  I think of my reaction to being put in an affinity group in early July.  I think of being in a group where I am silenced because I have no affinity with the people in the group.  If we are going to have change, I believe we need to have honest conversations that are difficult and go beyond affinity groups. 

Joe Truss did raise an important point in his organization of break-out sessions. Safe spaces for BIPOC to express their pain, or anger, or experience, or perceptions is important.  These conversations require a supportive context where people do not need to justify their feelings.  The sharing of the stories takes a toll on the people reliving the memories of painful experiences.  A colleague of mine was a witness when the 1989 Mount Cashel Boys’ Home investigation of repeated acts of physical and sexual abuse of the children designated as wards of the state (through the Indian Act, apprehension by Social Services, and orphans)  by the Christian Brothers, was re-opened the 1975.  Each one of the witnesses was assigned a support person throughout the subsequent  trial due to the trauma of reliving the traumatic events of their time at the school.  For BIPOC people experiencing racism, there is an additional layer of complexity because it could be unfolding in a variety of ways in their current reality.  The path forward will need to include opportunities for healing, defined by the people who require it. 

The full burden of recounting history and working towards change cannot lie solely on the shoulders of BIPOC people.   The stories of BIPOC people who have experienced racist acts and institutional racism can help us better understand our context.  Conversations that focus on reconciliation and change, also need to happen.  Truth and Reconciliation processes have been used in over 30 countries since the 1970’s.  The Truth and Reconciliation process established by President Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu after apartheid in South Africa has provided a model for Truth Commissions.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that took place in Canada from 2007-2015 was eye opening for many Canadians.  The government spent $72 million and interviewed 6,500 witnesses.  Canadians learned the stories of residential schools.  That part of our history previously absent from curriculum is now taught in school.  It has also provided a catalyst for understanding the change and political pressure for changes needed in Canada to support our Indigenous people. However, the sharing of horrific stories took its toll on the Indigenous people reliving them through the sharing.

The path forward for white people is different.  To be an anti-racist, an honest desire to discover truth through reading, listening and reflecting will be required.  The starting point of the person and the level of engagement sought will determined the starting point on the path toward equity.  I don’t like the term “micro-aggressions” because it comes with an accusation that I believe causes people to shut down.  However, if the focus is on empathic listening, it brings it to the level of being considerate of other peoples’ feelings – a lesson that begins in pre-school and hopefully continues through our lives.   

In my pathway towards equity, I would love to work as an ally in a cross-racial group of people to develop an action plan that incorporates diverse perspectives and skill sets.  I would love there to be a freedom to share stories and ask questions without risk of harsh judgement.  I still believe in strong curriculum to engage students in learning about human rights and inquiry projects to help them ask difficult questions.  I still believe in working with community to move forward social justice work.  I would like to create multiple entry points for people to join the conversation and work collaboratively.  In a recent forum sponsored by The International Literacy Association, Ernest Morrell, made the statement:  “Excellence is equitably distributed, but opportunity is Not.”  In our school communities and societies, the goal to provide equity of opportunity for everyone is a good one.  Who knows where the excellence lies to create a better world?  What is your action plan to get there?  I would love to hear about it.

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