The complicity of the education system in racial oppression.
Updated: Oct 6
I had a distressing interaction with my white stepchild this weekend. She was picked up for our usual visitation period but, she seemed different. She came to me with a timidity I am not used to from her and said that she had seen the murder of George Floyd on Tic Tok and that she was upset by what she saw. I went from calm to outrage in an instant but, recognising the powerful potential of the moment, I decided to ask her to share her thoughts on the matter. Seemingly relieved by my openness to having the discussion, she started to tell me that she was horrified and saddened. She said “first of all, I watched someone get murdered for no good reason. Who gets killed for maybe or maybe not using a fake bill?”
Her father, my most beloved husband, used the moment to step in and do the work that in my state of pain, I could not. He had a deeper discussion with her about racism, how the police and the society favour certain lives over others and how wrong this is. He then followed up with her to find out whether anyone had discussed this with her at her school or her mom’s house. He became increasingly angry when she explained that neither her school nor her mother had said anything, and that she only became aware of the protests that the death of George Floyd had sparked on Tic Tok.
As an understandably unhappy parent would, he wrote an email to the principal of her school and asked why the children had not been taught about the Black Lives Matter movement, which existed long before COVID-19 and the closure of the school. The response he got was that the school has “books about racism in the library” and that they have a “diversity and inclusion club” at the institution. This response made him even angrier than he was already since we all know that this generation does not like to read and certainly won’t sign up for any additional schoolwork that is voluntary. His irritation at the dismissive response to his questions made him feel like he was bothering them and that certainly didn’t sit well with him at all.
This got me thinking about how the education system is and has always been, a means of preserving the status quo. When I was pursuing Communication Studies as a major in 2000, I was introduced to Marxist theorist Louis Althusser and the concept of the “ideological state apparatus”. This means that there are certain spaces within society that exist simply to condition us to conform. Schools, churches and other places that socialise us fall into that category.
That idea has stuck with me for years and, when I was a teacher, I tried hard to get my students to challenge social norms and to think for themselves. It did not always go well and I was often left feeling frustrated. The difficulty I encountered with them could easily be explained by Althusser who said that the education system basically prepares people to be “workers” within the society in a manner that subjects them to the way of thinking and benefit of the rich. In this way, the system is constantly renewing labour as a “factor of production”. I was requiring something of my students that they were never encouraged to do because it did not benefit the “system”.
Paulo Freire, in his eye-opening book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, famously said, “education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” Simply put, education can either make us “good for the system” or “disturbers of the system” depending on what we are encouraged to learn. This situation with my stepdaughter made it clear that the education system in Vancouver, Canada has no interest in expanding the minds of the youth it serves. Instead, it chooses to participate in a “fake-wokeness” that is truly alarming as it prioritizes the perspective of the white “ruling class” while politely continuing to marginalise less socially powerful and visible groups by erasure.
The ability of white people to feel better about themselves for putting in some weak initiative around “diversity” and “inclusion” is essentially an insult to the intelligence of the black community. Anyone with a critical eye can see that what this action is doing is to put out yet another token crumb of relevance to a community that has been historically mistreated and told to “get over” their abuse, even though it has been occurring for over 400 years.
When will we as a society force the education system to change? When will we collectively decide that enough is enough and require our educators to actually educate? When will we tell the ruling class that they need us more than we need them? Will the lessons about who is and is not an “essential worker” learned during the COVID-19 pandemic be lost when we return to “normal”, or will we finally decide to create a more fair, just and inclusive normal?
What we can do as parents, guardians and safe adults is to encourage the children who look up to us to think critically and take nothing at face value. We can treat issues of racial equality the same way we treat violence and sexuality. We simply follow the child’s lead and give age-appropriate information.
For my ten-year-old stepdaughter, explaining racism has been ongoing since she was eight. It included exposing her to Black Panther and asking her what she thought about these strong, black characters. It has been taking her on plantation and historical tours while on vacation where she can see the buildings and ask the questions that come up for her. It is having her practice her reading on books about people of colour and turning it into a fun activity. Exposing her to music by non-white and non-North American artists is helpful in broadening her view of the cultural expression of other people. It is being willing to have uncomfortable conversations because her learning and her views of the world are so important for creating lasting change.
I would encourage all of us to practice sitting with discomfort for it is only from pain that we grow. You don’t have to have a perfect answer because no one does. The important thing is that you make it okay to ask difficult questions.