Lessons Not Taught

[Following is the latest in our month-long series on race and education.]

written by Anti-Racist Parent contributor Renee

September is here and with it comes the knowledge that the house will be peaceful once again. As much as I love my boys, back to school is certainly one of my favourite times of year. I know that they will be exposed to new ideas and new people, leading to some interesting conversations in our household. The boys are in a unique situation because they attend a French core school. Though the principal made it clear at the time their father and I enrolled that teaching French culture is a particular aim of the school, we were unsure as to what this meant.

Race continues to be an unspoken issue in Canada and instead we have tendency to focus on differences between Anglophones and Francophones. I understand that the basis of this controversy was the war fought between these two sides many years ago; however, it is not the only source of tension brewing in the great salad bowl. Whether English or French, both identities are understood to be White. My children are in fact among the very few children of color at the school that they attend.

Though French is spoken across the globe; it is still a surprise to many when my children and I converse publicly in French. The stares of astonishment we receive in the supermarket or the park are astounding. In the small town in which I reside, it is also considered an issue of class because if one is not French speaking, the first year of education must be paid for by the parents to ensure that they are committed and that the child will be successful. Only English-speaking families, of middle-class positions, are able to afford this mandatory year.

My children are a minority within a minority; they are French speaking bi-racial African and White Canadians–talk about intersections. As we go into the school year, my challenge is to make sure that within this particular space that their identities are affirmed. So quick is the French school system to push culture and identity, that it often forgets that this identity includes a diversity of bodies. There is a rabid anti-English sentiment and therefore if a child is perceived as an Anglophone, despite being perfectly fluent in French, they face unique trials.

My children must be taught their Anglophone heritage by their father, and their Caribbean heritage through me. The school’s idea of multiculturalism is to offer work like “Color an Indian” to the students. This proved to be particularly racist, though the school never did acknowledge it. There has been a long-standing conflict between First Nations and Canada’s Francophones and in an attempt to heal this; the French school system has chosen to try to speak to its students about our Indigenous peoples. The problem is that they don’t speak about the horrors of residential schools, or the fact that First Nations peoples are still subject to racism in a very systemic way across the country.

As a parent who is decidedly anti-racist, not only must I ensure that my children learn about their own personal history, I must attempt to correct the inaccuracies that they are indoctrinated with while they are in school. My personal issue is that they are invisible within the school and the culture that it tries to promote and this is further problematized by the fact that the bodies of color that they are taught about are constructed in a purely racist light. This is compounded by the fact that the school seems intent on pursuing the lie that the great salad bowl (read: tolerant and accepting multicultural Canada) is a truism, rather than a creation of white privilege, in an attempt to deny our ongoing issues.

The easiest solution would be to remove my children from this school system; however, their father and I believe that they have a right to speak both English and French fluently as citizens of this country. We further recognize that the ability to speak French will lead to better job opportunities for them when they reach adulthood. It is, in fact, very difficult to get a government job in Canada unless you are able to speak both languages with a high degree of proficiency. Most politicians on a national level are also bilingual. Due to the issues in the French school system, many children of color do not attend and by so doing, they limit their options in life if they choose to remain in Canada.

As a family we have chosen to fight for our children’s right to be educated in the French language, while supplementing their knowledge at home. This can take the form of reading books like the Skin Again by bell hooks to them, or ensuring that when they watch movies like “Pocahontas,” that they understand that not only are these types of movies historically inaccurate, but built upon racist constructions. We have spoken about French colonies in Africa and the ways in which colonized bodies have understood to be less than, all the while performing a necessary function of being labourers and providing a market for first world goods. We have spoken about Haiti and the fact that it is the site of the first successful slave rebellion and what this means in terms of French acceptance of bodies of color.

With an unflinching glare we have determined to tell our children the truth even when it is ugly. We take special care to highlight heroes across the Diaspora that they may identify with and have even included the Métis in our discussions as way to point out the experiences of bi-racial bodies in Canada. Louis Riel is understood to be a hero in our home and not the rebellious traitor that history has constructed him to be.
To be a minority within a minority is a very difficult thing. I realize that while speaking French fluently will benefit my children, it comes at a great cost in that they must face marked invisibility within their formative years. It is a battle I as an adult do not have to fight but my children are front line soldiers in this undeclared war on a daily basis. We fight with love and we fight with the truth. Our weapons are vigilance and respect and if nothing else this experience has taught the boys to quickly recognize the ways in which race continues to invade every aspect of our social structures. They have developed a very strong sense of right and wrong. It is our hope as parents, that overtime their willingness to speak and endure will make it easier for other children when they demand the right to be taught in either language. Inclusion should a birthright of all and not simply a privilege of whiteness.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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