Reconciliation in Education Must be Explicitly Anti-Racist: dismantling White supremacy culture and uplifting diverse ways of knowing
In the push for truth and reconciliation in our “Canadian,”* school systems, there is a focus on uplifting Indigenous culture, but not on questioning Eurocentrism or on uplifting non-Indigenous non-European cultures. The momentum around uplifting Indigenous culture and learners gained traction from the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, released in June, 2015. This move to look deeper at the impacts of colonialism is an opportunity to unpack the ongoing impacts of European imperialism and White supremacy culture on everyone, not just Indigenous peoples. The following reflection is a call to expand the approach to Indigenous education, not to deny the urgency or the impact of the focus on Indigenous students past and present, but to adopt an anti-racist approach which identifies White supremacy culture as the root of the inequities faced by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students of colour.
I participated in a Professional Development session for teachers on the topic of Uplifting Indigenous Knowledges through Arts Education and I ended up feeling so conflicted and unresolved that I wrote a long letter to the organizers expressing my concerns. As a white teacher working in a school with a diverse population (over 80% BIPOC**) I am attuned to the needs of students to see themselves represented in lessons, in texts and in the world around them. I understand that part of uplifting Indigenous ways of knowing and being is to ensure that diverse Indigenous people, thinkers, artists, writers, professionals, etc. are represented as individuals with complex, whole identities. And I know that the same holds true for students of all backgrounds.
At the professional development session I attended, facilitators used a Venn diagram to represent the framework they wanted us to adopt. In the Venn diagram showing Indigenous culture parallel and overlapping with Eurocentric culture, where do non-Indigenous, racialized people see themselves? Why is it that in an attempt to create “equitable space,” the rich cultural mosaic of our society is reduced to a binary of Indigenous and non-Indigenous, which in this diagram clearly means white European? I find it disappointing and unacceptable. Here, I aim to explore solutions.
Rethinking the binary (Indigenous/European) Venn diagram, it could become a whole ring of overlapping circles, like petals of a flower, representing the ethical space between each cultural identity. A large, nuanced ethical space is at the center, where they all intersect. Before we can find or forge that ethical space, it seems the first step is creating equitable space and accountable space. Where uneven power exists, measures must be taken to shift the balance, even out the playing field, create equity. Educators must be accountable to our students, with particular emphasis on accountability to our BIPOC students by including BIPOC perspectives, voices and examples in our lessons in all disciplines.
My students of Pakistani, Afghani, Iraqi, Lebanese, Sudanese, Vietnamese, Indian, Honduran, Mexican, Filipinx descent need equitable space just as much as Indigenous and “European” students do. It is a disservice to the idea of truth and reconciliation to exclude a third of the population of our city/ province/ country. It is a huge oversight to ignore the systemic racism that impacts Indigenous and racialized people alike, though not in the same ways. White students need to learn to see themselves as White and not as superior or as the norm, understanding what it means to have White privilege in a complex multi-ethnic society.
In anti-racism work in “Canada,”** confronting Whiteness or White supremacy culture, is the key to addressing oppressive systems that unfairly impact racialized people. Through an anti-racist lens we see that Eurocentrism is about valuing European culture and phenotype over all other cultures and phenotypes, believing that it is superior and destined to be dominant. Eurocentrism is deeply rooted and taken for granted so that most White people are not even conscious of it, but will enact it every day while talking down to a person of colour. Other every day examples of how White people perpetuate this Eurocentrism is by whitesplaining race to a person of colour, refusing to talk about or acknowledge race, treating a person as a representative for their race and not as an individual and unconsciously preferring Whiteness in authors, actors, directors, models etc.
Whiteness is the foundation of our education system and despite acknowledging and deploring the impact of residential schools, the curriculum and structure of education are still built on the premise that Eurocentric ways of knowing and being are superior. This not only dismisses Indigenous ways of knowing and being but also suppresses and erases diasporic cultures that have come to make their homes here in what is currently known as North America. Students who have arrived recently as refugees, from for example Syria, are dealing with the trauma of war, grief over losing their homeland, while simultaneously experiencing racist and Islamaphobic pressure to assimilate into White society. Students of colour, who were born here are sensitized to the microaggressions, the lack of diverse representation, the questions like, “where are you from?” that really mean, “you don’t belong here.” Educators have an obligation to include all students, and to do this we must acknowledge that White supremacy culture is embedded in our education system, and work to dismantle it.
In the current approach to reconciliation in education and teacher professional development, we are simply asked to uplift Indigenous ways of knowing. This is proposed as an easy task that can be as convenient as tacking on Indigenous content to any lesson with a YouTube video or a quick mention of pan-Indigenous concepts like the medicine wheel. I admit, this is how I explain it to my teacher colleagues when encouraging mindfulness of reconciliation goals. I mean, I am well aware of the untenable workload and demands put on teachers, and the justifiable reluctance to add yet another ball to juggle. However, this is not about adding more work, it is about transforming a system. If reconciliation in education is truly taking place, teachers’ workload won’t increase… instead, priorities will shift.
If we are truly aiming for reconciliation, we will begin to look at the roots of problems, to bring about systemic change. We will deconstruct Whiteness and Eurocentrism in the curriculum and in lesson plans, understanding how the erasure of BIPOC lives and contributions inherently devalues other ways of being. If reconciliation in education is to go forward, racialized students, families and teachers must see themselves and their distinct and diverse cultures and knowledges also uplifted in the process. To build our capacity to do this we need more BIPOC university professors in teacher education programs, more BIPOC teachers, BIPOC principals and administrators. We need White teachers to educate ourselves and become more skilled at providing culturally responsive lessons and content, as recommended by Black author and educator Zaretta Hammond in Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain (2018). Addressing systemic racism in education by celebrating and including diverse ways of knowing is at the heart of culturally responsive teaching, and will benefit all students.
In the five years since 2015, the project of reconciliation, as imagined in the TRC report and the 94 Calls to Action, has not yet been successful in addressing the systemic racism and intergenerational trauma endured by Indigenous peoples. The lack of follow through on specific calls to action has been disappointing, if not infuriating to many. Some say reconciliation is dead, calling instead for Indigenous Sovereignty and self-governance, essentially a further separation of Indigenous nations from the Canadian state. In such a complex, multi-dimensional issue, there is no clear answer, but for educators, there are many possibilities and many opportunities to try again, or keep trying.
Educators are in a powerful position. We can impact the experiences of students every day. We can choose to transform our own practice to include and uplift BIPOC ways of knowing in our task design and content delivery. And as citizens, parents and community members we can write letters to elected representatives, using our informed voices to advocate for curriculum and policy change. If reconciliation in education is to succeed, then it must be based on an anti-racist approach and we must continue to invest in it for the sake of all students, families and communities.
*“Canada,” is placed in quotation marks to interrogate its legitimacy as a concept from an anti-racist perspective. The name and premise of this country is based on the inherently racist, Eurocentric, colonial context, which entails the theft of land from Indigenous peoples using coercion, mass murder and biological warfare, amounting to genocide as defined by the United Nations.
**BIPOC is an acronym meaning Black Indigenous People Of Colour. The need for such an acronym is embedded in anti-racism theory that recognizes the impact of racism on all these named groups, while also indicating the different degrees of racist violence experienced by the groups. Black people in the US experience the highest degree of racist violence and impacts of related intergenerational trauma, followed by Indigenous peoples and People of Color. The umbrella term POC (People of Colour) includes a huge diversity of people who experience racism, for example Latinx, East Asian, South-Asian, South-East-Asian, Middle Eastern, bi-racial, multi-racial. In “Canada” this acronym is sometimes written as IBPOC because in the “Canadian” context, Indigenous people face the highest degree of violence and impacts of related intergenerational trauma.