While the police insisted Camara’s arrest was based strictly on the evidence, and not racial profiling, civil rights activists claim that the incident is part of a larger pattern of discrimination. Recently however, it was the questions emanating from two elementary school students that brought me to an uncomfortable sense of awareness. “Why”, one asked, “did the police treat him like that? and in visibly infantile intonations, the other inquired, “Why are the police always in trouble with us?”
Who will respond to the questions posed by these young inquiring minds, on issues that confessedly adults often have to examine their own assumptions and biases before they can even facilitate conversations.
At what age should we start to talk with our children about this frightening, complex issue? When are children old enough to handle such intense topics?
For the children old enough to attend school, and who are old enough to discuss it, how will teachers talk to them about it? Are schools prepared to deal with these topics especially given that at least 80 per cent of elementary school teachers are from the mainstream culture?
Or have the schools been avoiding such sticky topics altogether?
Many black students are educated in classrooms where they make up the racial majority, and are taught to understand a world by a staff made up of a powerful minority. When their teachers choose to remain silent about racism and police brutality——- brutality that may touch a student’s community or family—these students are once again overtly reminded of their place in society.
The reasons underlying the school’s delay or wavering reluctance to discuss racism and policing may be embedded in these harsh denied realities.
Power is political, and every classroom is a political space positioned within an institution, province and nation—all locales in which knowledge and access must be debated and stipulated, and power is exerted, yielded to and resisted. Until Premier Francois Legault, and our leaders can understand and acknowledge the existence of systemic racism, and be open to say it, there will be no change. Silence about race reinforces racism, by allowing children to draw their own conclusions based on what they see.
As a qualified Black teacher for over two decades, I have yet to meet a teacher who openly espoused racism. Instead, they claimed to be against racism and police brutality, and want to empower students.
Teaching young children about racism and police violence requires some understanding of structural racism, and teachers must reject any instinct to mollify the issue.
Speaking to students about the basics of racism and policing early on can help them develop complex thinking, which will in turn, assist them in comprehending tricky issues—like those related to the criminal justice system.
To begin making changes to ameliorate the ongoing situation means to examine oneself and one’s beliefs. A politically woke teacher acknowledges that one cannot claim to be against racism while acting as a functionary within a racist system (especially when benefitting materially), while doing so.
To build on Napoleon’s observation, “among those who dislike oppression are many who” enjoy the privileges the oppressive system offers.
On the other hand, new teachers enter the classrooms with many skills, but how many walk into their class with skills in their toolbox to navigate race and racism. Additionally, how many school boards have offered teachers professional development in this area over the course of their careers?
If we desire changes in the next generation then the discussion should begin in the homes and continue in the schools. We may be uncomfortable talking about race, but we can no longer afford to be silent. Schools do students a disservice when they fail to teach the messy truth about thorny issues such as racism and policing. The classroom must not be viewed as a place of doom.
“It has to start somewhere
It has to start sometime
What better place than the classroom
What better time than now?”