When students read literature by only certain groups of people, they learn about only certain experiences and perspectives, especially those of groups that have traditionally been privileged in society (such as White, middle-class men).Kumoshiro, 2009
My upbringing was one that is mostly unique compared to how others are brought up. At the same time, however, they are very similar. I attended a public school in Ontario between Kindergarten to Grade 2. The school had a mix of races, but almost half of the class was white. The teacher was also white. We didn’t learn about Indigenous Peoples at all, and we weren’t told what racism was. In these years, I had never confronted racism. I had never felt like an outsider. No classmate was racist to me, now that I think of it. I think this is why I think racism is a learned concept. It isn’t natural or normal to be racist. When I moved to where I am now, I went to a private school full of people like me: Muslim. I was excited to attend this school because I thought that I would have some sort of bottom-line, some undisputed similarity, that would bind me to my classmates. I would not feel like an outsider. Indeed, I was not treated like one. However, in Grade 6, I was finally told what racism was. I knew what discrimination was at that point, but I never even heard the word “racist” until that point. I treated it like a bad word, something not to be said out-loud. I was afraid of the word. I was also confused. Could I be racist? Oh, but I was Muslim. I was a minority. I loved all my classmates equally. I was not born in the West, so I wasn’t really “white”. Could I really be racist?
My up-bringing said I was accepted. My up-bringing had this bright and beautiful perception of society that we can all hold hands and get along. That is what my teacher said we must do as students, so why wouldn’t people in the broader world do the same? I treated my teacher as this noble prophet, or as some sort of God, where their word is law. If they said to get alone, then we would get along. It was ordained. Unfortunately, teachers aren’t Gods. They are prone to mistakes. They don’t always know what they’re teaching or doing. For example, I wasn’t told what Islamophobia was until Grade 8 and racism until Grade 6. Why? These are mature subjects. But I am a Muslim in a post-9/11 world. This isn’t mature to me as it is an obvious fact. Islamophobia exists. Racism exists. And they’re two different things. For a child to live through them but not have a word to their experiences is to unacknowledged their oppression, and this can be traumatic. They might also fall into believing racism views, even if they are a person of colour. I had a very sheltered life, growing up, and I shouldn’t have. I see the world in rose-tinted glasses, and I am afraid each time I must take it off in fear I’ll be angry or frustrated of what I might see. I was raised not to be angry or frustrated at anything.
I will indefinitely bring these biases into the classroom. I think I’ll be afraid of branching out into different and complex topics of racism. For example, I’m always afraid of teaching Indigenous subjects for the fear I might be appropriating Indigenous Peoples or accidently being discriminator against them. I don’t want to be that white teacher that wants to bring their culture into the classroom, instead of their history. I also don’t want to be the teacher than selfishly doesn’t educate their students on a very real topic because of my own fears. I think: Well, my teachers didn’t acknowledge my oppressions, so I must not have to acknowledge theirs. This is wrong. The world isn’t rose-tinted, even if the glasses are. As a teacher, it is wrong on all levels to avoid heavy discussions, even if you were taught to do so, because the only person who finds it heavy is you. To the students, it is a “natural” way of life (you must teach them why it is not). I can work through these biases by doing a number of things:
- Learning how to apologize for mistakes.
- Learning that your students have a right to be offended, angry, and frusterated.
- Making the classroom somewhere students feel safe to discuss these “heavy” topics.
- Don’t introduce the topic as “heavy”, but say that they are complex.
- Go to programs or seminars of decolonizing the curriculum.
- Go to events that support movements regarding poc, lgbtq+, gender rights, etc.
- Be unafraid to talk about ways the world oppresses you, and use that to link yourself to other students in the classroom.
The “single stories” presented in my schooling were the traditionally “uncomplicated” stories. It had to be mostly white, male, and (surprisingly) heterosexual/asexual/aromantic. I remember the only times it wasn’t so were stories in English classes in Grade 10 and 12. We focused on Indigenous works in Grade 12, but it sometimes felt like we were tossed into the subject without having an actual introduction of it. We had to write an essay on a work without any sort of resources, and didn’t know where to go to obtain Indigenous books/poems. Nonetheless, I am still glad it happened because I really like this one Indigenous poet named Louise Bernice Halfe. In Grade 10, we got a series of short stories that were still mostly heterosexual/asexual/aromantic but it featured a series of different races and game from the perspectives of male and female. However, things became different in other classes. For example, in social studies, we focused on the whiter aspects of history and Canadian society. In math and science, we focused on European ways of learning. Our teahcers, however, knew that a lot of the different math and scientific content we were supposed to learn came from Arabs during the Islamic Golden Era. One would think that in an Islamic private school, this sort of thing would be more emphasized, and they attempted to. There was a lesson in physics, for example, where we’d pick a Muslim physicist and talk about their contributions to science. However, this sort of lesson was not really complicated to understand and learn as students. This might have daunting for the teacher, though, because she might not have wanted to seem like she was trying to school or appropriate us on our own religion. I find that the “truth” that mattered were the uncomplicated ones. The teachers only featured non-white/male/heterosexual content as long we didn’t have a problem with it. If we did, they simply didn’t mention it.
As teachers, it can be difficult to incorporate content that is difficult for students and even the teacher to swallow. At the same time, one must acknowledge issues and not try to put rose-tinted lenses over the eyes of their students. The students will eventually come to the real world and will have to confront these issues, and is better if they do so in a safe classroom than out in public where they are expected to act/respond in certain ways.