[WATCH] “We are not a homogenous group”: INNterview with Professor Carl James on Africentric schools, educational reform for Black students

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Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

— Langston Hughes, “Dreams”

As our society adapts to what we call “the new normal,” it leads us to reflect on what we considered commonplace before these profound social changes. Examining the frameworks surrounding identity in our new “enlightened age” conjures imagery of a culture where race is a construct that can be as readily dismissed, from the mind, as any other idea. Yet, in Canada, we often avoid discussions about this thing that we call “race.”

Comments such as “I don’t see colour” reinforce our multicultural national identity and simultaneously omit the lived experiences of approximately 1.2 million people. According to a research article in the Journal of Education Policy, individuals from the African diaspora do not have the luxury of colour-blindness. Instead, they must cope with the daily, material consequences of a myth that undervalues the weight of race. A  peer-reviewed article in the American Review of Political Economy elaborates that one such manifestation is the systemic underachievement of Black students in Canada.

 A curriculum inquiry in Toronto found that within the educational system, Afro-Canadian students are “inherently punishable” and are over-represented in suspensions and expulsions. The Ontario Report on Black Student Achievement found that between 2006 and 2011, Black students in Toronto public schools were more than twice as likely to be suspended or drop out. Additionally, the same report found Black students were three times as likely to be funnelled into academic programs that prevent the possibility of tertiary education. The Walrus reported that in Halifax, during 2015–2016, Black students made up eight percent of the student body but accounted for 22.5% of total suspensions.

The article Marginalization of African Canadian Students in Mainstream Schools asserts that, based exclusively on skin colour, Black students are: stereotyped, labelled as inferior, and subjected to hostile interpretations of their behaviour by teachers and school administrators alike. CBC Radio – Canada Calgary produced a segment five months ago about a white Alberta elementary school principal who used the ‘N-word’ when speaking to her Black students. The video details that, after posting a portion of the recording online, the students were immediately suspended, and their principal received no disciplinary action from the local Catholic school board. The stark difference between how white and Black students are disciplined creates a hostile learning environment that extends past students and engulfs the entire Black family.

Black parents are also on the receiving end of demonization. Once a parent challenges school officials, trespassing orders and reports to Children’s Aid are regularly employed punitive measures. The Edmonton Journal reported that in 2020, a Black elementary school student in Edmonton, Alberta, was labelled a gang member for wearing a du-rag to school. When his mother arrived to discuss the matter, she was accused of being aggressive; the school was put into lockdown, and the police were called. The mother was subsequently banned from her child’s school for one year.

Deeply dissatisfied with their children’s treatment within the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Edward Shizha’s article found that, parents in Afro-Canadian communities asserted their children were made to feel intellectually and socially incompetent. Similar findings span the nation. Robyn Maynard reported that Black students of Caribbean origin in Québec are three times more likely to be ‘identified’ as SHSMLD (Students with Handicaps, Social Maladjustments, or Learning Difficulties) and placed in separate classes for “at-risk” students. In 2015 Now Magazine published the particulars of an incident involving a 13-year-old Black student in Toronto who was told that her hair was “too poofy,” “unprofessional,” and that “no one would hire her with hair like that.” In addition, the student was disciplined by the principal when she was given a hair scrunchie and refused to use it.

In 2016, the Walrus recounted the story of a mother of a Black grade one student in Mississauga, Ontario. The mother in question was notified that school staff called law enforcement because her daughter was reportedly acting violently. Upon arrival, the mother found her six-year-old daughter in handcuffs that attached her wrists to her ankles, and was quoted saying that her daughter had been treated like a “dog” or a “monster” and not like a human child.

“How does a conventional school that sees whiteness as normative helps Afro-Canadian youth self-actualize?

From the article "Education policy racialisations: Afrocentric schools, Islamic schools, and the new enunciations of equity" by Kalervo Gulson and Taylor Webb

According to an INN24 interview, the former youth worker turned Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Senior Advisor on Equity / Representation and Professor at York University, Carl James was there during early discussions about Black student achievement. James was very much a part of the conversations that helped develop the Africentric schools and has done extensive research into the subject. In the interview, James said, “what images do we project of Black students in our society that might inform the teacher, fellow students or parents? … It’s not just the teacher or students; it is what does the culture of society communicate to all of us about the possibilities of the Black students? And what do we think of Asian or Indigenous students in comparison for example?”

Pictured: Professor Carl James, Augustine Chair in Education, Senior Advisor on Equity / Representation and Professor at York University (PHOTO: Courtesy of York University

The Huffington Post reported on Morgan Reeve, a student at IE Weldon Secondary School in Lindsay, Ontario, who stated that when she and her sisters or friends experience anti-Black racism, they mostly stay silent because they don’t think that teachers will do anything; and that that indifference has created a “toxic learning environment for a lot of students.”

In their article, authors Kalervo Gulson and Taylor Webb add that parents questioned, “How does a conventional school that sees whiteness as normative helps Afro-Canadian youth self-actualize?” The community plunged itself into countless forums, papers, and round-tables to find solutions. A consensus formed that the only means of shifting the values and actions that contribute to the underachievement and disengagement of Black students was to create an environment that questioned the universality of euro-centric cultural knowledge.

After 30 stagnating years of fluctuating government interests, change-makers successfully lobbied for a Black-focused school within the TDSB’s Alternative Schools Policy framework. The rationale was that such a school would cater to marginalized Black students’ specific goals and socio-cultural needs. This progressive school would foster a supportive identity-affirming environment and teach a curriculum that acknowledges African people’s contributions in Canada.

In 2008, the TDSB approved Ontario’s first Africentric elementary school; but before classes could start, according to Gulson and Webb, negative portrayals in the media temporarily halted student enrolment. The Toronto Star cited, “segregation,” the Globe and Mail found the idea “insulting and ridiculous,” the National Post underscored it all by saying that an Africentric school was a “terrible idea that refuses to die.”

Edward Shizha’s article noted that the opposition was rampant and used terms like “educational apartheid” to brand the Africentric school concept negatively. Opponents seemed most concerned by the “unrealistic ethnic isolation” that the school would purportedly create. They believed students were not being prepared to take part in the broader racially heterogeneous society and that a formative education in an Africentric school would have “unintended consequences.”

"For some [Black] students, it might not be Africentric schools… others need the Africentric schools ... we have to start thinking that we are not a homogeneous group of people and we might function differently in the different educational settings. That is important to pay attention to."

Prof. Carl James

In a book chapter titled Multicultural Education in a Colour-Blind Society, Carl James asserted that the environmental politics of race portray Africentric schools as deviant and separate in ways that other alternative ethnocentric schools are not. Jewish day schools and Chinese language schools, for example, are not generally seen as problematic, yet a Black-focused school is “against Canadian values,” and “dysfunctional to social integration.”

Despite contentious negotiations, the Africentric Alternative School (AAS) hosted its inaugural cohort in September 2009. Since then, a high school has opened. Both schools employ an alternative educational model that fosters a protective place of unconditional belonging, which authors Philip Howard and Carl James have found that most Black people do not experience in other schools.

When asked, during an INN24 interview, “If Africentric Schools were fixing the problem?” Prof James responded that “it’s too soon to say.” He continued, “For some [Black] students, it might not be Africentric schools… others need the Africentric schools … we have to start thinking that we are not a homogeneous group of people and we might function differently in the different educational settings. That is important to pay attention to.”

Education without oppression means that every student deserves to learn from a cultural context that supports their world view, Black students included. If “the dream” that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Langston Hughes spoke of is to be realized, then education is the foundation and the means of that liberation. 

Desegregation is not the same as integration. Dismantling Eurocentric systems and the institutional racism they perpetuate should not be a contentious notion. Anti-Blackness is real; it is demonstrable globally and, although difficult for some to accept, it exists in Canada. 

WATCH THE FULL INNTERVIEW BELOW:

Wiki Production Code: A0199

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