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Rights + Justice

As We Confront Racism, Teachers Can Play a Key Role

Four ways educators can start — and some important advice on what not to do.

Bal Dhillon 17 Jun

Bal Dhillon lives and works on the unceded traditional lands of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh and Coast Salish Peoples. He is a secondary school teacher and community school co-ordinator and enjoys coaching basketball.

The world is on the brink of monumental systemic and cultural shifts, and people are inspecting the machinery of racism through both cultural and systemic lenses.

The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and an evolution in their demands: defunding the police.

In Canada we witnessed the police kill Chantel Moore, a Nuu-chah-nulth woman and Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a Black woman, and the beating of Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

We have seen repeated reports of anti-Asian racism flaring up across our country sparked by COVID-19 and the need for a scapegoat. Asian-Canadian students have reported pressure from their parents to wear masks, but fear wearing them on the walk to school as people driving by have harassed them.

These cases present both systemic and cultural racism that many Canadians and First Nations still deal with on a day-to-day basis.

While the brutality of police all over North America demonstrates explicit and deadly violence towards Indigenous and Black people, teachers must come to grips with a different type of violence that exists in schools — symbolic violence.

Coined by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, symbolic violence often manifests itself as a dominant power enforcing, consciously or subconsciously, norms or status quos that are oppressive, restrictive and culturally insensitive. At worst, this violence can result in harsher grading practices, quicker suspensions and expulsions, and the precedence of a single story in curriculums that reinforces patriarchy, heterosexuality and whiteness as norms.

Bourdieu also wrote at length about “cultural and social reproduction.” Perpetuating cultural values requires mechanisms to sustain values and worldviews. School can be one of those mechanisms, and considering the history of schools and residential schools in our country it is important to destroy any lingering values from that past. Cultural reproduction can lead to social reproduction — the perpetuation of social orders such as class, race and sex.

Schools can be a site for cultural and social reproduction, but they can also be a place where students are encouraged and taught to think critically about these very things and to deconstruct, and then reconstruct and reimagine, a better world.

Teachers need to play an important role in this process of course. And now is when it needs to happen — the nature of the historical moment demands it of us. Here are four ways we teachers can start doing this:

1. This is not the time for assuming expertise. This is the time to inquire about what your students are witnessing and living through.

Have students attended protests? Have their families attended protests? Have they recently, or in the past, experienced explicit or implicit racism? Have they been disproportionately affected by COVID-19? If we are serious about anti-racist pedagogy, we need to start with inquiry — our students are living a reality that may be very different from our own.

If we want to transform our teaching practice, and thus transform our schools and the broader teaching community, we need to be in touch with our students’ lived experiences. We need to understand their experiences from their social locations and intersections; they are young, they may be experiencing racism, and they may be feeling empowered in this moment to voice their frustration. There may be a whole gamut of emotions that students are feeling that they don’t know how to articulate yet. And if we are fortunate enough to earn their trust and have them tell us about their experiences, and it is harsher than what you expected, please don’t assume they are spicing up the story — just believe them.

In order to be in touch with our students’ experiences, we need to develop a relationship based on dialogue. Dialogue begins with acknowledging that teachers have the power to direct the classroom discourse as well as the one-on-one student-teacher conversations. When we relinquish this power and ask the right questions, then our students voices will emerge — transforming us and our teaching practice. Brazilian educational theorist Paulo Freire emphasized that “Dialogue cannot occur between those who want to name the world and those who do not wish this naming — between those who deny others the right to speak their word and those whose right to speak has been denied them. Those who have been denied their primordial right to speak their word must first reclaim this right and prevent the continuation of this dehumanizing aggression.” Teachers have the power to name their world, their classroom, and until we relinquish this we will never have true dialogue with our students.

Finally, if we teach racialized students who we may suspect are having a hard time with world right now, do NOT save them. This is the most paternalistic thing that a teacher can do to a student at any given time. Our students neither need nor want to be saved. Racialized people neither need nor want to be saved. Dialogue does not mean saving: it means listening, reflecting and transforming.

2. This is not the time to fear offending people. This is the time to read, research and have dialogue with your colleagues.

Read and research on your own. In the information age, there is no limit to resources. Be conscious of what authors you are reading, and don’t play it safe when researching. We all want students to read in our classes and entertain ideas that they may not adopt for themselves; the same is true for us in this moment. Read authors you may not have read before and don’t limit yourself to historical authors. There are contemporary authors who write importantly on issues around race in Canada. A good place to start is Until We Are Free: Reflections of Black Lives Matter in Canada, edited by Rodney Diverlus, Sandy Hudson and Syrus Marcus Ware.

When speaking about race, be aware that your colleagues who may have faced racism, especially Indigenous and Black colleagues in this moment, are likely exhausted and emotionally drained from all that is occurring in the world. They may be willing to have the conversation with you but asking them to explain their experiences with racism is labour that you are asking them to do. Be mindful of this with colleagues and students.

Talk with colleagues who are willing and able to do so. Speak to colleagues about what your students have expressed. About the books you have read. Ask questions and challenge your own worldview. Inquire how colleagues are supporting students through this difficult time. All support begins with relationship.

Lastly, decentre yourself from the conversation. As noble and well-intentioned as you may be, now is the time to listen.

3. This is not the time to maintain the status quo. This is the time to dismantle systemic racism in schools.

Any organization has unwritten rules, and this is true for schools as well. Each school has its own unique culture. University of British Columbia professor Hartej Gill wrote about one of her experiences as a researcher in a public school when working with two colleagues. “Our activist interests converged into a decolonizing activism-research initiative the day they recounted the story of how their school had an unwritten rule that did not allow boys of ‘Indo-Canadian’ background to walk together in the hallways of their school because of the fear of their gangster activity.”

Recognizing that the current issues around race are not about South Asian people, I do think this example is instructive for teachers.

What systemic problems do we have in our schools that allow for “unwritten rules” such as the example above? In an article for the Walrus, Robyn Maynard wrote that during the 2015-16 school year, Black students made up eight per cent of the total student body in Halifax but 22.5 per cent of total suspensions. There was a parallel in Toronto and Quebec where Black students were suspended or expelled for minor infractions relative to students of other ethnicities. This is systemic, racialized punishment.

If we acknowledge that these oppressive and racist unwritten rules could exist in our schools — and perhaps even in our classrooms — we must begin to have dialogue that brings our own transformation. It is on us to change. We must advocate for the dismantling of such systemic problems and embrace a humanizing pedagogy and embodied practice for all. It begins with acknowledging and believing that these things happen — and then taking a stand to change them.

4. This is not the time for “multicultural” celebrations. This the time to have some difficult dialogue that is then followed by reflection and a sustained change in practice.

Now is not the time to celebrate diversity or multiculturalism. People have died and are continuing to die, and children are fearing facing racism in ways we do not know. This is the time for dialogue that leads to reflection on self and system, and then a transformation of self and system that is more humane and anti-racist than the version it came from. Our students can teach us here.

In 1971, Pierre Trudeau passed the Canadian Multiculturalism Act (ironically only two years after he pushed forward the White Paper on “Indian Policy,” which proposed abolishing all treaties and the special status of Indigenous people). The act was intended to recognize and respect Canadian’s diversity, multiple languages, religions and ways of living. It was a top-down approach which, however well-intentioned, has its flaws.

Students in the school system however exhibit a more organic multiculturalism on a day-to-day basis, be it through friendships, sport or arts. Students model a grassroots multiculturalism that is not limited to dinner, dance and dress. It is relational, it is about learning about family structures, world views and the values around how people interact with the world. The dialogue I’m talking about it is modelled by our students. If we are serious about embracing this moment and leading the way to shift a societal paradigm, we must be intentional and have dialogue, reflection (willingness to learn) and transformation.

I write this as a call to dialogue, with one another, with our students, with our communities for the purpose of reimagining and creating the world anew. This process is already happening. Calls to defund the police are incredibly imaginative. Teachers have been and can continue to be part of the process of imagining and co-creating a new world. Educational theorist bell hooks wrote that “Imagination is one of the most powerful modes of resistance that oppressed and exploited folks can and do use.” Wherever your views on policing may lie, we must help co-create a new world with our students, and it starts in our schools.

Once we hear our students’ and colleagues’ voices and reflect on how we can grow our pedagogy, the final piece is putting the pedagogy in practice. Freire says that if we fail to fulfill our dialogue and reflection with action, we have become verbalists. If we take action without communicating with our community and/or reflection, we have become limited activists. In order to transform the world and our schools, we need the successful combination of dialogue, reflection and action.

This is not to say that some schools and teachers are not already doing this; many students are becoming more politically active precisely because of concepts they’ve learned in school. However, as a nation we do have to grapple with the violence we are seeing in the world, and how some of the symbolic violence manifests in schools.

We have an opportunity to co-imagine and co-create a new world with our students. The point is to change the world for the better. In the words of Freire: “Only dialogue, which requires critical thinking, is also capable of generating critical thinking. Without dialogue there is no communication, and without communication there can be no true education.”  [Tyee]

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