February 2005: It’s Not Always About Colour


It's not always about colour

As the debate over Afric-Centric schools intensifies people on both sides of the debate need to remember the issue is more than skin deep, writes Morgan Campbell

8 February 2005 – Toronto Star

I survived 13 years in Ontario’s “white” school system, and sometimes I wonder how I did it.

In high school I saw black kids being discouraged from achieving. I saw black students being encouraged to take less challenging classes even though it might keep them out of university later. And I saw black students being subjected to racial taunts.

All by other black kids.

Over the last week I’ve heard numerous educators suggest that the best way to solve the problems black students face is to create “black-focused” schools. But my experience shows me that these issues – low achievement, high apathy, a lack of black teachers – are more than skin deep.

My high school in Mississauga had a fairly large black population, one that encountered many of the issues educators cite as reasons to create black-focused schools.

As a student I noticed one huge factor contributing to the poor academic performance of some of the black kids in my school, and it wasn’t racism.

It was attitude.

The big problem at my school was that too many black students, mostly boys, didn’t make school a priority. Some guys said their white teachers didn’t like them, but I figured out quickly that the first guys to cry racism were usually the last ones to crack a book. These generally were the folks who failed classes, dropped out of school or were kicked out after one too many fights.

That attitude was so pervasive among black males that some of them equated blackness with slacking in class. Guys took pride in just scraping by, even if they were bright. I knew a kid doing poorly in a general level math class, but going into the final exam he knew how to calculate the lowest possible grade he could achieve on that test and still pass the course. He passed, barely, and survived with his blackness intact.

But black boys who made decent grades risked being labelled “whitewashed” or worse. In that type of environment, forced to choose between good grades and ethnic identity, black kids often don’t want to achieve.

Even with black teachers and a black curriculum, performance in school won’t improve until more black kids understand that school is important, and pulling straight A’s doesn’t make you a traitor to your race.

Our school had a black history course, and kids who hadn’t shown much interest in school suddenly became engaged.

But it was still school, and it still required effort. A few weeks into the semester the novelty wore off. The strong students in the class did fine, but the ones who never liked school struggled. They drifted to the back of the classroom, then stopped coming, even with a black teacher.

So it wasn’t just about colour.

At the same time, I noticed something similar about the kids in my school – black, white, yellow and brown – who made good grades.

They all had parents who wouldn’t accept lousy report cards. I know my parents expected decent grades, and I realized it was better to make them proud than let them down.

Now, I’m not suggesting that people who see racism in the school system are wrong. But I’m saying that my parents’ desire to see me succeed overpowered any racist’s wish to see me fail. I’m saying that I would rather have faced 10 KKK members and a pit bull than face my father if I flunked out of school. And I’m saying that as a black student in this system I never experienced racism powerful enough to break my stride.

Sure, I encountered racial issues, but I’m not sure they wouldn’t exist in a black-focused school.

How do you stop light-skinned and dark-skinned kids from feuding? How do you construct a curriculum and a faculty that accurately represents Jamaicans, Barbadians, Somalis and every other ethnic group huddled under the “black” umbrella? Wouldn’t you still have minority groups?

Of course.

Would that condemn Ethiopian students to failure in a black-focused school, where most kids are of Caribbean descent?

No.

Even in a black-focused school, ethnic minorities would need to find a way to make that system work for them.

It bothered me that we only read white authors in English class, but it never dulled my love for reading. My personal book list included African-American authors like James Baldwin, Gloria Naylor and Claude Brown, and I made sure I chose them for my independent study units. So even if the assigned reading was all white, I would make sure my class heard a strong black voice.

And it disturbed me that I only had one black teacher in 13 years, but I never lacked role models. When I looked past skin colour and gender, I noticed that I wasn’t too different from the teachers I liked the most. They were bright people who wrote well and told good stories, and so was I. I wanted to be like Dale Davis, Dave Ellis, Lori Morgan and Vicki Moore, and it had nothing to do with black and white.

It was all about grey matter.

Copyright ©2005 Toronto Star
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