“Nobody likes or enjoys oppression; nobody wants to be excluded; nobody wants to be marginalized,” said Dr. George Dei, a U of T scholar at the Department of Social Justice Education, who has been recognized for his pioneering research in anti-racism education and inclusive schooling.

“So when that happens to you, you must know how you feel because everyone knows that. Everybody wants to be acknowledged, validated, legitimized. But also, people want to do that on their own terms — they don’t want somebody else to do it,” he told The Varsity.

Why is it so difficult to have a conversation about race and education? The short answer Dei would tell you is that talking about race inevitably brings up uncomfortable conversations about current and historical oppression and racism.

What is going on in our schools?

2017 report from York University compared the high school and postsecondary statistics for Black students in the GTA with their other racialized and white peers. From 2006–2011, the Toronto District School Board documented that 69 per cent of Black students graduated and 20 per cent of Black students dropped out. In comparison, 84 per cent of white students graduated and 87 per cent of other racialized students graduated.

As for dropout rates, only 11 per cent of white students and nine per cent of racialized students dropped out of high schools. From that same cohort, only 25 per cent of Black students were confirmed in Ontario universities compared to 60 per cent for other racialized students and 47 per cent for white students. Additionally, 43 per cent of Black students did not even apply for postsecondary education — this percentage is almost equal to the number of confirmed Black students for Ontario universities and colleges combined.

Systemic issues at play

Dei argues that the problem here extends much further than what statistical analysis can offer, and requires critical analysis not only of the low postsecondary enrollment numbers, but of the experiences in school. From the Eurocentric texts that we study in schools, which focus on North American or European culture and largely exclude others, to the lack of proportional racial representation in faculty and student bodies, getting into university is only part of the problem — getting through university is a different challenge altogether.

Toronto is home to the only Africentric school in Canada. Named the Africentric Alternative School, this is an elementary school that opened in 2009 that aims to provide Black students with better educational support through customized curricula, representation, and community building efforts. Dei considers the most important takeaway from the Africentric school to be the need to “centre peoples’ culture and history in their learning,” because history doesn’t just happen. People actively make history by taking action, and it took decades of activism and change to get society to where it is today.

What are the consequences?

By overlooking cultural differences, we create an educational environment that inhibits students’ abilities to not only have a voice, but also to make their voice heard. Nobody wants to enter a hostile space that does not value their contributions. Representation matters because students need to know that the people they identify with are part of the educational and decision-making processes. Representation matters because students need to know they belong.

Progress is not made by individuals alone: progress is made by communities. While the importance of recognizing the different struggles that different groups face cannot be stressed enough, you can’t “expect the racialized body to teach you about race,” noted Dei.

As students, our individual successes are bound to the relationships that we have with our peers. Just like how our peers contribute to our success, we help promote theirs as well.

Of course, a person’s education is impacted by many factors, including their support networks, their home situations, their financial limits, and their mental health. Dei noted this by saying that “we are in a better place than we used to be.”

Regardless of the efforts that have been made, we cannot risk complacency. The reality is that there is still much more that must be done to create a welcoming environment for many of our peers. Access remains inequitable. Education is one of the basic pillars of society and no one should be pushed out because of their identity.

How do we move forward? 

Issues surrounding race and education, such as the high dropout rate of Black students in Toronto, are easy to brush under the rug of a ‘colourblind’ system or get shrugged off in everyday conversation because, “well, it’s not my area of expertise,” said Dei.

These excuses are problematic not only because they ignore the inequities that these students face, but also because those that use them negate their responsibility to educate themselves on racial issues. By opting out of these conversations, we become complicit in covering up the racial injustices that dominate our education systems.

The terms we use to discuss race and education also play an integral role in the division of responsibility, when we do engage in these conversations. Terms such as ‘drop out’ frame the issue so that Black students themselves are blamed for their poor educational experiences. Dei prefers using language such as ‘student disengagement’ and ‘push out’ for a more holistic understanding of the problem. Individual students will have different circumstances, but ultimately, there are systemic inequities that cannot be ignored.

The importance of this conversation cannot be reduced to one month out of the year. While there are many academics like Dei researching the issue, it is not enough to rely on these efforts alone to push the movement forward.

When Black History Month ends, it is our duty to ensure that this conversation does not get tucked away until next February. Our education system is both oppressive and exclusive, but we shouldn’t have to wait for someone else to tell us that. As students, we have the opportunity to support our peers and build up the kind of community that is necessary to advocate for progress. Whether it’s through supporting more Africentric schools or educating ourselves, we should all make noise to disrupt the status quo that perpetuates marginalization.

Beverly Teng is a third-year Environmental Science and Philosophy student at University College.