As I sit in the interview committee, I reflect on the fact that this is a duty that I have performed hundreds of times in the past. In this case, we’re selecting principals and I believe we have a cautious, thoughtful process. However, this time, something feels different. We have just finished a process of doing a deep dive on examining racial equity in our district. We interviewed close to 500 people across the district. In a fast growing, urban, multicultural centre, we asked the question about people’s lived experiences particularly for Indigenous, Black, and People of Colour. What we learned, was that systemic racism is alive and well in our city and in our school system. What we learned is the extent to which people experience discrimination in obvious and less than obvious ways. As I sit here, asking questions of all white candidates, I am asking myself how I have contributed to creating barriers that discriminate. I also ask myself how I can do better to recognize my own privilege and the privilege of structures we have.
How does one come to see what’s all around you but may be invisible to you? I certainly am on my own learning journey and believe the answer likely lies in a mindset of curiousity, education and a willingness to challenge your own perception of the world. The answer also comes in asking yourself some hard questions about how much you have been willing to pull back this curtain and look beyond. Looking beyond with a lens that recognizes that you are part of a system that discriminates. A system that discriminates – my system? Is that true? For myself, I decided to look at evidence, hard data and narratives that I know, to tell me if we did discriminate and, if so, where would it appear. Here are some things I found or have experienced to reflect upon:
- We have a structure in our district called Learning Centres. These are smaller, alternate settings for students who may struggle in our “regular” secondary schools. They are wonderfully supportive, caring places where we work to ensure every student reaches graduation. In our district, 5% of students are of Indigenous ancestry. In our Learning Centres, 30% of students are Indigenous.
- We live in a city where, in many areas of the city, English is not spoken readily at home. In several schools and areas in our district, a language other than English is the spoken language in well over 75% of homes. Despite this, we still send our parent newsletters home in English.
- Several times in our Racial Equity scan, students spoke to how their names continually are mispronounced by adults in the school to the point that they change their name or simply live with the incorrect pronunciation in the school setting.
- In the 2018/19 school year, we graduated 287 students of Indigenous ancestry. 52 of these students transitioned to post-secondary the next year. This rate is half of our district average. Are there barriers to post-secondary? Is post-secondary seen as the same gateway to potential success for all children? I don’t know, but in the stats, questions come to mind. We all know that post-secondary isn’t everything, but the contrast in evidence points to something worth exploring.
- As I walk down the hallway of any of our schools and I look at both the student classroom photos (or graduation photos) and the staff photos, I see a stark contrast in diversity.
These are but a few examples that come to mind. I am currently reading the book Blind Spot, The Hidden Biases of Good People. This book, among others like White Fragility and So You Want to Talk About Race, are building my own awareness of the world around me. Trying to pull back the curtain on my own perception of privilege.
Despite my deepening questions about my own role and perception I also believe there is great hope. I had the great fortune to listen to Kevin Chief from Manitoba. Kevin talked about how, if you want to see the future, look to what is happening now in our schools. This is a great quote but it also compels us to ensure that our schools are demonstrating the future we want, not perpetuating the past we’ve lived. How do you do that when some of the things that need to be challenged are not visible to you? For Surrey, we’re beginning to look at the Pratt Continuum as a way to examine commitment and to demonstrate results in moving to a system of racial equity.
Chief Justice Murray once said that systemic racism is when the “system itself …has put in place policies and practices that literally force even the non-racists to act in a racist way.” As we continue our own journey, both as a system, and for me personally, I think that one way this journey begins is with the mindset that starts to be curious about all the things that surround you every day, but to which you are blind.