365 Days of Black Education

Canada is one of the most diverse countries in the world, and Ontario perhaps its most diverse province. As of 2011, Canada had the world’s second largest foreign-born population and 19 percent of Canadians identified themselves as members of visible minority groups on the National Household Survey. In Ontario, 26 percent of the population identified as a member of a visible minority group; 16 percent of those individuals identified as Black.

And yet, racial inequities remain deeply entrenched in our education systems. Students of colour consistently lag behind their caucasian counterparts in their academic achievements in our public schools. Dropout rates of Black students have remained around 40 percent since the 1990s. In the post-secondary sector, students continue to feel alienated and isolated because of the colour of their skin and the impacts this has on their lived and cultural experiences. Canadian universities operate as predominantly white and male spaces where systemic racism is firmly rooted in Canadian (read colonial European) ways of knowing and acting.

Today is the last day of Black History Month--technically the first official Black History Month in Ontario--and marks a time when we should turn our attention to Black futures. As students, advocates, and policymakers we would like to offer our own insights and recommendations for increasing educational inclusion and empowering Black students until Black History Month 2017.

The most immediate actions we can take relate to improving Black students’ broader learning environments. Universities should support transitions into university, between years, and out of university by enriching the broader learning environment in co-operation with student associations.

When we say broader learning environment (or BLE), we are referring to university elements or activities that take place outside the classroom, lab, or lecture hall. The BLE ranges from the services students rely on, to the spaces they occupy, to the clubs and societies they join and plays as strong a role in determining overall student success.

Success is a complicated subject on its own. Broadly speaking, student success can be defined as persistence to graduation, high academic achievement, post-graduation employment, satisfaction and fulfillment with the university experience, or any combination thereof. For Black students who are marginalized in their broader learning environments, attaining each of these aspects of success becomes difficult.

The term ‘minority stress’ refers to personal stress resulting from the experience and internalization of discrimination that can negatively impact students’ well-being. This stress discolours students’ satisfaction with their campus and the BLE; they may opt-out of certain activities or opportunities or worse, become completely indifferent. In the most serious of cases students may actually feel unsafe attending classes or being on university property, as was the case late last year when fake White Student Unions (some with suspected ties to white supremacist groups) advertised meetings on Ontario university campuses and social media.

In the best of cases, students care enough to stand-up and speak-out about the discrimination they experience. Black students should be given the space to freely discuss their experiences in a way that empowers and validates them, while also enabling the university community to learn from them.

Are they asking for more space? Are they asking to see themselves in their instructors, curriculum, or health care providers? Let’s give them these things rather than argue that they are inappropriate or not inclusive enough (consider backlash against Ryerson’s Racialised Students’ Collective last spring when they would not allow non-racialized, non-marginalized journalists to document their meeting).

When students speak their truth, their testimonials should not be challenged, but rather incorporated in the cultural fabric of their campuses. However, while we want universities to give more serious consideration to the diversity of their BLEs, the provision of demographic-specific support services should not be used as a metric of differentiation as the province moves forward with strategically restructuring post-secondary education.

Instructors play a vital role in bridging the divide between students’ success in the BLE and inside of the classroom. Instructors should be receiving training that gives them a broader understanding of student success and includes some aspects of anti-oppression training. These training sessions present an opportunity to increase feelings of inclusion and openness among faculty members and students, which would hopefully encourage them to bring openness and a more nuanced presentation of Black perspectives into their classrooms.

We have discussed diversity in curricula in the past and positioned Black students’ inability to see themselves in their school work as a barrier to their postsecondary school access and persistance. As we move forward this year, it would be great to see initiatives that showcase and celebrate Black voices in academia. The University of British Columbia’s Race Literacies -- A Black Canadian Scholars’ Series is a great example; this series provides space for high profile African Canadian speakers to share their research and exchange curricula ideas with the UBC community throughout the year.

After #blackhistorymonth, #365black, and #unapologeticallyblack, tomorrow we risk returning to the status quo and eleven long months of #alllivesmatter debates. This year, let’s put in the effort to be more mindful of the barriers students of colour face in post-secondary and give them the space to tell us how to dismantle these barriers.

Danielle Pierre
OUSA Research Analyst