Posted on December 8, 2017

N-Word Debacle at U of T Shows Need for Fourth R of Education: ‘Racial Literacy’

Shree Paradkar, Toronto Star, December 8, 2017

It’s been about 180 years since slavery officially ended in Canada, 40 years since the Canadian Human Rights Act outlawed identity-based discrimination.

Yet, in a remarkable show of racial illiteracy, non-Black Canadians are still flinging the N-word around, oblivious or indifferent to the anti-Blackness and violence at its root that makes it a racial slur.

If Canadians want children who will grow out of their neighbourhood bubbles to navigate the racially and ethnically diverse world they step into as adults, it’s time for the grown-ups around them to do the job of self-reflection and communication.

Parents need to learn to have the “race talk” with kids. In schools, it’s time to add “Racial Literacy” as the fourth R to the basics of education.

The Peel school board is organizing anti-Black discrimination training for staff, as well as setting up consultations and advisory councils with parents and Black students. A draft report out of the Equity Task Force by the Toronto school board recommends anti-racism training for staff, as well as more diverse hiring.

Meanwhile, education systems rely on the varying levels of empathy and knowledge of individual teachers, where on the one hand some teachers are learning not to hold whiteness or white experiences as the norm, and on the other, a school board trustee uses the N-word while referring to a parent.

While teachers and parents remain inadequate to the task, the burden of that education falls on the people most affected by slurs.

The same tired points are likely to crop up: “Rappers say it all the time, why can’t I?” “I don’t mean offence.” “Why do Black people say it?” “I have a friend who let me say it.”

But Lunianga is also hoping to tackle the complexities around the N-word. He has invited mixed-race people to speak about their more intricate experience around the word and the fact that they can use it depending on whether or not they identify as Black, and address questions such as, “What does it mean for you to be part white and be able to say the word?”

Racial literacy could have been imparted much earlier in these students’ lives.

Unfortunately, the idea of talking about racism to children can elicit the same squeamishness those opposed to sex education have.

“Children are innocent,” a white developmental psychologist once told me. “There’s no need to talk racism with them and put these ideas in their heads.”

As if children are just empty vessels who don’t absorb the racial attitudes of the adults around them.

“Children, particularly white children between the 5 and 7, can express quite a bit of racism that can shock parents who feel as though they made a real effort to ensure that they are not racist,” said Jennifer Steele, an associate professor in the department of psychology at York University.

“But it’s developmentally appropriate because kids of that age will frequently think positively of themselves and other people who look like them.”

Steele is the senior author of a study exploring racial biases in children led by Amanda Williams from the University of Bristol, U.K. The study was published last month in the journal Child Development.

Their study involved 359 white Canadian children mostly from the GTA, ages 5 to 12, on whom they conducted two sets of tests to measure their automatic attitudes to white people versus Black people.

They found kids held implicit racial biases from the age of 5. This finding echoes past research, the researchers say.

What was new was that while the children showed an automatic positivity to white people, there was no evidence of negativity toward Black people.

The implication of this finding, Steele says, is that, “interventions that try to address negative attitudes might not be the best for kids. It might be better promoting positivity towards … (people of) racially diverse backgrounds.”

Late childhood, ages 8 to 12, might be an optimal period for intervention, she says.

“Fairness is really important to children at that age. They can understand racism isn’t fair.”

Highlighting role models from different racial groups can help them expand who they identify as belonging to that “in-group” towards which they feel a sense of positivity.

Last week, my 9-year-old son wanted to know what “an N-word” meant. He had heard about it at hockey as something “very bad.”

Was it the F-word but with an “n,” he asked.

This is the condensed version of what I told him (with the stumbling parts cut out): the two words had similarities but also crucial differences.

Just like the F-word, the N-word was allowed in some music, TV shows and movies. And just as adults can use the F-words in some situations (but kids can’t), Black people can choose to use the N-word, but nobody else can.

While the F-word is essentially meaningless, the N-word is loaded with meaning, is cruel and extremely hurtful. Using it would signal to others that he was OK with racism against Black people. Then, keeping in mind what Steele said, I added, “And racism isn’t fair.”

He got it, I think. Fingers crossed.