Reflecting on Racism in Education: Dr. Joseph Smith

This year, people have been having a number of very frank discussions related to racism. Over the course of the summer I also noticed dialogue surrounding education and its intersection with race. Articles such as this one left me applauding the students, parents and educators who have taken a stand.

Today, I’m honoured to share a discussion I had earlier this summer with scholar and educator, Dr. Joseph Smith.

Specializing in history and the social sciences, Dr. Smith first joined the Toronto District School board as a teacher in 2014. In the fall of 2018, he obtained his first contract, and is currently a permanent teacher on recall status. As a Black educator, he possesses great insight regarding some of the issues which are faced by both Black educational professionals and students. Here are some of the highlights of our conversation.

What inspired you to pursue a career in education?

When I was in Grade 5 they asked us, for our yearbook images, “What’s the quote that you want to go underneath?” and they said “We want you to tell us your favourite memory from elementary school, and also what you want to do in the future.” And all the other boys around my age — they would say “Oh I want to play in the NBA,” “I want to play soccer…” You know, they wanted to do something athletic.

My favourite memory was going to the chocolate factory, and then, I said I want to be a teacher like my mom.

My mom is my inspiration for being an educator, and she was an educator in Jamaica for 11 years prior to her coming to Canada. And when she came to Canada in the late 80s-early 90s, she was unable to obtain gainful employment with the TDSB — and that’s because they didn’t trust her credentials. So they demanded that she go back to school for a four-year degree at the time. And so, she went back to school, and she was also a single mom, while we were living at Jane and Finch.

So she would work at the Tim Hortons at York University, go to school in the day and night, and leave me with a babysitter. She did that for four years, and then when I had to go to kindergarten, she started to volunteer at my elementary school, and she still couldn’t get a job for 2 years after that.

She eventually became a supply teacher with the TDSB, and wasn’t able to get a contract gig. This was while she was raising me.

Now, let’s say I’m 8 or 9 years old. She said “You know what? I can’t get this job; I’m going to start my own school.” So she started her own Christian Academy which had about 80 to 100 students, and she ran that for about 4 years. And now we’re in the two thousands, and the school goes under because some of the employees she had stole from the treasury. But the year that they stole from the treasury and the school went under is the same year she got her first contract gig with the TDSB.

Her narrative in general was so compelling to me, and her resilience and her wherewithal — she was one of the few deeply educated adults in my environment at the time. A lot of the community and neighbourhood friends that I had would always come over to our house and she was like this vat of wisdom — the reservoir of all things good and all things knowledgeable, and I just admired her for that. And I wanted to then do the same thing I saw her do in my life, for me, and other kids around us.

In terms of demographics, what is the teaching population like, comparing today with when you were first in the education system?

From me being a student in the TDSB, in one of the most underserved communities in Canada — Jane and Finch — to now being an educator, 31 years old within the school board — the staffing situation has not changed. I am always typically the only black male or only black person at a particular school — even at the schools that are right in the heart of very multicultural and multiracial and ethnic communities. And if I’m not the only back male, I’m one of three or four black individuals right with one other male and maybe two other females. It hasn’t changed much. It’s still a white staffing model that’s educating multi-ethnic and multiracial racial students.

I’ve been thinking about how certain school boards have advertised in the past for staff on their website. I remember them one board in particular saying something about wanting to recruit diverse teachers. These announcements where they encourage people of colour to apply make it easy to get hopeful…

It’s frustrating. It is very frustrating. It’s hard to describe and I wouldn’t say that there’s something sinister and insidious going on. I don’t even know if I would just chalk it up to unconscious bias in the hiring practice. It’s a structural thing. There are Black and Indigenous teachers out there — Asian, Southeast Asian teachers that are trying to get in. And it would seem as if there’s more opportunities to get in because we want to diversify our teaching population.

But on the ground level the evidence doesn’t speak to that. I don’t know how else to say it, and it’s not because people are not applying. There are so many people applying trying to get a permanent contract. And I can’t even chalk it up to the economics of it all — like perhaps the Ontario government doesn’t feel like it can spend this much on education, so we can cut back. It still should mean that a percentage — a meaningful percentage — of the population represented in school stats should be evident. I shouldn’t be the only black person on staff. There should be a lot more of us on staff at every single school. It’s honestly sad.

Regarding the impact that a lack of representation can have on a student population: Could you please comment on how seeing a Black person in front of their class impacts students’ lives?

The lack of seeing a person that looks like you educating you contributes to impostor syndrome. It contributes to someone feeling like they’re a fraud as they age out of the system and have to operate in the adult world of getting a job or internship. If you don’t see a professional from kindergarten to grade 12 that looks like you, that is able to impact you and impart wisdom on you, you’re going to end up feeling like an imposter. When it comes time for you to speak, and to educate, and to deliver, and to facilitate and engage with people who are diverse, you’re going to feel like this is not my place. It’s a place of someone else — probably a white person because they do it best. Those are the notions you’re going to hold onto.

I’ve seen my presence in a school dramatically change the Black student body and population that’s in that school. What I mean by that is I’m the only Black male, and at lunch time all the Black kids are in my class, because they want to talk. So you’re working all around-the-clock because they need your relationship. They need you to engage with them. and when you do, they feel so empowered and enlivened and enthralled, like, “Oh my God like who are you, what do you do, where did you come from, how’d you do it?!” They’re asking all these questions as if you can respond in seconds but you can’t. They want so much information from you, and there’s a real need.

Have you ever heard a student comment openly on representation, or the lack thereof, among their teachers?

I have not explicitly heard a student say “What the heck is going on why does no teacher look like me?” But what I have heard them say to me is things like, “You know you’re my first black teacher and, like, it’s amazing”. I guess hidden beneath that statement is either, “I didn’t know it was going to be so good” or “I didn’t know I needed this so much”. And I hear this from white students, Asian students, South Asian students — all students have said something like that to me before like, “I’ve never had a black teacher before — you’re my first, and it’s amazing”.

And it’s because of a lack of having that, or seeing that type of diversity — they just never knew it was possible, and they also never knew that they needed to have that kind of diversity in terms of delivery of content. Because, for a variety of other cultural reasons, and my own personal background, I deliver content differently than others. Not better or worse — just differently, and that diversity is very important for them to see represented.

Over the years, occasionally I’ve seen school boards suggest that they’re interested in recruiting diverse candidates, via their websites. Yet I’ve remained skeptical about these hiring initiatives. Do you have any concerns about the authenticity of these requests?

It rarely sounds authentic, I don’t know how else to say it. It moreso seems like because now there’s only political will on account of media pressure — people are posturing and reacting, as opposed to having some deep-seated understanding of why it’s important to have a variety of people at the table. Meanwhile, I’ve grown up knowing how valuable diversity is.

And I mean not just me being included in spaces, but having white people in spaces that are predominantly Black. Just having diverse spaces can contribute to diverse opportunities for people who are engaging in those spaces. And I care about that and I like it. But in terms of those who make certain decisions, and stakeholders at the top, it’s hard to see sometimes the authenticity behind the claims of “We’ve gotta increase the number of people of colour in our hiring and in the space where we work”.

And as for the ones that do put some kind of passion behind that statement, it’s typically because they had one or two experiences in their school, where something went awry because they weren’t a person of colour. And so it’s good that they’ve had that experience, but it’s sad that it took that experience for them to recognize or anticipate that there are implications to a lack of representation.

In the midst of our conversation, I couldn’t help but share an observation…

In the Canadian students’ experience, when it comes to what they’re taught, there’s often an othering of Black History. For example, the idea of slavery happening solely in the United States, as opposed to here. Black people’s origins in Canada usually aren’t mentioned other than the story of the Underground Railroad. Therefore, Canada gets set up as a place of refuge, and that’s typically about the size of it.

What you share dictates how students perceive Black people both in their present and in their future as adults.

My concern is that white and non-black people may come to believe that we are easy to disregard, ungrateful for this safe-haven of a country, But this resentment that they have towards Black people is based on a lie.

Concerning educational content and internalized messages, what happens to Black students when they don’t see information on their contributions or experiences in Canadian history?

There’s a lack of representation across all subject areas as it pertains to diverse people. In economics class, no one’s talking about Mansa Musa. In math class no one’s talking about the great mathematicians all over the African continent. In philosophy class no one’s talking about Muslim philosophers from Africa, who have contributed so much to illuminating the darkness that Europe was in during the Middle Ages.

I think what happens internally, from a psychological standpoint for a young person, is that they grow up without a strong narrative of self. And that strong narrative of self, hopefully, if they had it, would have comprised a sense of their inalienable rights, value, and dignity.

At present, because they’re not exposed to those narratives of other great individuals that looked and spoke like they do, they don’t have that emboldened sense of self that they need in order to go out into the world and make change. And they have to recover some of the trauma done to them by their educational experiences. If they’re successful, they recover themselves later on — maybe years after they finish their undergraduate studies.

And so, that recovery process for a young black person — particularly someone who has lacked receiving a narrative of strength or empowerment — they have to recover from that while working and paying off their debt for school and engaging in meaningful relationships, etc. Whereas, their white counterparts and their non-Black counterparts are going to have a head start because for some reason they’re able to engage in the cultural nuances of their own identity and not have to mitigate those issues later on. So it affects a person’s self-worth.

Earlier this year the Ontario College of Teachers announced that Karen Murray, a Black educator, would be responsible for creating an AQ course focused on anti-Black Racism. (For those who aren’t familiar with the term, the University of Windsor’s website offers an excellent definition of an AQ course.)

Looking ahead at education in Ontario, as you consider the times that we live in, and the possibilities that are out there, how do you feel about the future of anti-racist education?

For teaching adults, I think the future is going to have to include an exit AQ after you finish teachers’ college, which includes Anti-Racism. I think it’s going to have to be mandatory — you finished teacher’s college, now you’re going to have to take this course just before you can apply for classes and schools, etc. I don’t think it should be optional.

In terms of Anti Racist Education for adolescents, and children — nothing right now has been earmarked to come through the board’s recommendations for curricular changes that would speak to us taking a more passionate and concerted effort to ensure that we are training our children to be less racist. So, I’m hoping that between 2021–2023 we see some provocative and meaningful offerings put on the table related to how to revamp our curriculum, and how to ensure that information pertaining to diversity and inclusion is suffused throughout every curriculum document.

Not just with a writer’s statement or a little suggestion, like, “Please include this person when you talk about math”. No — you must learn about this individual and this concept as it pertains to that individual in every different course.

But again, the burden is going to be on the people in the Black community to push against the system, and advocate for inclusion. Unless someone at the board-level or at the ministry level is already thinking about this, it sounds like it’s going to have to come from the community. Which is frustrating because we’re already quite taxed and burdened as is.

When I was in the system there was a great deal of nepotism. I’ve seen it discussed via social media, outside of the field of education — the idea of white people hiring other white people and it doesn’t occur to them to hire outside of their peer groups, and it doesn’t occur to them to hire people from another race…

It’s about preference. All of us grow up in different households with different preferences for different types of people and different types of faces. And a lot of white people don’t engage with Black people ’til their adult years because they live in such rural or marginal — in terms of suburban — areas that are separate from main cityscapes.

And so, who are you going to choose? You’re going to choose someone that you have a natural inclination for, because you’ve been conditioned to have that inclination. But if you’re not going to critique that inclination we’re not going to move forward. And we need those individuals in the majority with power to critique that inclination.

Over the summer, two Black women began leadership positions in Ontario School Boards. (Until recently, Carlene Jackson was the Interim Director of Education for the TDSB, while as of my writing this, Colleen Russell-Rawlins remains the Interim Director of Education at the Peel District School Board.)

What are your thoughts on the future of these boards, and what, if any hopes do you have?

I honestly think changing a whole board from bottom to top is a 10-year project. Because you’re dealing with bureaucracy and a lot of entrenched habits and attitudes. It’s going to take 5 years to at least attempt to unravel those things, and then another 5 years to institute the changes.

And because it is very hard to unravel those traditions, biases, and conventions, you’re not going to get through them all in five years, and you’re going to have to then simultaneously do the unraveling while you’re doing the instituting. And that’s a lot of work. And so you’re going to need strong leadership at the helm of all of these boards — and that strong leadership’s going to have to be in instituted for multiple decades.

It can’t just be one 10-year stint. It’s going to have to be 20 years to 30 years where the same leadership and the same presence is there so we can create a new normal and a new method.

In regards to boards, there’s a lot of young people I mentor who want to become teachers, and they’re people of colour. I encourage them to get involved in the education system because the more people that are attempting to get involved, the more it shows the board that they have to adjust to accommodate these people. But if we give up, then the board will say let’s continue with business as usual. So I encourage them to keep pushing, no matter how long or how hard it is.

But I know at a certain point there’s a breaking point and you need to get paid, you need to earn, you need to live, and to enjoy life. You can’t just be a social justice warrior forever with regards to education.

However, the whole makeup of our society emanates from how well or how bad we did in education. Every institution is run by people who made their way through the conduit of education. If the quality or depth of your education is not good, your adult life is probably not going to be the best, because you’re probably around other adults who are poorly educated.

And that speaks to the idea of what they’re taught about Black people and what they are not taught about Black people. That in turn informs the way we are treated by people who are Black and people who are not Black — and how we are perceived.

As for what we’re talking about, I remember looking at a Twitter thread where someone was disputing [the issue of slavery in Canada], saying, “Oh, THAT didn’t happen…” I was shocked, like “You think because you weren’t taught something in school, that’s not true?”

That’s what people think “Because I didn’t see it, it didn’t happen…” But that’s people’s hubris, right? They think of themselves as greater than they actually are, most of the time.

Regarding what you said, our institutions are informed by adults who have gone through the education system, and it’s going to be equally tough for a Black person to inform other Black people if there was a lack of representation in the education system.

Individuals are able to be autodidactic and learn on their own, but not everybody chooses to do so. So for even the Black people going through the education system, if they’re not seeing representation in the curriculum and the people who are leading them, they might end up growing up and loathing Black people, and not having a meaningful relationship to their own culture and their sense of self, which only perpetuates the same anti-Black systemic issues that we’re currently having. That’s why representation leads to all the other issues and ills in many respects.

In addition to his website, Dr. Smith can be found on Instagram and Twitter.

Word wrangler from the wonderfully wild North.

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