By PAT WATSON
The poem delivered by 17-year-old Filmon Bereket at the recent African Heritage Educators’ Network (AHEN) awards ceremony for high achieving students spoke volumes about the particular nature of peer pressure among Black students. Those pressures are in addition to the challenges of getting enough out of their elementary and secondary education years to prepare them for post-secondary studies and a productive future.
Pervasive prejudice results in a high dropout rate among Black students. Disengaged, they drop out. Even if they complete Grade 12, too many leave high school without meeting the qualifications to attend post-secondary institutions, or have literacy levels so low that their choices for further education or skills training become quite narrow.
The result is yet another generation who will occupy the lowest level on the social and economic scale.
Bereket’s poem, My Young Black Child, is also making a point about how, in rejecting the content and format of the education being provided, there is pressure from peers to not engage in that education. This is concerning.
Students feel the content of the education they are receiving bears little relevance for them, yet what are their alternatives? The Toronto District School Board had to be pressured for decades before the decision finally came to open just one alternative elementary school that responds by providing the kind of curriculum that resonates with Black cultural heritage.
Commencement of a complementary high school curriculum is also now underway. These are two small but significant steps in the right direction, and it will hopefully resonate with the students who most need it.
The TDSB also has underway a number of other initiatives to respond to the education needs of Black students, including an upcoming Africentric pre-kindergarten program to be provided in four target schools this July.
These small measures do not absolve those who stand in front of the classroom and those who design curricula from their responsibility to maintain high expectations for all their students and take a more universal view of the knowledge base from which they draw when setting out curricula.
The fact is there are still too many of our students being given differential treatment. School responses to infractions are far more punitive for Black students, for example. Black students are also well aware that many teachers hold lower expectations for them.
The good news is that Black students who are forging ahead academically refuse to become victims of those aspects of neglect and low expectations that persist in our education culture. However, it is when peers talk to each other about changing the expectations they have for themselves that we will see a different outcome.
The other matter that Bereket’s poem points to is the problem of lateral displacement, social behaviour seen among oppressed people who attack the effort of those who strive to break the cycle of disadvantage and to get ahead. More colloquially, it is the crabs in the barrel syndrome.
How do we get the message out that one student’s success is not a reflection of another student’s failure? That a successful student can become a mentor or an inspiration to another student who will need that positive support to make the most of his own education experience and his own potential?
This lateral displacement, peers insisting on a code of behaviour that reflects a troubling stereotype, while also rejecting the education they are participating in, however reluctantly, is but a symptom of the deeper issue of transgeneration trauma. Unless we take the longer historical view of our current situation, it will be easy to blame the kids. But their response to low expectations, their low expectations of one another is an unhappy legacy. We must all make it a priority to break this cycle.
A note on housing as a right…
If it takes fighting in court to get all levels of government to commit to making affordable housing a priority, then so be it. A coalition of groups went before the Ontario Court of Appeal to make the case that lax policy on housing by the federal and provincial governments are in violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It’s hard to accept that the government would send lawyers in to fight against this, especially since the Ontario Human Rights Commission declares housing a human right.
Pat Watson is the author of the e-book, In Through A Coloured Lens. Twitter@patprose