By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
“In the decade leading up to 2015, nearly 70 per cent of Canada’s projected 1.7 million new jobs are expected to be in management positions or in occupations usually requiring post-secondary qualifications. Improving access to post-secondary is one way to increase the number of graduates able to respond to labour force demands in the face of anticipated skills shortages.”
Excerpt from an April 1, 2009 report by “Canadian Council on Learning” entitled “Post-secondary education in Canada: Who is missing out?”
The Board of Directors of the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL) met for the last time on April 11, 2012. The Paul Martin Liberal government created the Canada Council on Learning in 2004 to “report regularly on Canada’s progress in learning outcomes, and publish and disseminate key findings on what works”. In 2010 the Stephen Harper Conservative government informed the council it was cutting its funding. The final report of the CCL was presented in 2011.
I read the report “Post-secondary education in Canada: Who is missing out?” which was published in 2009 by the CCL as I was searching for answers to how the government plans to address racism/White supremacy in post-secondary education. Alas! I did not find any answers there. There was information about the “constellation of barriers confronting low-income, first-generation and Aboriginal students”. There was also recognition that addressing those barriers “requires a coordinated effort by governments, educators, parents, members of the community and students themselves.”
There is much in the report about financial barriers, academic barriers and the “unpreparedness” of racialized and first generation students who attend post-secondary institutions. However, nowhere in that report was there an acknowledgement of the White supremacist culture in post-secondary institutions that alienate racialized students which leads to overwhelming “missing out.” Of course the federal government that established the CCL is no longer in power and the present government seems to have no interest in the subject.
My quest began after a conversation with a group of students in their final year of a four year program at one of Toronto’s universities. These bright, articulate young women were somewhat distressed because of the White supremacist culture to which they have been subjected. They also spoke about the disrespect to which a racialized professor is subjected by White students. Their remarks reminded me of an incident where educators in training looked at a group of Africentric dolls and burst into laughter declaring that the dolls were “a bunch of voodoo dolls”. It is alarming to think that some of these young White people will be working in schools that African Canadian children attend and will be expected to educate our children when they have such contempt and disdain for African culture.
Meanwhile, many of our young people are not in post-secondary institutions; they are in other kinds of institutions where their presence provides jobs for many of those White youth who attended post-secondary institutions. This state of affairs is not accidental, it is all deliberately planned. Even the teaching in post-secondary institutions is deliberately set up to ensure that the position of power that White people hold is perpetuated. That is the reason why there is never a serious effort to address White skin privilege even when it is very evident in a class room setting at post-secondary institutions. Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci addressed the issue of education to maintain the status quo (cultural hegemony) from the point of view of a White male Marxist in a European country so there is no race analysis but it is pertinent in the case of African Canadians being educated to normalize White supremacy.
Cultural hegemony has been described as: “The domination of a culturally diverse society by the ruling class, who manipulate the culture of the society – the beliefs, explanations, perceptions, values and mores – so that their ruling-class Weltanschauung becomes the worldview that is imposed and accepted as the cultural norm; as the universally valid dominant ideology that justifies the social, political and economic status quo as natural and inevitable, perpetual and beneficial for everyone, rather than as artificial social constructs that benefit only the ruling class.”
Gramsci wrote: “The individual consciousness of the overwhelming majority of children reflects social and cultural relations which are different from and antagonistic to those which are represented in the school curricula.” In that case it was the ruling class in Italy educating the other classes of people living in Italy to accept the attitudes of the ruling class as normal and everything else as “other”. Similarly in Canada, the ruling class being White people are in control of the education system and for anyone who is not White to survive in a post-secondary institution they must imbibe the idea of White ruling class culture as normal. To resist is to be ostracised or worse; fail to obtain post-secondary credentials thus hampering the opportunity to get a well-paying job.
The experience of the young African Canadian women in Toronto post-secondary education is not unique; it is replicated on campuses across Canada. What these young women are experiencing can lead to what has been described by the experts as “Racial battle fatigue”. African American professor Dr. William A. Smith from the department of Education, Culture & Society and the Ethnic Studies Program at the University of Utah has done extensive work on the subject and is credited with coining the phrase “Racial battle fatigue”. In a presentation entitled “Understanding and Recognizing the Impact of Racial Micro-aggressions on Students of Color in Historically White Institutions”, he wrote: “According to most university brochures, college represents a time of unbridled optimism, exciting challenges and myriad opportunities. Few students would anticipate that their university experience might be marked by ongoing racialized incidents questioning their academic merit, cultural knowledge and physical presence.
“Many Students of Color constantly face charges of being unqualified and viewed as being ‘out of place’. Each of these experiences is racial micro-aggressions which compromises the campus climate, student satisfaction, personal health and success of the targeted student or group. Over time, the mundane but extreme stress caused by these assaults can lead to mental, emotional and physical strain which has come to be identified as Racial Battle Fatigue.”
In an interview in February 2008 Smith defined “Racial micro-aggressions” this way: “Racial micro-aggressions are latent or offensive remarks or actions that Whites rarely see as racist yet are experienced by people of color as assaults.”
Smith has also been quoted on the subject of how racism affects those who are victimized: “The ferociousness of racism should be viewed like a racial neurotoxin that can traumatize, hurt, enrage, confuse and, in the end, prevent optimal growth and functioning of individuals and communities of color.”
Although Smith is credited with coining the phrase “Racial Battle Fatigue”, he has expanded on the work of an earlier generation. African American Psychiatrist Chester Middlebrook Pierce, Emeritus Professor of Education and Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, identified “Racial micro-aggressions” in 1974 as: “These [racial] assaults to Black dignity and Black hope are incessant and cumulative. Any single one may be gross. In fact, the major vehicle for racism in this country is offenses done to Blacks by Whites in this sort of gratuitous never-ending way. These offenses are micro-aggressions. Almost all Black/White racial interactions are characterized by White put-downs, done in automatic, pre-conscious or unconscious fashion. These mini-disasters accumulate. It is the sum total of multiple micro-aggressions by Whites to Blacks that has pervasive effect to the stability and peace of this world.
In 2011 Smith wrote: “Pierce (1974) believes that racism is an infectious disease, a perceptual disease, as well as a lethal disease. Indeed, the consequence of a lifetime of racism coupled with mal-adaptive, exhausted or limited coping strategies results in a shortened lifespan or premature death for People of Color.”
Smith co-authored “Assume the Position You Fit the Description” Psychosocial Experiences and Racial Battle Fatigue Among African American Male College Students” the results of a study that examined the experiences of African American male students enrolled at Harvard University; Michigan State University; University of California, Berkeley; University of Illinois and the University of Michigan. The findings of the study were published in the December 2007 edition of American Behavioral Scientist magazine and found that: “Two themes emerged: (a) anti-Black male stereotyping and marginality (or Black misandry), which caused (b) extreme hyper surveillance and control. Respondents experienced racial micro-aggressions in three domains: (a) campus—academic, (b) campus—social, and (c) campus—public spaces.
Black males are stereotyped and placed under increased surveillance by community and local policing tactics on and off campus. Across these domains, Black males were defined as being “out of place” and “fitting the description” of illegitimate non-members of the campus community. Students reported psychological stress responses symptomatic of racial battle fatigue (e.g., frustration, shock, anger, disappointment, resentment, anxiety, helplessness, hopelessness and fear). There was unanimous agreement in the subjective reports that the college environment was more hostile toward African American males than other groups.”
I did not have this information when I spoke with the young women who were experiencing serious “racial micro-aggressions” in their classroom at one of Toronto’s prestigious universities. Maybe it has not reached that point for African Canadian women attending Canadian universities. After all we are constantly told that Canadian racism is different from the U.S. brand of racism or even that there is no racism here!