Well before the “bird and the bees” talk, Black children, like my sister and I, were sat down and taught about race. When you’re eight, nine, or ten years old, the concept of race feels well above your head. You don’t understand what racism is. You don’t understand what it means to be prejudiced. You don’t understand how being “Black” would mean you would be hurt or targeted. You don’t understand the centuries-long history behind the abuse and prejudice of your race. And it’s not like they taught much of that in school.
But the moment you experience your first encounter with racism is unlike any other. It feels a lot like you had a chair pulled out from under you. Just as you were feeling comfortable, secure in who you were and your place and worth within your community and society, that chair is pulled away without warning and you are left wide-eyed and confused about the sudden confrontation of a sad reality—the reality that you’re born tethered to the colour of your skin and the prejudice and history that comes attached to it. A reality you could no more change than you could the colour of your eyes or the texture of your hair.
From kindergarten to grade three, I attended a mostly white-Italian Catholic school in Toronto. In all of my classes, I was either the only or one of two Black students (I don’t think there was ever any more than that) in my class. Despite these numbers, I was never made to feel any different. I wasn’t treated any different by my peers or my teachers. In fact, it was the opposite. My sister and I always felt welcome, loved, and included. That being said, I don’t remember our school making any kind of push to acknowledge February as Black History Month. And I don‘t remember a time where we studied any kind of Black history or literature.
In 2003, we moved to Brampton. The younger me didn’t think or want to believe that things would be any different. Yes, we were in a different city, a different Catholic school, but why would things be different?
I was so wrong. Once again, we stood out. But we were treated differently, and we couldn’t understand why. Why did things have to change? What was the difference? I don’t think I ever found an answer to those questions. Things had changed for the worse, and we were never taught why.
When we were older, like many Black children, our mother sat us down and made us watch the television series Roots, and videos of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Finally, now as young pre-teens, we began to understand. And suddenly, in all the encounters with our peers and teachers, we were becoming aware of the prejudices we were previously naive to. For a while, as the realization was still fresh, it was difficult to unsee white people as the enemy, as people who were automatically going to see and treat you in a negative way. We were questioning everything. We were scared and confused, which was made all the more potent when the topic of slavery and segregation was ever talked about.
When we looked and studied history, as a Black student, it was rarely anything we could relate to. It almost felt like our history wasn’t important enough to be included in our history lessons. And if it was, it was included in a few pages or a short chapter.
Canada has become increasingly more diverse as the years pass, but it’s become increasingly obvious that our education system fails at the most fundamental level of telling the history of all the racial backgrounds of its children. Why did I know more about Christopher Columbus, World War One, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and Pearl Harbour than I did of the 400 plus years of slavery?
Why did it fall upon the shoulders of my mother and grandmother to make sure I understood where I came from; that I understood and knew of all the brave men and women who fought for the equal rights and opportunities we still struggle to maintain today?
How devastating and all too possible it would have been to lose that history. If it weren’t for my family’s determination to make sure I knew and understood the plight of my ancestors, how easy would it have been for it to fade into legend?