How to be an Anti-Racist Language and Literature Teacher

“2009 Student Research Fellows” by NWABR is licensed under CC BY 2.0

By Estelle Baroung Hughes

Teaching texts from culturally diverse backgrounds is the very first step for an anti-racist Language and Literature syllabus. Without cultural, ethnic and racial representation there is no antiracism. However, when studying books that represent cultures, people and traditions from all over the world, educators can still either open minds or tightly close them. The apparent diversity of a book list can hide the fact that fundamental racist biases are not addressed. Three key questions Language and Literature teachers can ask themselves are the following: Who is discussed (and who isn’t) in our syllabus? Whose voice is heard? What is the impact of these voices on students? This is how to make Language and Literature courses more inclusive and intellectually stimulating for all students.

Who is discussed?

Teachers of Language and Literature should take it as a personal challenge to discuss texts from all the cultures or countries of origin of all the students in their classrooms. That seems particularly daunting in the context of international education where often, children have multiple nationalities and come from all over the globe. No effort, however, is more important than the one to connect with our students, understand who they are, where they come from, what their cultural identity looks like. Be it through the study of a song, a poem, a short-story, an extract from a novel or an essay, the attention you dedicate to inclusion sends a strong message on who matters: the student. Of course we keep Shakespeare and Salinger but we also widen the entrance for Adichie, Kadaré, Yoshimoto, Kavafi, Allende…This is the magic of world literature and a key principle of international education: an expression of the duty we have as teachers to personalise education while making it as diverse as possible. This way, every student is allowed, in one way or the other, to feature in the Language and Literature syllabus at least once.

Who is talking?

Perspective is the second key element for an antiracist Language and Literature course. If the visibility offered to the students’ cultures happens through a faulty lens, it does more harm than good. For example, there is a real danger of hegemony and alienation when we prefer books where white voices mediate the experiences of people of colour. Language and Literature teachers should choose to teach as many authentic texts as possible, where the writing, the characters and the messages emerge from the lives, creativity and spirit of members of the communities depicted. This does not mean we should disqualify authors who choose to write about cultures that are not theirs. The polyphonic approach is recommended for global issues like oppression, peace and conflict and the environment. The way to avoid a hegemonic syllabus is through multiplying perspectives. For example the apartheid era could be studied through extracts from A Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela,   July’s People by Nadime Gordimer, a female & white anti-apartheid Nobel Prize winner from South africa or The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay, an Australian novelist. All of these books have literary merit so why not read extracts from all of them, to compare and contrast perspectives?

To propose another comparison, the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee describes the oppression of black Americans from the perspective of a well-meaning white person whereas The Bluest Eyes by Toni Morrison depicts the same racial dynamics but with a black voice. The second undoubtedly allows you to touch on black excellence through the analysis of Morrison’s style. The characterisation of Pecola, her mother and her husband is fashioned intrinsically, with the cultural insights of the black American family unit that reveals the beauty as well as the pain brought by hardship. It seems difficult to imagine how an outsider to black American culture would communicate this. On the contrary, an outsider might all too easily fall into clichés of pity, martyrdom and oversimplified victimisation. Teaching black culture through an author belonging to that group can help a teacher highlight the power of resilience and counter the essentialization of black characters as sheer helpless victims.

The question ‘who is talking’ also applies to the teacher. A diverse teaching staff is important to present students with as many cultural perspectives as possible on the studied  texts. It is a beautiful thing when teachers from the communities depicted in the studied texts can be present to help unpack the words. For there are hidden cultural gems that only trained eyes can spot. That is why it is also fruitful to invite parents and guest speakers in whenever relevant to enrich our classes’ understanding of texts. For, it takes a village to raise a child.

How does this impact students?

An anti-racist Language and Literature syllabus actively deconstructs stereotypes. Sometimes it becomes a complex task when there is an intention to raise awareness about some crucial world issue but the unit winds up alienating some of the students in the classroom. Afropessismism is one example. This posture often stems from compassion, a desire to help Africans, but it is damaging to African students and skews the worldview of all the others. Teachers should therefore explore how to approach hard realities like slavery, segregation, colonisation, war, genocide, without it resulting in a feeling of shame in the students’ whose part of the world is being discussed. As a matter of fact, diversity does not automatically produce tolerance, international mindedness and all the benefits we associate with continued exposure to different ways of life, appearances and beliefs. On the contrary, without appropriate mediation and if dominant narratives are left unchecked, we may be unknowingly educating racists and cynics. Let’s make sure this does not happen!

Beyond the literacy, the cultural enrichment and the nurturing of lifelong learning, there is something ancient about reading together. Language and Literature should be a quest for passion and beauty, a journey where we salute the powerful expressions of the Human Soul, regardless of the language, culture, accent or times the author expresses him/her/them/self/selves in. Antiracism does not disrupt that journey. On the contrary, it binds us closer together as we tread more carefully, yes, but also more respectfully and more lovingly on a path to personal and community growth. 

I Have a Colour!

By E. Guimbang

"File:Thinking African Woman.jpg" by Joseph Tawanda Mutsena is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
“File:Thinking African Woman.jpg” by Joseph Tawanda Mutsena is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

I have a Colour! I am speaking this like Martin Luther King spoke of his Dream. Why? Because recently, some of my white friends have taken to expressing their affection for me by telling me that they do not see, mind or care about my colour. In the light of the Black Lives Matter movements, some of you have checked on me, listened to my struggles and concluded:  “I am so sad this happened to you, a wonderful human being who ‘transcends’ colour”. 

Friends, yes, I love your intention but no, I will not let my blackness be snatched away from me just like that. Being black makes me proud, it makes me happy, it makes me ME! If you think I am better off as far away from ‘blackness’ as possible then think again. What I want is for you to see my colour, my history, my culture, my heritage, my beauty as a black woman. Do ask yourself why you consider blackness a minor detail of who I am? Can you sense how hurtful it is for people to tell you who you are what you are not? 

Of course, History and recent events have made discussions on race even more complex. I get that you are looking for common ground and trying to be empathetic when you say you don’t see colour. Maybe you do not see my colour because it is not easy to live with some of the connotations associated with whiteness and blackness. Maybe you can’t see your own colour because you never had to. To me today, your colour blindness unfortunately resonates like prejudice against me. No matter what your reason is, to think colour is irrelevant, I claim mine, with self-assurance and trepidation. I hope that together we can reach a point where as individuals and communities, we can say: ‘I am black’ and ‘I am white’ in a way that overcomes societal burdens. 

Hiding from who we are or letting others shape our identity is not the solution. It is not my solution. Let us decide who we want to be in the skin and with the History we were born in. It’s potentially healing for us all. I love you, dear white friends. Love me too, skin and all. I have a colour. I do.

Finding Safe Spaces as a Third Culture Kid

by Rafia de Gama

"My Two Hands Hold the Earth I" by edenpictures is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“My Two Hands Hold the Earth I” by edenpictures is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I grew up as a third culture child across the world, from Europe to Asia to Africa. My parents, who came from different countries but similar ethnicities, consistently insisted we focus on what we share with others. This was a mantra in the house, from my mother who was South Asian-Ugandan and a father who was Pakistani. Their upbringing was very different, but their concern to ensure that they show us and the world kindness in words and action was so similar. We grew up with people from all backgrounds, religions and cultures. My father insisted we read about different religions, my mother insisted we were all lifelong members of libraries. We were constantly reminded to see the person before anything, before the religion, the race and culture. We were taught to notice the differences to celebrate them, I remember being told differences added flavour otherwise life would be just boring and bland.

This was in opposition to many things in the media, the constant reminder that people were always written about and talked about in oppositional terms. I feel it was easier as it was a different time so we heard their voices more than any other. I was lucky to find diaspora from the places with which I could identify wherever I went. I had a place of comfort, a home.

My children, who are mixed race, are colourful. They are joyful and full of life’s possibility. However, there is a cloud, this cloud grows as they grow. Their link to blackness takes them from the cuteness everyone seemed to see to something different as they grow. There seems to be a wariness, a look, a wait to see if they put even a toe out of place, this place that so narrowly defines good behaviour for mixed and black children.

I, in naiveté, thought I could raise them just as my parents raised me. I remembered that my female South Asian personhood makes me a stereotype for repressed yet still excelling, downtrodden and not a problem. I never fully realised how privileged I was to be never seen, as a problem and definitely never as dangerous.

The first time I was shaken was when my oldest, at age 6, came home and asked me why someone asked, ‘what are you?’ instead of the correct, ‘who are you?’. I was so overwhelmed by her innocence that I just shrugged to say, they do not know your mother is not from South Africa and is a foreigner.  

In a place like South Africa, where Apartheid had not long gone, one could perhaps explain away the existence of such a question, perhaps not knowing what such division had wrought. 

My children’s  experiences took me out of my very liberal upbringing, bringing more nuance, things I knew but had not noticed. Over time, I dug deeper into myself, noticing how within my own people there were slights against anyone not conforming to their ideal, whether cultural, religious or racial. The colonised mindset that still perpetuates. The reverence for the hallowed privileged position of whiteness.

As my three kids grow I see and notice every little way that they are treated differently. I accept that I am their comfort and home but also their champion and shield. I work first and foremost on myself, to keep educating myself, checking myself. Standing up for them, showing them by example to stand up for themselves and others. Focusing on filling the holes in their curriculum in history, in literature, in science and maths so they can truly understand the contributions of their cultures, African and Asian to the world of culture, language, science and maths.  

I know evolving to be a better person and ally is a lifelong endeavour for myself. I have to raise my children as children to be loved and guided with kindness. I  have the right to expect and to ensure that this is mirrored in school and broader society.

What I have discovered over time, if I am honest and upfront about my philosophical leanings, my anti-racist stance is that I attract those of a similar mind. Happily my children, over the years, have found some champions at schools. They and I find places of comfort, however small they may be, in some instances and that is a start.

Are We Expecting Too Much? Applying a Growth Mindset to Anti-Racism

by Sheona Kellman

"Human Resources" by is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“Human Resources” by is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In this age of political correctness and perpetual “wokeness,” where the rules always seem to be changing, is it fair to expect administrators, teachers, students and parents to be fully culturally and racially aware? Especially in an international school environment, isn’t it unreasonable to expect the school community to “know all the rules” which serve as indicators of tolerance for so many races and ethnicities, for example? We are human, not omniscient. Why set the standards of cultural intelligence so high?

There is a popular text promoted by pedagogues in our school community entitled Mindset, written by American psychologist, Dr. Carol S. Dweck. In her book, Dr. Dweck posits that people fall into two categories when it comes to mindset: they either have a fixed mindset, that is, they believe that talent, intelligence and other characteristics are what you were born with and cannot be altered; or they have a growth mindset, which is, they understand personal abilities and individualities as qualities which can be adaptable and developed.

This begs the question, so what would a fixed mindset towards race and racism look like? Examples could include:

  • Having an unwavering point of view about individuals based on stereotypes.
  • Avoiding conversations about racism or engaging in racism arguments.
  • The belief that it is not necessary to educate oneself on other races and cultures, or anti-racism itself.
  • Ignoring institutional racism by declaring that “I do not see colour” or
  • Stating “I am not racist” only to be dismissive of the perspectives of people of colour who point out seemingly innocent behaviours which may hold implicit bias.

The growth mindset, in combination with emotional intelligence, can be instrumental in one’s anti-racist journey. No one expects everyone to know everything, but just by taking the time to listen to diverse individuals in an effort to understand, as opposed to listening to respond, can be a valuable start in the right direction. Empathy, self-awareness, awareness of others, reading relevant literature, introspection and creating meaningful dialogue on race while embracing the challenge to keep working to decrease one’s bias are all reflective of a growth mindset.

We have been focusing so much on the children recently, and the need for anti-racism education in school to facilitate such a growth mindset, that in some ways we have neglected the adults. Human Resource Management initiatives for administrators and staff could be critical in applying a growth mindset to diversity and inclusion. Such areas include: recruitment and selection, health and safety, career planning, training and development and performance management.

It starts with human resource planning, which involves understanding the needs of the school, and of course an international school would have diversity and inclusion needs. A fixed mindset says, “We have been doing things this way for X number of years, there is no need for change.” A growth mindset understands that as the diversity of the student body increases, there will be a need to increase the diversity in staff members, giving children an opportunity to see themselves reflected in their mentors … but recruitment and selection needs to be based on more than skin colour. Racists and anti-racists can manifest themselves in any hue, therefore it is not enough to hire someone because she is Black or he is Asian or they are from the Pacific Islands. Comprehensive and diverse recruitment and selection would, of course, require candidates to have appropriate qualifications, knowledge, skills and abilities for their chosen discipline. Beyond this, structured interviews need to incorporate questions which help to assess emotional intelligence, cultural intelligence, and anti-racist as well as anti-discrimination values.

Enabling a growth mindset to anti-racism should not end once an employee has been hired. The health and safety and personal well-being of all staff members of all races and cultures is important, however, it is essential that an organisational environment is created that staff members of colour, who tend to be in the minority, know that they work in a safe space, and have identified individuals to whom they can go if they are made to feel uncomfortable. Career planning is also useful so persons of colour can see their place in the organisation and the clear, equitable conditions for upward mobility within it.

The objective for training and development of staff in anti-racism education should not be just to fulfil requirements needed to teach it as a subject to children. The goal should be to come to terms with one’s own educational needs through introspection and actively seek to develop anti-racist values. It is easier to teach a subject that one knows intimately through experience, and it makes for a more empathetic colleague as well.

Training should not only be limited to staff members, teaching and non-teaching, but to administrators as well. Lessons in situational leadership, enhanced by cultural and emotional intelligences would be useful. Such would help administrators recognise that each employee cannot be handled the same way due to varied situations and cultural differences. Sensitivity training, diversity and inclusion training, and reflective listening can help leaders know how to adapt leadership styles to diverse individuals. This can also demonstrate their growth mindset by making adjustments to their strategic planning and management to facilitate anti-racist and anti-discrimination agendas.

Of course, with all this training there must be assessment of trainees in performance review and development to measure and facilitate their growth; and there must be monitoring and evaluation of the programmes to ensure optimum efficacy.

Another beautiful factor of the growth mindset is the understanding that these changes do not have to be made alone and there are organisations, right here in Geneva, that can help us find our way, such as the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR), and even the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Dweck gives this counsel to parents seeking to encourage their children to have a growth mindset, “… the best thing they can do is teach children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, seek new strategies, and keep on learning.” It would do well for all of us to take this advice and apply it as we seek to improve our cultural intelligence and racial tolerance.

The Elephant in The Room

By Gillian Shackleton

“_DSC8926” by damienconway30 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

My mother has a vivid memory of me at 14 years old. I arrived home from school one day and announced to my parents that children have rights.  I told them that they were wrong for having smacked me when I was younger.  We must have been learning about children’s rights at school. I don’t remember the conversation, but it sounds like something I would have said.

Like most teenagers, I took pleasure in challenging my parents and testing out new ideas in the relative safety of my family. My sister and I initiated many polemics with our parents over the years, but I don’t remember discussing racism. My avoidance of the topic wasn’t due to ignorance.  I am mixed race and was born in Australia only a few years after the end of the ‘White Australia Policy’.  I was teased repeatedly and often in school for being Asian. It was made clear to me that being Asian was ‘bad’. I can’t remember a time in my childhood when I didn’t fear that someone might ask ‘Where are you from? Are you Asian?’ Those questions and the general anti-Asian sentiment in Australia of the 1980s made me feel I was lesser and didn’t belong in my home country. I suspect that experiencing racism as a child damages self-esteem and identity more profoundly than it does when experienced for the first time as an adult. As a child, I had no tools to defend myself. I had no sense of rage at the injustice of my treatment, nor any pride in my ethnicities.  I just accepted my lower status and felt ashamed of my difference at an age when nothing was more important than belonging.

My Dad would proudly retell people what I would say when asked ‘What are you?’ I would say, ‘My mum’s Chinese, my Dad’s Hungarian-Scottish but I’m Australian’. He didn’t hear the defensiveness in my assertion that I belonged, even if my parents did not.  He liked to believe that his daughters were growing up in a post-racial, post-feminist meritocracy.  The world was our oyster and we could do or be whatever we wanted.  It was what my teachers told us too. It was a nice idea, but that idealistic wish and a few generations of multicultural classrooms failed to result in an equal society free from racial discrimination. It’s time to address the elephant in the room. Let’s talk about race at school.

We need to consider how to present issues of racial inequality at school without demoralising those children who belong to marginalised groups. We also need to support those children who feel bad after realising they benefit from the legacy of people who became wealthy by gravely mistreating other people. We need to ensure that after informing children, we invite them to challenge the status quo, not inadvertently reinforce and reproduce existing ideas on racial hierarchy. It is a difficult balance to achieve. No wonder it has languished in the ‘too hard’ basket for so long.

My son is a student at Ecolint. He is a person with dwarfism.  As much as I wish the world was a place where he would be treated just like people of average height, I would be doing him a disservice to lead him to expect that. I feel I have an obligation to tell him to expect to be treated differently and poorly by some people some of the time; but simply being honest with him does nothing to move us towards the world that I wish for him. Marginalised people can advocate for themselves but they can’t achieve societal shifts in attitude in a vacuum. Everyone needs to be at least aware and at best be striving towards a society that provides equal opportunity and fair treatment for all. Wishing and hoping are simply not enough. 

Had the ideas of anti-racism, white privilege and their genesis been presented to me at school, they would have helped me better understand my racist experiences and would have provided me with language to discuss them. I think all children deserve to be presented with the truth of their relative disadvantage or privilege and to understand why it is so. With that knowledge they can conceive a world they prefer and consider how we might move towards it.  I hope you will encourage our school to discuss race with our kids and let them take these challenging ideas home to discuss with you. 

3 Reasons Why Strong, Black Women are Perceived to be Scary

by Estelle Baroung Hughes

"Black Lives Matter - We Won't Be Silenced - London's Oxford Circus - 8 July 2016." by alisdare1 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
“Black Lives Matter – We Won’t Be Silenced – London’s Oxford Circus – 8 July 2016.” by alisdare1 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

‘It is very hard to survive as a woman of colour in this world, and I remember saying once that if I stopped to feel, really feel, the pain of the racism I encountered, I would start screaming and I would never stop.’

Ijeoma Oluo – So you want to talk about race (2018)

1. Because of the World we live in

‘It is very hard to survive as a woman of colour in this world, and I remember saying once that if I stopped to feel, really feel, the pain of the racism I encountered, I would start screaming and I would never stop.’

The world is growling around you. You read of demonstrations with tens of thousands of people chanting: ‘Black Lives Matter! No justice no peace!’. You hear of statues being smashed to pieces because of the colonial insults they bear. There are rumours of African activists occupying museums to demand that former colonial powers give back the traditional artefacts that have been taken away by force. You see recent and old images of police brutality, of children whose hands or feet were cut off in the Congo to punish their parents for not harvesting enough rubber. Images of human zoos, pictures of lynching scenes and more… You feel the disgust in your stomach like a heavy punch. These are upsetting times for your senses. You might not always be sure what to believe, what to reject. You might have chosen to look the other way because you must preserve your mental space, your inner sanctuary.

I am with you there. I try to do self-care too.  But there is more to it.

As a black woman, I have become an activist by default because I could no longer look the other way. My heritage, my identity is entangled with these ugly pictures I mentioned above. They are glaring at me like a violation of my logic, my values and my dreams. And yet I have to stare at them, live with them directly or indirectly. I can do this like a victim or decide to be the fighter. I chose the fighter option. 

2. Because we are fighters

We fighters do not crumble, we don’t back off, we do not flee. Black women are warriors who stare at adversity in the eyes and say: confront me if you dare. We “Toni Morrison” it whenever we can. We” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie” our feminism as much as possible. We even “Wangari Mathai” our environment or “Miriam Makeba” our culture when we have this talent. if we don’t stand up like our spiritual mothers and sisters, we fade away in a world of victimisation and despair. Personally, I will not have it.  

‘People are afraid of you,’ a close friend once told me. ‘You do not realise how intimidating you can be.’ I do. Sometimes, in my refusal to bow down to racism, I want to say, like Mohammed ALI : ‘I am bad! I have wrestled an alligator, murdered a rock, hospitalised a brick, I am so bad I make medicine sick.’ As I get inspiration from activists who came before me, my eyes become brighter, my courage surges … and I hope to inspire someone too.

3. Because we challenge you

Why am I telling you this today?

If you are not a black woman like me, I am writing this, to encourage you to look at me without fear. My strength and rebellion are fed by the world we live in. We are shocked by the same structural imbalances, by the same brutalities. Only as a non-black person, you might have the choice to look the other way but I don’t. As I do trust your intentions are good, I want you to trust that my engagement for justice bears no harm to you. So, come close to me.  We can press pause, listen and speak to each other for a while. I hope you will  join me in trying to make this wretched beautiful world a better place. We can become such a powerful team. Together. 

If you are a woman of colour like me, I am writing this to say: I see your strength. It is your most powerful shield, your unpenetrable armour. The fear to speak up and the hurdles in front of you are real  but they are also illusions. Together we CAN and together we WILL make our voices heard for a more peaceful, beautiful and meaningful world, for, this is the ultimate goal of this struggle we are in.

What Will Be In Your Time Capsule?

By Deborah Lashley-Johnson

"time capsule project" by woodleywonderworks is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“time capsule project” by woodleywonderworks is licensed under CC BY 2.0

My daughters have been writing letters to their future selves.  A fun activity that they can do online while passing the time at home.  Aside from the simple “what did you do the past year” questions, some of the boilerplate questions are quite profound:

What lessons have I learned up until this point? 
Tell your future self about your principles and beliefs in life; and define the things you want to change in the future.

I always assumed that these were just time capsule questions that you look back on and smile, remembering who you were, but those questions above struck a nerve in me.  That nerve is more inflamed these days to be honest.  The unearthing of the exponentially hard lives of Black people collectively as a group has been a lot for me to digest and make sense of, whether it is:

1) the unconscionable death rates and economic job losses being reported that disproportionately affect the black population in the U.S. due to COVID 19;

2) the global news on the increasing trend of police officers killing unarmed Black Americans;

3) the targeting of black adults and children with false accusations to the police when these men, women and children are just existing, living their everyday lives; or

4) the powder keg discussion of systematic racism—not the individual kind—but the structural kind that nations were created upon and that still keep black and other non-white people struggling for opportunity and to be heard and seen in employment, housing, and healthcare services, which are the foundation for a safe, healthy and happy life.

As a late 40’s African-American mom living abroad, and witnessing racist thought, language and unspeakable actions visibly come through the ground, almost like a time capsule, at home and abroad, perpetrated by kids and adults, we all may need to honestly and vulnerably reflect and speak to essential questions.  Ultimately, in the moment that we are all witnessing concerning the conversations of race, we must ask ourselves whether we are moving forward or going backwards in life. The reality check questions that I would add to every time-machine questionnaire for the human race to sit down with and answer for themselves are: How do we avoid the mistakes that we are repeating on the issue of racism?  Is there a way for us to move forward on the issue of systemic racism and how?

I am a believer in communication and vision.  Without those two things, we rarely get what we need or want in life.  In order to communicate and have a vision to address racism, white people must educate themselves on the harmful effects racism has on societies.  It is not an “other” issue for some other race to grapple with.  This is an all of society issue that speaks to human dignity and moving a country forward. 

If the playbook is to divide and conquer so that the few can succeed, I am afraid that playbook is going to haunt all of our children’s futures and future generations, leading to strained and weak nations, especially with technology playing a helpful and at times harmful role.  I think about all of the energy and effort black people could be using to create new ideas and improve their livelihoods if we did not have the same, defensive, stale conversation we have been having for hundreds of years, resulting in the following responses: there is not a problem and if there is one, it is isolated and if there is a trend, let’s be careful not to label people as racists, so let’s not talk about systemic issues.  It is time for white people to be able to enter this conversation doing a bit more than just saying, I am not racist.  That is not the point.  

We should all, white and non-white people, be elevating this conversation and vision, thinking about how do I turn a blind eye or avoid listening to the racist problems black people are facing? What role can I play to change that?  It is only with these small, incremental steps that we all can take toward one another that over time can lead to a future we want.  Let’s all answer these questions in our individual time capsules so that we can look back on them with hope and smile when our answers reflect that we are actively and intentionally creating a better world.

I Will Never Understand, But I Will Stand


Two years ago my Black daughter had to think about what topic she wanted to work on for her Year 6 (Y6) exhibition. Very exciting times for her as she approached the ultimate project that her years in the Primary Years Programme (PYP) were leading her to. Finally, she was leaving behind PYP and moving up to the Middle Years Programme (MYP), she was really looking forward to all the excitement ahead. For weeks she kept considering and mentioning all sorts of topics… the pay gap between women and men, stereotyped jobs based on gender, safe countries to travel based on gender,etc… All very interesting but either someone else was doing something similar or they were not really that convincing for her.

One day, as I was driving around, I had an idea for her exhibition: Peanuts allergy! She suffers from this terrible, limiting and dangerous allergy. Despite the fact that our school is a nut-free environment, we find many families do not respect this sacred rule. Sad to see how little we care when something does not affect us personally. 

Anyway, as my daughter and I sat in the car after school, I said to her…

“Sweetheart, I think I might just have the right idea for your project. Let’s see if you can guess it:

  • It is something that affects you personally
  • It is something that people don’t take seriously despite the fact it’s really dangerous
  • It is something that makes you sick and can kill you
  • It is something you know better than anyone else in your school
  • It is something you could use to educate your peers and adults who should know better but they choose not to.”

She was sitting in the back of the car and I was watching her expression through the rearview mirror as she listened carefully to my excitement. She then looked at me and said… 

“Mom, I know what it is. It is racism because it is the only thing that makes us sick and kills people like me plus all the other things you said. Did I get it right?”

Suddenly I felt stupid and very small, I felt like the sky and everything with it had just fallen on me. I felt like a useless mother…. I had been given the privilege of being the mother to this amazing child and I felt like I had just titanically failed her. How could I?

“No sweetheart, it was not racism but peanuts allergy….and I feel just so very sorry right now that I do not know what to say other than I am truly truly sorry,”  was the only thing I could bring myself to say, fighting very hard the urgent need to cry.

“It’s OK mom. You are a white mom, a very nice one, but a white one but I love you anyway.”

That sentence drilled my ears with an unstoppable force. At that moment it came to me for real that no matter what I did or said…I was always going to be a white mother, a white person who would never really understand what is to be a person of colour (POC) or what racism really does to you. My daughter knew and knew all along. For 20 years I had read about it but it never really sank in me. 

Her passion was gymnastics so she decided to do “Racism in gymnastics”. At the age of 11 she immersed herself in a tough topic all on her own. Not a single one of her mentors was a POC. Nobody at school seemed to notice. So emotionally speaking she did this on her own. I suggested to contact the school but she did not want me to. “They are white, mom, they don`t get it,” tends to be one of her favorite sentences for sometime now. She contacted her idol, Simone Biles, and received a reply encouraging her to carry on with gymnastics. My daughter was over the moon.

Exhibition day came and she performed like a true champion. A few mothers of color approached me to congratulate me and tell me how brave and confident my daughter was to choose a beast of an issue like racism as a topic for her exhibition at such a young age. They were very impressed with her.

“ Wow, just wow”, said a Congolese mom. 

“ She is going to places,” one Kenyan mom said.

I walked away that day, as I do every single day of my life since I have been the mother of this amazing little person, with an overwhelming sense of pride and responsibility towards her. I never forget that I am a white person and I would never fully understand what it is like not to be but I am totally committed to educating myself to be my daughter’s ally. I owe it to her, to every single POC I care about but mostly to myself. I could not look at myself in the mirror knowing that I don’t do all I can, every single day of my life, to make sure our world is a safe place for all. 

I will never understand but I stand.

Waiting for Another Wave to Come

"Pisces Wave Art 10" by PamLink is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
“Pisces Wave Art 10” by PamLink is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

There is something about a time of crisis that brings out our true selves, and sometimes who we see in that time of crisis may not be someone we want to view in the mirror when the chaos has passed. COVID-19 has given us much to think about regarding race. From anti-asian racism to racism against Africans in China to a startling indifference by some leaders to the fact that the Coronavirus disproportionately affects certain racial groups, the pandemic has laid bare society in its shameful yet its shameless state.

Racism has been rearing its ugly head for centuries. As indicated above, the media publicises it, so why did it have to take videos of the tortuous murder of George Floyd to make the world take notice? To make antiracism books fly off the shelves? To cause enough global protests to rival those of Greta Thunberg’s for climate change? Yes, there was a domino effect, as Trevor Noah eloquently stated in his examination of recent events, but injustice has been happening every day for years, and people of colour have not been quiet about it, so why must it take something so bold and so egregious to make people wake up and say, “Hey! Something is wrong here.”

While it is heartening to see an increased interest in antiracism, the hope is that antiracism is not just suddenly fashionable only to be out of style next season. That there is not a burst of antiracism which will lose its spark and everything dies down. That it will no longer be “business as usual.”  Witnessing decades of outrage when incidents occur … it is like a wave, antiracism is popular for a moment, building and rising to its ultimate crest then it breaks to wash ashore … and life continues. 

Let us break this cycle through empathy, life-long learning, truly listening to each other and being brave enough to see racism and call it by its name. It is time for people of colour to be truly seen so that we can work together to find real solutions. We will try to remain in the hope that people realise that antiracism is not a fad, and that they will not go silent while they wait for another wave to come.

A Comprehensive Examination of Structural Racism as relates to the Recently Publicised Racial Incidents in the USA

Structural racism is defined as:

“A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural
representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “color” to endure and adapt over time. Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead it has been a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all
exist.” The Aspen Institute

Racist incidents are never isolated. They are symptoms of a tree of disease that has deep roots. In this video, Trevor Noah examines the recent incidents in a comprehensive way, making linkages to which we should all pay attention.