How I Learned My Place

Posted on August 30, 2012

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Some windows on a racist education:

First Nations Education in the City, Pt. 2

In grade eight I found myself in a remedial math class in Cloverdale.  Because that’s what they do.  They put you in a remedial math class whenever you change schools, and I’d just moved to Cloverdale.  The teacher was asking questions, and when it was my turn, he asked, “What’s the square root of two?”

“One point four one four two one three,” I said.

The teacher’s face opened up a little, and he said, “You’re not supposed to be in this class, are you?”

No, I wasn’t.

I was adopted as a prodigy by my first grade teacher.  That didn’t happen everywhere when I went to school, I confess.  But at the other end of my formal education I qualified in the top 1% when applying to grad school as well as when applying to law school.  I’ve had enough educational success in enough places and times for me to know that I didn’t belong in a remedial class in any subject.

Which sounds like boasting, which, I suppose, it is.  But I mostly only have my own life to use as an example, and it’s important to make clear that it was pretty much impossible that I belonged in the “middle” row.

It was grade four.  I was living in Hazelton in a log cabin with a Gitxan family, the second lot away from a brand new school.  I didn’t know it was a brand new school at the time.  It was the first school in Hazelton which mixed Aboriginal kids and Euro-Canadian kids together in the same classroom, and out of my sight and unbeknownst to me all the adults were mighty proud of that fact.

Yet I was sitting in a classroom with a racial divide.  There were four rows.  The row nearest the window were the dumb kids.  They were all Aboriginal.  The two rows farthest from the window were the smart kids.  They were all White.  The one row in between was for the in-between kids.  I was in that row.  Now that I come to think of it, some of us in that row (not me, necessarily) were a little paler than those in the dumb row.

Our teacher who had divided us into these rows was a young blonde mother who, I remember, the Aboriginal kids in the class thoroughly admired.  She had a five-year-old daughter who none of us knew but supposed was a genius.  Despite her judgment of us as inferior, we loved and trusted our teacher.  As children do.

I moved around a lot—another story—and sat in far more classrooms than most other children did growing up.  My teacher in that Hazelton classroom was easily the most poisonous anywhere, doling out her authority like poisoned candy which we kids swallowed willingly.  I don’t suppose she ever suffered for it.  Because she wasn’t that far out of line with the thinking of her day, which had just invented the idea of “integration” that year, and maybe didn’t quite get it yet.

And all the children–Euro-Canadian, Gitxan or otherwise–who went to that school, whether they thought about it or not, were indoctrinated into its way of thinking, a way of thinking which was stated in explicit classroom geography, that Whites were smart and Indians were stupid.  In fact, the less a child thought of it, the more indoctrinated they were likely to be by the time she or he was no longer a child.

I’m not saying that the occurrence in that Hazelton classroom was typical of the time, although it probably happened a lot more often than people think.  But the attitude that allowed it to happen was more than typical.  It was part of the culture.  When that blonde teacher was a little blonde girl sitting in her own fourth-grade Canadian classroom, she was being taught about the racial superiority of Europeans.  It was built into the curriculum, part of the understanding of the world that she was being imparted in her social studies class.  Other classes too, I suspect.

There’s no controversy about the nature of Euro-Canadian curriculum during the 1940s and before.  It’s a matter which has been well-documented, and all you have to do is find a school textbook from that era to get a double-dose of shock and shame.  We taught explicit racism to children in Canada?  Yes, we did.  If you wish to see for yourself an example of a British Columbia grade school textbook from the era, not really so long ago, when my Hazelton teacher went to school, I discuss one in Tunnel History for Juniors.

My teacher had been, as child, taught to be racist, and then, as a teacher of our fourth grade classroom, was passing that lesson on to us.

What we learn as children, especially around the age I was when I was in Hazelton–nine years plus or minus a couple of years–becomes almost inescapably the basis of our understanding of the world.  We bring huge chunks of that understanding willy-nilly into our adulthood.  The children of that Hazelton classroom would have graduated from the education faculty and qualified to become teachers in the early to mid-70s, if any of them had happened to become teachers.  They would just be approaching retirement now.

Consider.  The teachers who taught my generation were raised to be racist.  It was part of their world view.  How much did they pass on to my generation with the help of textbooks, which, even in the 1950s and 1960s couldn’t help being racist too? How much then did our generation carry it on, our generation of teachers, in the more than half century since we first acquired our racist educations?  How much did my generation teach the following generations of that racism?

I tell you what.  I don’t think we’re anywhere near as post-racial as we think, even the best educated of us.  Because what we are taught as children has a bad habit of becoming part of our psychology, and I’ll repeat for emphasis:  we were taught by racists.

Having for our teachers a generation raised on explicit racism did nothing for my own generation’s moral development.  It almost certainly undermined our respect for cultural differences.  I know from having seen it again and again that, deep down, Euro-Canadian or Aboriginal, many of us believe that somehow Aboriginal is inferior.

When people mention a special program for Aboriginal people, the first notion that people have of it is that it’s remedial.  A place where things are simplified for Aboriginal students.  Or practical.  So Aboriginal people can learn a skill, work with their hands.  I’ve heard Aboriginal politicians refer to Aboriginal education programs this way, proving just how deep the indoctrination lies.

For some people, the response is almost knee-jerk, involuntary.  Which raises a question pertinent to my overall discussion, of which this piece is the second part, how is an Aboriginal school to survive given an almost automatic perception of inferiority?  If both Whites and Aboriginal people disdain (as they’ve been taught) the very idea of Aboriginal education, what does this bode for a particular school’s success?

I’ll address that question in part three.