One of the many camping trips I enjoyed while growing up was a week-long trip to Algonquin Park. My sister and I were excited at the prospect of seeing lots of animals. We were hoping to see moose and bear (our normal trips to the Pinery Provincial Park allowed us to see only small animals like raccoons and deer).
Imagine our excitement when, in the middle of breakfast, a baby black bear wandered through our campsite. Karen and I, missing the concern on our parents faces, got up and tried to get the bear to come to us by holding a breakfast sausage out as bait. We were almost as startled as the bear when my father began clanging pot lids together behind us and my mom started shooing the cub away. My parents ignored our request to “just take a picture first.” They knew that the only thing more dangerous than meeting a bear face to face was meeting a baby bear face to face with the Momma bear looking on. After the bear fled, presumably back to its watching mother, my parents explained about the mother bear instinct. A mother bear will do anything to protect her cubs.
As a high school English and History teacher, I find the subject of race is a topic often raised in my classroom. Teaching novels like To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men provide important avenues for discussing race issues with students. Teaching about residential schools, the holocaust and the Japanese internment during World War II also serve as excellent springboards for honest discussions about racist attitudes. Since my first semester of teaching, I have been appalled, dismayed and finally resigned to the fact that even today people carry racist baggage around. For some reason, in my classroom, this baggage seems to get unpacked, its contents spewed on the floor around me.
I’ve taught the novel Night by Elie Wiesel, a firsthand account of a concentration camp, in a classroom where one student’s grandfather had been imprisoned in a camp while another student’s grandfather had been a guard. I had a Korean-Canadian student ask for a seating plan change in my history class, pointing out that he was seated between a Japanese student on the right and a German student on the left. I’ve cringed while one student ignorantly asked my guest speaker, an Ojibwe, what “Indian tribe” he was from, and then apologized on his behalf to the offended speaker. I’ve struggled with students who openly admit, “I just don’t like Indians” and then, after seeing my shock, correct themselves saying, “Sorry, I just don’t like First Nations people” (because that’s so much better!).
Over the years I have developed better strategies for dealing with race in the classroom. Outrage does not work. Calling an opinion racist upfront only leads to defensiveness. Patiently demonstrating how word choice can cause pain to others, creating lessons that present the flip side of the situation, helps students to think about people of colour differently.
One strategy that seems to work well is to talk about race by showing three different positions. I write the words “Racist” and “Non-Racist” on the board and discuss those terms. Someone who is racist is someone who discriminates according to race, makes racial slurs or tell racist jokes. They are engaging in racist behaviour. Someone who is Non-Racist does not discriminate according to race or make slurs. When racist jokes are told they feel uncomfortable and may even want to leave the room. Many of my students share that they are in this second category. They feel uncomfortable when they hear a joke and don’t really know where to look when someone says something negative about someone because of their race.
I challenge them, however, demonstrating that unless they actually say something in response to the jokes, their silence is interpreted as approval. By not challenging the person telling the jokes, they are sending a message that they, too, agree that the joke is funny. Simply being a non-racist is not enough. Non-racists contribute to racism without even meaning to.
We are called, instead, to be anti-racist. That means speaking out whenever and wherever racism is met. When a joke is told, or a comment made, we must ask the speaker to please refrain from making them. We must stop racism and fight against it.
I have tried to live as an anti-racist. I have asked our doctor to remove some ancient children’s books from his office that had inappropriate illustrations of people of colour (they had been donated by an elderly person after her grandchildren were too old for them and my doctor quickly apologized, admitting that he hadn’t even looked at them). When older people from my church or community use language that is no longer politically correct – words like “coloured” or “negro” (which they use not as put downs, but because they think it is nicer than saying “black”), I patiently correct them and explain the reason why those words are no longer appropriate. I have even spoken to a well-meaning pastor, who, in his effort to illustrate a Bible text for his sermon, used inappropriate language about Canada’s Aboriginal people. I have always found myself able to confront racism in a patient, loving way that, while correcting the person, still maintains their dignity and shows my respect for them as people.
Changed by painful joy
Recently, in the exact same types of situations described above, I find I can not seem to remain composed. Where I was once able to remain professional and calm, I now become passionate, to the point of tears. Comments hurt me deeply and personally. Even when people are speaking broadly about race labels and debate, simply because they enjoy the discussion, I take it personally. For me, this is no longer an academic discussion, or a case of political correctness. I’m not advocating on behalf of “people of colour everywhere”; I am now speaking for my son.
Although I had not even met him, my mother bear instincts would rise up in my heart and soul and pour out passionately and even angrily on unsuspecting victims. I can no longer deflect comments with humour or with patience. Instead, I’m ready to pounce and fight and do anything to protect my son from words and ideas which could hurt him.
I’ve come away from these encounters amazed at myself. What was happening to me? Why such an emotional response? How come I couldn’t remain composed?
And then, I had an epiphany.
I have changed. My son whom I’d never met was changing me. I had already attached in the most primal and instinctual way to the son I hadn’t met yet. This boy who is not born from me, but is a most remarkable gift, was already my own little bear cub whom my mother bear instincts would do anything to protect.
And that fills me with joy. It is a painful joy as I think of the uphill and constant battle that is before us as a trans-racial family, but a joy all the same.