Academics are actively discouraging Black students from pursuing academia through
By: Jasmin Smith
Portrait of the Black Student
When I was fifteen years old, my favourite English teacher taught me a lesson:
academia is more important than my comfortability. “Your fellow students will have
permission to say the n-word when reading,” she said, “and if you’re upset about that, you’ll
need to mature some more, because that’s what it will be like in university.” There were only
two other Black kids in my class, and we attended the only predominantly white high school
in our city.
Two years later I would graduate with honours and attend my top choice of university,
one of the best in Canada. This university is where I learned my second lesson: Black people
are not wanted in academia. My institution, one that I had gone through a laborious process to
decide on, had decided to come out in solidarity for a white professor who said the n-word.
Never in my life, until that moment, have I ever felt so out of place or unwanted somewhere
that I had paid thousands of dollars to attend. I had turned down better schools because I felt
the institution would be a perfect fit, and here I was, having hateful messages sent to my
Twitter account because I had spoken out about my disappointment towards the university.
A few weeks ago I was taking a break from work when I saw a news headline pop-up
on my phone, feeling my heart sink to my feet. A teacher at a high school in one of Canada’s
most diverse cities— one of the few Canadian cities that made me feel safe as a Black
person— had gone to class in blackface as a Halloween costume. My first thought wasn’t
disgust or anger; in fact, the teacher himself was the last of my worries. The first thing I felt
upon reading the article was despair, and it was despair for the students.
Race in Childhood
Children are not born with an inherent ability to discriminate towards other races;
they are a completely blank slate, influenced by every aspect of their upbringing until they
are old enough to establish their own opinions.
Studies from the University of Toronto have been able to establish that between 6
months and 12 months of age, babies develop a preference towards their own race. This
occurs as a result of their environment and social group, and will not occur if babies are
surrounded by a diverse group of people during these crucial months (Weir, 2021).
Until the age of roughly five years old, children are conditioned mostly by their
families and those that they are often in contact with – thus their biases will begin to reflect
those of their parents and relatives (Weir, 2021). At this point in life, it is too early for them to
be influenced by institutional or societal perspectives on race.
Race in Canadian Public School Systems
At five years old, in a school setting, children are more likely to see their Black peers
getting in trouble or struggling academically (Weir, 2021). Black students are more likely to
be blamed for classroom problems, and more likely to be accused of cheating. These
struggles faced by young Black students are not a result of their lack of effort or intelligence,
but a result of the lack of primary assistance received from their teachers, who are often more
focused on the success of their white peers. There are many alarming statistics regarding the
correlation between race and graduation rates in American schools, with only 73% of Black
Americans graduating, in contrast with 87% of white Americans (Weir, 2016). Canada,
however, seems resistant in the collection of race-based data in public school districts.
Toronto is one of the few Canadian cities that has examined the connections between
economic status, sex, and race in connection with education. In a 2018 study published in the
Canadian Journal of Higher Education, it was found that Black secondary school students in
the Toronto District School Board were less likely to be in completely academic streams in
comparison to their white counterparts, and they were found to have worse grades overall
(Robson, Anisef, et al., 2018). The study also concluded that black students were less likely
to attend university, and most notably, that “inequality in later-life outcomes is rooted in
early-life disadvantages” (Robson, Anisef, et al., 2018).
These Black students are not suffering academically due to a lack of intelligence or
ability, but a dire lack of support from academic staff. When young students witness their
peers being treated as if they are undeserving by figures of authority, especially those who are
meant to be teaching them about the world around them, they grow to assume these biases
themselves. From this comes stereotypes regarding Black people being unintelligent or only
having the capabilities to perform labour jobs. If this uncaring nature towards Black students
is stemming from the exact same people that are meant to nurture them most, and their peers
are adopting the same sentiments, when does that begin to reflect in their self-worth?
Racial Trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
According to the CDC, Adverse Childhood Experiences “are potentially traumatic
events that occur in childhood (0-17 years)” and they can result in an inconceivable scope of
later life consequences, many of which can negatively shape the rest of an individual’s life.
The University of North Carolina’s School of Social Work has developed a
compelling argument as to why racism itself should be categorized as an ACE, as opposed to
just the consequences of it. Racism is a direct cause of violence, inaccessibility to healthcare,
and wrongful incarceration; however, the CDC fails to mention the impacts that racism itself
can have on mental and physical health (Lanier, 2020).
Putting aside the discrimination that occurs within the healthcare system, racism is
something that many Black people are forced to think about on a daily basis. Racism is
something that can be experienced anywhere, at any time, and it can even infiltrate spaces
that have been deemed safe. The constant threat of discrimination can cause mass amounts of
stress as well as other serious mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety
(Lanier, 2020). Moreover, constant stress can lead to hypertension, which is a direct cause of
many heart conditions and other serious physical health concerns (Lanier, 2020).
Children of colour, and particularly black children, are able to tell when their peers
harbour negative emotions towards them, and kids can begin to detect racism from a very
early age. In fact, “studies focusing in detail on perceived self-reported racism and
discrimination find rates around 90% for Black children” (Lanier, 2020). Experiencing racism
is an extremely traumatic experience at any age, but children are especially influenced by
discriminatory experiences, and they can often shape the success of a child’s future and the
choices they make later in life.
Back to Toronto
Now you may be wondering why such a long exposition was required in order to
discuss the Halloween incident that occured at Parkdale Collegiate Institute, but each of these
aspects are relevant to understanding the true harm done by the staff member.
The staff member’s costume had been reported by a student to the institution’s
vice-principal. Why was it that a student – a child in a categorically “safe space” – was the
one who had to tell wrong from right? As of November 17th, the teacher is no longer
employed at the institution, but the question still stands (Rocca, 2021). There are a number of
people that the teacher must have seen prior to arriving to class that morning. The school has
other teachers and staff, yet none of them held their colleague accountable before he entered
that classroom, irreparably changing many of those students’ perspectives on academia
The trauma resulting from racism is a feeling that I had never truly known until I
attended my first year of university. Once I had, I hoped that nobody else would have to
experience the same. Although it was idealistic of me, the hopeless, desolate realization of
society’s inherent discrimination is a feeling that can never be replicated, nor fully described
to someone who has not experienced it. A child should not have to endure a first encounter
with systemic racism, but it is unfortunately an aspect that is deeply ingrained within our
culture. However, despite the inevitability of discrimination, a child’s first experience with
racism should certainly not occur in an academic setting, where their parents are trusting the
school staff to protect and shield their children.
For at least one student in that classroom, the experience of having their educator
wear their race as some sort of caricature would permanently damage their view of the world.
When the teacher was put on home-assignment and not immediately terminated, that sent a
message: white voices are more important than Black comfortability in academia. I felt
heartbroken over reading about the event because I knew that these children would have to
learn the same lessons that I did. Some of them— who may feel the same love and adoration
towards academics that I always have— may be left with a sour taste in their mouth for the
rest of their education.