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Anti-Black racism course seeks to have students take part in critical discussions on race

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TORONTO —
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and the Black Lives Matter protests that ensued, the students at Newtonbrook Secondary School in Toronto, Ont., wanted their pain, and their struggles with anti-Black racism to be heard.

In response, four Black teachers created a new university prep course, “Deconstructing anti-Black Racism in the Canadian and North American Context,” to be offered to Grade 12 students.

The pilot course teaches students about Black history in North America what has led to the current climate, and how Blackness is portrayed in the media, and begins by laying out the basics of having respectful, thoughtful and critical conversations about race and racism – while addressing terms like “privilege” and “systemic racism.”

One of the course teachers, D. Tyler Robinson, says the student’s response was “overwhelmingly positive.”

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“One of the things that was really striking was that all of the students said this was the first time in their K – 12 experience that they had enough time to delve deep into conversations about anti-Black racism, racism and oppression so we were really excited to hear that,” Robinson said on CTV’s Your Morning Friday.

Robinson said the course had a 50-50 split of Black and non-Black students, who “really understand” that “adults in this country have difficulty getting into this material and…they realize there are concerns about this conversation, people are worried they might say the wrong thing, or they might be seen as racist, they don’t want to offend.”

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By bringing both Black and non-Black students together in the course, Robinson said the teachers are “providing them an opportunity to have a window into one another’s experience…they can see their own reflection in others experience, and that allows students to really have this learning that is personal and contextual and it builds unity.”

After the first section of the class on how to have critical conversations about race and identifying the language surrounding anti-Black racism, the second section covers the history of Black people in North America, from African communities to the slave trade.

The third section addresses how Blackness is portrayed in the media, and the fourth section branches out to discuss how other marginalized groups are oppressed. The course addresses race as a critical construct and how capitalism, colonialism and imperialism all fit into it.

Robinson says the current system of education has inadequately prepared students to have conversations about race and white supremacy.

“This stuff is challenging…we spent a lot of time together to think about what the course needs to look like,” he said. “For example, in the first unit it’s really important for the teacher to have the skills to marshal the conversation because a kid can say something – they have a certain intention – and the reality is that the impact is very different, so you can pull up a lot of hurt feelings, it can be challenging but we make sure that kids go home and they reflect every day.”

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But the launch did not necessarily have a smooth ride. Robinson was subject to a coordinated racist Zoom-bombing attack at a panel discussion on the course.

Out of the 75 people who had signed in to watch and take part in the parent council meeting on Zoom, 16 of them were waiting for Robinson’s turn to speak, he said.

They waited 30 minutes for him to being presenting before they “released their attack,” according to Robinson.

“They had references to ‘welcome to the jungle,’ references to us being monkeys, things like that,” he said, saying that they would try and derail the meeting with racist images and references.

Robinson said it doesn’t surprise him to have to deal with racism while directly addressing the deconstruction of it, but that he tried to make it a teachable moment.

“It’s really important that instead of calling people out, we call people in. So we welcome those folks who seek to undermine this conversation, we welcome them into this discussion because they’re doing that out of a place of anger which is really a misplaced anger, and comes from fear.”

“We can identify with that fear and I think that if everyone were taking a course like this then they would realize that there’s nothing to fear, this is about bringing folks together,” he said.

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For Black students taking part in the course, they get to see themselves reflected in the curriculum and “build up that pride” and “build up that joy,” he said.

They get to “understand that there is nothing wrong with Blackness, really there’s something wrong with the systemic racism Black folks and Indigenous folks and other people of colour have experienced.”

The Toronto District School Board plans to rollout the anti-Black racism course for Grade 12 students at 11 secondary schools in September, and there are 30 more schools interested in offering the course in the upcoming semesters. 

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