From the inside

Habiba Cooper Diallo. Photo: Submitted

A Nova Scotian writer shares firsthand experiences with systemic racism in the educational system

Habiba Cooper Diallo has experienced systemic racism throughout her life, but one moment had a lasting impact.

In 2013, she was a Grade 11 student at a local school. One day, she was in a bathroom stall when she overheard a student talking about something their English teacher was doing in class.

“I overheard the student saying, ‘Oh … she always goes on a tangent about Black people. The teacher is always discussing issues about racism and Black students; you know, there are other things to do,’ ” she recalls. “She didn’t know I was in the bathroom stall, and then I came out of the bathroom stall. I said something to her, and she was so shocked. I remember just how awful it felt just hearing someone say that … I thought, ‘Wow, this one really doesn’t care.’ “

Since she was 12 years old, Diallo has chronicled her experiences with systemic racism in school in a diary. She has turned those diary excerpts into her new book, #BLACKINSCHOOL, from University of Regina Press.

But it wasn’t just happening at Diallo’s school. Racism appears in schools all across Canada, highlighted in current events across the world. One example is the lack of discussion of the Bronx Fire, a high-rise apartment building fire that killed 17 people in early January. Eight of those killed were children — it was one of the worst residential blazes in American history.

“There’s the issue of housing, but there’s also the issue of systemic racism,” she says.  “Why is it that it was predominantly Black, Latino, and other people were living there, and they’re living in the ghetto. When you check out the ghettos in these urban centres, people of colour usually live there, so there’s also this issue of race.”

Diallo says when students arrive to school the next morning after an event such as the Bronx Fire, they never hear anything in their morning announcements or classes. By having these issues discussed in a school environment, it sheds a light on these events and people that have shaped our society.

“You can go through the entire four years without seeing one Black person in a textbook or when we speak of Canadian history,” she says. “You won’t hear anything about Viola Desmond or Lincoln Alexander. You won’t hear anything about Africville, the community within Halifax. The municipal government dismantled and destroyed it in the ’60s. You can study Canadian history in a classroom in Nova Scotia and not hear anything about that. That’s an example of how the curriculum perpetuates this kind of one narrative, one single story, which is about white people.”

Additionally, Diallo says individuals do not see things at surface level and have to dig deep into the roots of systemic racism in schools. A significant part of that is unconscious bias, stereotypes, and microaggressions. It also transcends the educational sector into all aspects of society.

“One thing many people fail to understand, they think, people aren’t using the N-word so much anymore, or they’re not saying Black people have to drink out of the separate fountain, or sit at the back of the bus, like during Segregation,” she says. “They’re utterly resistant, want to shut off and don’t want to hear anything about anti-racism because they feel like ‘I don’t get what these people are talking about’ … Look at graduation rates and employment rates. That is how racism that’s how it shows up in today’s society. “

From 2013 to today, Diallo says there has been a positive change, accelerated by the impact of the George Floyd murder. In schools, it forced administrators to reassess relationships with Black students and consider the success rates of students of different races.

“It made them realize that there’s a problem of anti-Black racism, and as a result, many have sought to address those problems,” she says. “Many teachers and school administrators have reached out to people like myself, asking to help them with their anti-racism strategy or making their school a more inclusive space for everyone. There has been a change, people are more aware, many people want to do something, but there hasn’t been enough.”

Diallo feels the curriculum at schools across the country needs to be strengthened to reflect the diversity and different perspectives in a historical context when it comes to the solution.

“In our history classes, we need to learn about Blacks in Canadian history,” she says. “It’s not a thing like Black history; it’s Canadian history. You know, that’s been normalized that we have to put it within the mainstream because it’s not somehow separate.”

Ultimately, change is in the hands of educators and administrators.

“There has to be the will and where the will there will be away,” she says, adding that resources and funding will reflect the level of commitment. “You have to be 100-per-cent on board in all aspects of this issue in addressing this phenomenon. What I think needs to happen is a real commitment.”

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