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We can’t hide our heads in the sand over racism

Gerry Chidiac

BY GERRY CHIDIAC

Lessons in Learning

There has been a great deal of discussion in the American media about the teaching of critical race theory.

Some states have passed legislation to prevent the discussion of this topic in schools, and others have similar bills before their elected assemblies. Michigan is one of these states, and I recently came across a document published by the Michigan Council for the Social Studies that discusses the concerns of educators if the proposed legislation becomes law.

If passed, “the curriculum provided to all pupils … (would) not include cover of the critical race theory, the 1619 Project, or any of the following theories … (including) that an individual, by virtue of his or her race, is inherently racist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

My mission as a teacher is to create a world where people, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” A world where every child, no matter what they look like, how they choose to worship, whom they love or where they live, is given the opportunity to pursue their dreams and achieve their potential.

The Holocaust was a pivotal time in history because, for the first time, humanity looked at crimes against humanity and said, “never again.” Similar violations continue to happen, yet I choose to remain committed to building a world where “never again” becomes a reality.

My grandfather was a teacher in Germany during the Holocaust. He was expected to teach a theory that was inherently racist and oppressive. As far as I know, he resisted and even spoke out against the Nazi regime. This, of course, had consequences.

I often think of my grandfather when I stand in front of my students. How fortunate I am to be able to examine the truth of our history with them and to work to build the kind of world King dreamed of.

There’s a great deal of racism in history. That racism resulted in the exploitation of millions of people around the world. This exploitation allowed some people to acquire tremendous wealth, and these people were disproportionately European or of European descent. The structures put into place continue to impact the present. The result is that, in much of the world, people of non-European ancestry have disproportionately lower levels of income, education and life expectancy.

This isn’t my fault, nor is it the fault of any of the young people who sit in my classroom. I’m not racist because these structures exist or even because I’ve unknowingly benefited from them. I’m perpetuating racism, however, if I don’t embrace the responsibility to reform these structures. I, therefore, can’t be silent about legislation in a neighbouring country that will limit academic freedom and prevent young people from taking part in these difficult discussions.

Many countries had colonies that exploited indigenous people, and many, including Canada, benefited from the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The first slaves arrived from Africa onto the shores of what is now the United States in 1619, and this continued for hundreds of years, having a profound economic and social impact.

Not discussing these topics in our schools is as dangerous as German students not learning about the Holocaust. When countries ignore the mistakes of the past or allow racist policies to flourish in the present, they embrace their own demise.

When people ask hard questions and embrace the ugly truth in their histories, as Germany has done and Canada is doing by teaching about our colonial past, they pull away the blinds of racism and allow people to thrive.

We may pass laws to prevent the discussion of truth, but legislation can never make the truth disappear.

Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students. Check out his website here. Find him on Facebook. Or on Twitter @GerryChidiac

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