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Let’s start a real conversation about racism

In an age of over-sharing and “too much information” conversations, few topics remain truly taboo. That’s why this powerful Upper Assembly address about race relations and our role in creating systemic change really matters. This is a transcript of that speech, by Upper School math department chair Deirdre Timusk, and her experience teaching black kids in St. Louis, at Upper School assembly on Monday, Jan. 12. 

A few short months ago a young boy by the name of Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri. This incident struck very close to home as I lived in St. Louis for four years and it brought back a lot of tough memories for me, one of which I will share with you today.

I taught kids just like Michael, meaning black kids, kids who suffered deeply from, and still suffer from the racism that is part of life in that part of the United States. I keep in touch with those students and I hear about how they are treated differently at the airport when coming home from university. I hear about how they get followed in stores when shopping. I see their posts on Facebook and read about how angry they are when things like this happen. I can sense the pain in their voices and it breaks my heart. Seeing the photos of St. Louis prominently displayed on the news brought it all back.

I have surprised even myself that I asked to talk about this topic today. Talking about race and racism as it exists today is a sensitive, complicated and almost taboo topic.

Today I’m here to share a story that may give you a very tiny glimpse of how complicated the relationships between white and black people, indeed maybe all people of colour, can be in North America. My take-away, at the end of this talk, is that I hope to start a conversation about racism and encourage each of you to find the courage to confront and reflect upon your own, often subconscious biases. I hope by the end of my story you may start to look at your own assumptions about race and begin to have real conversations about race with other people.

It was 1998 and I was a new teacher at Hazelwood Central High School in Florrisant, Missouri. It is just north of Ferguson, about a 10-minute drive. I had come from teaching in Medellin, Colombia and thought I would leave my culture shock behind in South America, but nothing could have prepared me for what I found in Missouri.  The school of 2,500 students was 50 per cent white and 50 per cent black.

As a new employee I was required to attend a racism-awareness course put on by the district. There were three high schools and many elementary schools, so there were about 25 new faculty who had to attend this program each Friday afternoon for the first six weeks of school. Almost all of them were white. On the first day I sat down next to a black woman and introduced myself. We started chatting about the local area. I was renting an apartment but trying to figure out where to buy a house in the area and was peppering her with questions. At some point the conversation turned to schools.

“So, where do you live?” “Just nearby in Hazelwood, she replied. “Do your children go to school there?” I continued. “No. They go to the Catholic school,” she said. “Oh,” I said. “Why do they go there?” And with that, she cocked her head slightly and replied, “Because I can afford it,” and turned away from me. I was very naïve and thought that it was a strange answer but I left it and turned to the person on my other side and continued chatting.

Over the weeks, I attended these sessions and everyone, both black and white teachers, kept talking about how there wasn’t any racism and they didn’t understand why we were here. They talked about how their students all got along and everything was fine.

I was not having that experience in my classroom. My black and white students did not want to work with each other.  I had tried mixing the groups by race but it caused such a fuss I gave up. I noticed the football and basketball teams were almost all black and the soccer and volleyball teams were white. The cheerleaders were white but the dancers were black. The only thing that wasn’t split into white and black was the band. They were the only kids who mixed with one another.

I had been told by a real estate agent not to look in a certain part of the city for a house because it was “too dark” and I truly thought he meant the lighting at first. People talked about moving to St. Charles, across the river, to join the “white flight” before their house prices fell because of the black people moving into the area. The people making these comments were otherwise so nice. They were welcoming and kind to me.  I was shocked by the racist comments I was hearing everywhere I turned.

So, after the third or fourth week of the teachers constantly saying how racism wasn’t a problem in their classrooms I had had enough of the lies. I felt very emotional and angry. I was tired of being quiet and, finally, I spoke up. I said, “Maybe I’m a terrible teacher but I am not seeing what you are in my classes. I am seeing students who won’t look at one another nor work together. I am seeing extra-curriculars split by race. I am seeing our lowest math classes completely filled with black men and our highest math classes completely white even thought our school is 50/50. I hear my fellow teacher dismiss black kids as lazy and stupid but will make excuses for the white kids who exhibit the same behaviour. A white kid gets caught with a pager and his mom is called. A black kid is caught and he’s suspended for 10 days. I feel like everyone in this room is just talking a bunch of rubbish and no one is saying the truth. And the truth is — there’s a big problem in our schools and our city that no one is talking about!”

I raged on and on, citing more examples of times I had witnessed racism and I even targeted myself. “I am guilty of this as well. I have a student who is bright, well-behaved and lovely. I saw him in a mall and didn’t recognize him at first as he had a hat on. My first reaction when I saw him was fear. When I realized who it was I was so ashamed of myself. I was judging this poor boy based on his clothing and not who he was, who I knew him to be.”

I began to cry. “And if I am thinking things like this — what is everyone else really thinking — really and truly thinking?  How can we say our schools aren’t racist when I am sure we all have feelings like this but we are too afraid to talk about them?”

I sat down exhausted. The group sat in stunned silence. The woman from the first day leaned towards me and said, “On that first day you sat beside me. You asked me why I sent my kids to the Catholic school. Do you remember that?” I nodded. She continued, “I said, ‘Because I can afford it.’ And I said that because I assumed you were asking me why I, an uppity black woman, would possibly send my kids to a private school. But you weren’t were you?”

I shook my head no.

“You were really just asking me because you were new to St. Louis.  It never even occurred to me that it was an innocent question. I have been treated so badly by so many people on my journey through life that now I just assume all white people have an agenda. I look at every comment through that lens. Now I wonder how many times I took things the wrong way.” And she burst into tears.

We all began to talk — really talk. The white faculty talked about their own assumptions and guilt. The black faculty talked about their experiences. There were a lot of tears and some anger but it finally felt like the conversation was real, like we were actually communicating.

I hope this story illustrates how deeply the wounds left by a racist society can run for many people. This woman had consistently had such negative experiences in her life with white people that she had just assumed the worst when I asked her a question. She was well-educated and middle-class but still suffered each day.

The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner have again helped to shed light on the chasm that still exists between the races. Even Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, who has a mixed-race son stated that, “We’ve had to literally train him, as families have all over this city for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.”

It’s the assumptions we make about each other based on the colour of our skin that need to be addressed. The police make assumptions, which can lead to death but so do teachers, shopkeepers and security guards. Each of those people may not have a gun in their hands but their assumptions can hurt almost as much as a bullet.

You may be asking yourself. What does that have to do with me? I’m in Canada and we aren’t like those people in the United States.  While I believe that the racism in Canada is not as blatant as it is in the U.S. it does not mean that it isn’t there. It’s more subtle here but it still exists. It can be in the small actions like being nervous because a black man walks past you on the sidewalk, or subconsciously avoiding sitting next to a black person on the bus.

It can also take the form of very subtle assumptions about places to live and schools to attend. My sons attend Rawlinson Public School. We live at Oakwood and St Clair. When we moved into the area I was urged by other mothers to enroll my sons at a school located on the south side of St Clair because it was “better.” As we talked I realized that the “problem” with Rawlinson was that the people who lived “north of Rogers near Vaughan Road were in the catchment area,” as one mother told me. Another said, “The families at that school don’t value education.” Those people are, in large part, a black population.  No one ever mentioned the black students but I could still sense the implication in the air — the elephant in the room.

I still enrolled my sons at Rawlinson and have found a place where harmony can exist. My kids are young enough to not fear the differences between themselves and others.

I believe it is important for the people who have historically held power to recognize their biases in order to work for change. I feel like I, as a white person, need to acknowledge my privilege in order to confront the biases I have. When we all do that, only then can we start to work for real change and start healing the wounds built over so long.

What was the point in telling you my story and sharing my thoughts with you today?

I hope that I can start you thinking about racism, and encourage each of you to find the courage to confront and reflect upon your own, often subconscious biases. There’s no magic wand that will fix this right away. It will take years but only when we, as white people, start to acknowledge our privilege and assumptions can we begin to confront our own racism and begin to heal the deep wounds in our society. We have to start with one person at our time — ourselves.