In today's episode of Don't Call Me Resilient, we speak with two Canadian educators who explain how using critical race theory in their classrooms helps both students and teachers.
Today we explore how applying critical race theory in classrooms across Canada helps both students and teachers. Teresa Fowler, assistant professor of Education at Concordia University of Edmonton joins us. So does Dwayne Brown, a PhD student in Education at York University, and a grade seven teacher with the Toronto District School Board. Both Brown and Fowler use critical race theory in their classrooms every day, and say that it helps them to see and evaluate their own biases—while also making students feel truly included in their own education.
Go to The Conversation for full shownotes.
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Vinita: From the Conversation, this is Don’t Call Me Resilient
Critical race theory has a lot of people upset…In the United States, some parents are calling for schools to ban critical race theory–claiming that it distorts reality and invokes shame for white students. Since January 2021, 42 states have introduced bills or taken other steps to restrict how teachers can discuss racism in the classroom and 17 states have given in to these demands.
But critical race theory is not an abstract concept – it is actually simply a reflection of us: of our unequal laws and systems already in place. It points out the history of our society and its ongoing inequalities. And asks us to look at issues as systemic instead of as individual problems.
In some parts of Canada, like in Toronto, at the largest school board in the country, anti-racism curriculum is already embedded into the classroom. In some cases, parents love this and in others, not so much.
Today we’re going to explore how applying critical race theory in classrooms across Canada helps both students and teachers.
Joining me is Dwayne Brown. He is a PhD student in Education at York University, and a grade seven teacher with the Toronto District School Board. Dwayne grew up in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood in Toronto, and studies mental health in relation to Black male student success.
Also with us is Teresa Fowler. Teresa is an Assistant Professor of Education at Concordia University of Edmonton, and she studies critical white masculinities.
Both Dwayne and Teresa use critical race theory in their classrooms every day, and say that it helps them to see and evaluate their own biases–while also making students feel truly included in their education.
Vinita: I would like to welcome you both. Thank you very much for taking the time to come and speak with me today.
Dwayne: It’s an honour.
Teresa: Thank you so, much.
Vinita: So, both of you are educators and I'm wondering, could just start on a personal level, what motivated you to focus your work on race? Dwayne, we could start with you.
Dwayne: Absolutely. Race is, something that has fueled, a lot of loss, something that has led to many people, being voiceless and powerless in many different circumstances and spaces. My journey through race was actually a journey or a lesson in injustice. And I learned that lesson very early, in kindergarten, actually, where I was playing with one of my best friends who is white. And we were playing on a sandpit. the sand happened to be a little bit too dry, so we decided to pour some water in however, we poured a little bit too much water and the sand pit became a mud pit. I learned really early that, my body was a phobogenic object for punishment because I was a part of the person that ruined, the sand for everyone else. I was punished, but my friend wasn't.
Vinita: So your awareness of race, would you say that it was an awareness of injustice at the same time as it was an awareness of your own race?
Dwayne: Yeah. Yeah, I definitely would say that
Vinita: it's really interesting the burden that you're talking about, that, Black and racialized and Indigenous children, but maybe marginalized children in general as well carry because they understand what it's like to have this sense of injustice, children really understand justice, right? what about, what about you Teresa? Same question for you.
Teresa: I came to this understanding, through my children. we have four, well they're now men, at the time I was raising four young, biracial boys. Their father is Indigenous and it was in grade three and grade five. When all of a sudden I started hearing language such as assessment, iOP, which in Alberta is sort of the very non-academic stream in high school where kiddos don't graduate with the high school diploma. My boys are denied recess and I'm hearing all of these things and I'm Like, where is all of this coming from?Then that prompted me to go into education. And then when I moved into schools, as a guidance counselor, you see that all the time kids are pushed out because of the colour of their skin kids, are not being included into a school system, which calls itself inclusive. And so I asked myself who decides this? What came out of all of this for me is that heightened level of awareness, as a white person, I was not exposed to this. I wasn't exposed to race. So all of these terms coming out through my children's education really prompted me to rethink, what am I doing as an educator? What am I doing to these children? Am I helping them realize their potential? Or am I squashing it? So it was also self-reflective journey for myself.
Vinita: One of those things that you said just drives me crazy when I hear that story of teachers who were like, you're going to stay in for recess, really, do you think that's the best thing to do for that child right now?
Dwayne: Everything that you were saying with children that reverberated with me as well, because they were trying to put me in special education classes my guidance counsellor in high school told me, oh, you shouldn't go to university, do an apprenticeship. Yup. you'll get paid while you go to school!
Teresa: Yeah! Go to the trades!
Vinita: I just want to talk about this term for a minute, critical race theory. when some people hear this term, they kind of work themselves up into a frenzy. and others may just feel a little confused. what is it? I'm not sure if people really understand what CRT really is. I'm wondering Dwayne, what does it look like in your classroom?
Dwayne: Absolutely. it's simply put honouring the voices of every student, the experiences of every student, allowing that student to be comfortable enough or feeling like they have a psychologically safe space where they can express their whole self. They can walk into that space and embrace who they are fully.
So what, kind of assignments are you giving out? Does the student have choice or voice in that assignment? what are the students, exploring? do the students interests show up in the classroom? What do your walls look like? The walls are the third teacher. Do the students see pride when they walk into their space because they see their work up on the wall. Do the students get to decide, the direction of the learning? it's sometimes it's putting yourself on the back burner, in order to ensure that the students, can really have that driver's seat
Vinita: That's hard for a lot of people to do where you're allowing the student to, lead the teaching or lead the learning.
Dwayne: it's very hard. It's uncomfortable, but it's what's necessary. I mean, we need to break ourselves out of the lazy thinking because the lazy thinking is what causes people to look at people and ascribe meaning to their bodies rather than getting to know them. So it’s constantly at every level of our education, imbuing and filling our students with that anti-racist that, resistance mentality, so that they can embrace change and be comfortable with change.
Vinita: What about you Teresa? You actually work to train future teachers. what does it look like for you in that kind of environment?
Teresa: It's interesting because often, our pre-service teachers they're successful having gone through school, individually, they may or may not have had challenges, but they've made it through. So their experience is, is not aligned necessarily with a racialized or marginalized child, because those in front of us in a teacher education are not representative of the kids in the classrooms still. so we have to recognize the socialization of whiteness And how it has been so ingrained within them. They have no idea that there's other ways to do things. And so it's trying to counter to say, you know what, we're not going to focus on how to do this. We're going to focus on those big patterns that we see in education. It's really trying to open up different experiences, to different ways of being other than how we've been socialized to think, and like Dwayne said, this is what it means to be inclusive. The students are the ones in charge in the classroom, you of course are the, protector to make sure no one gets injured and that sort of thing, but breaking away from the teacher-centric idea of what it means to be an educator. We need to really break some of the myths in education, like inclusion, Cause you know, what are we being included into? Schooling itself was designed for a specific group of people. And inclusion is now saying you all are welcomed into our white society, And that's why we see those experiences like Dwayne and like my sons, you don't fit. So therefore you must do otherwise. so it's trying to really work with students to see different experiences, which is challenging.
Dwayne: That’s right
Vinita: You're talking about this idea of how challenging it is to your students, Teresa, when you're asking them to take in new information. That's one of the challenges that we keep hearing, from the conservatives, you know, in the U.S that learning about
race makes people really uncomfortable, or it makes them feel ashamed to be white. why do you think it's so difficult for people to have conversations about race?
Teresa: I think with respect to whiteness, majority of our teachers are white, you know, 70 per cent in Alberta are white and so they don't know otherwise. so then there's this fear and that's how CRT and the fear mongering happens as you keep it, this top secret thing, but it's not, and it's not even a theory driven from. the academy, it's a theory driven from police pulling over black people, more than white people. It's a theory driven from those actions, by people on the ground, and then us in these ivory towers, we look at these patterns and we say, Hey,
Vinita: Hey, there's a pattern here.
Teresa: there's a pattern here. and it seems to centre around race it's not to say that all of a sudden, all of the white people are going to lose their privilege. All of the white people are going to lose their jobs. It just means that like Dwayne said, we just want people to do what they say. Schools are inclusive, be inclusive. law is supposed to be objective well be objected. And it's hard to look back at the history, we talk about reconciliation. We have to look back at the history but I also have to look at my history and I don't mean on ancestry.
I need to look at the legacy of what it means to be white and we don't want to go there. And especially in Alberta, we have a lot of families who are ranchers, who have been here for generations. And so you're really pushing up against who matters here. And that's where we see then all of those the thin blue line, the white lives matter. And we lose perspective. we lose the theory. So they're really not even focused on the theory anymore because they don't understand. And if we don't talk about we're going to keep having all of these violent outbursts.
Vinita: I wanted to ask you Dwayne, cause I know we're switching back and forth between levels of education. One is university and Dwayne we're talking about your classroom, which is at the moment grade seven. but I wanted to ask you also, from my perspective, as a parent of two racialized children, were talking in some ways the challenge to white, children or to white folks like learning about race, but how do you start to begin to deal with the challenges of teaching racialized kids? About some of this traumatic history?
Dwayne: History, is something that is not just back then, so that's the first step. So teaching them through some of the things that remain in our daily lives, some of the things that, they can pinpoint, in their own experiences that, are injustices or may have racial undertones or may flat out be racist. it all comes from equipping them with the language to be able to deal with these things. So what is a microaggression? What is, racism? What is colonization? And then after they able to analyze their everyday context, they can take a look back in the past. Where did this come from? Are these the same ideas that permeate our everyday experience today that we're seeing, play out in our past as well?
Dwayne: So what are we going to do about it? It's being able to ensure that they have the critical tools to be able to name it and tame it. it's having these conversations. it's being able to allow them to do that introspection and analyze their own experiences. we have wraparound supports in the education system. We have social workers, psychologists, et cetera. So if a student doesn't feel safe inside of your classroom to bring certain things to surface. To have that trusting adult, that caring adult to work through these things with then where are they going to feel safe? Our classrooms are microcosm to the world, that they're going to inevitably inherit.
Vinita: I love that you're talking about these definitions for, children really, because I feel like there's this thing about we can't teach ten-year-olds about colonization or we can't use the word race, I took my nine year old to a play in. In New York called Confederates by Dominique Morrisseau. and the play is about a modern day workplace racism. And it was juxtaposed with a slave rebellion, and that went back and forth between modern day and slavery. And at the end of the play, my nine-year-old said, I think I understand. I think she's saying that nothing's changed I think that a lot of people do shy away from thinking that children can deal or talk about these things
Dwayne: the children are capable of anything. I've taught my students how to navigate the stock market. You know,
Vinita: want to be in your class, Dwayne.
Dwayne: there is nothing, these kids can't do. their potential is limitless.
Teresa: It's limited by us though, educators, We're the ones that squash it, I think about, Jean Anyon, she was an educational researcher. She did a seminal study in the same district. And she looked at three different schools and she was focused on class. But we could look at the same analogy with respect to race. she had a highbrow lowbrow and a mid-brown, So upper-class middle-class and probably a poverty school, same grade, and the teacher's response to the students was different depending on class status of the children. The higher class, pedagogy was more experiential. It was more like your classroom Dwayne, where kids are learning real life experiences. then the middle-class school was more geared towards college, Paper, pencil, you're doing more in class work. Whereas then the lower class school was given work sheet. Rote learning. When you talk about tools and what do we need with respect to teachers, to be able to be comfortable with knowing that children are already aware of injustice, children are already quote unquote social justice warriors, but teachers need to have space. To reflexively, dive into their own complicitness within a system that perpetuates these rules and policies.
We have those wraparound supports, but it doesn't take into the fact that the school is a site of trauma for these kiddos. when you address that, then it’ll be safe to come to school. as an individual teacher, I can't change the policy, but I can change my classroom. there's ways that we can erode those boundaries to truly make a school, a safe place for our racialized children.
Dwayne: I remember that study very well it was fascinating that it revealed. Teachers biases. we walk into this space and we need to remove our biases and it's hard. It is, hard. there are biases when you're marking, there are biases when you're having conversations, there's biases in your reaction to students. and we have to really do that extra work as educators, as mobilizers of these young, brilliant minds. as gatekeepers, we need to do that extra work of questioning our biases. Where did this come from? And it always comes from social conditioning, it does what it's supposed to do so well. It makes us uncomfortable to talk about these topics. you know, it makes us question, oh my gosh. am I racist? Was that racist?
Vinita: You guys must have dealt with this, Can you recall any moments in your teaching, where either a parent or a student has been really resistant to this teaching that you're trying to impart?
Dwayne: Teresa, do you want to go first?
Teresa: Sure. I always start my classes, with our positionality, and I always caveat with the fact that I research in critical white masculinities. I say, this is your quote trigger warning. You're going to hear whiteness. you're going to hear all of these things from me. And if you happen to be a white male in this classroom, this isn't about you.This is about how the world has socialized us into thinking but of course, there's always things that come up. part of me sort of dreads, those emails, you know, can I meet with you privately because you offended me because I'm honestly, trying to be. a good human a good role model, a good mentor. I don't want to close down the conversation. and they are hard conversations. That's the part that teachers are not taught is from those negative experiences, there's always seed of truth somewhere. we have tough conversations, but I also find that they're welcome conversations because I've had, perhaps single racialized individual in my class come up to me after and say, thank you so much for speaking my truth. And so for me, those conversations are the ones that keep me going.
Vinita: How about you, Dwayne?
Dwayne: For the age group that I work with right now, both of my classes have been. Fully racialized. everyone identifies as a racialized person. So I haven't had anyone resistant, all of my students have kind of had that. Oh, wow, wow, Mr. Brown, that kind of like empowerment and that confidence
Dwayne: I appreciate that. but in my work as a DEIA facilitator, you expect the resistance, it's natural, these conversations and I don't want to bring in George Floyd or, I mean, we'd go all the way back to Emmett Till right. these kinds of things, these injustices have been happening, you know, they're commonplace.
Vinita: Dwayne, you're talking about your classroom and you're describing what the class looks like and feels like And I'm wondering about events like orange shirt day and Black history month. How important are these in your classroom for anti-racist education?
Dwayne: Yes. Yes. Yes. With some snaps. Yes, they are mandatory. They're imperative, springboards to get conversation happen. I asked my students if they know about the Rwandan genocide. No one put their hand up. I asked my students if they knew about the Palestinian versus Israel war and two students put their hand up one Turkish and one person who has ties to the land, every year mandatory, I start our, our first month by, talking about the dangers of a single story by Chimamanda Adichie.
I was first exposed to that Ted talk in university during my masters. so the fact that it took so long for me to be exposed to that and have language to articulate yo stories matter, many stories matter, and then taking that into my grade seven classroom. I even use that in my grade five classroom, they gobbled it up, they understood it. You know, it gives them the understanding, the language to communicate yo, this is why some of the things that we see in our society, some of the injustices exist because people are painted with a single story. We need more stories. And that's why I bring in all kinds of stories, orange shirt day. We talk about the story behind that We talk about, Phyllis Webstad, for the, holocaust and, to address anti-semitism. We bring stories about that, next year I intend to. get an Indigenous elder to come to the school. to talk about the importance of community, when we're talking about the grandfather teachings, stories matter.
Teresa: The narrative coming after was that it was consensual that it was sort of this lingering, ongoing battle between these folks and yet,
Vinita: Like an equal fight, like boy boys fighting on the school yard.
Teresa: Like the boys will be boys narrative. which is incredibly problematic the school board didn't understand that perhaps consensual fight was an outcome of racism this wasn't just a school yard fight. It was racially motivated because of the ways in which the Black boy’s story, wasn't accounted for, it was dismissed. And again, it comes back to the fact that those folks who are deciding the fate of this child are all white. I don't know every individual in this case, but we know in schools, most administrators are white and those are the ones that are deciding that you are this and you are that and whenever there's these incidents, it just seems too common that it's the racialized individual who is the one that is And if we have folks in those positions of power, Who at the very least, just took context into account. Everything we do is subjective. you can't deny that an administrator seeing the same child in an, in an Inn starts thinking, oh, it's that child. And yet what it is is that child's being singled out because of this other narrative that's happening, which then that individual might feel powerless to do. So you give up and then, oh, well it's just a consensual fight. So we kind of circle through, we never break. out of that space. the beauty of what critical race theory could do in that situation to say, Hey, let's just slow down for a minute. Let's just pause. Let's take a look at our discipline records. Let's take a look at how many children are referred to the office. we say we're data driven in education. Well, first of all, where is the data? And if we have the data, let's actually take a look. And then if we look there, maybe it isn't consensual. Maybe there is something that we need to step in and do here.
Vinita: I feel like this is not at all in the same level of seriousness. my kid is mixed race, South Asian and East Asian, and, took a lunar new year's envelopes to school this year and was very excited. spent the night before a stuffing, them and writing everybody's name, individual cards, super excited,And then came home at lunchtime in complete tears and flopped on the couch and was really upset. And I said, what's the matter? And they said, they made fun Of the envelopes. One kid ripped the red envelope in half and another kid made fun of the money because the money was fake. They said, this is cheap. in the context. That we're in right now, which is rising anti-Asian racism. This is an important thing to talk about. this is not just children being children and fighting with other. it's very, challenging because for me as a racialized parent, I get kind of triggered myself in that I think, oh, am I overreacting? but, we had to address it. first of all my child is in tears. So I'm pissed off anyways, but second, let's actually deal with it in a larger context kind of conversation. Let's not talk about the individual children here. Let's talk about it as something that we need to talk about in the classroom in general.
Teresa: That's a good point. And I think in my experience with beginning teachers, that's where they get stuck. Cause I tell them that moment is a beautiful moment to have those conversations but then there's that pressure of delivering the curriculum on time, I have to do this. and again, it comes back to that change paradigm is to try And tell our pre-service teachers, Your job is to work with students, not to teach the curriculum, we're parents, The best time to have a conversation with your kiddo is when you're in the car. Cause they can't escape. can control the music, you don't have to look at each other so you can have an in-depth conversation. And I said, think about curriculum that way. So how can you use curriculum to open up the space to have these conversations? I'm sure you're aware in Alberta curriculum's like a hot topic. there's a lot of fear with this new curriculum because it is even more whitewashed So how do we work within it? so I have our students, let's just pause. let's forget the narrative. 'cause we know? nobody likes it except for a certain group of people. And we take time and we go into it and we try and find those moments to say, okay, here's an outcome here. I could talk about anti-racism. so let's find ways that we can use the tools, like Audrey Lorde, you know, use the tools that built the master's house. How can we use the tools against itself? You want me to teach this curriculum? Okay. Then I'm going to do this. But then we see the response, we can see fear. we're afraid of what CRT is revealing and that is our own bias, CRT is a mirror and we're all afraid to look into it .
Vinita: Wow. Yes. for me, the last question that I want to ask, is that it feels like these cultural divides around critical race theory are gigantic. You're on that side. I'm on this side, big chasms in between. how do you personally motivate yourself as educators to keep going.
Dwayne: I think about my daughter and the world that she's going to inherit. everything that I do, I'm thinking. yo who is going to be able to hold my daughter up, build her up when she's enduring, moments where she's not feeling confident moments where she feels like she was targeted. we recently moved to an area outside Toronto, Curtis, Ontario. and while considering moving out here, we're like, yo, is there a black population? are there people that are going to affirm her? are there any cultural staples, because we fear that she won't be able to bring her full self into different spaces and she's this really energetic, beautiful athletic two year old. So she has a lot of energy. If people are functioning out of a place of bias, they'll want to douse that energy, that growth, that dynamic nature, and I don't want that, I want people to be able to see all of the brilliance and unity that comes with her. So how do I find the motivation? I find it by looking at her, I find it by looking at each of my students I listened to their stories and I try to, allow them to just love their stories and, boldly embrace them, just to be more confident. with everything that they bring to the table, that's what motivates me
Dwayne: I do see the work as something that's going to have to continue. And it starts with our youth. It starts with our education system. It starts with the conversations that we have. and critical race theory as a tool, is definitely effective. it's definitely necessary in order to interrogate the insecurity and the fragility that we have in our society, the social conditioning that we have all endured has to be exposed for what it is and held complicit in the fragility that it's developed inside of each and every one of us.
Vinita: I'm going to ask Teresa the same question
Teresa: what it means to be human, I think we've lost somewhere along the way. And I really feel that modern school. Has done that, kids come to us like Dwayne, you talk about kindergarten, the kids are super excited to go to. school. But then something happens along the way. Our role as educators in elementary is to take the emotions out of kids and then come junior high. We're teaching them again, how to be empathetic. For me, there's a moral obligation to, lift up and right injustices, I just feel it in my bones that we just have to do something different because our society, is at risk coming to school.
Dwayne: Definitely imploring people. Really get comfortable with the uncomfortable, have conversations that you feel uncomfortable about, question why you're uncomfortable, and really take note of triggers because that's going to give you insight into where your next exploration should start. Doing the right introspection, exposing yourself to the right materials, to allow you to move forward in a way that benefits the people that are around you.
Vinita: Thank you. It was a real pleasure to speak with both of you I really enjoyed this conversation
Dwayne: Thank you. it was an honor,
Teresa: Thank you for the opportunity. this has been really wonderful.
That’s it for this episode of Don’t Call Me Resilient.
Dwayne and Teresa, thank you so much for sharing your insights about how you use critical race theory in your classrooms.
And let us know what you’re thinking after that conversation. You email us the old school way or find us online. I’m on Twitter at @writevinita. That’s @w-r-i-t-e-v-i-n-i-t-a …
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And if you’d like to read more about critical race theory in education, go to the conversation.com. We have all kinds of information in our show notes with links to stories and research.
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Don’t Call Me Resilient is a production of The Conversation Canada.
This podcast was produced with a grant for Journalism Innovation from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
The series is produced and hosted by me, Vinita Srivastava. My series co-producers are: Haley Lewis and sound editor Lygia Navarro. Vaishnavi Dandekar is an assistant producer. Reza Dahya is our sound designer. Jennifer Moroz is consulting producer. Lisa Varano is our audience development editor. Scott White is the CEO of The Conversation Canada. And if you’re wondering who wrote and performed the music we use on the pod, that’s the amazing Zaki Ibrahim. The track is called Something in the Water.