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For Black students, school is not a neutral space: Mochama

The anti-Blackness that permeates the health and justice systems doesn’t stop when the morning bell rings.

Kayne Munroe moments before the start of the Black Graduation event at University of Toronto, Thursday, June 22, 2017.

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Kayne Munroe moments before the start of the Black Graduation event at University of Toronto, Thursday, June 22, 2017.

Fireworks are fun, but they’re fleeting. What makes this country real are the people and communities that form it. As the country celebrates 150 years of nationhood, Metro’s national columnist Vicky Mochama set out across Canada to discover how five different groups are creating space here.

Here, Part 5: Being Black at school

At his high school in Markham, Ont., Kayne Munroe felt isolated. As one of the few Black students in a mostly Asian school district, Munroe wasn’t even sure he would go to university. It wasn’t until he got to the University of Toronto Scarborough that he finally felt like he could achieve at a higher level.

“It was the nail on the head,” he said as he and I walked towards Hart House on the university’s downtown campus for the school’s first Black Graduation in June.

For the first time in his academic life, at U of T Scarborough, he found a community he could identify with. “It was good to see other well-educated Black people and being able to share your culture with someone.”

For Black students, taking up space in the hallways of schools is a unique challenge.

In her keynote speech at Black Graduation, speaker and scholar Huda Hassan said it best: “Black people are often assumed to be the object of study rather than people who pursue studies. And when we arrive into these spaces, we are criminalized, stigmatized, bypassed and overlooked.”

The Black population in Toronto has been in place since at least 1799. As former enslaved persons made their way up Ontario and into the city, they would settle in the then-city of York. Different waves of immigration followed: from Caribbean workers in the '60s and '70s to Somali and Rwandan refugees in the '80s and '90s, and many others since.

While parents worked and studied, their children went into the public school system where they found deeply entrenched challenges.

Since at least 1992, the province of Ontario has known there was a problem with anti-Blackness in its schools. In a report to then-premier Bob Rae, Stephen Lewis decried the failures of the education system to substantially improve on everything from books by Black authors to the lack of Black teachers to inappropriate streaming that discouraged Black students from pursuing higher education. He noted that the most active and concerned voices were the mothers of Black students.

In contrast to the Ontario school system, the Black community in Nova Scotia has advocated for and won major changes to the education system. For example, there is a designated seat on every school board in the province for people of African descent. That is due to the long-standing advocacy of Black Nova Scotians, says Sylvia Hamilton, a filmmaker whose 1992 documentary Speak It! From the Heart of Black Nova Scotia unveiled the challenges of Black students in the province.

Twenty-five years since Lewis’ report, not much has changed. Despite being the city that birthed both Drake and Kardinal Offishall, Toronto's public art schools are largely white. Black students are still streamed into courses that ultimately disqualify them from getting into university, according to one report. Black mothers are still the most vocal advocates for Black students — and still shouted down. For example, a school board trustee, Nancy Elgie, referred to a Black mom of a student by a racial slur.

(After a prolonged debate and pushback from activists,Elgie resigned.)

Were it not for my own mom, my path through school would have been a confusing one. But even with focus and preparedness, Black parents can't clear every obstacle, especially not anti-Black racism.

Munroe’s mom, Cher Jones, selected a school district she was familiar with, but demographic changes in Markham affected how her son experienced school. While her high school was diverse with a substantial Black population, it was different from Munroe’s, which was mostly Asian.

Combined with a mostly white administration who didn’t seem to see his potential, Munroe struggled.

“You’re not forced to see it so you grow up hating yourself — what makes you you. I didn’t see myself as desirable until university because I didn’t embody the traits in those cultures," Munroe said.

Walking in his gown at Black Graduation, he is a confident and self-possessed man. His success, though, is against many odds.

School is not a neutral space for Black students; the anti-Blackness that permeates the health and justice systems doesn’t stop when the morning school bell rings.

More in After The Party:

Part 1: Making space

Coming up:

Part 7: Welcome to the Gaybourhood

Part 8: The Indigenous City

Join the conversation and tell us how you make space in this place: #AfterTheParty

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