Thursday, March 11, 2010

School Yards--Plus ça change...: Forms of Discrimination

Norman Rockwell's rendering of the desegregation of schools in the South of the USA, in  his painting "The Problem We All Live With", inspired by an incident which happened in 1960 at William Franz School, New Orleans, Louisianna. The girl is reminiscent of  the real life Ruby Bridges who wrote her own story of the day, Through My Eyes.

Over the holidays past, a friend shared with me the following slide show, which was created at the public elementary school where she teaches, by the Vice-Principal and another teacher, and which the Principal approved, to be shown  to all the students of all grades JK-Grade 5 inclusive (ages 3 1/2 to 11). It was part of a fundraising campaign to raise enough money to buy a play yard (swings, slide, climbing bars) for the playground of what is a relatively new school.

Each year a similar fundraiser--called a Move-A-Thon because the students get sponsors to pay them to skip rope, or jump, or run, or whatever, for a set time period--is held for a variety of goals, and the money earned by a class usually goes toward something special for that classroom or class. This year the funds were to be combined toward the large school goal.

The school is located in a new development which is ~ 90% recent South Asian immigrants from the same area and ethno- religious (Dharmic, not Muslim) group of  North India. Of the 610 students at the school 6 are Anglo-Canadian, 10 are African-Canadian Evangelical Christians, and the rest are from that South Asian group, as are 20% of the teaching staff.  Although the development is one of large single family dwellings, in fact many families live in one home, as is consistent both culturally and socio-economically for this group of new arrivals from North India.

Given the economic downturn, and the challenges of immigration, the school had in September of the same year used discretionary funds to create a year long free breakfast program, open to any student who wished, to be sure that all students started the day with a nutritious breakfast, and that no stigma was attached to participation.

The slide show below was shown in early December, for the annual Move-A-Thon fundraiser activity. My friend showed it to me with only the following information: "This year's fundraiser is to buy a play yard for the school with a goal of  $20,000  which is much higher than usual. This slide show was shown to all students on the same day during 1st period to increase the amount of funds being raised. Watch it, and tell me what you think."

I would ask you to do the same, that is, look at the slide show reproduced here (but anonymously, and from screen shots), and collect your own thoughts before reading the additional material below it.

Slides for School Fundraising Campaign
2009-2010 Move-A-Thon 
for a Play Yard

What are your thoughts so far?
What impressions do you have from this slide show?
How do you imagine the children were impacted? by age? by ethnicity? by race? by economic status?
Any other cultural factors that may have been at play for these children?
What about their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings, cousins, either hearing about this or receiving requests for sponsorship?

Further elements for consideration

My friend went to speak to the Vice-Principal in advance of the scheduled showing to try to point out her concerns. The Vice-Principal was oblivious, and confirmed the approval by the Principal.  My friend then approached the one African-Canadian teacher on staff at that school, and asked her if she had previewed the slide show.  Since she hadn't, my friend warned her she had best do so, and then decide whether she wanted to show this to her students.  They watched together, and my friend stood by as the other teacher's face decomposed emotionally; and my friend said "I am so sorry..." repeatedly as the woman walked to the window, looked out, and said "You can't understand...I seemed...I thought we were...past can't know...".

That teacher did not show the slide show during the scheduled time, nor did my friend. My friend had no intention of showing any slide show aimed at older children to her JK's and SK's (Junior and Senior Kindergarten students), and decided not to show that one to her Grade 5 students either. There were no repercussions for this, although the Principal did express months later her concern that she hadn't been approached directly as a friend of my friend, but stood by the fundraising strategy.

Although usually the annual fundraiser has a more modest goal (about $11,000) and slightly exceeds it (about $12,500) this year the target of $20,000 was not met, and the amount raised lower than average (about $12,000).

What are your further thoughts?
What would you have done in my friend's place, or that of the African-Canadian teacher?
How would you respond if you were a parent and your child told you about this slide show?
Are all of the children at the school equally affected by this? How so, or how not?
Is there any connection with schoolyard bullying? with later adult bullying?
What does this example say about targeting, whether for race or socio-economic status, and its lifelong impact?
What is your experience of  similar discrimination whether in others or yourself?
How relevant is this to Saudi society, and experiences in public or private schools there?
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?

Addendum: Eman of Saudiwoman's Weblog just posted on an experience of discrimination against her Saudi daughter for being a Saudi passport holder in Saudi--Discriminated against by a foreigner in my own country


Susanne said...

First time I viewed the slide show, I thought

1. Wow, those graphics are expressive and kind of in the hard-sales-pitch way. I'm used to more positive graphics -- celebrating each step of success rather than expressing "honest" (?)emotions of disappointment and frustration.


2. Look at those cute little black kids. Poor things, no nice playground.

Since you made a point of sharing how non-white this district was, I thought they used black children to be more minority-friendly.


I read the rest of your post and viewed the slides again noticing the first frame showed WHITE children enjoying the playground while the "poor little black kids" (reaction that I DID have) frame showed more of the "bad side" of things if the money could not be raised.

I tried to see this through the African-Canadian teacher's eyes and better understood - I hope - why it made her sad.


Thank you for this exercise in trying to see something from other perspectives. Seeing this as Susanne the white person was different than seeing this as the A-C teacher. I hope you share things like this more as opportunity presents itself. It is GOOD for me to think outside of myself and consider others.

Qusay said...

Well, I would not be offended if it came from a "challenged" person, but not from an educator, one who is taught and trained to see the world in the eyes of the other.

I would've had a long talk with the principal, plus having the negative faces on the money raised is counter productive, nagging might work sometimes, but is bad on the long run.

they could've just had the same children from the same school in a picture of them all pouting... it would've worked better IMO instead of some photo of two well dressed toddlers (I know what they meant, but they were well dressed)

Maha Noor Elahi said...

This post is so true about many cultures. Unfortunately, the discriminators don't see it this way. they believe it's their right to discriminate since they are the richer, whiter, or more powerful.
many years ago, I used to think that i could contribute to ending discrimination in my country, but then I realized that it was an issue bigger than me. It is a pure political desire to continue discriminating against blacks, women, Asians...etc...why? it simply sells more.
If all people had equal rights, how could governments benefit? just a simple example here in Saudi Arabia...the government employs thousands of Asians yearly for very low salaries; not enough even for food. If they employ Saudis, they will have to pay at least triple the amount of money. Thousands of Saudis are not employed because of a result, they go on drugs..they do the worst things..they commit crime...they become a burden on the society ...yet the government doesn't care as long as there are no forces that can change it!

Maybe what I am saying seems off topic a bit, but all these issues are related ... it's always the powerful ones who are discriminating against those who are less powerful or less fortunate ...
Let me give you another example, probably a silly example but so true...
There are a lot of famines in Africa...right? the Saudi government doesn't send great help or donations there...However, when there was war in Lebanon, millions of dollars were sent to Lebanon. Why? Lebanon is the land of the beautiful girls and the luxurious resorts for the Arab wealthy families!

Very painful indeed!

Thanks for this amazing post!

Anonymous said...

This is an implicit form of racism that I suppose we all have a bit of. As a human race, we all constantly categorise, stereotype and simplify things to the point where they no longer resemble reality. Africa - poor, famine prone; the US - fat, wealthy, arrogant; Europe - cowardly, snobbish etc. I think it's a way for the human mind to comprehend a complex world.

To tackle this form of prejudice, I don't think campaigning is the best way to go about it. For me, I much prefer showing them the 'other side'. It's one of the reasons why I like universities so much, I see these stereotypes and pre-conceived notions, crashing down all the time. Just the other day, a friend of mine was asked by his Chinese classmate why he was 'dressed as a terrorist' (he was wearing one of those fashion Keffiyahs). We had a good laugh about it, but such stereotypes do exist.

Back to Africa, my favourite pre-conceived notion is when people assume that it's always hot in Africa. I've been a couple of times and its always funny to see people wearing the same jersey/jumper for days on end because they didn't realise that it can get really cold in winter and that some cities are always cold because of how high up they are. You also have the pictures of never-ending famines, coups, dictators, which feeds into the assumption that everyone in Africa is poor with the exception of the ruling elite (i.e. if you're rich and you're African, you must be collaborating with a dictatorship of some sort and thus an evil person).

Chiara said...

Susanne--thank you for sharing so honestly and in the spirit of the exercise your responses to the slides. I think that your reaction at first was a common one. Indeed I had the same feeling of "rather hard sell" and of how unfair this was to be haranguing children who don't control the family budget about money, and making them, or hoping to make them, go home and wheedle their parents who may not have much money.

The slide with the black children just left me uncomfortably bewildered and thinking something was "off". They look happy enough and well-cared for, but they are on a barren surface, and alone. Plus this is something bad because this is the negative thing that will happen if one doesn't raise enough money, and as the rest of the slides point out the school is still far off the financial target.

I was also aware that this sets children to associating black or African, Afro-Caribbean with negativity, poverty, isolation, bareness. Some of the school's children are African Canadian but most are brown, dark brown. What associations would they make?

The teacher's response rather sealed the deal of the interpretation. She knew exactly what associations children would make because she was raised here, and experienced it. As she said, or tried to say, we think we have come a long way from the days were racism was acceptable or "harmless" school talk,but in fact it is still there or potentially there.

Thanks for capturing well your own response and the ability to see this as yourself (a notably positive and generous spirit) and as someone from a visible minority would.

Chiara said...

Qusay--Thanks for your comment. You make a number of excellent points. The Vice-Principal holds a BA, BEd, and either an MEd or master's level training in pedagogy, psychology and school management. She should be far more in tune than this, and with her own school's population which is brown, if not black.

The negative emotional blackmail of the slides does wear off in financial effectiveness very quickly, and the campaign would have been better served by a more positive approach, and by having the students be more engaged by class and direct benefit. The latter is particularly true as children aren't overly good at abstraction from their immediate classroom concerns to the good of the school and future students.

Using slides that were of children from the school on their current playground even happy, but with the minimum. would have been more effective and engaging than stock photos (also used for the white children).

It is true that the clothing of the 2 black children jars against one's expectation given the barren earth.
For me it ultimately makes it worse--black is the issue not social circumstances for these 2 children, and they are associated with the negatives of no money for a play yard, and a barren boring school ground, on the basis of race not anything else.

Thanks again for your comment!

Chiara said...

Maha-thank you for your very kind words and for your comment. It is true that there are government supported financial structures that also contribute to racist attitudes--by locking certain groups into low level positions, setting financial distinctions based on race or gender, and controlling the immigrant working population by the type of visa and citizenship guidelines they set.

In the case of Canada, most African Canadians are of Caribbean origin. Many of them are here because mother or grandmother left family behind to come to work as a livein maid/nanny/caregiver, and eventually sent for her children. Marriages in these situations are fragile,and some argue that they are fragile in the Caribbean anyway, at least in terms of a nuclear family structure. So many here grew up without a father present as a role model and a provider.

The South Asians are a more recent immigrant group and often are professionals, well off in their home countries or unskilled labour but who have immigration points because the father speaks English and sometimes claim refugee status based on ethno-religious strife in their home country. They are subject to discrimination as new arrivals, visible minorities, and different in culture and religion. However the group is so large in some areas that they have little contact with longer established Canadians, and by custom stay within their group so that acculturation is slow, as is language acquisition.

For sure emotionally browbeating these children about money is unhelpful, as is associating their personal failure to bring in money with barrenness and abandonment of the school yard except to the least white.

Thanks again for your kind words and your comment.

Chiara said...

Shafiq--thank you for your comment and taking the topic in further directions. Implicit is a good word, and so in unconscious in the sense of unthinking and unaware. Teaching the teacher by example and showing would be the best. Unfortunately the VP and the principal were rather obtuse in their concern to raise more money. As Qusay said a good talking with the principal might have helped. However sometimes people really cannot see the difference between what they intended to portray and the the other messages embedded in their expression of it.

Certainly university is a time of broader contact with more types of people in the world, if it is a reasonably large and diverse campus; and with the world of ideas and knowledge that allow one to bring down stereotypes--at least for some. Others have their prejudices re-enforced by selective attentiveness, or just remain impervious.

How members of a minority group conduct themselves is more likely to reflect on the group as a whole but also most often is a tribute to that group. In that sense, being oneself can be a good modelling of one's group for others to have their prejudices challenged.

It is true that for many Africa is one hot, impoverished land mass. They are unaware of the diversity geographically and of the population, the wealth, and the prevailing moral attitudes. I do think that this is becoming less frequent now with access to greater real time media. Some beliefs are just funny misinterpretations, but then again we can all learn more,and have our blinkers removed or pushed further back.

Thanks again for your interesting comment.

I do hope others will share whatever impressions they have of the slide show, the circumstances of it, or their own experiences of or thoughts on forms of discrimination.

Umm Ameena Kimberly said...

Well, the pictures used in the first slide were of kids playing happily in a playground. The other slide's picture was of two kids walking alone in what appears to be a barren dessert. Being it that I am both of African and North Indian descent, I can see from the point of view of the the parties concerned here (the students, their parents, and the Afro-Canadian teacher).

The first slide's pics were supposed to represent a positive image of what a nice playground would be like; but those kids happen to be white. Whereas the pic on the other slide, which is supposed to represent the opposite, shows black kids. Basically it portrays this message; a nice playground has white kids playing in it, and anything with African or dark skinned kids must be pathetic and sad. And it seems obvious to me that the person who choose to use those pictures believes that.

The picture with the African kids isn't even a picture of a playground. It's just two kids playing with a ball. They could have easily found a picture of two white kids playing with a ball (and not in a playground), but that wouldn't evoke as negative a response as the aforementioned.

European kids were chosen to represent what they hoped the playground would be. Why white kids? Most of the students in that school are South Asian. It would have been better if they used pictures of South Asian kids, or of kids of various races.

They chose to use a picture of African kids to express the possibility of not raising enough money for the playground. Why? Because Africans are viewed as poor, uncivilized people who deserve to be slaves, forcefully converted to Christianity and have their names changed to European ones.

So it petty much says to a colored person that the vice principal and principal are racist.

Chiara said...

Umm Ameena Kimberly--Welcome! Thank you for your insightful and explicit comment. You are particularly well placed to experience this as a visible minority in a white culture, and it seems from the perspective of a North American public school setting, including this one in particular.

Based on what I know of the VP and the Principal I think they are of the unthinkingly racist sort--not better than any other form of racism but usually less actively harming others.

The Principal is more intelligent and insightful, and probably could have been reasoned with given enough time, especially on the grounds of emotional harm to the children though unintended. She is actually normally very good at her job and highly compassionate. Unfortunately she is approaching early retirement and is distracted by her post-retirement career options.

The VP was described by my friend, in rather mocking but accurate imitation fashion, as being simply too dense to see the problem from any angle and more concerned with administrative formalities like the Principal's approval, completing the task she was assigned, and using her learned organizational management strategies to deflect my friend while appearing to have listened to her concerns appropriately.

It is extremely concerning that these 2 should be working in this particular school, although the principal is good enough that she was specifically chosen to become the principal when the school first opened.

My friend told me of working at another school in the same school board, where there was a very high population of South Asian and East African Muslims, all recent immigrants. She also had a little Moroccan boy with no English or French language skills in her JK class. He was a challenge because his family were in the country on the 2nd year of his father's work contract, yet he had been cosseted at home with grandparents and mother, and so picked up no other languages than Moroccan Arabic, despite having 2 older sisters who spoke French and English in the school. Also they had trouble leaving the kindergarten, ie THEY had separation anxiety, until both my friend and her principal enforced it--whereupon mother stood outside the window looking in, from under her umbrella while it was raining out.

His older sisters were a problem for the school because of poor academic performance, and the middle child extorting money and lunch treats from other students, through threats of physical harm which she also meted out.

The various teachers and the VP and Principal were handling this well, and the parents were receptive though devastated by the parent teachers night. They came to my friend's classroom last and they were so upset by the previous 2 meetings that she left out a number of issues for the little boy whose behaviours were mostly related to not understanding the English around him (ESL is only offered later and for one year--duh! AKA government cutbacks) and becoming a target for other kids because of it. The father was thinking of sending the children back to Morocco if his contract was renewed.

Meanwhile, the school secretary, had taken it upon herself to monitor the family's visa status. Their visa expired 10 days before the end of the school year, and it was her intention to have them kicked out of school on the very same day.

Given that the whole problem of the jailing and deportation of the British teacher for naming a teddy bear Mohamed began with a disgruntled secretary (unhappy with the school and wanting to discredit it), one should not underestimate the power of the office staff.

Fortunately, in this case, the Moroccan father's contract was renewed, and they would have had credit for the year anyway.

Thanks again for your inspiring comment, and I hope you will comment on newer and older posts as well.

I hope others will share their impressions and insights as you did.


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