While driving her children to school, like most parents, Dr. Beverly-Jean Daniel tunes into a local radio station. A radio personality begins a reoccurring blast of all the wrongdoings within the Black community, from which celebrity went to jail to who got into a fight. Daniel’s son, nine at the time, asks, “Do I have to listen to this every morning?” He adds: “I don’t want to start my day off that way.”

Daniel, a professor and program coordinator in the community and justice services program at Toronto’s Humber College shared this story last year while speaking at an event called ‘Network Caribbean’. The story emphasized the daily messages Black children receive, which make it difficult to love themselves and conceptualize being excellent.

“The messages that our children get on a consistent basis are messages of dysfunction, messages of failure and that message significantly impacts what they think they are capable of and where they see themselves going.”

“Our everyday language reinforces the idea that blackness is wrong.”

She reasons that the messages aren’t only limited to the media, but also in the context of the classroom, the school system and in everyday dialogue.

“Our everyday language reinforces the idea that blackness is wrong.”

The professor pulls definitions from Webster’s Dictionary. She starts with the word ‘black.’ First, the dictionary states that ‘black’ is a term used to relate to a race of people who have dark skin and come originally from Africa. But then something changes. Black is then connected to wickedness, the devil and sorrow.

She then pulls the definition of the word ‘white.’ First, it explains that the word is chiefly used to refer to people from European extraction. Then it starts to explain personal characteristics like one who is free from moral impurity and innocent, one who is favourable and fortunate.

Daniel reflects upon her experience of coming to Canada when she was 16. “It was the first time in my life I found out that I would never succeed.”

Audience members both laugh and gasp as they find that the contrast is evident. For first- and second-generation Canadian students, their psyche is shaped with the English language that, in its core, views black as the opposite of white, or in other words the opposite of ‘innocence’ and ‘morality’. The messages from the language, coupled with vivid stereotypes of how a Black person should dress, act, talk and be allow children to distance their idea of self from excellence.

Visions of Excellence

Daniel reflects upon her experience of coming to Canada when she was 16.

“It was the first time in my life I found out that I would never succeed. It was a language that was absolutely foreign to me because my reality of blackness was always embedded in excellence. The doctors looked like me. The prime ministers and presidents looked like me. The lawyers looked like me. So for me to be told don’t ever apply to university, because you won’t get the grades you need to get in – it was foreign for me.”

“When I talk about success, we have to give our children the language of success. We have to make the language of success an excellence of the norm.”

Daniel points out some of the risk factors for dropping out of high school: being male, belonging to a lower income family or neighbourhood and high rates of absenteeism. A similar pattern happens in the college system. She found that approximately 80 per cent of the students she worked with who were to be withdrawn from their academic program for various academic reasons were Black. The question is why is this happening?

Director of the York Centre for Education and Community in Toronto, Dr. Carl James, is widely known for his involvement in racially diverse communities and for his research around equity and identity in relation to race, class and gender. Alongside Daniel at ‘Network Caribbean’, James restates researchers’ findings that young people are experiencing a school system in which they feel alienated because the curriculum does not speak to them.

“Essentially what is being created is a debt with no diploma system. They will not be able to get the type of jobs or careers that will allow them to be able to pay off their debt.”

James looks at the areas of the educational system through a microscope, particularly, the transition of middle school to high school. Some Grade 8 students are being ‘transferred’ instead of ‘promoted’ into high school. So, when they get to high school they are not taking the classes they need to get to post-secondary. And when they get to college or university, many of the students end up dropping out. Daniel explains it is because they do not have the support they need, or more importantly the attitude of success.

“When I talk about success, we have to give our children the language of success. We have to make the language of success an excellence of the norm.”

Time for Change

In some ways, dropping out of college is more devastating than dropping out of high school, says Daniel.

“Essentially what is being created is a debt with no diploma system. They will not be able to get the type of jobs or careers that will allow them to be able to pay off their debt. So now they are returning to the community with reinforced notions of failure, additional levels of debt, limited opportunities for jobs and careers, which then also impacts on their long-term financial stability. If we go back to the idea that kids from lower income neighbourhoods tend to do less well academically what we are also looking at is a cycle of crisis in our community.”

“We must seriously get involved in understanding where our students are at. Understand the system.”

James offers a stepping-stone to start to ensure the success of students of Caribbean descent.

“We must seriously get involved in understanding where our students are at. Understand the system. Understand the political machinery that’s responsible for the educational policies and programs that’s here for our students to work with.”

Daniel takes James’ words and puts them into action. She decided to take matters into her own hands and build The Bridge program to expose Black students in Humber College’s School of Community and Justice Services programs to empowerment and ways to learn to change their perception of self.

As Daniel says, the Canadian education system needs to build a language and attitude of excellence to ensure the success of Black students from kindergarten to post-secondary.

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