Researchers investigating racism in Quebec elementary schools

A research partnership launched this month will document the experiences of anti-black racism among elementary school students in Quebec, a phenomenon that is more prevalent than one might think, according to the project's director, special education and training professor Gina Lafortune.

"I've done some research in the past that focused more on understanding the experience of young people in high school and college, and every time, it came back," said the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) professor. "Not just the kids, but a lot of the teachers and community workers were talking about things that happened in elementary school.

"It's part of what young people are experiencing. They will say, 'a friend said something to me related to colour, an insult, refused to play with me because I was black, or wouldn't sit next to me' (...) we also hear sometimes comments from teachers who say things about certain students or make remarks related to their skin color, or skills, abilities that they don't have."

To identify these types of situations, the researchers will begin by observing how classes in participating schools are conducted.

Then, they will interact with the children through age-appropriate activities and interview parents and school staff.

They will follow approximately five or six volunteer schools over a period of one-and-a-half to two years.

The research will be done in collaboration with a dozen partner organizations, including the Department of Education and several school service centres. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Observatoire des communautés noires du Québec have contributed $335,000 and $108,000, respectively, to the initiative.

INVISIBLE CONSEQUENCES

In addition to direct attacks, anti-black racism can also take more insidious forms, said Lafortune, who is also interested in what is said in the textbooks that children are made to read.

"How are groups presented in textbooks, in children's literature, who is there, who is not there, in what role, in what status?" he said.

The racism that a child experiences in elementary school can follow him all his life, she said. "At a certain point, we feel that the expectations towards us are different, that we have this representation that we are 'destined to fail,' so it plays on our self-esteem and creates a feeling of injustice and of malaise."

She also wonders about "the process of directing students into classes with learning disabilities, behavioural problems," as "it is quite well documented that there are biases in these ways of doing things."

She argues that these choices can affect a child's entire life.

"If I am quickly directed into a learning disability or behavioural disorder class, it has been documented that this will have a clear impact on the rest of my life, on the high school graduation rate, and it is certain that it maintains a cycle of poverty in certain communities," she said.

Moreover, the intersection of "racism and disadvantage" is also an issue that is under his microscope.

"For example, in some environments where there are many minority students from immigrant backgrounds, do they have all the necessary resources when compared to other schools?" she said.

FINDING SOLUTIONS

Professor Lafortune insisted that the purpose of her approach was not to point fingers but to find solutions.

"It's not to make people feel guilty or to say that the teacher is racist; we're not at that point," she said. "It's much more of a system, it's ingrained, it's something historical that is perpetuated."

She said she is aware of the "unease" surrounding these issues.

"We're in a kind of denial ... but I think we're at the point where we're talking about it, we're at the point where we're saying we can't pretend it doesn't exist," she said.

-- This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on June 25, 2022.