Seeing Ourselves: Representations of “Successful” Students and the Erasure of Black Youth
Canadians, particularly Torontonians, flaunt our diversity, inclusion, and our ‘mosaic’ society. Toronto is one of the most diverse cities in the world, something that makes me proud and provides an advantage in this globalized world.
However, we still have work to do to truly connect diversity and opportunity; simply having people of different colors living together within city boundaries does not create an equal and diverse society.
On the one hand, we praise our diversity but at the same time we ignore, oppress, and undercut the communities that make us diverse. For example, racialized youth have a harder time securing gainful and meaningful employment, have negative encounters with police, are more likely to be in applied rather than academic courses, and have lower high school and post-secondary graduation rates. All this creates a hostile learning environment and works against equitable opportunities and outcomes. In this context, public representations of “successful” black youth are crucial to our city; it is detrimental to all of us when the successes of black youth are ignored, hidden or erased.
This summer, as I rode the 195 Jane bus to YouthREX’s offices at York University, I found myself thinking of my younger years growing up as a black youth in Toronto. On the bus I passed by the basketball courts that provided my friends and I with a safe place for competition and socializing, black businesses that exposed me to the many diverse cultures within the black community, and the high school that was instrumental in the development of my black identity. These wonderful pillars of black Toronto are not genuinely represented in a Drake song nor seen in a tourist’s brochure; this Toronto shouldn’t only be highlighted during Caribana1, or in the aftermath of a violent incident involving black youth.
This Toronto is made up of black people from the various countries in Africa, the Caribbean, and those that have been here for generations, but are still asked where they are from.
Something struck me as I passed by my old high school: two big posters advertising the school each displayed two white male students and two Asian female students.
This high school is a strong academic public school. The school is predominately black with a considerable South Asian and Hispanic population. I cherish this school as it stands as one of the very few non-religious secondary schools in Toronto that gives students of color and low incomes a fair shot at university and reaching our full potential. Thanks to engaged teachers and counselors, this school has gained a steady reputation amongst the black community.
Nonetheless, my alma mater not acknowledging the positive existence of blacks in Toronto is a discriminatory act. The posters display a purposefully false image of the school, I can only assume, in order to attract white students. The posters dismiss the many black students that make the school what it is, not just in numbers but in character.
I was outraged as I thought about my fellow classmates of color and I who were on sports teams, participated in school clubs and consistently made the honor roll. The poster made me feel that the efforts we put in would never be good enough because we do not have white skin.
These posters problematically display this city’s failure to truly recognize diversity. Though the city symbolically flaunts its diversity on rare occasions, it is merely a surface level effort. The dominant view is still that the ideal citizen and student is white. The positive contributions black people are making are regularly ignored. This is the context in which politicians, policy-makers, school administrators, and teachers ask the question, “why are black students disenchanted by school?”
A lot of it has to do with the fact we are reminded by posters like the ones prominently displayed by my alma mater, that no matter how hard we try or are present we still will never fit into the “perfect” Toronto. Racial-neglect is the law of the land. Canadians make statements like “well, at least we are not as bad the U.S.” Please believe me when I say this, from a person that has spent half his life in U.S. schools, those posters would never exist in a U.S. school with a sizeable black student body.
If Toronto is serious about serving its communities of color and embracing true diversity, then let’s act like it.
Let’s make our black communities welcome by not just arbitrarily applauding diversity, but by proudly celebrating black youth who are staying in school and contributing to our city so that we can see ourselves featured on posters for all to see.
1 Toronto’s annual celebration of Caribbean peoples and cultures.