Stu­dents don’t see enough peo­ple of colour in po­si­tions of au­thor­ity.

It’s time to end many stereo­types, write Craig and Marc Kiel­burger.

Vancouver Sun - - YOU - Craig and Marc Kiel­burger are the co-founders of the WE move­ment, which in­cludes WE Char­ity, ME to WE So­cial En­ter­prise and WE Day. For more dis­patches from WE, check out WE Sto­ries at we.org.

The day af­ter the 2008 U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Clarence Pit­ter­son stood in front of his stu­dents at Fa­ther Henry Carr Catholic Sec­ondary School in Toronto’s west end, over­come with ex­cite­ment as he talked about Amer­ica’s first black pres­i­dent.

One of the few black teach­ers at the school, Pit­ter­son’s so­cial stud­ies class of­ten started with con­ver­sa­tions about racially charged is­sues in the news, from po­lice shoot­ings to protests against dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Those dis­cus­sions brought the ex­pe­ri­ences of stu­dents of colour into the class­room, giv­ing them much-needed space to share their world view. But he says his white stu­dents gained just as much.

“Stu­dents don’t see enough peo­ple of colour in po­si­tions of au­thor­ity,” says Pit­ter­son, who is now vice-prin­ci­pal. “Con­ver­sa­tions about race, talk­ing about what’s hap­pen­ing in so­ci­ety, they’re eye-open­ing for my white stu­dents, giv­ing them a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive.”

Teach­ers don’t have to be a vis­i­ble mi­nor­ity to fa­cil­i­tate that dis­cus­sion — but with grow­ing lev­els of racism and record num­bers of hate crimes across the coun­try, Pit­ter­son acts as a role model for white stu­dents, who need the op­por­tu­nity to reach across the racial di­vide to in­ter­act with more car­ing and ca­pa­ble peo­ple of colour in po­si­tions of re­spect and au­thor­ity.

That op­por­tu­nity is be­ing lost, ex­plains equity con­sul­tant Tana Turner.

“We like to com­pare our­selves to the United States and think we’re do­ing much bet­ter, but when you look at the data, we’re no fur­ther ahead with re­spect to rep­re­sent­ing the stu­dent pop­u­la­tion,” Turner says.

In On­tario, for ex­am­ple, just 13 per cent of teach­ers are vis­i­ble mi­nori­ties while more than one-quar­ter of stu­dents are; the di­ver­sity gap be­tween teach­ers and stu­dents is sim­i­larly wide in all prov­inces. Ex­ac­er­bat­ing the prob­lem is a broader so­cial trend.

Canada may be more di­verse than ever, but we tend to so­cial­ize within our back­grounds, “self-seg­re­gat­ing based on race, class or cul­ture,” ex­plains Turner. The re­sult is that most young white peo­ple won’t see so­ci­etal di­ver­sity among their par­ents’ friends or on their so­cial media feeds.

This puts added pres­sure on the school sys­tem to ad­vance di­ver­sity — to en­sure that when stu­dents leave school and en­ter the work­force, their per­spec­tives of peo­ple of colour are not de­fined by stereo­types, but by real peo­ple they’ve en­coun­tered.

Decades of re­search prove that stu­dents of colour per­form bet­ter aca­dem­i­cally and ben­e­fit so­cially when they have teach­ers of the same race. And school boards across Canada are ac­tively re­cruit­ing more vis­i­ble mi­nori­ties while uni­ver­si­ties work to di­ver­sify en­rol­ment.

White stu­dents stand to ben­e­fit as well. Stereo­types crum­ble next to real peo­ple and role mod­els. Pit­ter­son says par­ents shouldn’t wait un­til there are more peo­ple of colour stand­ing in front of the class­room; they should play a more ac­tive part in find­ing role mod­els in the community.

“If it’s not hap­pen­ing in school, we have to ac­tively seek it out,” says Pit­ter­son. “Just one ex­pe­ri­ence, one per­sonal con­nec­tion with some­one dif­fer­ent than you can burst the bub­ble of stereo­types. I’ve seen it.”

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