Indigenous-Specific Racism in Education – Challenging Biases and Assumptions

We all have biases that we have developed based on our life experiences, and how we have interpreted those experiences. Biases serve a purpose for us as thinking short-cuts that help us organize our perceptions of the world.

Our professional lives are reflection of the personal values, perspectives and biases we hold and carry, so it is important to be aware of how our conscious and unconscious biases affect the decisions and choices we make.

So what do we do? We think critically about what we know versus what we assume.

This work asks us to interrogate what we “know” about people, and create the possibility that what we know is based on assumptions and or biases that limit both learners (and ourselves). This is about changing how we perceive and interpret. It is about how we make sense of what we know. Some of the conscious biases we may hold are reflected in assumptions about Indigenous learners. Similar to how we act on our biases, we all have assumptions that affect our decisions. As educators, it is important to pay attention to the assumptions we may hold because we can act on those assumptions in ways that can limit, or even harm, learners.

Surfacing assumptions is hard to do, but we can only do the work of challenging assumptions, when we can name what we think. The following are assumptions that continue to permeate many schools and classrooms.

What are some assumptions that we need to challenge?

Assumption – We teach in culturally neutral education systems. We do not. We teach in systems that have always reflected value systems of specific cultures. Our current systems generally reflect a valuing of Euro-Western knowledge systems and perspectives about effective pedagogy. When we understand that our systems currently reflect specific cultural perspectives, we can think about what the values are that have influenced our system. We can also create some room to look at how Indigenous knowledge systems, including knowledge about approaches to teaching and learning, can help us create better education experiences for learners (and ourselves).

Assumption – Indigenous pedagogies are limited and simplistic or are about lowering standards. Indigenous pedagogies can create for effective learning environments in ways that support high-expectations for learners and support the whole learner. The idea that Indigenous pedagogies means lowered standards is often connected to lack of knowledge about Indigenous cultures and knowledge systems, or is the result of outright racist assumptions about Indigenous cultures as devoid of knowledge.

Assumption – Indigenous education is only important if I have Indigenous learners. It is important that every Canadian have better awareness and knowledge of our collective histories, and also develop deeper understanding about the relationships between Indigenous peoples and Canada today. This means that all learners (and adults) will need to engage in learning about, from, and with Indigenous peoples and cultures in Canada. It is the only way we will be able to move forward in a good way as a country.

Assumption – If education systems are not working for learners, they need to change to fit into existing education systems. Effective education systems meet the needs of the learners they serve. Period. Full stop. Exclamation point! (Can you tell that I feel strongly about this?) If an education system is not meeting the needs of learners to achieve education outcomes, and to do so in ways that honour support the well-being of the learner and community, what is the point of the system? Our work is not to change learners to meet the needs of systems. It is to support learners to be successful in developing the knowledge, understanding and skills we need to live good lives – for ourselves and for our local and global communities.

Assumption – First Nations, Métis or Inuit learners cannot achieve success in every facet of education. Perceptions that Indigenous learners cannot achieve in any area of education are usually the result of colonial stereotypes about Indigenous peoples, the effects of low-expectation, lack of cultural relevancy, and/or education systems where Indigenous learners do not feel valued and respected. Where disparities in education outcomes exist, our systems have previously placed the responsibility for that on the abilities of the learners (and have focussed on a deficit model of education). More educators are now understanding that our systems need to be more aware of how systemic racism (in various forms) in our systems have created challenges for many Indigenous learners.

Assumption – Indigenous peoples in Canada are a homogenous group. There is as much diversity among Indigenous learners as there is among any other group of learners. It is also important for all Canadians to understand the diversity, not only between First Nations, Inuit and Metis, but also the significant diversity that can exist from First Nation to First Nation.

Assumption – If I just treat everyone the same, there will be no racism. This perspective often co-exists with the idea that educators are culturally neutral, or that cultural perspectives and knowledges that are reflected in our systems are the only ones of value. It is often promoted by people who have not critically examined power differences between majority and minority cultures. The idea that we just treat everyone the same erases our ability to actually see and understand others.

Questions for Reflection

  • Have you seen or heard the assumptions listed previously in your working environments?
  • Have you held any of these assumptions?
  • What purposes might holding these assumptions serve for educators?
  • How do these assumptions harm learners?

The “Yes, but…”

In naming assumptions, we may also need to be mindful about the tendency to reply with the “yes, but…” response. The “yes, but…” is the way to avoid engaging in challenging assumptions that create barriers for learners. The “yes, but…” is often connected to some of our conscious or unconscious biases, and may unintentionally justify a status-quo that perpetuates types of racism and inequity. Doing the (hard) reflective work of surfacing and challenging our biases can help us avoid some of the patterns of thought and action that limit learners. For example, many educators engage in confirmation bias or fundamental attribution bias when they interpret new information in ways that support existing beliefs about Indigenous peoples based on stereotypes and ignorance, or when they attribute any challenges facing some First Nations, Inuit, and Métis learners, families and communities as direct results of their internal qualities, instead of understanding how many contemporary contexts are connected to historical and/or on-going colonialism and racism (Hampton & St. Denis, 2002).

How do we recognize our unconscious biases?

People are too complex for there to be a one-size-fits all approach to challenging assumptions and biases in anti-racism work, but there are some approaches that may help:

  • Acknowledge our potential for bias; if we deny that we have biases, we will remain blind to how they affect our actions.
  • Understand that recognizing and interrogating our own biases is a life-long endeavour.
  • Learn more about types of bias; this can help us become more aware of when we engage in types of bias, and see it in others. The more awareness we develop, the more we can see and understand.
  • Slow down our thinking. Take time to reflect on what we believe and what purposes a belief serves.
  • Be open. Ask for alternative perspectives from trusted friends and/or colleagues.
  • Be aware of automatic patterns of thinking. This is often a signal that there may be conscious or unconsious bias operating.
  • Watch out for patterns of feeling defensive. This is often a sign that there might be a conscious or unconscious bias that has been triggered.
  • Expose yourself to diverse experiences and people
  • Learn to “see” by asking the following:
    • Who are the people I spend most of my time with?
    • Who are the people I ask for advice?
    • Do I feel uncomfortable when I am surrounded by certain people or groups
    • Do I hold different expectations for different groups of learners?

We can remember that it is easy to make a change if the change is convenient and does not ask us to fundamentally challenge our ways of thinking and acting. Anti-racist work asks people to do just that.

Questions for Reflection

  • How willing are you to feel discomfort in order to learn?
  • How aware are you of your biases?
  • How do you recognize and unpack your biases?
  • Do you have people in your life who could help you uncover some of your unconscious biases?
  • What might we need to unlearn as much as learn?

Further Learning

(This post is a snippet of Wayi Wah! Indigenous Pedagogies: An Act for Reconciliation and Anti-Racist Education, anticipated publishing date September, 2022)

This entry was posted in anti-racism, BC education system, professional, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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