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The Perception of Discrimination

In the news this week, there were several articles talking about a young girl of First Nations descent who got in trouble for wearing a hoodie to school. It wasn’t a sexual or profane garment, simply a hoodie with a ‘front/back’ slogan in two parts. The front said “Got land?” and the back said “Thank an Indian”

For any of you who don’t work within or around the education system, the response followed a fairly typical process:

1. Someone connected to the school (either student or parent or volunteer, it varies from case to case) complained about the garment offending them.

2. The student in question was asked to not wear it to school anymore by the principal.

3. Family and friends of student in question contested that decision, and meetings were had.

The eventual result of this process was that the student was allowed to wear the garment at school, but like most contentious situations in education, it didn’t end there. Some people are still campaigning for this garment to not be allowed, with at least one vocal source saying that it is “racist” in nature.

It was a follow-up article interviewing one of these individuals that caught my eye; or rather, a single statement made by that individual within that article:

“No white kid could walk into a school with a shirt that says that in reverse.”

Digression for the sake of context:

I am a privileged white male between 25 and 30, of nominally well-off middle class, highly educated, and living in an area of the country, province, and my particular city which is not noteworthy for particular societal problems. Now, fortunately for me, I have a number of friends who are very conscious of subjects like minority rights and social justice who have done their best over the years to keep me apprised of the difficulties in those respects. If it were not for those people, I might have absolutely no understanding of the far less ‘lucky’ perspectives I’m about to discuss. That said, I am still a privileged 25-30 white male with a stable family income and a history of higher education/technology usage, so we have to assume I’m at least a little subconsciously biased here.

/end contextual digression

The thought that immediately stuck me upon reading that quote was: “Of course a white kid would get in trouble for that quote on a shirt” – but before you jump on me, let me explain why I think you’d still get in trouble for that quote, and it’s not because I think there’s a weird ‘anti-majority’ discrimination going on.

Speaking from a realm of personal experience in education, the reason that would be getting a ‘white student’ (man, are racial descriptors tough to work with) in trouble would be because the quote makes absolutely no sense from the other side. The First Nations did not sail across the Atlantic with greatly-advanced weaponry, technology, and a host of illnesses the locals had no immunity to, and then proceed to take over 90% of the land which had been common usage for thousands of years. The largely-white European conquerors did that.

I mean, hypothetically speaking, if the First Nations peoples had had access to the kinds of weapons, technology, and medical science that the Europeans had, I would not be here right now, and probably neither would Canada or the USA in their current forms. How many continental European wars of the time ended with the complete subjugation of another people and the successive resettlement of the locals into gradually smaller and smaller areas until entire groups were virtually wiped out?

So, I see little justification for the statement simply being reversed to apply to ‘white people’.

Of course, me being me, that doesn’t also mean that I am completely okay with the sweater in question.

The big deal on this flip side of the coin for me is that I, like many other (admittedly privileged) Canadians of European descent, occasionally feel very tired with having to defend the actions of long-dead ancestors I neither know nor would condone the actions of if I did know. I regret, as much as is possible from the displaced viewpoint that time and social change allow, the actions of Europeans in the wholesale invasion, dispossession, and repurposing of land that was formerly occupied and utilized by the First Nations.

An unfortunate reality is that I cannot change those actions. My sorrow will not restore the thousands slaughtered needlessly, nor will an attempt to give back large portions of land revitalize cultural groups that have been shattered and withered by time and abuse. To hold me or others accountable for the actions of many-times-removed relatives makes no more sense than proclaiming that ‘all Germans are Nazis’ or some other equally wrongheaded and disgusting slur.

I realize that I’m not really close to a definitive statement on this issue, or even have an answer. My suspicion is that things like this may continue to be argued from a legal perspective which I’m not that qualified to talk about.

So, I will simply end with a description of how I would hope teachers deal with a situation like this:

Were it me in that classroom, I would pull the student aside and ask them about their sweater, about what they thought it meant. I would have them talk to the class about the feelings it was expressing, and then try to guide a discussion about Canada’s history and what sorts of feelings and situations this message is referring to. My hope would be that this could be the launchpad for a fruitful discussion about the perception of discrimination in Canada, how we treat all racial and cultural groups, and just how far we still have to go as a society before the wounds of past wrongs can actually be healed.

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