Monday, March 17, 2014

That Was Then, This is Now

The other day I was in a hair salon, and I got to chatting with a woman who was accompanying her elderly mother to her weekly hair appointment. The woman mentioned that she was a math teacher at a high school not far from the one my daughters attend, a school with a similar upper-middle class demographic. Since the teaching of math is an interest of mine, and the PISA results had just been released, I tried to engage her in conversation about the so-called "math wars" and the post-PISA hand-wringing about math scores in the province. She seemed oddly uninterested (for a math teacher) in any of those issues. Instead, she wanted to know where my kids went to school, who their teachers were, etc. She then proceeded to tell me an anecdote that seemed designed to let me know how lucky my kids are to be attending their particular secondary school.

She had no children of her own, she said, but her sister has two kids, now in university. After divorcing her husband, her sister wanted desperately to get her kids out of their current catchment area, and into the one which includes my daughters' school. Post-divorce, her sister could not afford to buy a house in our area, so she rented an apartment—much smaller than the house from which she'd come, the woman noted—to ensure that her children could attend my daughters' high school, X Collegiate Institute.

Why, I asked her, was her sister so keen to move into our neighbourhood, given that the high school in her old area has an excellent reputation and very high EQAO scores? The woman lowered her voice and said, conspiratorially, "My niece and nephew didn't feel comfortable there. There were too many, you know, Asians and Jews." I looked at her blankly; my mouth may have fallen open. "Mainly the Asians," she added, apparently hedging her bets. 

"The kids were uncomfortable," I asked? "Or your sister?" 

"No, the kids, definitely. So they moved into the apartment and went to X Collegiate Institute; they both ended up getting into the university of their choice, and they're doing great now."

I was trying to think of something to say, but I was tongue-tied because I was in a kind of shock at this display of racism, unexpectedly blatant even for our neighbourhood, which is perhaps the last bastion of homogeneity in Toronto (though, even it is changing—for the better). 

In any case, the woman did not give me a chance; she continued with another shocker: "At first my sister was worried, because around that time, they had just enlarged the catchment area for X Collegiate Institute to include an area of public housing. So a lot of black kids and gangs started attending. But the numbers weren't enough to make a difference."

I mumbled something about how I think X Collegiate Institute needs more not less diversity, then hastily made my exit from the salon. 

There is so much that troubled—and continues to trouble—me about this incident that I hardly know where to start. This woman appeared to be my age, and she lives in one of the most diverse cities in North America. And she is a teacher. That is perhaps the most troubling aspect. It is disturbing, to say the least, to contemplate the preconceptions about kids of colour—about any kid who is not as bleached and blue-eyed as she is—that this teacher brings into the classroom every single day. 

The whole episode got me thinking about the expression of racism today, versus when I was a kid. Is it really so different now, despite all the current talk of post-racism or post-racial societies? A recent study shows that of 3200 books for children published in in the US in 2013, 93 were about black people. And then there are incidents like this one described by my Twitter friend Sarah Carmichael (@sarahcasm). Sadly, the kinds of racist inferences (and interference) by strangers that Sarah describes in her post are not anomalies in the lives of bi-racial families. 

A while ago, I wrote a post about the ways in which racism manifests itself in my daughters' world. More recently, I wrote an essay* for an online journal, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, about the forms racism took while I was growing up. Sadly, I think that when it comes to racism then and now, the only valid conclusion one can draw is "Plus ├ža change . . . ."

*I am not entirely comfortable with the title of this piece, which was suggested to me by a person who thought its very provocativeness was part of the point I was making. I'm still considering changing it, though my previous title "Do You Have Anything Else to Say?" is risibly lame.