This has been an interesting week for me.
Our three-and-a-half years old granddaughter (who pointedly corrects me that she is now “three-and-three-quarters, Nana!”) came home from her Montessori a couple of days ago and offered a few gems on Martin Luther King. They may have discussed the subject at school as part of the Black History Month commemorative events. Little J (of mixed Jamaican-Indian parentage) nodding knowingly, spunkily declared that:
- “his skin color was the skin color … like my skin color, and D’s skin color and L’s skin color,” stretching out her little hand and rubbing the back of the hand, to demonstrate
- “but the other people” did not like “him” very much because they “didn’t like his skin color. But he did a speech”
- they put him in jail because, “they did not like what he was saying”
- “they didn’t let him out … I mean, sometimes he got out … he let himself out of the jail because he had a key… in his pocket!”
Separately, J also told us that if someone says or does something she doesn’t like, she would “stand her ground” and tell them, “that’s not very nice!”
To close the week off, I had the honor to sit down for lunch with a young person. My first ever encounter with a Ted Talks speaker! I was very nervous about our tête-à-tête as race, education and diversity are some of the areas of her research and specialization; topics that are not a banker’s forte. I need not have worried. My charming young host, a PhD student and an accomplished leader, put me completely at ease before speaking about her vision and goals. C is from Nigeria and spoke about problems in the education system that may explain why it sometimes fails Black people – problems she says are by-products of colonialism.
A product of the Indian “education” system modeled by the English politician Lord Thomas Macaulay, I am able to appreciate C’s views. Macaulay had stated “that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” He saw his undertaking as a “civilizing mission” and in his submission to the British Parliament in February 1835 stated, “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”
However, rather than being viewed as “different” I prefer to think that exposure to colonial education together with our indigenous cultures gives us the ability to bridge the sonnets of Shakespeare with the poetry of Tagore; a distinct advantage over a local born Canadian. How does one contend with racism? Rather than “fight” (which has a negative connotation for me) could we not educate the ignorant while demonstrating passive resistance to racist/discriminatory attitudes, a la Mahatma Gandhi? But some folks have pointed out that even Gandhi was a “racist” in his sweeping denigration of the local Black population in South Africa as “kaffirs” and objecting to their being allowed to mix with the Indians. Bigotry is not unique to the “West” or “East” and remains a global phenomenon. Students from India had accused Australia of racist attitudes a few years ago, even as we saw recent reports of students from African countries based in India being subject to indiscriminate mob violence because of misplaced perceptions about their race and character.
C has chosen the high ground. She proposes to reform education in Nigeria to wean youth off the systemic colonial pattern, to “facilitate de-colonial and inclusive democratic transformation of the country.” For this to occur, she believes “students must graduate from secondary school with a better and positive understanding of themselves, their cultural heritage and shared history with other Nigerian ethnic groups instead of a Eurocentric point of view.”
I remain confident that our future looks good, as little J blooms into a strong C and their refreshing inclusive thinking defies and reshapes the “clubby-clique” mentality.
Finally, a reminder of the motion introduced by the first Black Senator of Canada, Hon. Donald H. Oliver on February 13, 2008: “That the Senate take note of the important contribution of Black Canadians to the settlement, growth and development of Canada, the diversity of the black community in Canada and its importance to the history of this country, and recognize February as Black History Month.”