Vignettes

for Anti-racism

This section includes descriptions of what the Best Practices might look like when applied in a variety of contexts.

Vignette 1: Engaging Learner Interest in Social Justice

I teach CLB 5–6 learners in an employment training program. As part of our discussion on workplace diversity and inclusion, students are generally extremely interested in learning more about the ongoing discrimination and lack of equal opportunity given to Black, Indigenous, and Racialized people. Some of my students share their individual experiences of racism and discrimination, both in Canada and in countries they have previously lived in. They express frustration at not getting jobs, not because they lack the skills, but because of their race or ethnicity. Many students express their concerns for the Indigenous Peoples in Canada. I find that this is an excellent opportunity to further engage their interest in social justice, equality, and empathy, towards Black, Indigenous, and Racialized people. I do the following:

  • I set a class tone that allows for open discussion where students can share their frustrations and disappointments. I acknowledge that racism exists, in other parts of the world, and right here where they are.
  • We pay attention to instances and discussions of racism that come up in the news and in community discussions. Class activities prompt learners to inquire about the systems of power and oppression that have led to those instances.
  • We talk about different ways of responding to racial discrimination, both from the perspective of being the victim, as well as being a bystander. I found that the Bystander Anti-racism Campaign videos from Western Sydney University prompt useful discussion and language.
  • I invite Black, Indigenous, and Racialized guest speakers to the class to share their experiences, challenges, and successes in the workplaces that my learners hope to enter. I give them a heads-up that students might ask about whether they have experienced racism.
  • Learners research and present on community organizations that advocate for inclusion of Black, Indigenous, and Racialized people (e.g., AfricaCentre, Ribbon Rouge Foundation, The Colour Factor, Black Women United)

Vignette 2: Reflecting on “Cheating”

I was teaching a CLB 6 class when an incident occurred that caused me to reflect on how colour blindness can lead to racist outcomes. My students were taking a summative quiz, and I had emphasized that testing conditions were in place (no talking or collaborating, etc.). Some students had already left and turned in their papers. A few were left, including a young man from Somalia. When I said that time was up and they should stop writing, the young man stopped writing. He gathered up what he needed for his break and started to walk towards me with his quiz. A classmate (a middle-aged White woman who had not stopped writing) grabbed his arm and started to ask him for help with her quiz. The student looked a bit uncomfortable but was answering her. I moved quickly to the back of the room to stop the “cheating,” and as I moved (or perhaps “stomped”) towards them, the young man backed up and threw his hands up in front of him as if I was threatening him. That reaction shook me and stayed with me for a long time. And it caused me to reflect.

  • I reflected on how the young man’s life experiences with other White authorities had given him a different lens from mine in how he perceived people in authority. Whether I liked it or not, and whether I felt comfortable with it or not, he perceived me as an authority figure, and he had had experiences with threatening White authority figures, and/or threatening angry teachers. I needed to keep that in mind when I interacted with him. Being colour blind and presuming that his experience was like mine was not a useful attitude here.
  • As I had observed the whole interaction, I knew that he wasn’t the person who had initiated the “cheating.” In fact, I was heading over to extricate him from the situation and stop the cheating. But still, he clearly felt threatened. I forced myself to think through what my assumptions might have been if I had not observed the original interaction. It was uncomfortable to realize that I might have assumed that he was to blame. And more importantly, he might very well have been expecting me to presume that he was trying to cheat.
  • With regard to the “cheating,” I know that there are differences in culture when it comes to collaborating and obligation that muddy the waters. We often tell students that they are just as guilty of cheating when they help someone cheat as when they are the ones cheating. But I know that this does not always translate across cultures. That is, I realized that I also have a responsibility to try to make sure that they are not placed in a position of having to refuse to “help” a classmate.
  • I talked to the young man privately to reassure him that I knew he hadn’t been cheating. I mentioned that I regretted startling him. I asked him to tell me what was happening and how I could best him help in that situation.

Vignette 3: Creating Space to Talk about Racism

I was teaching a higher-level LINC class, and the theme we were covering was related to health and wellness. I came across a TED talk playlist titled The Link Between Health and Racism and decided to use this to spark some critical inquiry into this topic. I did the following:

  • I told students the title of the playlist, and together they brainstormed for questions that they hoped to find answers to on this topic.
  • As a reading assignment, they read the descriptions on the playlist page and answered some comprehension questions. I put some of the more challenging anti-racist vocabulary from the page into a Quizlet. In a poll, they voted on the 4 most interesting videos.
  • Based on the poll, we narrowed down the list to 5 videos. We did a listening for gist activity, where students listened just to the first 2 minutes of each video to a) identify the purpose of the presentation; b) make a prediction of what the speaker would talk about; and c) decide whether the speaker would be easy for them to understand or not.
  • Based on another poll, we narrowed down the list to 3 videos. The class was divided into 3 groups and assigned a video. Learners each watched the video on their own time and then worked in their group to come up with the most important learnings (related to the questions they had generated earlier). They then presented their learnings to the whole class.
  • At that time, there was a race-related health issue in the news in Canada: Covid-19 was having a more severe impact on Black and Racialized people. Students read articles, watched videos, and learned about the topic. They brainstormed for what they wanted the authorities to do related to this issue. They wrote letters to a government department (Alberta Health Services, Alberta Health) with calls to action. They analyzed a call to action co-written by a number of community organizations. They reflected, and I reflected.
  • A number of learners mentioned that they were glad that they could finally talk about their experiences of racism in class; and I wondered how many times in the past I had shut down such discussions before they had even happened. I had gone into this with a very clear intention to prioritize my learners’ voices and experiences—and I was surprised at how quickly I had the urge to defend Canada, deflect uncomfortable comments, and minimize fears. This time, I made space for discomfort. My learners’ lived experiences were validated. They heard and used language for talking about racism, and with that came power to advocate.

Vignette 4: Reflecting on an Uncomfortable Conversation

In my LINC CLB 3–4 class, students participated in a “Show and Tell” demonstration on how they keep themselves fit and healthy. After each presentation, they asked each other questions to learn more about the different health practices. During one of these Q&A sessions, one student mentioned that students from specific parts of the world have strong body odour and sweat a lot because of the food they eat. There was a minute of uncomfortable silence. I jumped in and told the class that the statement was offensive because it stereotyped particular groups. Then we went on to talk about the importance of hygiene and eliminating body odour in the workplace. However, I was left feeling uncomfortable about the whole exchange and wondering whether I actually ended up perpetuating a racist system. I also felt that I might have alienated the student who asked the question, rather than engaging her in a discussion. The incident also sparked my curiosity about whether our sensitivity to the scents/smells of other ethnic groups stems from racism, and I found an enlightening article titled Grease and Sweat: Race and smell in Eighteenth-Century English Culture that caused me to look at the whole issue in a different light. Issues and comments related to scents/smells do pop up regularly, and this is how I plan to manage it next time:

  • Sometime near the beginning of every class, we will talk about expectations for respectful communication. I will mention that the following are not allowed: terms and jokes that demean others; stereotypes based on race and ethnicity (as well as language, sexual orientation, gender identity, and age, etc.); bullying, etc. We will talk about examples of stereotypes and bullying, and practice calling them out. My goal is that when students feel stereotyped, they have language to call it out. We will practice this frequently as we identify stereotypes in materials they encounter. I am hoping that they will feel comfortable calling me and each other out when they hear stereotypes or microaggressions.
  • Scents/smells are indeed an issue that can raise barriers for my learners in the workplace—I’ve known people who have lost their jobs or experienced difficulty in their workplace because of this issue. At the same time, attitudes towards scents/smells vary much across cultures and can be racist. I do not want to assume that “our way” (in Canada) is “the only way” when it comes to scents/smells. When we broach the topic of scents/smells, I plan to ask learners questions such as “What are your favorite scents/smells?”, “What scents/smells do you miss since you’ve come to Canada?”, “What have you noticed in Canada about attitudes towards particular scents/smells?”, and “How similar or different is this from attitudes in other countries that you’ve lived in?” The goal would be to elicit the idea that many in Canada are very scent/smell/odour-averse (after all, we ban odorous foods and even perfumes and perfumed lotions from many workplaces, and we have a plethora of products designed to hide odours). At the same time, the goal would be to acknowledge that this is only one of many ways of being in the world.
  • With regard to helping learners manage body odours when they enter the workplace, I might flip the power structure in the classroom and describe my own (or my teenager’s) battle with body odour. I may have learners role-play giving advice (e.g., to an athletic teen or to my younger self) about products and hygiene habits to manage body odour in situations such as during an in-person job interview or starting their first job.

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ATESL Best Practices for Adult EAL and LINC Programming in Alberta by Alberta Teachers of English as a Second Language (ATESL) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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