Unpacking Racism in School

Black lives matter rally

ACCULTURA is pleased to present this article by Jillian Kowalchuk, who discusses the issue of racism in high school education. Jillian resides in Alberta, Canada, where she teaches social studies. She is pursuing her Master’s degree in Education with a focus on social justice. She advocates for non-discriminatory education to help change attitudes towards visible minorities and other socially discriminated peoples. You can follow Jillian on her YouTube channel, on Instagram or on TikTok as @MissKowalchuk.

Unpacking Racism in an Educational Context

By Jillian Kowalchuk a.k.a. @MissKowalchuk

As a junior high school teacher, I am a frontline worker when it comes to challenging oppressive attitudes. Education, while being known to lift entire communities out of the cycle of poverty, also has a dark past in Canada. Historically, education could be seen as a vehicle that drives oppressive attitudes and further cements oppressive and dominant narratives within the structure of society. Canada is no safe haven when it comes to racism. Therefore, our schools and the people within them must commit to systematic change around issues of social justice and human rights.

Canada’s dark educational past

Historically racism and segregation have been an essential part of the education system in Canada. Consider the Indian Residential School System (IRS) where Indigenous children were taken, often forcibly, from their rich and vibrant families and communities, stripped of their culture, and made to believe that their families and ancestors were evil, savage, and undeserving of human rights. These schools operated until the late 1990s across the country. We continue to see the fallout from the oppression and abuse that was suffered amongst survivors and their relatives – often referred to as intergenerational trauma.

Racism in Canadian schools

Racism in Canadian schools is evident in how we teach and the content we choose to present. Although often implicit, many strategies such as only referring to textbooks that are written from a White, European, male perspective serves to embed oppressive ideologies and positions the dominant group as superior. In doing this, we teach students that “White is right,” often silencing the voices of people of colour, certain religious groups, and women, regardless of intention.

The reality of the demographic makeup of our teachers also plays a role in upholding the dominant narrative. Here in Alberta as in many Canadian provinces, the majority of teachers in an elementary or secondary school setting are White. Further, within a profession that attracts mostly women, White men still hold the majority of educational leadership roles. There are many factors to unpack when it comes to the barriers that women and people of colour face within the education system in general, but ultimately these barriers work to further uphold societal ideals around White supremacy and patriarchy.

The White factor and internalized dominance

Children need role models to foster resilience and find success in education. Because the majority of our teachers are White, many students, especially students of colour, are not able to see themselves as represented by their teachers. This is one of the factors that contributes to internalized dominance. Internalized dominance is defined by Sensoy and DiAngelo (2017) as internalizing and acting out, often unawarely, the constant messages circulating in the culture that you and your social group are superior. Schools play a large role in promoting the ideas associated with internalized dominance, even if unconsciously. Many factors contribute to this, including:

  • the centrality of White people in history textbooks and other literature, including media,
  • how religious iconography is portrayed in Catholic and Christian school systems,
  • perceptions of the neighbourhood in which the school is located.

Combatting racism at school

In our current reality, it appears to many that schools are not doing enough to combat racism, and as a teacher, I would have to agree. Many teachers fear the social repercussions of addressing social justice issues and oppression in their classrooms in fear of blowback from students, parents, and colleagues. Teachers are still seen as being politically neutral. We are told that because of the power of the educational institution, we must be careful when expressing ideological arguments. However, no human can be completely neutral because we are all greatly impacted by socialization. Additionally, when speaking about racism and oppression, it is not a political issue but rather a human rights issue. As a Social Studies teacher, it is my job to prepare my students for the challenges associated with being a global citizen. Therefore, it is also my responsibility to educate them on injustice, a reality of society.

Teaching for social justice can be a daunting and challenging task. The comfortability of teachers plays a significant role in addressing social justice issues in a classroom setting. Many teachers are not equipped with the skills that they need to engage in these emotionally-charged conversations with students. Many people are raising their voices about defunding police but neglect to realize that education has been underfunded for years in this country. In some provinces, it is only getting worse. Teachers are under more pressure than ever as we try to balance the needs of the 21st-century learner with the other demands of our jobs that are centred around a lack of funding. I have worked in schools where there is no guidance counsellor or mental health support, no educational support staff, and no paper for printing.

Supporting change

To change the course of racism and oppression in Canada, and ultimately eradicate it, the education system needs more support at every level. We have made some important strides when it comes to school culture and creating safe spaces for children to learn and grow, but there is still so much more work that needs to be done. Awareness is great, but the next step is action.



  • Ryan, J., Pollock, K., & Antonelli, F. (2009). Teacher Diversity in Canada: Leaky Pipelines, Bottlenecks, and Glass Ceilings. Canadian Journal of Education32(3), 591-617.
  • The reference to educational leadership being held mostly by men is from this book: http://sk.sagepub.com/books/leadership-in-education.
  • This article also discusses the under-representation of women in educational leadership roles: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ913602.pdf



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