The day after the 2008 presidential election, Clarence Pitterson stood in front of his students at Father Henry Carr in Toronto's west end, overcome with excitement as he talked about America's first black president.
One of the few black teachers at the school, Pitterson's social studies class often started with conversations about racially charged issues in the news, from police shootings to protests against discrimination.
Those discussions brought the experiences of students of colour into the classroom, giving them much-needed space to share their worldview. But he says his white students gained just as much.
"Students don't see enough people of colour in positions of authority," says Pitterson, who is now vice principal. "Conversations about race, talking about what's happening in society, they're eye opening for my white students, giving them a different perspective."
Teachers don't have to be a visible minority to facilitate that discussion — but with growing levels of racism and record numbers of hate crimes across the country, Pitterson is a much-needed role model for white students, who need to know people of colour who are caring and capable, and to see them in positions of respect and authority.
Most young white people won't see that diversity in their parents' friends, at weekend barbecues or on their social media feeds.
That lesson is being lost, explains equity consultant Tana Turner.
"We like to compare ourselves to the United States and think we're doing much better, but when you look at the data, we're no further ahead with respect to representing the student population," Turner says. In Ontario, for example, just 13 per cent of teachers are visible minorities while over one quarter of students are; the diversity gap between teachers and students is similarly wide in all provinces.
Exacerbating the problem is a broader social trend.
Canada may be more diverse than ever, but we tend to socialize within our backgrounds, "self-segregating based on race, class or culture," explains Turner. The result is that most young white people won't see that diversity in their parents' friends, at weekend barbecues or on their social media feeds.
This puts added pressure on the school system to drive diversity, to ensure that when students enter the work force their perspectives of people of colour are not defined by stereotypes, but by real people they've encountered.
Decades of research prove that students of colour perform better academically and benefit socially from teachers of the same race. School boards across Canada are actively recruiting more visible minorities while universities work to diversify enrollment.
White students need this initiative just as much. Stereotypes crumble in the face of real people and role models.
Pitterson says parents shouldn't wait until there are more people of colour standing in front of the classroom — they should play a more active part in finding role models throughout the community.
Sports coaches, tutors and music teachers offer opportunities for mentorship, while community service groups and youth organizations bring people together across cultures and faith groups.
"If it's not happening in school, we have to actively seek it out," says Pitterson. "Just one experience, one personal connection with someone different than you can burst the bubble of stereotypes. I've seen it."
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