“You have work harder and do better than everyone else. Nothing less will do.”
This was the mantra in my home at back-to-school season.
In fact, as an 11-year-old girl moving from my grandmother’s home in Jamaica to join my family in Canada, this expectation was instilled from the start. It was as clear to me as the shift from sunny southern warmth to frigid northern storms. In my new home, “working harder” was sometimes left as an unspoken expectation for me and all my siblings. Other times, it was expressed directly to us by loving family members who only longed for us to succeed.
I faced culture shock in those early days in Canada. I stepped into the hallways of my suburban Toronto middle school, where students spoke and acted entirely different than me. They talked about music and movies and games I knew nothing of. Students wore their own clothes instead of uniforms. I remember entering my Grade 6 classroom and not knowing where to put myself — the place functioned so strangely to my newcomer eyes.
But these adjustments were minor compared to what I would experience. In Jamaica, my teachers and peers understood me to be a strong student. When I entered Canada’s school system, I quickly realized that I wasn’t viewed as bright and capable. In fact, I was streamed into a basic level of education.
Thank goodness my new teacher was paying attention. She realized I didn’t belong there and returned me to the “regular” stream. Still, the experience of being immediately saddled with low expectations by a powered institution that didn’t take the time to get to know what I could achieve has stayed with me. I have spent the rest of my life defying the meagre expectations of what I would amount to as a Black woman in Canada. I know that many others like me have similar memories to work through.
As a Black mother raising a young Black boy, I had to step up in ways other parents did not have to.
You have to work harder. That feeling didn’t fade as I grew older. In fact, it intensified when I became a divorced mother in my 20s, navigating all kinds of barriers to make ends meet. It was all the more challenging because, as a Black mother raising a young Black boy, I had to step up in ways other parents did not have to.
To make sure my son and his peers would learn about Black histories and cultures, I had to advocate for activities not included in the curricula or offered at my son’s school. They didn’t even acknowledge Black History Month. When I asked the principal about it, and he told me there was no one on staff who would lead Black history activities, I volunteered to facilitate them for the whole school, reaching out to my personal connections and staying up late in the night to plan and make it happen.
This is just one of the many ways I had to help my son navigate a flawed school system that didn’t appreciate the totality of who he was, recognize his value, or offer him a well-rounded education. I had to facilitate access to resources to bolster his learning and well-being, not just for his benefit, but for the benefit of all the children at his school.
You have to do better. What I grew up with, I also had to instil into my son because I knew things hadn’t changed much at all. And it holds true to this day. Racialized kids simply have to push harder. They need to navigate all kinds of ongoing biases and discriminations with grace, somehow gracefully soaring past looming systemic barriers. Not necessarily to excel from childhood to adulthood. Just to survive.
How can racialized children even dream of doing this? With nearly prodigious support of primary caregivers — most often mothers and mother figures. I had a deep desire to raise a socially conscious young man and I believe I succeeded, but I can’t look back and say any of it was easy. It was draining and often thankless, and there were times it felt impossible to be the superwoman I needed to be for him. I see so many racialized mothers today struggling to do what I struggled to do. Things are still not set up for their success.
Just think about the statistics. “Visible minority” women and Indigenous women earn less than non-visible minority and non-Indigenous women, and are more likely to live in lower-income situations. Black women in Ontario are more likely than white women to be unemployed or underemployed, despite their higher levels of education. And while the gender pay gap persists for all women, it’s worse for Indigenous and racialized women.
How is it that racialized mothers are expected to “naturally” raise exceptional racialized children and be the best they can be in the process?
Visible minority women also report high rates of discrimination — it holds true even if they were born in Canada. Indigenous women are victimized more often than other populations, and this goes for all types of violent crimes. Racialized women are often targets of abuse and discrimination.
All this this is obviously terrible for our health. Significant associations have been found between poor health and experiences of systemic and interpersonal racism. Reasons for this include economic and social deprivation; trauma caused by behaviours ranging from threats to physical violence; inadequate medical care; and alienation from land and traditional economies.
How is it that racialized mothers are expected to “naturally” raise exceptional racialized children and be the best they can be in the process? How can they move mountains when they make less and can’t afford things like childcare, nutritious food and adequate housing? Even when another caregiver can help with expenses, we’re still at a significant disadvantage, facing the cumulative consequences of a lifetime of discrimination. And, too often, institutions that are supposed to help parents/guardians and children have a nasty history of either ignoring or negatively targeting us.
Work harder. Do better. I couldn’t blame a racialized mother who feels demoralized this back-to-school season. There continues to be an unacceptable gap between expectations and opportunities, capacities and resourcing. If raising racialized children in a superhuman fashion continues as a necessity, why don’t we prioritize racialized mothers’ needs and well-being in our country? Why do we allow the same old socio-economic and health barriers we’ve been talking about since I was a schoolgirl persist for them, year after year, decade after decade?
This is a challenge we have to meet as a country ― after back-to-school season comes federal voting season. How are potential decision-makers seeking our endorsement going to make things better for racialized women, and by extension, for their children? How are they going to support the greatness of the next generation by giving their most common primary caregivers the tools they need to be super?
Work harder. Do better. These days, that’s not the mantra that comes first to my mind anymore. Instead, I think of the words of the Honourable Rosemary Brown, the first Black woman elected to political office in Canada: “Until all of us have made it, none of us have made it.”
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