"Representation is important because it gives us a sense of belonging, it gives us a place to feel nurtured and safe so we could grow, and it gives us pride in our black identity, which is so very important for us to move forward."
Racial and Intergenerational Trauma for ACB Youth: ACB representation in the Educational System with Simone Donaldson (Episode 2)
Simone Donaldson is a Consultant, Therapist, and founder of Agapé Lens Consulting
and Therapy, with over 12 years devoted to mental health, racialized communities, and youth. She offers consultations to private, non-profit, and public sectors, to help guide and implement equity, cultural humility, anti-black racism, mental health, and wellness education, through program development, workshops, leadership coaching, staff development, and speaking engagements. She also prioritizes Black youth 12-24 for psychotherapy and counseling, through a warm, honest, and mindfully present approach. Simones' practice is grounded in trauma-informed principles, an Afrocentric lens, attachment, holistic, and strength-based practices. She believes true healing manifests when we become our most authentic self, allowing us to thrive and live out our purpose.
SWY Opening Remarks:
This is our new monthly series called, “Racial and Intergenerational Trauma for ACB Youth”, which stands for African, Caribbean and Black youth, with our lovely Simone Donaldson. Our first episode was closer to the end of January. And this month's episode, which is our second episode is African, Caribbean, and Black representation in the educational system with connections to identity and how that affects racial trauma.
SWY: Why is ACB representation important?
SD: This is such a very important question. We hear people oftentimes talking about representation, but having a really hard time, sometimes swallowing why it’s so important. As well as, asking ourselves, "How can I move into ensuring that there is representation for me," whether you're young, whether you're old, etc. So it's important because anti-black racism; and we should just really call it for what it is, white supremacy, has demonized the black identity. It's created this worldwide misinterpretation as to what it means to be a black individual. So there's these ideas that we’re a threat, that we’re savage, that we're inferior. There's these ideas that we're over sexualized, so even our children can't be children, because they're looked at as adults and treated like that "angry black man" or "angry black woman", versus being able to live freely like every other young child out there. And then what this does for us, is when we're met in every institution that we go to or in connection with different individuals, and the interaction we have with them, we're made to feel as though we're not good enough. We're rejected, again, treated differently because of the colour of our skin, we start to internalize that. We start to feel as though there truly is something wrong with us. If everybody's rejecting us, if everyone's saying that we're not acceptable as we are, treating us as though we are the ones that are making them feel unsafe. When really we're the ones living in fear and in survival because this experience creates racial trauma, which I know we spoke about previously, and it really leaves us in this place of survival. We're either in this fight, flight, or freeze mode, in our bodies constantly. And so it really takes us away from actually building pride in our identity and who we are, and then we don't have a level of safety that most people are afforded.
The reason representation is important, is because it provides us a pathway to this emotional and mental freedom, this prison that we are kept in. It provides us that freedom, because when we see people that look like us, in positions of power, and/or not positions of power, but a position where they appear quite healed from the wounds of racism. It allows us to see ourselves differently, It allows us to see that there may be an opportunity for us, that we don't have to live the life that our ancestors led us to survive. Which of course, we honor, we celebrate, but they didn't do all of that just so we could continue to survive or fight the way we do everyday. They did it so that we can have a freer life. Are we living, if we are not free, if we're only living through survival? And I would argue we're not.
So representation is important because it gives us a sense of belonging, it gives us a place to feel nurtured and safe so we could grow, and it gives us pride in our black identity, which is so very important for us to move forward.
SWY Comment: I very much agree with those sentiments. I'm speaking from my own experience, I introduced my identity a lot in school and in one of my courses, I felt that lack of representation. And it made me feel isolated, made me feel sad, and made me feel so alone, and constantly rejected. Even if that wasn't their intention, I did feel exactly what you're talking about.
SD: And I felt the same way growing up and even when I was in, post secondary and grad school, it was the same kind of idea. Too many of us are feeling this way when we are in these institutions. And this is why it needs to stop and we need to have these conversations so people understand the importance of representation in these areas.
SWY: Can you tell us a little bit about the Canadian black history of the educational system (segregation, black schools, etc.) and how it has changed since then?
SD: I love that you're asking me how it's changed. And to be quite honest, I don't think it has changed as much as I would love to say it has. Of course, there's been some forward movement.
But let me just start a little bit with the history. So I'm not a historian, I don't know everything. But the little I do know is that it really was a horrific experience. So back in about the 1800s, is when you will see that segregation was legalized. So when black people were freed from slavery or there was just a different kind of rise and equality with regards to the black population, the 1800s brought about segregation. So whether it was restaurants, the schools, like access to a lot of these different institutions that, thankfully again, we have access to, but how we have access is a whole other conversation. But during those times, of course, the schools where white people would go, they were often funded very differently, which meant the resources were better, the maintenance of the buildings were better. So sometimes, the black students were separated by buildings. Sometimes, they were separated in the way that they would go to school houses, to teach, to learn, to develop their education. And in those situations, sometimes they would have to go to school at different times, that would be another way the segregation would happen. And then in other situations, if they had to be in the same school, then they would just be separated, maybe on a bench or they'd be separated, somewhere in the building, that wouldn't allow them to cross, like almost a line. So these are different ways that it came about and it was really horrible.
So you asked me the question about what has changed. So one of the laws and one of the things that came into play, was that individuals were not allowed to go to schools outside of their geographical area. However, if someone was in the same geographical area, for example, if a black child was in a geographical area where there was predominantly a white school, trustees would fight so hard and manipulate the system to ensure that they still were not able to access those schools. And some of them couldn't go to schools, as a result. And some of them that were able to go to school, they had to do the most and take whatever kind of transportation, that may be very far out, in order to access these schools so they could get some form ofl education.
And oftentimes, we talk about Canada being great, because our education system is free, it's open, it's all these things. But you know, when you get there, if you get there, the violence that's experienced is a whole other ballgame. And so this is no different, to be quite honest. Even the same sentiment was felt with post secondary schools where people were continuously denied access. And again, you talked about change, and I think to myself, well, maybe the changes are that now, people are obviously not able to deny access, if they're in a certain geographical area. Then also, if you're under 21 years old, even as an immigrant, you are kind of obligated to go to school. And the schools are not able to deny that access, either. Although, unfortunately, I've seen it happen multiple times. And thankfully, through advocacy, we're able to get these kids in school, but many people have been denied as a result of that.
When I think about racism, I think people forget that in Canada it's very, very covert. And so yes, maybe we may not see things as blatantly as we once did, when it comes to segregation in schools, but behaviors and the attitudes remain the same. And so that's why we see a disproportionate rate of our black young girls and boys being suspended or expelled. So they may not be able to deny them access, but they make sure to keep them out in all these other ways. So it's really similar in many ways.
And then when we look at some of the schools that are considered in the "ghetto" or in the "at-risk neighborhoods", they often don't have resources to maintain buildings. Imagine your child will walk into these buildings that are not being maintained, you're going to feel that there's a rejection just by the physical environment. And then you have your children that are being forced into these special classes because of the way they speak or because of their behavior, which again, demonized much more harshly than if another person; a white or non-black person, were to behave inappropriately. Or you have them sitting by the office door, like they're in office doors more often than they are in their classrooms. So again, it may look different, but it's very much the same, because the attitudes and behaviors haven't changed as much as they should have.
SWY Comment: Thank you so much for that elaborate response. Personally, growing up, I went to schools in predominantly white neighborhoods, but I did live in, as you said, "at-risk communities". So when I played sports, and going to other schools, I did see that big change in terms of the facilities, even just lockers or stuff that are broken, that are just not being repaired. So I definitely can speak to what you're talking about. And even also, as well as education that's being taught. We don't really even learn about Canadian black history. At that, we learn about American black history.
SD: Right, that's another big issue. We're not taught our history in the Canadian context, which actually is quite rich. Definitely comes with its level of pain. But there's so much more to be told that is not being taught. And that has been happening forever. They've used education as a tool to strip us of our black identity. They've used in many ways to really demonize who we are as a people, and then cast themselves as saviors to us in these history books. Meanwhile, many of us were here doing just fine even before the Europeans came here. Which is why I think it's so important that I often talk to people about knowing your history, and of course, you're not gonna know everything. And unfortunately, it is hard to find sometimes, but it's so important that we understand our history because that in itself will give us a different representation of who we are, where we came from, what we're really about, where our strengths really lie, what our ancestors did, what they left for us. It really just provides a different level of connection and understanding of our true identity versus the one that's being painted for us from a very, very young age..
SWY: Do you have any advice for ACB youth who are attending predominantly white schools, who may be feeling disconnected from the ACB community?
I think there's many ways, I'm going to give the top three that I would recommend. Again, I work from an Afrocentric lens and that really just emphasizes the responsibility we have to one another, as a people. So village building; that it takes a village kind of mentality. And I think that, too often we want to rely on this system that was not made for us in order to find our healing. And although they for sure need to do their work, although people in the system ... because we talk about these systems as though their buildings, but the systems are really people and I think people need to know that. But the thing is, we cannot wait on this system for us to begin our healing. And I'm so adamant about us to village build. So I think for these youth, where they can, relying on community is so important. For some people, it might mean creating some kind of a youth group in their church. For some, it might mean getting a mentor that is out in the community, it could be formally or informally. Just someone that you can really trust, that you can learn from, someone that is achieving the goals that you may want one day. Seeing that representation, some kind of mentorship and it doesn't have to be formal, through a “Big Brother” or “Big Sister” kind of thing. It could be a very natural organic kind of experience. And there's a lot of projects out there that people are creating. So like the “IMARA Project,” through TAIBU CHC. That's one that I am a part of, and Christiana, where we have a lot of discussions around what it means to be a black youth in Toronto, and there are some other programs like that out there. So I would say, connect to your village, first and foremost. Find those safe places, and those safe people that can really help amplify your black identity, as well as, help you just feel more confident and slowly rip away at that internalized oppression that likely is happening. So that's my first advice or encouragement.
The second one, is if you do feel safe enough, find a trusting adult at your school. I know that there's this young woman that I work with and she has often felt like an outsider because of similar experiences. She's the only black individual in her school, one out of two, kind of thing. And there's a point in time, where she got to a place where she was just sick and tired of the way anti black racism was not being addressed appropriately within the school. And so she found a trusting adult and she created this club with other black youth, which there weren't many of them. But she created this group as a safe space for them to hold and this trusting adult was able to help them put this together. I do think there's some people in our school systems that are more than willing and ready to support. But we have to find those individuals, and then create a community, even at your school. So sometimes that is an option.
The last thing I would say is to volunteer in these spaces where you can learn and grow to love your black identity. And sometimes it's the food bank, because we have a lot of our people sometimes accessing these food banks, and even the small conversations that happen, could be a learning and warm experience for you. But also, there's something to be said about giving back, lending yourself and helping others where you can, and what that does to our mental health and wellness, in general. Just connection to people in a different way. And seeing others and supporting them, is really a boost of confidence and wellness. It really is supporting us overall. So definitely volunteering in spaces where you feel safe, you can learn and you could grow. And you never know what opportunities might present themselves as well. It's a great way to kind of move through this.
SWY Comment: As a young person myself, I was in high school. I think I would agree with creating your own club and creating that community yourself, as well. I feel that a lot of young black people, or young, African Caribbean black youth struggle with that, especially when they're the only one or one of the only two. So it's like, either you or me, which one is it going to be to create this community, create the space, or go outside of our school system? I would say it's hard, but it's something that can be done, of course.
Yeah, it's very hard. I don't think any tips, in fact, that I would ever give to people, like whether it's in this interview or elsewhere, is ever an easy thing. But I do think we have to fight for our wellness. And so we have to be intentional about it. And we cannot wait for people to give that to us. And sometimes we have to go out there and fight for it, and finally cultivate these relationships, so that we could see a different kind of future and leave a different legacy as well. But it's for sure, hard, but this is why the collective healing is really great, so that you don't feel like you have to do it alone.
SWY: Why is it important to have diversity within the faculty as much as the student population?
SD: So going back to my message around racial trauma and what that does to the black body, it really keeps our bodies kind of tense and in this place of survival and a place of fear, hypervigilance, worry; these are common feelings that we have moving day to day with having to fight racial microaggressions. At every turn that we go, whether it's the convenience store, the school, the bank, very simple places that we would do a daily task, that many people don't have to worry about. They don't have to think when they walk outside to throw their garbage in an affluent neighborhood, what are people going to think? Are people going to say that I belong here? That is not a norm for a lot of people, but it is a norm for us.
So the reason diversity is important within those that are teachers or within leadership is because it does actually provide us this almost automatic feeling of safety. And when we're able to feel safe, then we're able to also feel a little more calm. Maybe, we can start seeing ourselves as belonging because again, there's this constant rejection. And then of course, it allows us to see, “Oh my gosh, I could be that person one day,” and become role models without even knowing it if there's no kind of relationship.
But I think that representation, first and foremost, brings a level of safety to the individual, because then they don't feel alone. They also feel like, “Oh, maybe there's somebody that gets it.” And I want to make it clear that not every black person is the same or has the same exact experiences, we are all very unique, which is amazing and great about the black body. However, oftentimes what we do share is a struggle. And it may look different for a lot of us, we may be able to internalize it differently. But knowing that there's someone that looks like me, really gives a level of calmness and joy that can come about, which we need because often the way we're represented on TV, or the way we're represented on social media, and all these places that we see ourselves, it’s never in a good light. So another thing, is that it gives us an opportunity to see what our possibilities could be, that thinking beyond the stereotypes because again, internalized racism allows us to doubt our abilities. Sometimes it even creates self hate because this is what the system is telling us, essentially. But being able to be free of those thoughts and ideas, sometimes comes simply from seeing someone who has gone past it, knowing that, “Oh gosh, so maybe I could get through this as well.” And then on top of that, you start opening up your mind to what other possibilities are out there, I could still become a lawyer, I could still become a doctor. And you could still be a basketball player, you could still be a makeup artist, whatever it is, there's nothing wrong with that, per se. But sometimes we are limited to what we think we can do and we don't see ourselves in these spaces, whether it's leadership, or even a teacher.
I'm someone in the caring role, which goes to my last point, which is that the nurturance looks very different. When it's coming from someone who understands our struggle. At the end of the day, anybody who's non-Black will not get it, they will not fully get it, but they could still do their work to support and stand alongside. But having someone that gets it to validate, to affirm the black identity, to affirm that they're still beautiful and loved and valuable, it comes from a different place. And I think, as children and as adults, we need to be held differently, we need to be told that we're valuable, we need to be told that we are important, and that we are not the stereotype. We're not our events. We're not our ancestors’ events. We are who we are in this moment. And that needs to be embraced.
SWY Comment: I really hope for the educational system to bring that representation throughout the school. As you mentioned, your personal experiences, and my own, You can see we all have these experiences and we need this representation. As you said, that sense of belonging is so important, that sense of identity, knowing yourself is so important, I feel that everyone has this journey with identity. So, if you could just imagine that journey of identity of a non black person. Imagine that 10 times or 5 times, more confusing for a person in the black community.
SD: Absolutely, well said. It's like we can't be our natural, authentic selves, even if we want to be. That's how we're made to feel. So this whole identity, coming up with who we are and understanding who we are, just takes a level of work that is different, oftentimes, but necessary though. And I think this is why I purposely go back to village building, because I don't think we have to do it alone, although, there's that individual work that needs to get done, for sure. I think having conversations like this, where people are like, “Oh, I experienced that, too. Oh, I experienced that, too,” gives people this permission to feel, truly what they felt, but weren't able to either articulate or were given permission to feel. It's really important so that we can move through this healing journey. When people aren't given that opportunity to do it in a safe space they stay to themselves, they're secretive about it. All sorts of things happen to maybe damage it a little more versus find ways to grow from it. So I think this representation could be had within our communities, as well as within our school systems. And we have to cultivate these things, we have to create them. We can't wait on the system, we really can't afford to, we really can’t.
SWY: How can non-ACB community members provide support to change representation in our school systems?
SD: The first thing I will say is, we don't need saviors. I was working in the school board, just for a little bit, and what I realized is there's a lot of teachers and administrative staff who really do mean well. But the issue is, we don't need people to feel sorry for us, we also don't need people to be motivated in supporting change through guilt, or shame, as those feelings will go back and forth, and essentially you're making it about you. You're making it about you, you're making it about something that isn't necessarily about the individuals you're trying to support. And that is not going to last very long. And it's going to create even more chaos for that individual. In fact, it's not actually a good place for anybody to operate from. So we don't need saviors. And I think people need to hear that and know that, we need people to stand alongside us. And this is why people talk about being given permission to speak up for us and what not. Because if you're not doing your work, and if we don't feel that you're a safe representation of being able to share the load, so to speak, the burden or be a pioneer at the front of this for us, or some kind of leader in front of us or beside us, then it's really gonna cause more harm than help. People need to do their work first. And for some people, it may mean going to a therapist and unpacking that and unraveling that and understanding that it's a lot of emotional burden that is being held for these people, but then how do you react from it, can really be detrimental to the way to the way in which you're able to impact the community or not. So people just really need to do their own work, first and foremost.
The second thing, of course, is that in everything that you do, how are you centering the black identity? A lot of these institutions have a record of wanting to create change, but not really centering the Black identity, instead centering what's going to make sense for them, such asm how are they gonna benefit? And the reality is white supremacists; they want to stay supreme, they want to stay the ones in power. And so they're going to do whatever they can to protect that power. So is that what's happening, why things aren't changing? Are you just doing things to check off a box? Which is why I think external evaluators and those that are in the fields of anti-Black racism, for instance, are the ones to come in and guide them through this work because they also need to be held accountable. And it's hard to see where you need change when you're part of that problem or don't want to admit to it. And so I think giving an external evaluator the ability to support you through that process is important to ensure that they keep you on track as well as keep you accountable, and make sure the appropriate things are being done, and the change is happening, in that regard. So it's a moving machine, and not just like, “Let's check this off. And that's that.”
And then I think, we spoke about this earlier, teachers need to teach real Black history. That is, first and foremost. I think it's really important that they teach the appropriate history. And that also they do things, like ensure that representation is in the classroom. So whether it's a book that you're reading, maybe the characters can be lack instead of a white person or whatever it might be, I think that is really important. The pictures that you put up around your classroom, the discussions that you have when solving problems, it should be a black person, we need to know that we belong and that we're a part of this. And in fact, so many of our ancestors built this country and people need to know that. There needs to be a pride and a joy that is associated with our identity. Not the one that only comes in once a month, which is poorly represented. And taking the time to understand the history and then represent it well, during Black History Month, as an example. Those things are really, really important, I think in terms of what the non ACB community can do in supporting our education system and representing it.
SWY Comment: That was a great response. I had one comment on the thing that you said about how a non-black person should go to therapy and kind of go through their own emotions dealing with... that is something that I haven't heard before. And I think that it's very important, actually. Do you want to talk more about that?
SD: I just feel that anti-Black racism is very emotional for all of us that are involved. Obviously, the impact is much harsher on those of us who are experiencing racism. But the thing is, fear has a way of taking over one's emotions and ways of being. And so we go in this fight, flight, or freeze mode, and a lot of people when they start to realize that, “Oh, my gosh, my ancestors did this to these black people, it starts to create a level of emotional response that some people just are not able to handle. Then they talk about white fragility, and how people really just kind of break apart when they start to realize the impact that they may have had on somebody that they've known forever. This is a shock to the system. And it's not me sitting here trying to feel sorry for them, but it is letting them know that, for sure, there's going to be an emotional response to it. So how are you going to help me deal with it? Because again, we have people that during the death of George Floyd, the protests and all those things happening, were so forward about having this black screen on their Instagram, or let's go to the fight. But now you're not seeing people raise up the same way. You're not seeing people show up the same way. And some people will do things based on emotion and not based on what they really know, to be true. And to try and create that change. And so I think sometimes people need to go through the process of change and transformation, to really be about this fight. Because they don't have to be. And oftentimes, I hear from colleagues or I hear from individuals that I'm teaching around anti-black racism is like, “Oh, it's so hard. It's so hard.” And I'm just thinking in my head, “It's hard for you... imagine me.” So they start censoring themselves in the conversation, versus censoring the black person who has been experiencing this for decades upon decades. And when you become in this place of freezing because you begin to think, “I'm so scared. I don't know what to do.” Then you're not helping the fight, you're staying silent, and you're ensuring that these things are cycled. And so the therapy for me, I think that it's like, I don't know how this is going to look for everybody. But I do think people need a space to process it, when they're able to recognize that this is in fact, what's happened. How they have impacted those that are around them, that they say they love sometimes, and be able to sit with it and not live in this world of defensiveness because again, you're not helping anybody by doing that.
SD: Thank you for having me. And for having this conversation and seeing it as important. I think there's just so much that we could unpack and so much more that we could say, but we only have a certain amount of time. But I am hoping that people are able to take some tools, some encouragement from this and just really understand representation is not as simple as some may seem, or some may think. Because the representation that we often get is one that is very spoiled, it's demonized, it's not true. And I think that it holds such an important place for the black community, in receiving black joy, in giving black joy, and giving this level of safety and a sense of belonging, which too often were made to feel, we don't have or we lack. And so I hope that people will continue the conversations actually around representation and how they could show up for others, as well as where they can find inspiration from. But I think it's a part of the healing journey. And I'm hoping that people will just take it a little more seriously, and people will do their part to ensure that the representation is there.
We want to thank Simone for being apart of our conversation and sharing her knowledge on racial and intergenerational trauma for ACB Youth. Make sure to check out her Instagram for more information on this topic.
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