E is for Erasure
For a ‘Kindness Counts’ display, my students and I were making a chain of paper dolls. Each student was responsible for coloring one doll as themselves. One of the options I had was this boy and girl. At first the image is compelling, nice thick black lines, lots of space on the clothing for personalization, cute faces with big wide eyes… Many of my students would probably enjoy personalizing these pictures.
However the more I thought about it, the more it became clear how limiting these types of colouring activities are. Both dolls are White, for starters. How would it feel to be a student of colour who is asked to represent one’s self on a White body? What about a student struggling to fit into our strict gender binaries? What about girls who hate dresses? Getting my students to represent themselves in such a restricted way, would erase their diversity by default.
It occurred to me, that this is what erasure looks like. Granted, this is clearly a small-scale example. But that is what erasure is, an unrelenting barrage of large and small messages of uniformity that creates an oppressive and exclusionary landscape.
Parul Sehgal (2016) of the New York Times has defined erasure as a “blunt word” for the blunt practice of “collective indifference that renders certain people and groups invisible” (par. 3). It is a word that is increasingly used to “describe how inconvenient people are dismissed, their history, pain and achievements blotted out” (par. 3). This is a reality that is live in my classroom and which I have been grappling with explicitly since March 2015.
Every year, we mark World Down Syndrome day on March 21 by wearing lots of socks. Last year, I showed my students photos of Madeline Stuart, a professional model with Down Syndrome, as part of our discussion of this genetic condition. We talked about how unusual and refreshing it was to see a model with Down Syndrome. We then talked about the absence of diversity in advertising in general. As this was 2016, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was a big topic after the exclusive nomination of White actors for the 2016 Academy Awards, for the second year in a row. As a class we discussed the erasure of non-White achievement from these ceremonies. Which brought us to talking about how few non-White actors there are in mainstream movies and television to begin with.
I told my students about Dylan Marron’s Every Single Word Project, about how in the 1,207 minutes spanning all eight Harry Potter films there are only 12 characters of color who speak for a cumulative five minutes and 40 seconds. That’s less than 6 minutes for 20 hours of movies. My students found this shocking. One boy put up his hand and stated that in his 8 years of watching movies, he couldn’t think of a single movie that he had watched which had a main character who was not White. I told my students that I encouraged them to look at what they can see and then question what they can’t see. That this was an essential critical thinking skill.
It didn’t take long for this message to sink in. Another student raised his hand almost immediately. “Madame, I was just looking at the walls of our classroom. All the posters have White people on them. Even the dog is white.” And I was caught. This was true. Most of my bulletin board space is covered in French and English sound posters. For ‘ing’ there is a king (White), for ‘sh’ there is a man (White) saying ‘shh’, interestingly for ‘ow’ there is even a picture of a White flesh-tone band-aid (item #26 of Peggy McIntosh’s White privilege knapsack). The dog for ‘aw’ is indeed white.
How did this happen?
How could I have papered my walls with White supremacy?
How could I talk about #OscarsSoWhite in a classroom so White?
If my classroom and its walls are mirrors that affirm or deny my students’ identities, I have done a bang up job of erasing the presence of my students of colour…
Since then I’ve debated what to do about this. In the end, I’ve decided to keep the posters up. For a number of reasons, but in part to remind myself of my ongoing culpability and complicity with oppression. I will teach the same lesson every March, and give my students the opportunity to make erasure visible, to see how it operates in their lives. And I’m working to do a better job on my other bulletin boards (See B is for Blackness, Blindness and Bulletin Boards).
Despite the increasing racial diversity in our general and student populations, most teachers in Canada, are White (Ryan, Pollock, & Antonelli, 2009). I can’t change the demographics of my classroom. My Whiteness and the racial diversity of my students is fixed, the relationship between us, required. I can, however, do a much better job of making my classroom and my instruction reflective of the diverse experiences of the bodies within its walls. And I can be watchful for the deceptively cute colouring sheet.
McIntosh, P. (1989). “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” Peace and Freedom Magazine, July/August, 1989, pp. 10-12. Retrieved from: http://nationalseedproject.org/images/documents/Knapsack_plus_Notes-Peggy_McIntosh.pdf
Ryan, J., Pollock, K., & Antonelli, F. (2009). Teacher diversity in Canada: Leaky pipelines, bottlenecks, and glass ceilings. Canadian Journal of Education, 32(3), 591-617. Retrieved from: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ859264.pdf
Sehgal, P. (2016, Feb. 2). Fighting ‘Erasure’. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/07/magazine/the-painful-consequences-of-erasure.html?_r=0