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The burden of representation

By Litia Fleming, teacher, Richmond

Teacher, May/June 2023

Standing out as the only person of colour in a room is not a new experience for me. I attended a predominately white high school, and am from a predominately white family. However, I am biracial and visibly not white. Though I was always aware of the ways in which I looked different than my white classmates, I lived in Vancouver growing up and didn’t feel hypervisible. Now, I teach in a rural community as one of only a few BIPOC teachers in the district. My hypervisibility, and the burden of representation I place on myself, have never been more acute.

Every year, early in the school year, students inevitably ask me if I am black. The first time I answered this question, my response was beyond what my students could grasp. I’ve workshopped my answer over the years, so I am ready to engage in a conversation with students about identity, and layers of identity, when this question comes up. Now, I find this conversation is a starting point for learning about identity throughout the year.

Identity is a big piece of my anti-racism pedagogy. So often, in communities like mine where the demographic is predominately white, conversations about racism and anti-racism are completely omitted from wider dis-course. Whether it is in community spaces or school spaces, very few people and very few resources are committed to anti-racism because it is viewed as irrelevant to the wider population. However, many of the Grade 8 students I teach are consuming culture online that is not their own culture. While this is a very normal practice in today’s ever-connected world, it becomes problematic when students are not aware of their own positionality in relation to the culture they consume and sometimes reproduce.

The labour of anti-racism work is not and should not be the sole responsibility of BIPOC folks. However, we often take on this responsibility because we are the ones with the most to lose...

So how do we engage students in conversations about positionality, anti-racism, and identity? I think the first step is relationship building. I make an effort to acknowledge students’ thoughts and feelings even if I find them problematic. By doing so, students know I view them as intelligent individuals with unique opinions and valid feelings. We focus on growing together and learning about why and how some of their ideas may be problematic through an open dialogue that is judgment-free and grounded in empathy.

I also find connections to anti-racism across all subjects and learning opportunities, including media and culture that students consume outside of my classroom. It’s important for students to see the breadth and scope of anti-racism work, and how it applies to all facets of their lives.

This generation is the most identity-aware generation yet. They are interested in figuring out who they are and encouraging each other to be their authentic selves. They are open to learning if we as teachers are willing to step into the uncomfortable spaces of facilitating challenging conversations. They need the prompt to begin thinking about anti-racism, but once the conversation is on the table, they are open-minded and engaged.

I find I have a much harder time app-roaching conversations about racism and anti-racism with adults than I do with students, even if both groups have similar experiences and knowledge of BIPOC stories and experiences. I take it more personally when an adult has opinions that are racist or homophobic compared to a student with similar opinions. Even still, I take on this work with adults when I can because, in my small community, I know these conversations will not happen unless someone makes a concerted effort to initiate them.

This is the burden of representation. The labour of anti-racism work is not and should not be the sole responsibility of BIPOC folks. However, we often take on this responsibility because we are the ones with the most to lose if anti-racism is not woven into our work, our community, and our peer groups.

Leading the way in anti-racism can be a lonely experience. Already, in many predominately white communities, BIPOC teachers can have a hard time finding belonging and connection. I often search outside my community to find opportunities to connect with other BIPOC teachers who can validate my experiences, share my ideas, and empower my work. The BIPOC 2050 Project has been a source of community and strength for me. It’s a space where I don’t feel the burden of representation.

The work of anti-racism belongs to everyone. As teachers, we have to start these conversations with our students and colleagues so we can bring change to our communities. The omission of race from any type of conversation in education is a form of racism. We must talk about it in order to change it.


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