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Blog January 2, 2023

EDI Is Not an Excuse For Censorship

Can we fight racism without chilling expression? The answer must be a resounding yes, but how can we ensure that schools and educators understand their responsibilities to protect their students from censorship and from discrimination both at once?

It isn’t easy and it can’t be done in one lesson or even in one course. However, when we avoid discussing race and racism or other forms of oppression out of fear that we are going to be using or permitting the wrong language, or that our motivations will be misunderstood, we become part of the problem.

Equity, Diversity, and Inclusive (EDI) or (IDEA: Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility) education has become the gold standard in many progressive educational philosophies and systems. But what is it and how can it work to the benefit of all educators and learners? Ideally, EDI is a process by which people of every identity and intersectionality are integral to the development and delivery of education in all its many aspects. This ought to mean that we look to people who have been historically marginalized or shut out to inform the very structures and systems which have been at the forefront of oppression.

The trouble with this ideal is that this is rarely how teacher education works. In faculties of education, pre-service teaching students are offered courses that include educational theory. They can read, and in some faculties must read, a wide variety of writing by philosophers, psychologists, and educators who want to see significant changes in how schooling is done. And then comes the practicum.

This is the part of teacher education where the pre-service teacher spends time in one or more classrooms and is instructed and evaluated by a more senior teacher, preferably a teacher whose experience and understanding help the novice to apply what they have read and learned in the faculty of education.

Unfortunately, this ideal often comes up against the reality of “that’s not how we do things around here.” And also “we don’t talk about race here,” or “these kids are too young, at too low a level, too immature, or (fill in the blank) to discuss such topics as race, discrimination, ableism, sexuality, trans rights, abortion, or (fill in the blank again.)”

What can the teacher-candidate do about this? Remember that this novice is being marked by a senior mentor teacher and cannot afford to displease them or trouble waters that may have long stood stagnant. Some are courageous, continue to disrupt the system, and hope that the senior teacher will approve of the attempt to demonstrate what EDI looks like on a day-to-day basis in their classroom. Many are not so brave. Sadly, those are the teachers who go on to use censorship to perpetuate a flawed system. They are the people who honestly believe, because they have learned it at the elbow of a senior teacher, that if we don’t talk about it, it will go away.  It won’t. Most of us have met that particular variety of senior teacher in one powerful guise or another. They can be found in medicine, law, business, and academia, as well. 

Their belief that being challenged is being attacked perpetuates the system that EDI is trying to overcome. The people who tell you to avoid difficult topics, to keep doing things the way they have always been done, do not have the courage or the interest to fight discrimination and oppression. They want simple, teacher-managed fixes to problems that have been with us for as long as we have had organized educational systems, so they use what they have always used – rules to limit expression. It looks like an easy path to harmony and tranquility – just clamp down on any controversy or discussion. If no one says what is happening, it can’t actually be happening, right?  But the emperor still has no clothes.   Those “short cuts” to peace cannot and do not work. We cannot allow educators to use EDI (or critical race theory) as an excuse for censorship.

As Carl E. James and Vidya Shah, professors of education at York University, said in a recent article:

In our work with educators, we have seen the ways in which delving into issues of race and racism invite students of all racial backgrounds to make sense of the world around them and reflect on their responsibilities in creating more just and humane futures.

Avoiding conversations about race ensures that racism flourishes, creates inhospitable educational contexts and contributes to a deficient learning experience for all students.

We need dialogue that is committed to centring the voices of those who live marginalized and racialized realities and for whom schooling has failed to meet their interests, needs and aspirations. Racism needs to be addressed if we are going to flourish as a society.

This dialogue includes hearing and discussing ugly words and awful views that few of us want to hear.  But if we as educators fail to do this, we will be perpetuating the kind of knee-jerk, simplistic, and exclusionary learning that permitted discrimination and oppression in the first place.