WomenEd Blogs

Conforming to Racist Structures and Systems: Learning and Working Through the Education System


by Iram Khan   @teachermrskhan

I have the honour of being part of my school district's Racial Equity Advisory Committee. Part of the side effects of this work has involved us supporting our colleagues in their journeys to heal from the traumas of colonialism and racism. This has become essential work. To become better leaders we need to heal ourselves and be able to help others heal.

We have been finding that creating a healing path involves creating courageous, safe spaces for us to listen to stories and to share stories of struggle related to learning and working in educational structures and systems.

I was born in northern Manitoba, from parents newly married, newly deposited in a space far from their families and drastically different from Karachi, Pakistan, the place they called home. I am a first generation Canadian.

When I was really young, our family was pulled to many different small, mining towns as my father continued to learn and grow in his career. While we moved from town to town, our family expanded to five children. Eventually we made our final move across the country to another small mining town in the interior of British Columbia.

Education was very important to my family. Go to school to learn. Become a leader so people will listen to you and respect you. Make money, because people listen to people who are wealthy. My parents cared about me and protected me. They wanted me to be successful, happy and safe as a child and in the future.

To do this, my cultural identity was stripped away from me by well meaning adults. My name was changed by teachers from Iram to Irem because it was easier to say (an odd choice that I have never been able to comprehend!). My teachers and friends made it uncomfortable for me to talk about the traditions and the rules of living that my religion of Islam outlined for me from birth. Good for my school and my friends, I forgot these quickly and easily.

My parents spoke English around us and not our first language of Urdu. They bought us "Western" clothes; packed our lunches with tuna sandwiches, potato chips, and juice boxes; and hosted birthday parties with cake, pretzels and pizza to be like everyone else. They taught us to be quiet, listen, perform beyond our best and never ask questions or complain. They tried to keep our cultural traditions alive in our home but it was a losing battle. The impulse to fit in was very strong.

Anxiety started to take over my life as I entered middle school. I was praised as being a good student, a high achiever, one who set goals and shot beyond them. I was constantly surprising teachers and my friend's parents with my abilities. "You speak English very well, you don't have an accent!" The more I conformed, the more I was accepted.

I didn't realize until now that part of the reason that anxiety was showing up in my life was that I was surrounded by whiteness and I needed to be as white as possible to succeed, but not so much as to increase scrutiny of those around me.

"How can a brown girl win awards, school play parts, or competitions over white kids?! She's not even from here!" 

So, I had to work extra hard to remove any doubt as to why I was being awarded for my successes. It was like I was constantly swimming upstream, never catching up to other fish while trying to actively avoid the bears around me.

No one, from what I remember, was ever explicitly racist to me. But, it didn't prevent people from expressing racism around me. 

After Whitney Huston performed at the Grammy's, a classmate shared that their dad yelled at the TV, "Shut up and sing normal, Paki!" 

I laughed with everyone else. 

I was at church with a friend (my father didn't mind me going to different church services, I guess in another attempt to fit in) and listened to the pastor welcoming back a family who recently went to save the heathens of Pakistan and saved many from going to hell. 

I clapped with the whole congregation. I passed the test, I never complained when others were being racist around me.

Many children of immigrants share similar experiences. A few years ago my sister texted me this quote from Reni Eddo-Lodge's book, Why I'm no Longer Talking to White People About Race:

"The children of immigrants have quietly assimilated to demands of colour-blindness, doing away with any evidence of our culture and heritage in an effort to fit in. We've listened to our socially conservative parents, and educated ourselves up to our eyeballs. We've kept our gripes to ourselves, and changed our appearance, names, accents and dress in order to fit the status quo. We have bitten our tongues, exercised safe judgment, and tiptoed around white feelings in an effort to not rock the boat." p. 208

I was navigating through structures and systems that were actively trying to push me out on my own and make me fail as there was no way I could completely fit in.

It took decades for me to have the ability to look at my life and realize that something was wrong. I was struggling through increased instances of anxiety and depression. I was moving in my career towards becoming a school administrator and I was uncomfortable being around colleagues and sitting through meetings. Looking around at meetings and workshops, I did not see many people like me and if I did, I had to keep my distance. This is difficult for me to admit, but subconsciously as a result of the environment I grew up in, I was convinced that if I did not surround myself with white people I would not succeed. To succeed I needed to be accepted by the white majority. Often, however, I found myself alone.

Lately, I have been connecting the dots and it is becoming clear to me that the structures and systems that I live and work in force conformity.

The education system has not been able to dismantle itself away from structures that exist to indoctrinate and assimilate, which create stress and trauma on racialized and Indigenous peoples.

"Structural racism is dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of people with the same biases joining together to make up an organisation, and acting accordingly. Structural racism is an impenetrably white workplace culture set by those people , where anyone who falls outside of the culture must conform or face failure." (Eddo-Lodge, p. 64)

If one would simply look at my resume it is clear that I have had many successes. I have a Masters degree, I have been a school administrator for 14 years, I've led workshops, presented at conferences and I've belonged to committees and organizations that work on a variety of different educational issues. All of these successes have been despite a lot more work and roadblocks than my white colleagues have probably had to face. Many of these roadblocks should have knocked me off the road completely, but I have surrounded myself with some key, supportive people. Supportive relationships listen and treat me seriously when I express the stress I am under. They give me the strength to tackle the structures and systems around me.

Just to be clear, I am not negating experiences of trauma that white colleagues have gone through. However, it is difficult to negate the impact systems and structures have on racialized and Indigenous people when they are led by white faces. It is another layer that we have to struggle with.

Working my way through racist structural and systemic systems has helped feed the anxiety that I live with every day. I know other racialized and Indigenous colleagues feel the same.

To help dismantle these systems and structures it is essential to create courageous, safe spaces for racialized and Indigenous people to be able to share stories.

It is also essential for white colleagues to listen to our stories to better understand what we have been going against and to join us in the work of dismantling these racist systems and structures.

Notice from #WomenEd:

We invite you to comment on our blogs; we are always delighted to hear from you. To do so, scroll to the bottom of this page and send in your comment with your name and email.

Thank you!

Stay Informed

When you subscribe to the blog, we will send you an e-mail when there are new updates on the site so you wouldn't miss them.

The Mother of All Pay Gaps
The Sledgehammer


No comments made yet. Be the first to submit a comment
Monday, 27 March 2023

Connect with us

Follow us via Twitter

Follow us on LinkedIn


Read Our Privacy Policy

Newsletter Subscription


Can you help spread the word about #WomenEd?

Please share to help us connect with women educators across the globe

We use cookies

We use cookies on our website. Some of them are essential for the operation of the site, while others help us to improve this site and the user experience (tracking cookies). You can decide for yourself whether you want to allow cookies or not. Please note that if you reject them, you may not be able to use all the functionalities of the site.