Culture Clash

Mitigating Cross Cultural Conflicts in the High School Setting

Every fall for the last few years, the students at Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School have marked the beginning of the new academic year by getting together for a Dyeversity Relay. The relay is one of many ways that the Red Deer, Alberta high school celebrates and promotes the racial, religious and cultural diversity of its 1,600 students, while simultaneously conveying to all of its stakeholders the critical message to respect, recognize and accept everyone as an equal.

As part of the relay, students take turns visiting booths set up to represent the student body’s various cultures and countries of origin, and in the process learn about  the music, food, costumes and customs of those who sit beside them in class.  Then, at various intervals during the event, the students, who have all been instructed to wear white t-shirts, are doused with different coloured powders, so that by the time school lets out for the day, they are all wearing multi-coloured t-shirts that reflect the multi-cultural make-up of the school and of Canada.

Considering the intent, excitement and success of this annual Dyeversity Relay, it was especially disturbing for Lindsay Thurber students when a small schoolyard scuffle broke out in May 2017 between a group of newly arrived Syrian refugee students and a group of long-term Canadian students. The scuffle, unfortunately, was filmed and immediately uploaded to social media, attracting virulent anti-Muslim rhetoric, as well as an uninvited, unwelcomed and mainly unaffiliated entourage of anti-immigration and anti-refugee protestors to the school grounds.

Ursella Khan was one of many Lindsay Thurber students deeply disturbed by the altercation and incensed by the protesters’ audacity and vitriol. Now a grade 12 student, 17-year-old Khan is a first generation Canadian whose Muslim parents arrived in Canada from Pakistan as refugees.

Although Khan did not witness the scuffle first-hand, she quickly assumed a key role as a student leader and spokesperson on the side of tolerance, acceptance, dignity and human rights. “There were definitely cultural barriers on both sides that may have caused the fight and the altercation,” says Khan, who has experienced some racism herself.  “(But) the video posted on social media did not help at all. The video only caught parts of the altercation, not the whole story, and promoted negative comments and misinformation towards a marginalized community.”

Unfortunately, Khan elaborates, certain groups chose to put  out information in order  to deliberately create misunderstandings and divisiveness among students and within the community, and just as unfortunately, some individuals chose to accept that misinformation as truth. “Multiculturalism and diversity is Canada’s strength,” Khan says emphatically, and “vicious comments and the signs of intolerance have no place in my community and in our country and absolutely contradict our Canadian values.” While Khan’s heartfelt sentiment is echoed by school boards, administrators, teachers and student leaders across the country, it seems, however, that a certain degree of cross culture clash is still inevitable in the hallways and schoolyards of Canadian high schools.

After all, Canada is a multicultural country that has set an example for the world by opening its doors to thousands of immigrants and refugees in recent years, including 25,000 Syrians in the span of just a few months. This influx of refugees, many of whom are school-age and most of whom have been traumatized by war and upheaval, has put a tremendous strain on schools as they try to figure out how best to welcome and integrate youngsters who often lack basic English or French language skills and have life experiences completely different than those of their Canadian born peers.

The challenge, of course, is even greater for the new students themselves who have to figure out how to get by and how to fit in when they do not speak the same language, have the same clothes, eat the same foods, share the same pop culture references or practice the same religion as most other students around them. Invariably, many of these newcomers simply choose to stick together with those who look and sound like them, rather than try to integrate with those who are different.

“Adolescents have a tremendous need to be affiliated with a peer group,” explains Dr. Ester Cole, the former supervising psychologist at the Toronto Board of Education and a member of the Professional Advisory Committee for The Psychology Foundation of Canada. “Social networks provide stability,” she continues, “and the peer group becomes a safety net because it means there are others who understand them. The tendency is to want to feel a sense of belonging and to stay with the group that has a lot in common with you.”

This safety net is especially important for students in their teenage years. “Students in kindergarten to grade 7 seem to easily shift to new culture norms as they are young and experiencing the life stage of building up the foundation of their culture beliefs.” explains clinical counsellor Kelly Lei Che, who offers multicultural counselling at her Vancouver practice. But, she adds, “students in grades 8-12 have already established part of their cultural belief systems and may take longer to shift to new ones.”

Additionally, newcomer students who are reluctant to adjust to Canadian culture, or who reject Canadian culture outright, are often branded as unmotivated and viewed with suspicion and negativity by other students and school staff. And yet, it is completely understandable why many teenagers, especially those who have arrived in Canada as refugees and have already lost so much, reject the new and cling instead to culture norms that reflect their families, history, homeland and culture. Culture, after all, is a powerful and influential force.

“We learn what to believe, what not to believe, what to expect, what not to expect, what is valuable and meaningful and what is not, what should be respected and what should not, what should be encouraged and what should not, and what should be punished or rewarded from our cultures,” Che explains. But, because no two cultures are the same, it sometimes becomes difficult for youngsters – both those who have lived in Canada their entire lives and those new to the country – to welcome and accept peers with different and sometimes opposing or conflicting  ideas and lifestyles.

It is this lack of acceptance and understanding that often results in culture clash. Culture clash also  tends to become exacerbated when a group that traditionally has been bullied or marginalized begins to feel empowered and  becomes more likely to articulate its own needs and act out in its own defence.

Culture clash can take many forms, but is typically  manifested verbally or physically, and involves name-calling, bullying, exclusion or marginalization. It can occur between any two or more disparate groups of students – not just groups that represent old and new Canadians – and between staff and students and staff and parents as well. “Using one cultural standard to judge doesn’t work in a multi-cultural school community,” says Che. “School staff should know that there is more than one cultural norm in a Canadian school.”

In addition to affecting the overall atmosphere, morale and safety in a school, cross culture clash also can negatively affect students’ physical and mental health and sense of self. Bee Quammie remembers those feelings. A Toronto-based writer, digital content creator and public speaker, Quammie was raised by her Jamaican immigrant parents in London, Ontario, and attended two different high schools there beginning in the late 90s. “London wasn’t very diverse, so the schools I went to only had a handful of non-white students,” she recalls. “There was overt racism, like the use of racial slurs and physical fights, and there was covert racism, in the form of ignorant comments and assumptions from fellow students and teachers.”

“I spoke up when it felt safe to,” Quammie adds, “but otherwise I kept quiet.” Quammie also cannot remember her schools doing anything to protect her or make her feel more valued. “It was easy for them to either put everything under the bullying umbrella or ignore the problems without addressing the unique issues of racism,” she says. “(But) when you glaze over conflict between students without understanding the nuance of the tensions that simmer beneath, it doesn’t stop the behaviour.”

Now, through her writing and her activism, Quammie works to empower Black girls to  speak out against racism, be proud of who they are, and take steps in order to feel safe in their schools and in their communities.

Presumably, Quammie’s demoralizing high school experience is less likely to be replicated in this day and age as schools across Canada, even in smaller towns, have become exceedingly diverse. But whether there are just a handful of minority or marginalized students at any given high school, or hundreds of them, constant vigilance is still required to ensure that every student in every school, regardless of their faith, colour or culture, feels secure and respected. When that is the case, culture clash is less likely to occur.

So how can Canadian high schools ensure a safer and more tolerant atmosphere for all students? There are a few things that they can do, Quammie says. “(They can) review policies and practices that either support biases or allow administration to overlook them, employ a diverse staff, and listen to what students are telling them about their experiences.”

In particular, they need to take students’ concerns and reports about racism, harassment and exclusion seriously and act swiftly to address and remedy those occurrences. “Overall, schools need to be sure that transparency and accountability are at the top of everything they do,” she says. “There (also) should be more thoughtful engagement of various cultures so that all students get exposed to the beauty of diversity.” Adds Dr. Cole, “Clashes are less likely to happen in schools where there are both reactive policies, which are really enforced by regulation and by law, but also where there are proactive programs.”

“The more proactive programs that there are and the more consistent they are, the more opportunities there are to share and to listen to one another,” she says. It is not enough for a school administration to react to, and reprimand or punish students who are caught being belligerent or bullying those who are different from them. “There have to be programs that everybody can see the benefit of.”

Certainly, many high schools across Canada already have, or are working on, devising a variety of such policies and  programs  to raise awareness about and encourage the acceptance of different cultures, religious beliefs and practices among their student bodies. In some schools, this might mean offering conflict management courses, peer mediation, buddy programs or something as tangible as halal or kosher food options in the cafeteria. In other schools, it might mean inviting parents and students to a multi-cultural event,  translating resource materials into multiple languages, establishing a special task force, or creating a carefree, fun activity like a Dyeversity Relay.

Considering the events of May 2017,  Lindsay Thurber’s annual  relay has become even more meaningful and necessary for its multi-cultural students, as well as their families and the surrounding communities. “We all need to be reminded from time to time that we are all immigrants, except the indigenous people who can lay claim to being original inhabitants of this country,” says Khan, who was the featured speaker at the Dyeversity Relay last fall and was recently appointed to  the Alberta education minister’s Youth Advisory Council. “We are a country of many cultures. There isn’t one culture or tradition that defines us as Canadians. We are a mixture of cultures, including the new ones, and we all migrated to Canada for a better life.”

“Being a minority anywhere is hard,” adds Khan. It is hard to fit in. It is hard to make friends, and it is hard to have people look at you differently everywhere you go. But, as Khan has learned, it is not that hard to be kind and accepting and to call out and act out against injustice and racism when you see it. “I spoke up because it was the right thing to do,” she says. “It is my duty as a Canadian and as decent human being.”

By: Sharon Chisvin

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