They say I’m only worth a ‘B’ — Why being black in the academic world is agony

While incidents of bullying are underlined, a skewed grading system and its impact on mental health are often negated, writes Fadzaiishe Ziramba.
I have been told countless times that as a black student, I don’t deserve As. It is not that many have opened their mouths to say this, although one teacher did, in fact, say so. Others have shown me. They have made it clear to me through their actions.

I grew up in an African household where education is prized and mediocrity is shunned. My early years in Zimbabwe were full of stellar academic achievements. Students were ranked from first to fifth place based on grades. I always placed in the top three. I migrated to Canada, the land of opportunity, when I was almost nine. Before then, my skin was merely skin. I saw myself as no different than others. I believed I was an equal, with fair prospects.

During my first years in Canada, my innocent, bright-eyed hope of complete acceptance began to dwindle. When my parents instructed me to use my English middle name, Rebecca, instead of my uncommon first name, Fadzaiishe, for fear it would disadvantage me, I began to realize my blackness meant something.

When peers tugged at and questioned my cloud-like Afro, I knew I was different. It was not until I turned 12 that I truly understood that my blackness not only meant something — it felt to me like many found it disturbing.

“For ‘people like you,’ Bs are great. You should be happy with Bs.”

Those were the jarring words a 12-year-old me struggled to digest during a parent-teacher interview. I received a report card teeming with unsightly Bs, and my parents were less than pleased. As I sat in a tense room in which my mother’s inner mama bear had been unearthed, I pondered this truth: “I am black. In this world, and especially in the world of academia, I am believed to be inferior.”

Sadly, this was not an isolated incident. I have received several B grades accompanied by entirely positive feedback throughout my academic career. I often inquire about those grades: “What could I have done to have received a better grade?” Teachers are often dumbfounded and raise the grades to As.

In my first year of university, a teaching assistant questioned whether I had written a well-crafted paper myself.

“Explain to me in your own words what this paper conveys,” she asked. I was rather confused.

I am not the only black student who has been stricken by the disease of systemic racism. A study conducted between 2006 and 2011 by the Canadian Journal of Higher Education indicated that in 2011, black students had the lowest average grades of any group.

Mojdeh Cox, national director of anti-racism and human rights for the Canadian Labour Congress, once said: “Education in Canada was traditionally withheld from marginalized people.

“It should be no surprise that in Canadian schools today, the legacy of colonization manifests itself in a way of systemic discrimination deeply embedded and rooted at the core of the Canadian education system.”

One of Cox’s four children spent about a year and a half in Ghana. Upon return to Canada, it was regularly assumed he would be unable to adequately complete work because he had been in Africa.

“His first two years (in the immersion public school system) in Ontario had him non-communicative in the classroom,” Cox said.

“When we dropped him off at the bus stop at 8:05 a.m., he was a happy child. From that point on, until 3:15 p.m. when the bell rang, this child was not communicating and not attempting his work. (He was) not sleeping at night, being very overwhelmed and overcome by anxiety.”

Racial bullying in Canadian schools has been a hot topic lately. In May, a York Region high school student spoke out when she was beaten and called racial slurs by her peers.

While incidents of bullying are underlined, a skewed grading system and its impact on mental health are often negated. My experiences have caused me to become wide-eyed. I walk into every classroom with great anxiety. I wonder if each new professor I encounter will add to a growing list of experiences with racism. I prepare to fight, to work harder than my peers, to do all I can to overcome each barrier placed in front of me.

It is mentally wearing when those who are in positions of authority and meant to be trusted fail you. It is tiresome when their words and actions become daggers that plunge into the heart and leave lifelong wounds.

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Ryerson student Lulu Ruva Veneka Wakatama remembers an occasion in her final year of high school when a school counsellor told her she was not intelligent enough to take a university-level English course.

“She distinctively said: ‘You cannot pass that course, you’re not capable,’” Wakatama said.

Wakatama proceeded to take the course and finished the semester with an A.

“If I had listened to her, I wouldn’t have gotten into Ryerson. I wouldn’t have had the qualifications I needed,” she said.

Wakatama believes that because of the few who are racist, it is safer to avoid the many who aren’t.

“I don’t want to risk putting my mental health in jeopardy as often anymore. I feel a sense of rejection and not belonging, and that gets mentally exhausting,” she said.

To Cox, mental health is first to be impacted when one faces systemic discrimination.

“(People experience issues with) confidence, self-esteem and lack of hope,” she said.

“In many cases, they settle for what is deemed to be the best that they can do, knowing that they were not given the same opportunities and chances.”

I have been told I am worth far less than I am capable of. I refuse to believe it. I will not allow myself to be immobilized by false notions of who I am and what I can achieve. I will continue to climb the mountain of inequity. I will reach its peak, only to be overwhelmed by a stunning sight. I will wake from this nightmare. When I rise, I will have a spectacular story to tell.

Fadzaiishe Rebecca Ziramba is a multimedia storyteller and social media desk intern at Global News.