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Why We Need to Keep Talking about White Privilege in Arts Education

When researcher Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández released a report last week showing that students entering Grade 9 at Toronto’s arts high schools are more than twice as likely to be white—and nearly twice as likely to come from a wealthy family—than students at other Toronto public schools, he hoped the findings would spark interest.

But even he and study co-author Gillian Parekh didn’t realize just how much conversation would flow from these findings.

News stories in Metro, the Toronto Star and NOW were shared widely on social media. And it was less than a day before Toronto District School Board trustee Parthi Kandavel demanded that the board review its admissions policies for its specialized arts high schools.

For all the immediate impact of his findings around privilege and arts education, however, Gaztambide-Fernández says the really big challenge on his mind right now is how to keep this conversation going in the days, weeks and months ahead.

“I think that engaging in the conversation is really important, and making sure the conversation doesn’t go away,” Gaztambide-Fernández tells Canadian Art in a phone interview from his office at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, where is he acting head for the Centre for Urban Schooling. “I know that I’m even surprised by the amount of reaction this has caused—but it’s something that can fizzle just as fast.”

And this conversation around racial and class privilege in early arts education—like the problem it addresses—shouldn’t just be restricted to Toronto, he says.

“I think these findings are really consistent with what we are finding in other Canadian cities,” Gaztambide-Fernández states.

There are myriad implications of Gaztambide-Fernández’s findings that members of the arts community might not consider at first glance. For instance, the results put the lie to the notion that publicly funded arts high schools are actually serving the whole city. They also suggest that “these programs are used by parents who have a lot of privilege to create a kind of self-segregated space for families with privilege.”

“Students [in the specialized arts high schools] come from so few middle schools,” says Gaztambide-Fernández. “We had a hunch that people weren’t coming from all over the city. But we didn’t think the schools they were coming from would be so similar in terms of race and class, which suggests a process of streaming that starts much earlier in the school process.”

Part of the result is that “we need to have a very serious discussion about how we want to spend our resources,” says Gaztambide-Fernández. “Do we want to spend them to enhance the education of a very few people? Or to ensure that more people have access?”

Another implication of the study is that we need to discuss what types of art forms are currently designated as worthy of study in Canada’s public schools—and whether these forms actually reflect the diversity of Canada’s cities.

“Do we still want to insist students be playing tuba and violin” for music, or “learning painting” for visual art, for instance? Or should public schools be open to “teaching how to DJ and how to make music on computers? Should we be teaching graphic design? Should we be teaching students about dance traditions that are not ballet-focused?”

Some arts high schools in the US, Gaztambide-Fernández notes, have had success when they broadened the types of art forms they were willing to teach or encourage, and made explicit efforts to recruit from “majority minority” middle schools.

But in Toronto and many other parts of Canada, those efforts are still nascent at best.

In some US arts high schools, for example, students can have graffiti in their application portfolio, and pursue it in their coursework. But “that is unlikely to happen in Toronto” at the moment, says Gaztambide-Fernández.

Ultimately, says Gaztambide-Fernández, we need to keep asking questions about “what kind of arts education is happening in local schools that are not arts high schools, and why there is not more opportunity for students who don’t have that kind of access.”

He also wants to squarely refute the claims some online and offline commenters have made—namely, that the cause for this racial and class disparity is “maybe parents of colour and immigrants just don’t value the arts.”

“I say, go to a powwow and tell me the people there don’t care about the value of cultural traditions. Go to the Chinese New Year celebrations in Markham and tell me those people don’t care about the arts. Or go to the Latin festivals [like Inti Raymi] in Christie Pits and tell me those people don’t care about culture,” Gaztambide-Fernández argues. “They care about cultural life, and they would very much like their families to be part of it.”

Yet “if we don’t talk about it,” Gaztambide-Fernández reminds, “these things will go unrecognized.”

The full text of the study, titled “Market ‘Choices’ or Structured Pathways? How Specialized Arts Education Contributes to the Reproduction of Inequality” is available on the website of Education Policy Analysis Archives.

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Natalie says:

This allows the European dominant culture to reproduce itself, to maintain it’s power, to hold onto the resources set aside for artists and the arts, and to cement its perspective as the only relevant one to Canadian society.

Sarah says:

For those students who are not white and privileged , who do get in these schools, I would like to know how long they stay.. parents pass on their ideas of intolerance , who belongs and who doesn’t to their children

Miklos Legrady says:

Google tells us the black population of Toronto hovers around 8%. Is that why students entering Grade 9 at Toronto’s arts high schools are more than twice as likely to be white? Canadian Art has published recent articles, including another by Leah Sandals, whose main purpose seems to be to signal virtue. Unfortunately published without proper verification , these article fail a reality check and hurt the magazine’s credibility, as Facebook comments brothers have noted. It’s not enough to wave a flag for justice; when stories are written with obvious bias they are counter productive.

Leah Sandals says:

Hi Miklos. This data in the article, and related commentary and recommendations, came from an extremely reputable paper published in an esteemed, peer-reviewed academic journal. The paper was written by a respected Toronto-based academic at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, a researcher well versed in quantitative and qualitative analysis.

If you did not see this paper, or bother to check out that data, it is linked through at the bottom of the article and available here: . If, after reading that article, you still have problems with the data, please submit the kind of detailed data-driven critique you are suggesting this article lacks.

Alex says:

Same thing has happened here in Windsor, Ontario, in our one Arts High School, Walkerville. Its a wonderful place, but sadly doesn’t reflect the diversity of the City, nor the diversity of the grade schools my children went to. I would love to see a proactive approach, recruiting kids of diversity to the school. Of course the more diverse and expansive the curriculum the better, the more the arts reflect what our young artists are interested in the better.

Panya Clark Espinal says:

There is so much to say about this topic it daunts me to even respond in this forum but I would like to touch on a couple of things.
I have two daughters in Toronto arts high schools. My older daughter is graduating from Etobicoke School of the Arts this year and my younger one is in grade 10 at Rosedale Heights. My heritage is of English/Irish/Russian decent and my husband’s parents immigrated from Spain.
I am a visual artist having graduated from the Ontario College of Art in 1988.
At a very fundamental level the art schools (and schools in general) we are talking about are inherently colonial and the understanding within these institutions as a whole is based on notions of individuation. The path of the artist is seen as a kind of ‘hero’s journey’ where we seek out what is unique to us as individuals and develop a style of expression that stands apart from the masses as unique and ‘gifted’, reflective of our creative ‘genius’. The materials and techniques employed to do this are generally a product of European-based histories and methods of representation that reflect a set of beliefs about visuality, looking, display, exhibition etc.
Leah, it was interesting to read your examples evidencing ‘non-white’ cultural values to indicate that the ‘arts’ are important to these groups. I propose that the very fundamental intent of creative production in these instances is different from that described above. The powwows, festivals and cycles of celebrations call on community, tradition, making, singing, dancing etc. that draw on a range of ‘languages’ specific to the ancestry of these cultures with the intent and purpose to feed the ancestors, to celebrate the dead, to tell the story of these ways of living to those who will carry the culture forward. These traditions are not static, they are contemporary and will transform over time with many individual creators contributing to them. However, it seems to me that the fundamental understanding of the purpose and drive of the endeavours does not currently have a place in the arts institutions we are speaking of. This is not to say that members of non-white communities can’t find a meaningful place in the institutions. I certainly see things opening up to a myriad of possibilities and there are many opportunities to tell these stories there. I have just found, personally, that the more I learn and explore in my own art practice, the deeper that I question how my own work lives in the world and is ‘seen’ by ‘viewers’, the more I reflect on who and what I am endeavouring to nourish in the practice of art making, the more I question what is achieved by arts programs as they exist in our culture.
It is tricky territory because clearly there is empowerment in finding one’s place in the dominant system, leading to ‘success’ in our society as we know it. However, I see a kind of wisdom in the hesitation that many parents may have in placing their culturally creative offspring in the context of these systems of ‘education’. These cultures are alive in the integration of handwork, food, costume, music, song, story and interrelationship among the human, the non-human, the seen and the unseen in ways that our arts programs are incapable of making a place for at this time. This too can change.
It is complex and likely there is much I have said that can be argued, depending on where one stands. I simple want to acknowledge my unease with our sense of accomplishment when the numbers of ‘non-white’ students enter into the colonial system.

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