At the request of the author, the editors of the BILD blog have agreed that, exceptionally, this post will be published anonymously.
At the end of February, the Director General of the school board that I work for sent out an email to all his employees. In it, he explicitly outlines the board’s commitment to provide inclusive, caring, and respectful work environments for students, families, and staff working within the system.
Later on, he states that there have been recent complaints from parents and students that some teachers have been using racially charged terms used to describe Black, Indigenous, and people of colour in the classroom. In clarifying his expectations for his employees on this matter, the Director General stated that at no point is the use of slurs or labels by staff acceptable, including when reading aloud texts or when quoting course content. And while he made it clear in his email that it is important to teach students why potentially harmful language should not be used, the Director General also explained that teachers need to censor and avoid reading aloud or quoting texts that directly use this type of language, altogether.
When the media later questioned him about the intended purpose behind his mass email to his staff, the Director General responded by stating that there would be important professional learning going forward, believing that that is how teachers are most likely to share their best practices. However, the teachers working in our schoolboard have stated that there has so far been no mention of future professional development to help show them how to approach teaching texts that use potentially harmful words and slurs in their classrooms.
In response to their boss’s email, some teachers interviewed by the media have felt that the tone the Director General used in his message made it seem as though his staff were collectively being reprimanded. And, as one teacher described, there is a reluctance to respond to his email because teachers are afraid of losing their jobs over it. Educators have expressed that a follow-up conversation between teachers and their principals should have happened before and after the original email was sent out, while in actuality, there have been no follow-ups of any sort since his original message was sent.
While the Director General’s email mandating that his staff refrain from using pejorative terms and potentially harmful words in schools likely had good intentions, the results of his demands for censorship in classrooms may not actually be addressing the more problematic issue at hand: the various forms of systemic oppression and discrimination that are prevalent within the city and throughout the province that I reside in, including the various public and private schoolboards in this region. That is why it is important to have effective professional development that could support teachers and students in recognizing and reflecting on their position within these dynamics. In the end, the Director General’s email to his staff really should have recognized the systemic racism that currently exists in every sector of our society, including the school system that both of us work for.
And while it seems that the intention behind his email would be to prohibit certain conversations and words from occurring within a context that is hyper-charged for the racialized communities living within the city, the Director General’s message is also hyper-charged for many of the teachers trying desperately to navigate these sensitive and complex issues within their classrooms. From the conversations that I have had with a number of teachers from different schools within my area, a fair number of them have opted not to discuss various sensitive issues related to race, gender, ability, and sex, as a result of their boss’s mass email to his subordinates. And although this type of reaction from teachers is not surprising, it is certainly not addressing the problem either. As author Robyn DiAngelo (2018) highlights in her book White Fragility, uncomfortable discussions related to the individual and systemic dimensions of oppression, prejudice, and stereotypes are challenging and can be unpleasant, but these conversations are also very important for people to have. Furthermore, DiAngelo states that:
Not naming the groups that face barriers only serves those who have access; the assumption is that the access enjoyed by the controlling group is universal. […] Naming who has access and who doesn’t guides our efforts in challenging injustice. (p. xiv)
In this way, as DiAngelo points out, censoring texts and ideas by authors is a failure to acknowledge the powerful unexamined assumptions that students, teachers, and community members are likely making, protecting these beliefs from critical examination and holding them in place. This is especially true for those who are from Black, Indigenous, and other racialized communities, as well as LGBTQ+ and feminist members of society who use slurs and pejorative terms in their works in order to reclaim the harmful language that was once used against them. Currently, many schools expect students to read authors such as Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Douglas Adams, and William Golding – writers that are portrayed in classrooms as supposedly representing the universal human experience. Except that they don’t. And when this lack of diversity within the texts that students engage with is coupled with their teachers’ reluctance and resistance to engaging in challenging and uncomfortable conversations freely within their classrooms due to their own discomfort, the result is that the dominant culture remains unchallenged within these academic settings. From the anecdotal accounts of those teaching within my schoolboard, it appears that many of these educators are predominantly white. This makes me believe that the Director General’s email has only served to exacerbate these issues further. DiAngelo explains that the reluctance from teachers to discuss uncomfortable and potentially upsetting topics within public academic spaces out of fear of professional retribution from their employer helps to maintain the power that the dominant group already has in our society, ensuring that their domination will remain unchallenged for years to come. She also states that this hesitation and resistance to having challenging conversations in schools has helped to distinguish which narratives are authorized from those that are being suppressed. As a result, by denying the exploration of alternative racial perspectives in classrooms, DiAngelo believes that this type of cultural hegemony will only help to reinforce the presumed universality of white perspectives.
And while the Director General’s message does explicitly discourage discrimination and oppression by prohibiting the use of potentially harmful terms, it could also be “training [children in] self-censorship rather than how to examine the deeply embedded racial messages we all absorb” (DiAngelo, 2018, p. 84). Instead, as the author explains, it would be far more beneficial for teachers to teach students how to recognize and challenge prejudice, rather than deny its existence. They must also understand the sociopolitical contexts to which certain racialized and discriminatory language has given rise, and how its use has brought forth a long history of inequities to certain marginalized social groups.
However, the hope is that the censorship that the Director General is mandating from his employees is just a proxy for anti-racism professional development opportunities down the line. By recognizing and critically analyzing our respective social identities openly, intersectionally, and safely in academic spaces, educators and their students would be able to name the racism that is being perpetuated overtly and covertly in our society and provide opportunities to challenge these concepts honestly through classroom discussions. Ultimately, DiAngelo argues that teachers should be informing students about how they have all been socialized into the current systems that they are a part of, by discussing race, class, gender, sexual preference, and ability in classrooms.
Despite the fact that the Director General’s email may have had the right intent, it does not negate its impact on teachers, their students, and the wider community outside the walls of schools. In the long run, the hope is that teachers will be able to develop the capacity to have vital conversations around intersectional discrimination with their students over time – this is what critical literacy education is all about. And based on the recommendations that have been made by James (2017, 2020), there is a strong need to address the structural inequalities prevalent in all levels of power in our society and within the levels of decision-making in school systems like the one the Director General and I work for. In particular, both of James’s articles point to the importance of making structural changes in language, in curriculum, and in representation of those who hold power in our society and school systems. All of this is important. The fact is that language wouldn’t matter if power were evenly and equitably distributed. But to have these conversations, the anti-racism professional development that the Director General has suggested needs to be prioritized and offered immediately. All of this is urgent and important work. And it demands to be discussed openly rather than be silenced.
DiAngelo, R. J. (2018). White fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Beacon Press.
James, C. (2017, April). Towards race equity in education: The schooling of Black students in the Greater Toronto area. York University. https://edu.yorku.ca/files/2017/04/Towards-Race-Equity-in-Education-April-2017.pdf.
James, C. (2020, November 12). Racial inequity, COVID-19 and the education of Black and other marginalized students. The Royal Society of Canada. https://rsc-src.ca/en/covid-19/impact-covid-19-in-racialized-communities/racial-inequity-covid-19-and-education-black-and.