A high school teacher is on “home assignment” and under investigation after he showed up to teach in blackface, according to the school principal.
A business teacher at Parkdale Collegiate Institute, a public high school in Parkdale, near Toronto, Ontario, joined other staff and students who were dressed up for Halloween Friday, according to a letter sent to parents, guardians and students last weekend from the school’s principal, Julie Ardell.
But the teacher’s choice of black paint made students in his class uncomfortable, one of his students, who is not being named at his parents’ request, told CNN Tuesday.
“It was really uncomfortable and disgusting and yeah, it was weird,” the student said. “I didn’t really feel attacked because I’m not Black. But like, even as a White person. I was like, this is totally gross.”
In her letter, Ardell said as soon as the incident was brought to their attention, they immediately took action by asking the teacher to wash their face “as to not cause further harm.”
“On behalf of Parkdale CI, I acknowledge and regret the harm this incident has caused to students, staff and families and our shared school climate,” Ardell wrote. “At our school, we are committed to creating a teaching and learning environment that is equitable and inclusive for all students, staff and families. While we have begun the work of addressing anti-Black racism and all forms of discrimination, it is clear that we must do more.”
The teacher has been placed on “home assignment,” or removed from the school until an investigation has been completed, Ryan Bird of the Toronto District School Board told CNN. Disciplinary action will be considered after the investigation.
It’s unclear how long the teacher has worked at Parkdale Collegiate Institute.
CNN has reached out to the teacher but has not received a response.
Blackface isn’t just about painting skin darker or putting on a costume. The origins of blackface date back to the minstrel shows of the mid-19th century. White performers would darken their skin with polish and cork, put on tattered clothing and exaggerate their features to look stereotypically “Black.” The first minstrel shows mimicked enslaved Africans on Southern plantations, depicting Black people as lazy, ignorant, cowardly or hypersexual, according to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Students policing staff
“Caricatures of peoples’ race or culture are not appropriate and are offensive and hurtful,” Ardell wrote in the letter sent to the Parkdale Collegiate Institute community. “Regardless of whether this was intended or not, it was racist and dehumanizing.”
Liz Ikiriko and Clay Stang’s mixed-race son, Otis, is also one of the teacher’s students, and they told CNN their son was shocked to see his teacher show up to school in black face paint.
When other students asked the teacher what he was dressed up as, he told them he did not have a costume and this is what his costume was, Ikiriko said.
“He (Otis) said, ‘I didn’t know what to do,'” Ikiriko said. “I think he’s like a lot of kids, they’re not used to … challenging authority … or people in leadership positions, so he said, ‘I didn’t know what to do.'”
“And I think that’s the thing that is really upsetting because I think it was the first time that he really learned that he can’t count on his teachers, like honest educators to be there to care, to protect him and to educate him,” Ikiriko said.
The student who spoke to CNN said he arrived at school earlier than most of his peers and noticed his teacher’s painted black face right away but thought it was part of a bigger costume, or perhaps he was going to add to it with other props, he told CNN. When the teacher did not add anything and started class, students started taking pictures and talking among themselves about what they were witnessing, the student said.
“It was really weird,” the student said. “And then we went down for like this kind of like an assembly thing, all the grade nines for Halloween, and (the teacher was) just walking around in blackface and teachers are just walking around (the teacher), they’re not even talking to (the teacher) about it and I thought ‘what is happening?'”
Race or race-related complaints make up more than half the district’s complaints, an internal report found
“Every Halloween, Black people in Canada, just like in the United States, we kind of hold our breath to see what’s going to happen, if there’s going to be some announcement,” Cheryl Thompson, an assistant professor at Ryerson University in Toronto who has studied blackface in Canada for more than 10 years, told CNN. “And because we’re in Covid times, we’re not hearing about it at the Halloween party.”
“So instead, when I heard that it was a teacher, he was dressed up at the school because the teachers were allowed to dress up, I wasn’t shocked, I was only shocked at the response, to be honest,” Thompson said.
Earlier this year, the Toronto District School Board released an “action plan to combat discrimination” which showed “race or race related grounds is the most frequent ground of complaint received by the Human Rights Office making up 54% of all complaints alleging a human rights violation.”
The school has filed a report with the board, Ardell said in her letter, as per the district’s Reporting and Responding to Racism and Hate Incidents Involving or Impacting Students in Schools procedure.
“The real issue is the structure of schools, and the ways in which at least in this province, we love to have state-sanctioned reports, we’ll do a lot of studies, and we’ll do the report, and then the report will come out, and the findings are very damning,” Thompson said. “And then you know what happens? They put it in a filing cabinet. And they say, well, at least we did our due diligence, and we got the numbers, and then they go on as business as usual.”
Ikiriko and Stang say one of their concerns is what they see as a lack of diverse teaching staff at Parkdale Collegiate Institute and that there is not a direct connection to their son or the other Black or brown students at the school.
“All of our institutions, just like in the US, are deeply embedded with systemic racism,” Thompson said. “Like they’re built on a racist frame that says that Black children, I don’t want to use the word second class, but it’s almost as if a lot of the curriculum that you would experience as a Black student in school is from a very Eurocentric framework.”
And moving schools or districts just isn’t an option for many concerned parents for a variety of reasons but the thought has crossed Stang’s mind, he said.
“I have to be completely honest, it has passed my mind where if he’s not feeling safe, and we’re not feeling safe in that environment then is this a potential,” Stang said. “But this doesn’t solve an issue, it just avoids it, so I think more than anything Liz and I probably are going to continue to be more involved than maybe we have been.”
Killing ‘a culture of silence’
Concerned parents Leila Sarangi and Cathy Gatlin have students in the district and at Parkdale Collegiate Institute respectively, and worked together on an online petition directed at the district.
In the past, Gatlin told CNN, as a White woman, she was reluctant to speak out.
“Allowing this to happen and for the amount of time, it just reinforces that there’s still this culture of acceptance of microaggressions and treating Black children differently,” Gatlin said.
Sarangi, a mom of three children of color who attend schools at other Parkdale schools told CNN as a community organizer, a lot of her friends were coming to her expressing discontent with the measures Parkdale Collegiate Institute took on Friday.
“The moms were feeling like, that’s not good enough,” she said. “Like, you can just stop there. There needs to be more accountability for what is happening because it’s pointing to a deeper rooted issue around anti-Black racism and anti-racism in our school system.”
Together, the pair wrote the online petition, signed by more than 1,700 people so far. It outlines recommendations to the district “to ensure safety in our classrooms” and suggests the system needs an overhaul to eliminate racism and discrimination in its classrooms.
“I think this leads into some of the other points that people need to be trained on, you know, equity, diversity and inclusion and how that translates into the classroom so that we’re setting up like, universal design,” Sarangi said. “Trauma-informed practices, strengths-based practices that really meet kids, where they’re at in all of their diversity that respects them for who they are, you know, that, celebrate them and then build on their strengths in all of their diversity.”
Thompson said she’s really proud students and parents are not letting go of the incident.
“There is a culture of silence,” she said, “When I was a kid, we let this stuff go,” she said. “We wouldn’t even go home and tell our parents and I think about the trauma that I experienced in high school like 30 years ago, I never shared them with my parents and I don’t think I was alone in that.”
“So that meant all the stuff now that I see the kids are having a hard time processing, it’s almost like PTSD for me too, because it’s like, I never processed anything that happened to me in high school. I just moved on and think about how many grown Black people are walking around with those wounds, that we don’t have a chance to actually heal.”