We are writing this public letter in response to the March 4 Goldstream Gazette article regarding a teacher in the Sooke School District reading the n-word aloud from a book in class while attempting to teach a “Black history” lesson.
Or rather, to the alarming number of heinous comments under the Facebook post of said article. A read-through of this section is a strong testament to why anti-racism education is critical in today’s public school system for teachers, TOCs, TAs, students, administration, leadership and even (especially) parents.
The comments section is rife with people (mostly white, as inferred from their Facebook profile photos) defending why the word, “ni**er” should be allowed to be spoken, all while entirely dismissing the actual Black people on the thread who were strongly making it known that the word is traumatic and hurtful to them. Arguments were made that the verbatim use of the word was essential for the lesson (it’s not), that all people experience hurtful language in one way or another (which is true, but not to the violent, systemic, personal, and intergenerational extent that Black individuals do), and that the lesson should continue as-is with Black students removed from the classroom to avoid potentially hearing the n-word.
One commenter even suggested “to home-school all kids that would be affected”; many kids would have to be home schooled if we were to opt for that suggestion. All these arguments lend to a dangerous alternative: that public education continues without the necessary anti-racism intervention.
Why people, especially teachers – who have a lasting impact on their students – feel the need to perpetuate use of the word ni**er, when it could simply be replaced with n-word is more than concerning; it’s outright scary for Black children and their families. By reading the word verbatim, teachers (who are in a position of influence and authority) signal to children the use of the word is acceptable at school. Many arguments were made that the reading aloud of the word provides important historical context, however, one comment from a teacher explains her method when the n-word is present in a text the class is reading aloud: “I still teach the history and definition and power of the word; I simply do not say anything, but hold space to let students read it silently to themselves, ask questions if needed, and carry on reading the next word aloud.”
By simply replacing the word or using the teaching method described above, no context of the lesson would be lost, Black children (still a minority in SD62 classrooms) would not feel singled out and traumatized and all children could continue to learn in a safe, inclusive environment. Because don’t All Children Matter? One brave young person commented, “As a student who has been in this situation I see the issue behind this. It definitely makes it seem to the students that it is okay, when it isn’t whatsoever! I remember vividly that the classroom felt so awkward and all the students looked around at one another in shock. This seems like it gives children a free pass saying cruel things … It definitely needs to be handled, and most definitely talked about.”
It’s hard to understand the logic behind “being fine” with Black people – in this case a child – feeling discomfort because they, themselves, have had uncomfortable experiences. Wouldn’t it be kind and more logical to avoid inflicting that pain on others? Why would having a bad experience make it okay to create uncomfortable and/or unsafe classrooms for children already marginalized? The blatant disregard for the physical and emotional safety of all children in an educational setting is sickening. The fact some individuals believe Black children should even “be removed from class during such lessons” is astonishing! This brings back the very same “distasteful past” of segregation that they are trying to educate against.
A noticeable trend in this comment thread is the strong polarization of opinions when it comes to what’s okay for white people vs. People of Colour (POC). Many people felt it was justified that a POC bring forth a complaint about the use of the word in the classroom, but not justified for a white person. Why is there a difference? Many white parents with children in the school system would absolutely not want that word used in the classroom, as it sets an example for all students that the use of the word is okay in some contexts. It is never okay coming from a white person’s mouth, in any context, as the word coming from a white person is loaded with a history of violence, torture, murder, degradation, humiliation and hate. No children in a school setting should hear any white person use the word. And no one should be questioning if it’s okay to use in some contexts and not others.
Black people on that comment thread have asserted that it’s not OK. So why are we not listening? There were many examples of people understanding things through the lens of a white experience, yet having none of that same compassion applied to the Black experience. People seemed to understand that other harmful language (such as words centred around sexual orientation, gender, or intelligence level) should not be allowed within the classroom setting, yet somehow argued for the continued use of the word ni**er.
White people cannot relate to the pain associated with the n-word, so instead of simply listening to the voices of Black people about the issue they continue to argue for its use, citing justifications such as historical significance, the harms of censorship, and creating children that are “too sensitive.”
Most absurdly, “gangsta rap” was used as justification for white people to use the word, while remaining completely unable to grasp the fact the Black community has and is reclaiming the power of the word when spoken within the Black context. A Black commenter responded to one argument, that “a certain race should not be persecuted for saying a word while another race has free reign to say the word” by stating “for centuries white people used that word to torture, abuse, denigrate and enslave Black people. It is a word that should never come from a white person’s mouth, no matter the context. Why is this hard to grasp? Black people have reclaimed the word and have never used it as a weapon against each other. We can use it as a greeting, endearment or for whatever purpose we see fit. Do some research!”
There were some commenters who attempted to educate the racist and hurtful commenters, but the bad far outweighed good. It is a shocking dissection of the SD62 district and beyond.
One commenter said in response to a particularly disturbing remark that, “the most absurd (and racist) thing is that you think the bias is against white people and people who are Black need to “grow thicker skin.”
I doubt white people have been racially profiled and followed down the street of an affluent neighbourhood or through a store while out shopping. I doubt you have been harassed, physically hurt, and called a racial slur. I have heard a white child in kindergarten call a Black child a “dirty ni**er.” That was not 70-plus years ago.
The pain and trauma that words can inflict is not for a white person or anyone to decide. Your lived experience has been far different simply because of the colour of your skin. Your failure to acknowledge this is what is divisive and with no chance of a positive outcome. What harm would it cause you if you were to simply change some of the words you choose to use because someone has identified it as harmful to them?
Another common theme from commenters was the dismissal of the idea of white privilege, that racial differences are the same as differences in height, attractiveness, and connections since they all carry privilege.
They pointed to having equal opportunities, through the lowering of employment requirements for racialized individuals, and suggested that the bias is now against white people since they have less opportunities and are viewed as oppressors.
This is simply not true. Being tall or short is not the equivalent of being white or Black and doors are very often closed to racialized individuals. Not witnessing it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Commenters tried to explain the “underlying causes” of the problems faced by the Black community as “their choices.” This is grossly inaccurate and offensive; summarized aptly by a commenter, “No one is saying lower standards, tell Black children they are helpless, or that you are some big, bad white oppressor. That is your own white fragility. However telling BIPOC children they can be anything they want to be without even listening and downright refusing to change your racist thoughts and behaviours, is pretty meaningless.
If you want to address the “true underlying causes of the problems” you have identified then you need to acknowledge the impact that generations of racial inequality, oppression, segregation, injustice and continued present-day racism have had. Black people are still fighting racism and persecution around the world, just look at the barring of Black African nationals trying to flee home to safety in Ukraine.
Black people face racism daily, so why are we still using traumatic language and not actively trying to be part of the solution? Many commenters described the “woke madness” of anti-racism, displayed a total resistance to modifying their speech and joked that it is “book burning time!” Many attempted to “flip the script” on anti-racist commenters, calling them racist for portraying Black people as fragile, needing to be protected and saved by white people. Others said they were listening, but clearly displayed their inability to comprehend Black voices. Instead they were defensive, dismissed white privilege, and flagrantly displayed their white fragility and racism.
A succinct commenter responded: “It is pretty ignorant to call these ‘woke’ expectations for English usage. If a Black person is telling you that any use of a word triggers deep trauma and hurt, and you are still unwilling to change then you are the racist. Unfortunately systemic racism exists, leaving things unbalanced no matter how many times you try to say we are all equal. Our white skin carries privilege, so we could never understand how reading the word in a text could cause real harm to someone who is Black. There is no context where the use of that word by a white person is acceptable. You need to listen and be open to change, otherwise there is no hope for anyone’s child to grow up in a world where people are actually equal.”
Ultimately, the comments were clearly an indication of (mostly white) people’s discomfort about being told what to do, their lack of realization that this is not a “historical word,” but rather used presently to inflict continued harms on Black people, and how their right to use a harmful word should (shamefully) be prioritized over our children’s’ safety in an educational setting. Addressing implicit biases within oneself is difficult and uncomfortable work, so instead of pushing so hard for their right to use the word ni**er, they need to learn to listen to the voices of people directly impacted by this word, and to tune out the noise that tries to dull it down to make things more comfortable for them.
In the words of Emmanuel Acho, from his book Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man, “There is no conversation that excuses a white person from using the (n-word). There’s too much pain in that word coming from a white mouth … if you’re ever inclined to use it, you can and should investigate where that inclination or compulsion comes from.
That’s the difficult conversation – not if you should or shouldn’t say it but why you could want to say it at all. If the (n-word) is in your heart or on your tongue, please, please try to figure out why.”
Our fear is that even if the school curriculum changes, these opinions are from commenters who are the parents and teachers of school-aged children in the district. Their belief that the school is unjustly censoring history and that the word ni**er is acceptable, is dangerous and damaging. Change is needed.
Today, on the International Day for Elimination of Racial Discrimination, we implore the Sooke School District and all those in senior leadership to implement appropriate Black history and anti-racism curriculum to be taught year-round, and that the materials used to teach it are replaced with materials created by actual Black authors, unlike the “widely used text for teaching Black History” mentioned in this story, which was written from an antiquated (and racist) white woman’s point of view. There are many amazing, contemporary Black authors that have written on the subject, a few were mentioned in this letter.
Black history is about uplifting and celebrating Black voices, not trauma and especially not traumatizing children or parents, of any race. And perhaps empathy should be taught in schools alongside anti-racism because there is clearly a dearth of both.
It is both shameful and infuriating that this comment section perpetuates the same hatred, bigotry and violence as the sentiment behind the word in question. We can do better at SD62.
Sincerely, a few “woke” parents of SD62
Whittney Ambeault, Dominique Jacobs,