British Columbia

B.C. teacher faces complaint after reading racist slur aloud during Black history lesson

The family of a biracial student has filed a complaint against a Vancouver Island teacher for repeatedly reading aloud the N-word while teaching from a novel chosen to mark Black History Month.

Family of biracial Grade 6 student at Vancouver Island middle school says teacher repeatedly read out N-word

A Grade 6 teacher at Dunsmuir Middle School in Colwood, B.C., is the subject of a complaint saying she read the N-word aloud five times during a lesson for Black History Month. (David Bajer/CBC)

The family of a biracial student has filed a complaint against a Vancouver Island teacher for repeatedly reading aloud the N-word while teaching from a novel chosen to mark Black History Month.

The complaint was filed after the 12-year-old came home from school on Feb. 7 and told his mother and grandmother that his teacher had said the slur multiple times.

"He said, 'that's inappropriate, and that's awful for her to say,'" the boy's mother said. CBC has agreed not to name her to protect her children.

The Grade 6 teacher at Dunsmuir Middle School in Colwood had been reading to the class from the 1977 novel Underground to Canada, following other Black History Month lessons that the teacher says included studies of prominent Black Canadians and their contributions to fields including science, activism and literature.

The mother said using the slur in any context makes Black students feel singled out and unsafe among their classmates.

"The fact that she said that out loud in the classroom is giving children the opportunity to go use it," the mother said.

The mother filed a complaint with the B.C. commissioner for teacher regulation on Feb. 24 after she says she was disappointed by the response from the school and the Sooke School District.

Teacher Kathryn Turnbull told CBC she emphasized for her class how offensive the word is each time she read it out. She says she read it out four times that day.

"I 'used' the word as much as anybody does when they read this book to themselves; I did not choose it or create its context. I believe that what we need to do is have a debate as to whether or not any teacher ought to be reading that specific word aloud, in any context,'" she said in a written statement.

Slur not appropriate in classrooms, official says

Sooke School District superintendent Scott Stinson told CBC News that while he couldn't comment directly on any personnel matters involving the teacher, the district takes complaints like this seriously and will investigate fully.

"The word carries a tremendous amount of baggage, and in our current context, it does not have an appropriate place in our education system," he said.

Stinson added that the district is committed to improving diversity and inclusion in its schools, and that means addressing racism and discrimination head on.

"We acknowledge that we are not perfect at this and mistakes will be made, and from those mistakes, we will learn and we will improve," he said.

Emails shared with CBC show that the student's grandmother wrote to Turnbull directly to express her concerns about using the slur.

The teacher replied to ask for advice on how to approach the word in the future, acknowledging that all the students have copies of the book and can read along, making it unnecessary to actually pronounce it aloud. 

Turnbull said she chose the book because it has been vetted by the province and is recommended by the education ministry. She described historical fiction as "one of the most effective methods" for teaching children about difficult subjects like slavery.

"Textbooks and non-fiction print can sometimes be dry, whereas fiction lets the students escape into the lives of the people in the books," she wrote.

Underground to Canada by Barbara Smucker is often read in Canadian classrooms. (Penguin)

Turnbull said she told parents in an email after the class that the book contained the N-word, and the class had discussed how inappropriate the slur is 

"Each time I read the word aloud, I reinforced how offensive the word was and again why it was being used in this particular text and then also reiterated it's inappropriateness in today's society," she wrote.

Turnbull said she has never spoken with the student's mother, but believed the issue had been resolved when she agreed not to say the word aloud again.

The student's mother said she also contacted the school's vice principal, and then spoke with school district associate superintendent Paul Block on Feb. 14, which just aggravated the situation. She said Block used the term "Negro" to describe Black people during their conversation.

"He … seemed unaware as to how derogatory these words are," the mother wrote in her complaint.

Stinson said it was his understanding Block was also quoting from the book when he used that word but "whether that word was used in the context of what was in the text or not, it becomes a really difficult thing for us as a system to continue to support."

The mother's complaint says Block proposed a plan to deal with the issue, which included addressing the incident in class, sending a letter home to parents and having an anti-racism consultant speak with students, but to date none of that has happened.

'Black students are actively being harmed'

According to Markiel Simpson, the situation at Dunsmuir is a symptom of a larger problem in B.C. schools.

He's part of a group of Black community members who met with Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside earlier this month to discuss developing a new Canadian Black history curriculum and implementing anti-racism training for teachers.

Markiel Simpson is part of a push to create a new Black history curriculum in B.C. (Mugoli Samba/CBC)

"This is happening all throughout the province, where Black students are actively being harmed by some of the learning materials being shared in the classroom, particularly materials that mention or include the N-word," he said.

"It can be traumatizing for folks. It can negatively impact the way that they interface with the education system, and ultimately, it's unnecessary to achieve the desired learning outcomes."

Simpson argues that B.C. schools focus too heavily on slavery and the Underground Railroad when Canadian Black history is taught, topics that represent just one fragment of the subject.

"Hopefully the province will develop adequate learning resources that bring to the fore the experiences of … Black Canadians — some of the suffering, but also the achievements and contributions," he said.

Though Simpson is not familiar with the contents of the book Underground to Canada, he said its frequent use in classrooms demonstrates how the school system tends to focus on the traumas of Black history rather than Black achievement.

The 45-year-old book, written by a white American author, has been challenged in the past in other parts of the country for its depictions of Black people and liberal use of the N-word.

Stinson, the school district superintendent, said it's up to individual teachers to decide which books to use for teaching Black history.

"There are no set resources established by the province or within the district. These are decisions that are made by teachers, day in and day out. about what's appropriate for the students that they have in front of them," he said.

Stinson added that if the district receives a complaint about this particular book, it would go through a review process.


For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

Clarifications

  • The headline of this story has been updated to emphasize that the slur was read aloud from a book.
    Mar 03, 2022 3:12 PM PT

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Bethany Lindsay is a B.C. journalist with a focus on the courts, health, science and social justice issues. Questions or news tips? Get in touch at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.

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