London, Ont. high school student recounts racism in the classroom

Grade 10 Sir Wilfrid Laurier Secondary School student Mairin Patterson is also the president of that school's Black Student Association. She says the aftermath of a racist incident at school is often more painful than the incident itself.

Grade 10 student Mairin Patterson took part in the TVDSB's iPledge Campaign

Grade 10 London, Ont. student Mairin Patterson is hopeful the Thames Valley District School Board is listening to her worries about racism within its schools. (Twitter/@Take_ThePledge)

Grade 10 Sir Wilfrid Laurier Secondary School student, Mairin Patterson has a lot to say about bullying and racism. She was recently the face of the Thames Valley District School Board's iPledge anti-bullying campaign, which this year focused on anti-racism and anti-discrimination. 

Patterson is also the president of Laurier's Black Student Association. She spoke with London Morning's Rebecca Zandbergen. Here's that conversation:

Tell me a little bit about the experiences you have had as a student in London. I understand you moved here when you were nine. 

When I first moved here, pretty much immediately, it was the fourth grade and this one girl in particular, she bullied me for four years. It escalated to the point where, in eighth grade, she was just being blatantly racist to me and teachers would just be justifying it or dismissing it. It was really upsetting. 

Tell me about that. When you say they were justifying it or dismissing it, what sorts of responses did you get? 

When you are experiencing racism, you feel attacked, so you automatically feel like you need to attack back. So they would say, 'Oh, well, she said something racist and I said something to defend myself.' And suddenly that's like an even thing or something. 

At which point did you start speaking out publicly about it in this kind of way you're doing right now? 

I got really into politics and political activism and interested in all of that after the 2016 election, actually. So from age 12 on, I just started finding resources online and reading books and I realized these experiences that I'm having are racism and that's not okay and I should do something about that. 

How pervasive do you think these sorts of incidents are within your own school board, within your own school? What are you hearing from classmates? 

I still experience racism regularly, not so much during the [COVID-19] pandemic right now because we're all distanced and no one can really interact with us too much. But before the pandemic this year, I was still experiencing racism. I was still being targeted by students at my school for being different. I think it's really pervasive and I think it's very casual. No one really thinks about it because they don't care, because they don't think it's wrong. 

Sir Wilfrid Laurier Secondary school student and president of the school's Black Student Association Mairin Patterson tells London Morning how how she expects teachers and school boards to react when BIPOC students face racism. 7:46

You moved from the Peel Board. How different was your experience here?

I went from having a lot of friends of colour to being one of two students of colour in a classroom of 20 kids. It was really isolating on top of being a new student and moving to a strange city in the middle of winter. 

How many of your teachers look like you? 

I think in this school board, I don't think I've ever had a teacher of colour, like a homeroom teacher of colour.

I'm assuming that matters. Tell me about that. 

I think it matters because when you're going to a teacher about your experiences in the classroom, like your experiences of racism, a white teacher can't really understand what is going on, on the same level that a teacher of colour like a Black teacher can. I just feel like there's more sympathy there and they're more likely to believe you. I think a lot of the teachers that I've gone to in the past with racist experiences ... they don't really have the sympathy for me. 

Grade 10 London, Ont. student participated the TVDSB's iPledge campaign last month. (Facebook/Listen Learn Act)

It seems as though the Thames Valley board is taking note of some of these experiences. I understand last week you had an important meeting. Tell me a little bit about what you were part of. 

Last week we had the Black, Indigenous, people of colour conference just discussing what we think we should be working on, specifically within the Thames Valley District School Board and some of our experiences. It was really good. We had some really good conversations and so at the end of it, we formed a couple of initiatives that we would like to work on to bring to the board. 

Tell me about one of those things. 

Right now, I am working on plans for a policy or policies at the board in relation to anti-racism work, innovating the curriculum that they teach to students to help with anti-racism and anti-bullying within the schools. 

What kinds of changes do you hope you can inspire before you graduate? 

I just hope that I can change the overall attitude of how racism is addressed and dealt with because a lot of the pain that I've felt from my racist experiences in school isn't from the actual experience. It's the aftermath. Going to a trusted adult, like a teacher, and then having them telling me that it's not a big deal or that my pain isn't valid, like that hurts a lot more than someone calling you a mean name or something, I think. 

And do you feel as though that message is getting through now? 

I definitely feel like it's finally being heard, yeah. 


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.


About the Author

Rebecca Zandbergen

Host, London Morning

Rebecca Zandbergen is from Ottawa and has worked for CBC Radio across the country for more than 15 years, including stops in Iqaluit, Halifax, Windsor and Kelowna.