Racial slur used in Winnipeg classroom sparks conversation about race in teaching
Anti-racism policies, context, consent and trust must all be present in the classroom, says educator
The use of a racial slur by a teacher in a Winnipeg classroom is sparking conversations about anti-racism policies in schools.
"The language that we use is preparing students for the way that they're engaging in the world outside of the classroom," said Michelle Jean-Paul, a Winnipeg school principal and anti-racism educator.
"We need to be really cautious in the language that we're using."
A Winnipeg teacher at Collège Louis Riel is on leave after using the N-word in a class last week.
Jean-Paul believes that word shouldn't be used in classrooms.
"We know that those words exist. Do we need to repeat them in order for people to know that they exist?" she said.
"As someone who's been the target of some of those words, I think the sting is there, whether you're directing it to me or not. That's something for educators to really be mindful of," said Jean-Paul.
"There are ways that we can teach about these things without putting people in positions where they're feeling like they're being further harmed."
On top of being a school principal, Jean-Paul educates teachers about anti-racism through her organization, the Educators of Colour Network. She's also focusing on anti-racism policies in her doctorate studies at the University of Manitoba.
If a teacher decides to use the N-word — when discussing writing by Martin Luther King Jr. in which the word appears, for example — Jean-Paul says there should be warning, consent, context and trust among everyone in the class.
"What is pre-teaching and the post-teaching happening around that? Is it something that's being used in a sensational way to draw attention? Or is it something that's being used to to really further learning and understanding?"
Policies need implementation plan
The Franco-Manitoban School Division, which includes Collège Louis Riel, has promised to create four advisory groups on inclusion by the end of November. A parent group is calling for the division to create an anti-racism policy.
Winnipeg's Seven Oaks School Division adopted an anti-racist policy earlier this year. The document outlines commitments from staff about teaching culturally relevant courses, offering supports for intersectional issues, and supporting diverse needs around safety and equity.
Jean-Paul was on the advisory board for the policy and says it was important to include people from diverse groups when creating it.
Such documents also aren't solutions on their own, she says — without an ongoing implementation plan, they are only "aspirational."
"Policy is important in terms of making a public statement, but around that, we need to be really intentional about the tools that we equip the people who are responsible for making that policy happen," she said.
That includes "things like professional development, community consultation and making sure that it's an ongoing process and not a one-time issue."
Be open to learning
The Winnipeg School Division has human rights and inclusivity policies. Staff there also stress how important it is for teachers to educate themselves, and not rely on community members to come in and do basic work for them.
"People just need to get involved with what's available with regards to professional development or be involved in conversations," said Rob Riel, director of Indigenous education with the Winnipeg School Division.
"Teachers ask great questions, and they're looking at learning and bettering themselves, which will support the students and their growth."
Jean-Paul said it can be scary for teachers to talk about racism, but she urges them to be open, humble and willing. There are several resources online that can help start conversations, she said, but if those conversations don't happen, racism will keep festering.
"With the discomfort comes a lot of defensiveness. No one wants to be seen as a racist, but I think the reality is we live in a racist society and we're going to be consciously or unconsciously demonstrating some of those things," said Jean-Paul.
"So I say humility, allowing ourselves to be just uncomfortable — that's always a great place to start."
These are some of the anti-racism education resources suggested by the Educators of Colour Network:
- The Province of Manitoba's document on creating racism-free schools.
- Winnipeg Indigenous Executive Circle's report on the state of equity in education.
- Newcomer Education Coalition's report on the state of equity in education.
- Experiences Canada.
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.