New Brunswick

Some Fredericton students to get schooled after wearing 'culturally insensitive' clothing

Fredericton High School principal Stephanie Underhill Tomilson said staff are working to educate students after some in Grade 12 dressed up in "culturally insensitive" clothing for their graduation photo day.

Students dressed in white shirts, overalls, jewellery, bandanas and do-rags for graduation photo day

Fredericton High School principal Stephanie Underhill Tomilson said staff plan to educate students about why the clothes and accessories they wore for their graduation photo day were 'culturally insensitive.' (Instagram)

The principal of Fredericton High School says staff are working to educate students after some in the Grade 12 class dressed up in "culturally insensitive" clothing for their graduation photos.

Stephanie Underhill Tomilson said Monday started out as expected, with students dressed up to have their photos taken.

Some were dressed in white shirts and jeans or overalls, which Underhill Tomilson said didn't faze her.

As the day went on, however, Underhill Tomilson said some of the students began to "embellish" those outfits by adding jewelry, bandanas and do-rags.

By the afternoon, Underhill Tomilson had sent a letter home to students and parents to address what she said was "an inappropriate and culturally insensitive photo initiative by some [members] of our graduating class."

"While the initiative was not sanctioned by nor endorsed by the school, it reflects poorly on all of us," Underhill Tomilson said in the letter.

"In the upcoming days, we will be working as a graduating class on how to make this right. All graduates with questionable school photos have been deleted by Harvey Studios and will have them retaken tomorrow."

Photos shared online show students dressed in white shirts and overalls, with bandanas, jewellery and hairstyles emulating dreadlocks. (Instagram)

Underhill Tomilson said she was disappointed and embarrassed by what happened, and that on Tuesday, a virtual meeting was to be held with all Grade 12 homerooms "to discuss how we are going to move forward as a grad class and what strategies we will put in place over the year to show respect for others and show love and equality for everyone who enters our doors."

"I do apologize to all of those FHS families and community members we have offended," she wrote.

"We are an inclusive and welcoming school to all, but today's events show that we still have work to do. As the principal of the school I am committed to move the school forward in a more welcoming manner."

Speaking to CBC's Harry Forestell on Tuesday, Underhill Tomilson said she's explained to the students that the shirt and overalls on their own weren't the issue.

"But when you start adding jewellery and you take a bandana and you put it on your head or you add a do-rag, you are now creating a costume out of a culture and we just can't go there," she said.

Thandiwe McCarthy, a seventh-generation Black Canadian who grew up in Fredericton, said he was forwarded photos taken of those students by a Black friend of his who graduated from Fredericton High School just a few years ago.

He said the outfits he saw students wearing, along with some who had their hair twisted to imitate dreadlocks, represented "a toxic stereotype" of Black culture.

WATCH | Fredericton High School principal Stephanie Tomlinson addresses incident

Fredericton students wear 'culturally-insensitive' attire for graduation photo day

1 year ago
Duration 3:38
Fredericton High School principal Stephanie Tomlinson addresses an incident on Monday where students dressed in attire that offended other community members for being culturally insensitive. Sixty to seventy students wore white tank tops, overalls, jewelry, and hairstyles that emulated dreadlocks.

McCarthy said the outfits served to mock communities of people who have lived through poverty, racism and other environmental and societal challenges.

"And to glorify a piece of another culture's struggle and to wear that as a fashion statement, I just think that is disgusting," he said.

McCarthy said Fredericton High School should respond by creating a list of actionable steps to address what the students did, including a strategy on cultural awareness and to foster discussions around race and poverty.

Underhill Tomilson said she and her staff have heard back from students, most of whom say they feel bad about what happened.

She said the next step is to educate students on the issue, adding that she's reached out to others who might be able help in that regard.

"I think that we have enough feedback from this to know kind of where to set our path for the upcoming year," Underhill Tomilson said.

"And we are going to work through that and it's going to take us some time, but it is a lesson learned for all of us … we do have work to do on all sides."

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.