Being Black in School: Peel students open up about the racism they face in the classroom
School board calls combating anti-Black racism a ‘moral imperative'
Alyssa Alexander remembers the day a teacher told her class not to use the word "racism."
It was during a discussion on misrepresentation within the government, she recalls. A classmate suggested systemic racism might be a factor.
"The teacher said, 'No, we don't want to use the word racism, it's just some people have privileges that others don't.'"
It was an instruction that left Alexander stunned.
As a Black student in the Peel District School Board (PDSB), it's not the first time the Grade 10 student from Mississauga says racism has been dismissed, overlooked, or ignored in class.
"I've had teachers talking about the history of racism, say that it was a myth about how bad Black people were treated during slavery, and how of course, slavery is wrong, but they weren't actually treated that badly," she said.
Alexander isn't alone.
From racial slurs in the hallway to teachers ignorant of their cultural backgrounds, four students opened up to CBC News during a panel discussion about their personal experiences of anti-Black racism within the Peel board.
Together, the students painted a picture of feeling isolated, alienated and misunderstood in school — whether it was minimizing slavery, being asked why they were in a particular class or teachers assuming they had poor English skills simply because of their accents.
Hire more Black teachers, students say
The students believe a key solution is to hire more Black teachers, but say they aren't sure the board is listening to them.
Exactly what percentage of the PDSB's workforce is Black isn't known. The board is conducting a workforce census.
Its last census in 2016 showed seven per cent of staff members identified as Black, while 67 per cent identified as white. That's in contrast to a 2018 student census, which showed 10 per cent of Peel students were Black, 13 per cent were white.
Nearly 49 per cent of students in that census were South Asian. About five per cent were East Asian, about six per cent were of Middle East descent, and about seven per cent of Peel students were of mixed ethnicity.
The board, meanwhile, doesn't deny there is systemic racism in its schools — which got so bad that Ontario's Ministry of Education stepped in to force change in 2019 — and says it's trying to improve.
The ministry's review, launched in 2020, found that while Black students in the Peel board make up 10 per cent of the student population, they account for 22 per cent of suspensions. Black youth who spoke with ministry reviewers also said they feel they're held to a higher standard than white and other racialized students.
After the review, the ministry issued no less than 27 directives for the board it said were aimed at "addressing the systemic discrimination, specifically anti-Black racism; human resources practices; board leadership and governance issues."
Then, just before the 2021 school year, it appointed a new director of education.
Today, the board is still in the process of making those fixes, but the students CBC News spoke with say change is long overdue.
Amal Elbuluk is one of them.
The Grade 12 student's family immigrated from Sudan to Mississauga, where she and her sisters excel academically despite the experiences they continually face.
"I've had a substitute teacher apologize to me for where I'm from," Elbuluk said.
"My sister has had a teacher dismiss the fact that while reading a book, the word 'negro' was derogatory," she said. "They said, 'No, you can say that, it's fine.'"
Lidia Tewodros is a Grade 11 student whose family immigrated from Ethiopia. Her younger brother, who has an individual education plan due to his ADHD and autism, was suspended in kindergarten.
"Even though teachers were aware of his condition, they were really aggressive toward him and treated him as if he's a nuisance," Tewodros said.
Student felt 'like a dog'
The ministry review noted Black students, especially boys, are perceived as aggressive, with their actions interpreted more negatively. Research quoted in the review says white teachers "may lack awareness of how they will actually respond to discrimination and may be apathetic to negative treatment of Black people."
Tewodros herself has had students touch her hair without permission, saying the experience made her feel "like a dog."
When her family arrived in Brampton, school officials insisted she take English as a second language (ESL), even though she spoke the language fluently, was excelling in English class and had a high reading level.
"Because of my accent, and because I was an immigrant, they said I had to go into ESL," Tewodros said.
Data from the ministry's review showed a disproportionate number of Black students are streamed into applied courses— meant for students seeking to go to college instead of university — regardless of academic performance. In the 2018-2019 year, 10.1 per cent of Grade 9 and 10 students in the PDSB were Black. Yet, Black students made up 7.7 per cent of students in academic courses and 21.7 per cent of students in applied courses.
And 25.4 per cent of students in locally developed credit courses — courses meant for students who have perceived gaps in education and need greater support — were Black.
Mahmoud Hassan, a Grade 12 student from Brampton, said he's one of the few Black males in academic courses required for admission into university.
"I've had teachers surprised that I'm in the class," he said. "I've dealt with a lot of microaggressions from teachers, and those are hurtful because you don't expect it from them."
Black teacher 'handled racism properly'
Elbuluk recalls when she witnessed a teacher respond to racism in a way that made her and other Black classmates feel valued.
"The one time I saw a situation where someone was being racist handled properly was when I had a Black teacher," she said.
Elbuluk was in Grade 8 when one student was making fun of another student, who was Black. It seemed harmless, she said. But then the Black student asked, "Is it because I'm Black?"
The student making fun of him replied, "Yeah, it is."
What happened next completely changed Elbuluk's view on how racism should be addressed in the classroom.
"The teacher didn't brush it off as a joke. She made it clear to the principal, and to the other students, why it was wrong, why what he did was wrong."
Elbuluk said the teacher had the students sit down and discuss together why what happened was wrong. She also gave Black students a chance to speak about their own experiences as well as what they thought the class could do better.
"It made me realize, wow, this is what we deserve to be getting. This is what should happen," Elbuluk said.
New director 'guarantees' change
Rashmi Swarup, the new director of the Peel school board, is overseeing the implementation of the ministry's directives and expanding the board's own actions to "eliminate" racism and systemic inequities.
Swarup, who says she herself has faced racism in her career, was shown a segment of CBC News's discussion with the students.
"It deeply saddens me to hear of their experiences that they shared," she said in response.
Swarup offered her assurance to parents and students that the board was moving in the "right direction."
Asked if the board would hire more Black teachers, Swarup replied that doing so is a "moral imperative."
"We're creating a whole process for hiring with diversity in mind."
Part of the board's strategy to dismantle racism is listening to students, Swarup said. When asked why the ministry of education had to intervene, she said the board may not have been fully listening to students before the review.
Once the ministry stepped in, she said, "You look at the landscape differently and you say, 'Okay, there's so many things we need to do better.'"
When asked if she could assure parents and students that the board will start listening to their voices, Swarup said "guaranteed."
Nothing new for Black parents, but frustration lingers
Kathy McDonald, a Peel school board trustee and a mother of four Black children, also wasn't surprised at what the students had to say.
"I'm not shocked by it, but I'm saddened that our kids feel this way and they're still going through this in 2022," she said.
"It's really heartbreaking to know that people are simply trying to get an education that they're legally entitled to, but they feel this trauma."
But McDonald is hopeful. She believes the ministry's directives were thoughtful and that when they're fully implemented, "the students will see a change."
Though it's not possible to completely resolve implicit biases, she says that as an institution, the board can hold people accountable.
"I can see changes are happening slowly … Are they reaching the desk of the students? Not yet. But I can see the light at the end of the tunnel."
Of the 27 ministry directives, the board has completed seven, and has a timeline to complete the remaining 20. Its goal is to implement all of the directives by June 2023.
Among them are improving hiring to better reflect students and their communities, a new code of conduct that includes anti-racism policies, a pilot project to end streaming for students, assessing racial disparities in discipline and a formal apology to the Black community in Peel.
For Elbuluk, the changes can't come soon enough.
"You're so used to experiencing this that you don't know that it's supposed to be different," she said.
"I don't want my sisters to go through that; I don't want them to get used to this."