The Use of the N-Word in “Canadian” Classrooms

May 23, 2022

The Use of the N-Word in “Canadian” Classrooms

The anti-Black racial slur continues to be used widely by teachers. This needs to stop.
Photo of empty single grey desks in a classroom. Photo by MChe Lee on Unsplash

Three teachers from three different schools across the province of Manitoba have been publicly called out by students for their in-class use of the N-word. The first was by a teacher at College Louis Riel in Winnipeg in October of 2021, the second by a substitute teacher at Niverville High School in the town of Niverville in November of 2021, and the third by a teacher at Grant Park High School in Winnipeg in March of 2022.

After these situations went public, there was an overwhelming response from the general public, acting as if teachers use of this slur is a rarity rather than a typical occurrence resulting in unfortunate experiences for many Black students being educated in this province, and across so-called “Canada.” This not only diminishes the lived experiences of many and prevents real progress from being made, but also prevents anyone from coming to a consensus about how these incidents should be handled as they continue to arise.

It should by now be very clear to teachers that the N-word is not to be said under any circumstances. Black kids deserve to know and be shown that their feelings are of the utmost importance, and that their wellbeing takes priority.

Unfortunately, the use of this anti-Black racial slur in classroom settings and contexts isn’t new, nor is it an isolated incident.

Black students are routinely subject to the slur by white teachers

The most common experience of the N-word being used in a classroom is typically when reading from old texts which non-Black teachers insist on being read aloud. This is true for my own experience. In 2015, I was in Grade 10 at River East Collegiate in Winnipeg, MB. My English class was taught by Sheri Doyle, and she began reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain to the class. This book has the N-word in it over 200 times. Being one of the only Black kids in a predominantly white class made this experience uncomfortable. Hearing my white teacher say the N-word repeatedly week after week was disturbing. Her use of the slur made it difficult to engage, remain present or feel comfortable in that class. I remember even skipping on certain days when I knew we would be reading this book because to hear the slur roll off her tongue with such ease made me feel sick. We were told we were reading this novel for its cultural and historical significance, and yet to this day I can’t remember a single thing about any of that. I just recall how uncomfortable the whole experience made me, and how powerless I felt.

Power dynamics in classrooms are far from balanced. This leaves students with little to no voice when it comes to content the teacher deems necessary, despite its offensiveness. This can make it especially difficult for Black students to speak up regarding their discomfort when it comes to the use of this slur by their superiors.

While I was not confident enough to say something to my teacher, when Helina Zegeye found themselves in a similar situation they did speak up. Helina attended St. Maurice School in Winnipeg. In 2008, their 8th grade social studies course was caught by Ms. Costanzo. She was one of the toughest teachers in the school, according to Helina. While in their social studies class, Costanzo began reading aloud what she deemed to be “an essential book” which of course had the N-word scattered consistently throughout. Helina and one of their friends were the only Black kids in the class, and when Costanzo began reading the slur aloud, all eyes were suddenly shifted to them. Both students were extremely uncomfortable but were unsure what to do or say. The expectation was they both sit there and supress their feelings about the situation, and they both did as expected for some time.

However, the day came when one of the chapters read used the slur extensively and Helina decided to say something, despite their fears and reservations about doing so. After initiating this conversation, Costanzo explained that “there’s no intention to isolate Black students at the cost of educating the non-Black students.” Helina of course disagreed and then countered to say that there is in fact a way to educate Black and non-Black students without hurting the educational experience of Black students. Costanzo however wasn’t having any of it and made it very clear she wasn’t receptive to feedback. She went on to dismiss and diminish Helina’s experience, thus disregarding their courage to speak up.

Costanzo was very vocal about her Italian lineage. Helina is Ethiopian, and Italy has tried to colonize Ethiopia not once, but twice. Helina told me in an interview, “For someone who is a proud Italian to tell me that I’m not allowed to feel uncomfortable with her use of the N-word for the education of others at the cost of my peace is a degree of colonization I cannot even wrap my head around today.” They are now 25 years old, several years removed from the interaction. This incident left Helina feeling like they wouldn’t be supported if they were to bring their concerns to an administrator. It left them feeling more powerless and defeated than before.

Both Helina and I are now in our 20s and yet this issue we dealt with years ago is still pervasive to this day, “Canada”-wide.

On February 7th, 2022, in Colwood, British Columbia, 6th grade teacher, Kathryn Turnbull, was reading Underground to Canada aloud to her class and said the slur multiple times. A 12-year-old Black boy from the class, went home, and told his mother and grandmother about what happened. Turnbull said that she had emphasized to the class how offensive the word is each time she said it, as if that somehow absolved her of wrong doing. She said, “I used the word as much as anybody does when they read this book to themselves. I did not choose or create its context.” The boy’s mother said in an interview with CBC that the slur said in any context makes Black students feel singled out and unsafe among their classmates.

On November 16th, 2021, in London, Ontario, a Grade 12 English teacher at Saunders Secondary School was reading lyrics aloud from the Black Eyed Peas song Where is The Love  and said the N-word. Kayla Derbyshire, a student in the class said, “instead of skipping over it, or discussing it with the class, she just blatantly said it, as if it was a normal word,” according to the CBC. Kayla says that after she was unsatisfied with the teacher’s response to another student telling them their use of the slur was inappropriate, she decided to report the teacher to administrators.

But what happens when the administrator is the one using the slur, who you do report them to? That is exactly the horrendous situation 15-year-old Jhané Hope found herself in while attending Chief Peguis Junior High, in Winnipeg in 2019. Jhané told me in an interview, that at 13 years old, while in the 7th grade, her Vice Principal, Nancy Schroeder, said the N-word multiple times to her, to multiple different students, and even tried to antagonize a student into repeating the slur after her. At the time, Jhané was the target of a classroom bully who was called her a “nager”, which made it clear that the child was attempting to get as close as he could to saying the slur without facing genuine consequences for his actions. He had been repeating this throughout the day in front of teachers and no one corrected him. Jhané was obviously extremely uncomfortable and made the decision to speak with administrators about it.

When the meeting was finally called, Mrs. Schroeder was present the entire time while a guidance counsellor, Jhané’s home room teacher and the school’s resource teacher circled in and out. Once the meeting began, Jhané clearly explained what happened only to have Nancy ask her multiple times, “well did he call you a ‘nager’ or a ‘n****r?” To which Jhané replied each time “as if it matters which he said, the intent is the same.” It is of course no coincidence that this pseudo-slur was being targeted at one of the few Black children in the grade, and of course it’s no coincidence that Vice Principal Schroeder was able to figure out what he was attempting to call her with ease. Schroeder went on to interview Jhané’s peers, and asked them the same thing, repeating the slur herself multiple times on multiple different occasions feeling no embarrassment or wrongdoing when using the full N-word.

Jhané said that “hearing this slur being thrown around, not just by a white woman, but a white woman of power in my school who is supposed to be apart of changes for the better, was to say at the least, unhinging. I would’ve never thought that the situation could be made worse by bringing it to faculty, but all she (Schroeder) did, was make me feel worse. If it was really important to understand what had been said, then she should have listened the first, second, third or even fourth time I explained what happened, before Schroeder ever said the slur.”

Jhané’s experience came not long before four Black students at St. Michael Elementary and Junior High School in Calgary, Alberta, were suspended in September of 2020, after they shared a recording of their principal Lianne Anderson saying, “So how come it’s okay for you to say n****r?” The Calgary Catholic School District went onto defend Lianne’s actions and spokesperson Sandra Borowski said, “The word was more so used in a situation to explain, like, ‘if its not okay for me to use the word why is it okay for you to use the word. I think the whole point was to kind of clarify that, bottom line, the use of the word is just generally unacceptable for anyone.’”

Enough is enough

It is not up to non-Black people to police Black people’s use of this slur, and there is never justification for a non-Black teacher, or administrator to use this word in any context, for any reason.

Teachers seem to think because they are teachers, their opinions regarding this racial slur and their use of it in their classroom are the only ones that matter. They believe that if they are able to justify their use of the slur then that is good enough reason to say it out loud, and the rest of it doesn’t matter. That is not at all the case. The only opinions that matter, are the Black students in the classroom who have personal, and traumatic historic ties to this word. They should not have to go out of their way to educate their educators on why the use of this word is highly inappropriate and unacceptable.

It has become normalized to ask Black students to take on unnecessary burdens that would never be placed on their white counterparts. The education of white students on racial issues while unnecessarily using racist terminology is seen as more important than the feelings and opinions of the actually racialized students themselves and that isn’t fair. Teachers still see it as ‘just a word’. If they truly understood the depths of the harms this word causes when it comes from non-Black lips, then they wouldn’t dare to say it in any context.

Helina tells me, “At the end of the day I think it’s an experience I’ve heard echoed by so many other Black students who had white teachers.” There are layers to this issue. White teachers using this word strips their Black students of power and dignity, which is the whole reason the N-word came into use in the first place. Teachers are continuing to perpetuate age old racist harms by using this word in the classroom regardless of their justification. Not only is there an unfair and imbalanced power dynamic, but its consistently white teachers using the slur around Black students which highlights systemic racial issues and shows the entitlement and privilege that goes unchecked in classrooms.

Teachers recognizing their power and giving students an opportunity to be truly heard can truly make a greater difference than they realize. Helina, they tell me, wishes “Costanzo had listened to what I shared with her, intending to hear, rather than respond. It felt like what I had to say didn’t matter because it didn’t fit into her curriculum. I wish that she heard me and agreed to go onto the next lesson with the history of the word. Then I think that my classmates would have understood and shared my discomfort of the reading of the N-word. Why should me and my fellow Black classmate be made to feel such shame and judgement for something we barely understood and by those who understood it less than us at that? Is there no shame on the part of the educator?”

Jhané tells me that she wishes that the teachers had listened. She wishes that “they would have put their pride, power, and white privilege aside for at least that one meeting, because it could have made all the difference to me”.

Kieran Moolchan, now 33, who attended East Selkirk Middle School in Selkirk, Manitoba in 2002, actually had a polar opposite experience to the ones mentioned before. While in the 8th grade, his class, led by Mr. Birch, was reading materials about the Underground Railroad when a classmate made an insensitive remark in which he called Kieran the N-word. Mr. Birch heard this and got quite mad at the student for not only using the word but also directing it towards a Black student. Kieran tells me in an interview that “he turned the scolding into a pretty decent lesson for everyone and didn’t keep the focus on me which was nice. I think I was quite lucky.”

No Black person should ever feel as if they are lucky to not have a teacher or administrator use the slur in their presence. Kieran’s experience should be the standard, not the exception.

Teachers who use slurs must face accountability

Upon becoming an educator, it feels absurd they might need to be explicitly told not to use the slur. But if that’s what it takes to protect students, then that’s what needs to happen. Upon signing contracts and taking teaching jobs, it should be a clear part of that written contract, and that the N-word is not to be said under any circumstances, otherwise it is grounds for severe disciplinary measures, up to and including immediate termination of employment and benefits.

Black kids deserve to know and be shown that their feelings are of the utmost importance. They need to be shown that their well being takes priority.

Teachers' unions were created to protect teachers from the government meddling and to give them bargaining power for better wages and work conditions, and also to advocate for more support for the education system. This collective power can also sometimes be used today to protect teachers from accountability for racist behaviours. When this happens, that obviously hurts Black students. Teachers’ unions need to take clear positions on this issue as to whether they will defend teachers who say racist slurs, and if they commit to being more proactive in educating their members about these issues.

There should be a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to teachers or administrators using this racial slur. Many schools have begun to adopt this policy or similar policies in recent years and it has been effective. If children know not to say the N-word under any circumstance, grown adults, responsible for educating those same children should know.

If teachers know the policy and do not follow it, there is no education to be had, no lesson to be taught. Their employment should be terminated immediately. After the termination, the union and school board -on behalf of the teacher- should issue both a public and a private apology to the student, the student’s family, and anyone else who was harmed by this use of the slur. An incident report outlining what happened, the ensuing consequences, supports avaliable to those harmed and an overall timeline of the occurrence should be made public as well.

There is no room for this type of ignorance in a classroom, especially by an educator. If a teacher is knowingly making any student feel unsafe, why should they be given the opportunity to continue doing so?

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