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'You're my slave': Black Montreal teens say school is full of racial slurs
MONTREAL -- After a video of two Montreal girls in blackface circulated on Monday, local adults reacted swiftly and with shock. People called it “disgusting” and “ignorant.” Some said they couldn’t imagine their own kids doing the same.
“I was horrified. Absolutely horrified,” said Tom Rhymes, the assistant director general of the Lester B. Pearson School Board, which oversees the West Island high school the two girls attended.
But Black teenagers at the same school say that while the video may have shaken many, it didn’t surprise them.
“In my school, when a white person says the N-word…the administration, the people around, they kind of ignore it,” said one teen girl.
“I’ve definitely heard the monkey stereotype,” she said. “They try to be funny, or it’s like ‘Oh, Black people are like monkeys,’ and then laugh it off, but it’s not funny.”
The school culture is rampant with overt racism, often disguised as jokes, Black students said. But the worst part is how they feel left to deal with it on their own, as teachers and administrators don’t seem to see the incidents as punishable offences.
The girl’s parents asked for her not to be named because they were worried about her safety.
‘THEY TALK ABOUT OUR HAIR, OUR CLOTHES, OUR CULTURE’
John Rennie high school in Pointe-Claire, which all the students attend, is “predominantly white,” the girl said. Various parents with children there said it had perhaps two to three dozen Black or mixed-race kids.
“They talk about our hair, our clothes, our culture,” the girl said. “I’ve heard things like we’re ‘cotton-pickers.’”
But her entire school experience has been like that, she said, since well before high school.
Once, in Grade 3, “when we were talking about slavery, I remember this specific time this white boy was ‘Oh, like get down on your knees—you’re my slave. Do what I ask you to do,’” she recalled.
“I remember the teacher heard it and she said ‘Don’t say that again.’ That’s all she said. She didn’t even report it, she didn’t bring it to the principal’s office, nothing.”
Her mother said her daughter used to come home crying about every second day in elementary school, talking about how the other kids said she was ugly. When her daughter came home at around age nine and asked to have her hair straightened, saying she “couldn’t take it anymore,” her mom found it heartbreaking, though she complied.
The mother also grew up in Montreal and recalls being spat at, having things thrown at her as she walked home, and called the same names.
“Watching my daughter still going through it today, it’s really frustrating,” she said, saying the board was failing at “integrating students into schools.”
Another Black girl who attended John Rennie said she’d also heard the so-called jokes about monkeys. “I have a bunch of DMs [direct messages on social media] with that, but I end up blocking everybody,” she said.
She said one time a Black student was even physically pushed around during an argument about the Black Lives Matter movement.
Both girls talked about something called “the N-word pass,” a teen trend they said exists at several schools in the area, not just theirs.
Getting the “pass” means “you can say the N-word if you’re white,” one girl explained. “You have to get it from a Black person, though.”
They both said white friends and acquaintances often harassed them to be their “Black friend” who would give out an “N-word pass.”
“Some people say once you get the ‘N-word pass’ you can keep it forever,” one girl explained. “Honestly, I do not support that at all. I do not support anybody using the N-word.”
WANTING RACISM TO BE PUNISHABLE
Both girls also said they want the school administration to take these incidents much more seriously, cracking down with suspension, expulsion or at least detention.
“When a white student gets bullied, the bully gets, you know, some kind of suspension or detention or something,” said the first girl. “But when it’s directed towards a Black person, nothing. It’s just, ‘Oh, don’t say that anymore, don’t do that.’ That’s it.”
“Just talking to them is not enough,” said the second girl. “They should be held accountable for what they do.”
Rhymes, of the school board, said Monday the video was a “devastating reminder” that racism was not something the board could “duck.”
He said that at the board level, they didn’t hear too many complaints about racism. “I think I would also say that’s symptomatic of... how collectively, as a community, it’s buried, and we need to address it, we need to put it on the table,” he said.
The board’s written policy does forbid racism, listing racial slurs, epithets, gestures and “derogatory comments or degrading descriptions” among the student behaviours not accepted.
“We certainly have policies with respect to discrimination, hateful speech, social media behaviour, so on and so forth,” Rhymes said.
“The policies are there, but we need action. We need to confront this.”
Kemba Mitchell, the chairperson of the West Island Black Community Association, said that her daughter was called the N-word in elementary school, too. She ended up feeling it was a win simply to be kept informed about these incidents by her children.
“A lot of times kids suppress these things,” she said.
Aside from asking for formal consequences, another desperately needed change is to rewrite the curriculum, she said.
“They’re not taught that we have contributed significantly to this country,” she said. “All they're taught about is slavery.”
Rhymes said the problem was not limited to the girls’ school and the solution also needs to be bigger.
“This is not a John Rennie problem,” he said. “This is an ‘all of us’ problem and we have to be intentional in acknowledging that.”