In September, photos of a group of more than 60 students in white tank tops, overalls, thick gold chains and bandanas were condemned as “culturally inappropriate” by principal Stephanie Underhill Tomilson, and promises were made to do more to educate students.
At the time, she heard from upset students and families who said the photos were racist, while others said Underhill Tomilson was making “too big of a deal out of this” and told her “there’s nothing wrong with what their child wore to school.”
“There’s no sugar coating those photos,” Underhill Tomilson said in the days after the photos surfaced. “‘I didn’t mean it,’ only lasts for so long. At some point we’ve got to change the narrative, and that’s where that focus is going to go moving forward.”
Since then, the school has created a diversity, equity and inclusion committee, made up of 12 teachers and 12 students from “very diverse” backgrounds.
Underhill Tomilson says 300 of the approximately 2,100 students at her school are recent newcomers and many wanted to share their experiences as part of the committee.
The group was supposed to meet for a full day on Oct. 29, with learning in the morning and planning in the afternoon, but the meeting was postponed when the CUPE strike closed schools across New Brunswick.
“I think it’s really important that we hear those voices from the students,” Underhill Tomilson said. “I understand where I stand in my privilege. I understand that I still have to unlearn and learn some new things, but [I am] always hopeful.”
Grad sees need to educate educators
In September, Savannah Thomas sent an email to Underhill Tomilson, offering to visit the school to share her experiences of racism while she was a student there.
The 21-year-old university student graduated from Fredericton High and wants to go back to talk with members of the graduating class about what it is like to feel marginalized and unsafe.
The principal turned her down, saying for now she has decided to focus on hearing from current students, rather than going to alumni — a disappointing response for Thomas.
“I’ve had multiple different former students who are Black reach out to me and share their own experiences and talk about how much they appreciate the work that I’m doing and how it needs to be discussed,” Thomas said of her advocacy on social media.
She said much of the reaction to posts she made on social media about the picture day incident was positive, but she was upset and surprised by the reaction from a teacher at Fredericton High School.
In her Facebook post, Thomas tagged the school and the student council Facebook pages in an effort to reach as large an audience as possible, but one teacher wrote to her saying students were being “unfairly targeted.”
“I actually had a teacher from Fredericton High reach out to me … explaining how they did not appreciate that I was targeting their students and how they had nothing to do with it,” Thomas said. “And they take no responsibility. They didn’t share any of those photos.
“The way that I took it is that this teacher is not open to hearing my thoughts and my opinions … and it saddens me to see that teachers — educated professionals — aren’t willing to take the time and listen and hear what my experiences were as a way to figure out how to make change within the school system.”
Photo a lesson in systemic racism
Manju Varma, the New Brunswick commissioner on systemic racism, said people often respond in a defensive manner in situations such as this one. She said the problem is that we judge the actions of others by their impact, but we judge our own actions by our intent.
“We get our back up,” Varma explained. “‘Well, that’s not what I meant. That’s not what I meant to say. You’re taking it out of context. You’re taking it wrong.’ And it puts the whole onus on the person who was victimized.”
Varma said the Fredericton High picture day incident, and the reaction of the teacher, are both examples of systemic racism and underline the differences between systemic and overt racism.
“Anyone in that photo could say, ‘You know what, we didn’t mean it. We didn’t overtly call anybody a racist name,'” she said.
“But the fact that this could happen — that a whole body of people could witness this happening and not question it — that’s an example of systemic racism because it becomes so normal that nobody thinks it’s odd. And then when it does come to the attention of the public, the reaction is to justify it, to protect it. And that is another example of systemic racism.”
Varma said she accepts that the students involved did not intend to hurt anyone, but “that’s not what the people who experience racism in organizations and the system see.
“They see an organization that’s blind to the everyday actions that are at best unequal and at worst violent.”
‘What are we going to do to fix this?’
Thomas worries her perspective isn’t being valued by the leaders at Fredericton High.
“I just feel as though the message that’s been sent is my life doesn’t matter,” she said.
“We’ve heard for the past couple of years, Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter. And I, as a Black person, I’m standing over here waving my arms, saying, ‘Hey, this upsets me and other Black people in the community. Our lives matter. What are we going to do to fix this?’ And nothing is being done.”
If my child is young enough to experience racism, then your child is young enough to learn about it..– Manju Varma, commissioner on systemic racism
As a community, Varma agrees it is critical that Thomas’s voice and the voices of others who have experienced racism, are heard.
“Respect that expertise,” she said. “Honour their expertise and have them share their experiences.”
Varma said those experiences cannot be downplayed, even when they are difficult to hear.
“To people who say to me, ‘Kids are too young to hear about racism, it’s not a comfortable topic.’ My response always is, yes, and kids are too young to experience racism, too. But you know what? There are five-year-olds, six-year-olds and older experiencing racism on a daily basis.
“And I don’t say that lightly. I know that. So if my child is young enough to experience racism, then your child is young enough to learn about it.”
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.