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A British Columbia poster campaign aimed at starting a conversation around racism within School District No. 74 (Gold Trail) schools has sparked more animated discussion than its initiators — Superintendent Teresa Downs and the District management team — ever imagined. When the posters went up in January 2018, nothing much happened, then in early March the whole issue exploded on social media and in the national press.

WhitePrivilegeBCSD74Indigenous

Three anti-racism posters featuring the formal leaders of the District—Secretary Treasurer Lynda Minnabarriet, District Principal of Aboriginal Education Tammy Mountain, and Superintendent Downs—went up in all SD74 schools. All three feature the speaker’s picture, with Minnabarriet’s poster reading “I lose an opportunity if I don’t confront racism”, and Mountain’s reading “I have felt racism. Have you?”

The poster featuring Downs was the one that attracted by far the most attention. Downs—who is white—is featured beside the words “I have unfairly benefitted from the colour of my skin. White privilege is not acceptable.”

WhitePrivilegeBCSD74Poster

The Downs poster proved to be a lightning-rod. One parent, Kansas Field Allen, whose son attends Grade 9 at Kumsheen Secondary School in Lytton, BC, took great exception to the “Got privilege?” campaign and particularly to the contentious poster. Allen, who is married to a First Nations man, has three children, all of whom carry First Nations status cards. Her prime objection to the campaign was that it ignored mixed race families like her own.  As someone who herself has faced racism and labelled a ‘white mama,’ she was upset to hear one student say he was ‘ashamed to be white’ and the way the whole episode affected her son. When she asked him about it, he fell silent an ‘bent his head down.”

The controversy swirled around the school district for over a week. Many commenters  applauded Downs and the administration for highlighting the often-hidden issue of white privilege, but many others sided with Field and charged that the statement smacked of  reverse racism. Hard questions were asked about whether it went too far or implied that Downs only got where she is because of her skin colour rather than her own efforts.

The “Got Privilege?” posters did not come out of nowhere.  With a sizable indigenous population, BC District 74 has embraced anti-racist education in a very pro-active fashion. The district management team is deeply committed to the cause and has sought to promote a discussion of colonization, discrimination, race, and privilege for more than five years. “Two years ago we interviewed secondary students, and they said they saw racism and prejudice in their schools and their communities,” Downs told a local news outlet. “We knew we needed to be addressing those issues.”

The poster campaign was actually inspired by a similar June to July 2017 venture in Saskatoon that featured giant billboards at the high-traffic bridge crossings. Sponsored by the City of Saskatoon, the campaign “I am the Bridge…to Ending Racism,” featured one billboard where a middle-aged white citizen was quoted as saying “I have to acknowledge my own privilege and racist attitudes.”  Like the B.C. school poster, the billboard provoked quite a reaction, especially on CKOM AM 650, the all news talk station.  It sparked outrage, division, and a horrible rash of hand-made racist telephone pole posters.

Downs and her team considered the Saskatchewan initiative to be “very brave” and knew it might spark controversy. The posters were devised last fall, all the District principals were approached about them and were very supportive. The decision for the posters to feature Downs, Mountain, and Minnabarriet was a conscious one. “As the formal leaders of the District, we wanted to have a message and be a part of the conversation, not be seen as isolated from it. We wanted to be a piece of the puzzle.”

Since the public outcry, Downs has held her ground and expressed appreciation to those who supported the campaign through the turbulence. Given the emotions stirred by the controversy, she has resisted calls for a public meeting and worked to explain it all in  “one-to-one talks with people.” One group of students rallied to the District’s defense and appealed to their principal to resist calls for the posters to be taken down. “A discussion about race and privilege is difficult to have,” Downs says,” “but it’s important.”

 

Privilege

With controversy raging in B.C. in early March 2018, similar posters, headed “Check Your Privilege,appeared at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT).  Branded with the UOIT crest, the Ontario posters promoted “a more just and inclusive world” and encouraged students to “check their privilege” using a list of privileges such as “Able-bodied,” “Christian,” “Heterosexual,” “Male, ” and White.”  After attracting social media criticism, the posters were taken down, but school administration offered up an explanation, claiming that they were not intended to shame people who fell into one of the identified privilege categories.

Racism is a serious public concern and anti-racist education deserves a place in today’s educational world. Having said that, the recent controversies do raise the critical question of how best to combat racism in and around schools. Why did the”white privilege” posters attract criticism, while the others relatively little adverse reaction?  How successful are such campaigns in initiating conversation? Can you see positive or negative long-term effects from such conversations?  

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