Racism in schools, and a battle for respect

Courtesy of Charline Grant
On the left, a birthday card shows Charline Grant and her son Ziphion. She joined with other Black mothers in Toronto to address unequal treatment in the school system. Ziphion appears in his soccer uniform on the right.
  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 8 Min. )

Charline Grant remembers the dismissiveness toward her claims of racism over many years in her children’s school district north of Toronto. But she also takes pride in what’s emerged: the group Parents of Black Children.

PoBC was founded in 2019 after a casual gathering of Black parents. “We were all professionals with jobs, multiple degrees,” says co-founder Kearie Daniel. “And so many of us have had that experience of saying, ‘Oh, yeah, the school thought I should be in a special class or they thought there was something wrong with me.”

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Black mothers in Toronto have gained ground in fighting racism in schools. Their hard-won battles have underscored how exploring what respect truly means to different people has been essential to progress.

The group has seen significant gains, including accountability for teachers and a support structure for parents. But as the group members have sought respect for their perspectives, they have sometimes found their fight being called disrespectful and divisive. 

The challenge, says Robert Danisch, co-author of “Beyond Civility,” is for people to engage in a forthright exchange of views when the status quo is rocked. “It’s so common for people to just attack and defend instead of practicing ‘radical civility.’”

Ms. Grant says she is careful with her own language in this fight, despite what language has been used against her.

She calls this moment “the awakening.” “I get to see the change... . I know when I’m talking to educators they might necessarily not like me, but they do respect me.”

Charline Grant was used to the disrespect. 

At first it was subtle. Her oldest son, Ziphion, a second grader, was coming home with notes about his disruptive behavior, about too much fidgeting or showing off. Initially, she didn’t suspect racism. She sat him down and says she came down hard.

But the microaggressions mounted. She now knows to call them “macroaggressions,” she says, because they might be imperceivable to some, yet punch the target hard. They followed him through elementary and middle school. There was the time he spilled his grapes and a teacher lashed out so strongly that spit flew into his face. There were complaints he didn’t put away the basketball, or spent too long in the bathroom – the same things other kids did but didn’t get in trouble for. During his first year in high school, Ziphion, at that point a lanky teenager, called his mother from a bathroom stall, sobbing. “He said he was overwhelmed. It was just constant. Everything was just him, him, him,” she says.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Black mothers in Toronto have gained ground in fighting racism in schools. Their hard-won battles have underscored how exploring what respect truly means to different people has been essential to progress.

That year was a turning point – when she realized her battle was bigger than “him,” bigger than a single boy not fitting in or falling into line. In 2016, she filed a formal complaint of discrimination against three of his high school teachers, starting what became a long and difficult fight against anti-Black racism in her school board, or district, north of Toronto, where Black students are a minority of the student body. 

Dismissiveness – and change

Ms. Grant remembers the dismissive comments and the demands to “prove” her claims of racism. She was once called the worst racial slur possible by a school board trustee. But she also takes pride in what has emerged from the battle: a new nonprofit called Parents of Black Children (PoBC) that is mobilizing against anti-Black racism in schools across Ontario. 

The past year has seen significant change, which carries particular import at a time when the death of George Floyd has sparked a larger global reckoning over racial inequality. But the group’s persistent efforts have shined a harsh spotlight on how difficult such change can be. As they rock the status quo, members of the PoBC have come up against those who don’t believe them or don’t want to, those who demand evidence because they don’t see it, those who are well meaning and want to understand, but don’t. As they have sought respect for their perspectives, they have sometimes found their fight being called disrespectful – uncivil and unnecessarily divisive. 

“Ideals and values like respect are not neutral,” says Vidya Shah, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Education at York University in Toronto. “For families whose children are experiencing harm and violence in schools, the most respectful thing to do is to stand up,” she says. “To somebody else who doesn’t want to admit that families are experiencing racism, respect might be to stay quiet. Respect might be, ‘Don’t hurt my feelings … by saying this is racist.’”

“But that doesn’t hold the same weight as a family saying, ‘My child doesn’t want to come to school because they know that the teacher treats them differently,’” she continues. “Those are two radically different ways of experiencing ‘disrespect.’”

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Charline Grant co-founded Parents of Black Children, a group fighting against racism in Ontario schools, after a long fight for her children's rights.

A societal shift

In many ways, Ms. Grant’s fight is a microcosm of the larger societal shift on race playing out well beyond a single school yard.

Global protests in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s murder under the knee of a white police officer in the United States have focused attention on institutional racism more than at any other time since the civil rights movement. That’s led to top-down direction from corporations to schools on new anti-racism policies, training, and strategies across North America.

Last summer, the Ontario government ended practices that have disproportionately affected Black students, including suspensions in early elementary school and academic tracking, even if optional, in high school. The Toronto District School Board followed up with a first-of-its-kind human rights report that sought to quantify discrimination, and found incidents citing anti-Black racism exceeded all others by a wide margin. They accounted for 39% of all hate activity reported in the 2018 school year, and 41% in the 2019 school year. Black children make up about 10% of the student body in that district.

But advocates say change from the top must be twinned with a bottom-up approach to make sure whatever is done becomes more than just image protection. 

Getting out of silos

PoBC was founded in 2019 – the result of parents, mostly mothers from the York region north of Toronto, coming together to talk after having spent years in silos fighting their own battles on behalf of their children.  

Kearie Daniel, a PoBC co-founder and mother of two, says it started as a casual gathering. “It was just a group of us,” she says. But their experiences were so similar, both as parents and as Black children once in the school system, that they quickly realized they needed to pivot and fight for change across Ontario.

“In that room, we were all professionals with jobs, multiple degrees. And so many of us have had that experience of saying, ‘Oh, yeah, the school thought I should be in a special class or they thought there was something wrong with me,’” she says. “There’s no Black person that you can speak to that doesn’t have a story about either [tracking] or something. … Some of this stuff is so traumatizing for my mom that she doesn’t even like to talk about it.”

In the past year, the nonprofit advocacy group has marked some significant wins. One of their top demands was accountability for teachers who discriminate. In November, the Ontario College of Teachers announced an amended regulation that explicitly states that discrimination will be disciplined as professional misconduct, although Ms. Daniel says there is still “gray” around consequences. They created a “system navigator” project, which Ms. Grant is currently leading, to support other parents with their concerns and complaints. The Ontario provincial government recently announced a similar advocacy program for minority families. PoBC also launched an anonymous reporting tool this year that allows teachers and school staff to bring to light incidents they felt were racist and discriminatory.

Ms. Grant calls these initiatives game changers, setting clear guidelines and closing opportunities for the kinds of “misunderstanding” that she so often experienced with Ziphion and his teachers or principals.

In her case, sharing her experience with school personnel got her nowhere, and she and her husband eventually decided they had to file a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. Their decision came right after a gym teacher in Grade 9 told his class that Ziphion might be in the locker room stealing their belongings.

The teacher admitted saying it, she says, but said he was within his rights because he believed he was protecting the other children.

“But I asked: Who was protecting my Black son? Because if one of those kids said they lost money or a phone or whatever, they would have called the police and had him arrested. I realized in that moment they could do anything,” she says. 

Too often, she says, Black families face a double standard.

“One of the things we go through as Black folks is that every time a situation happens, we are put in the position to prove it, prove it, prove it, which is another way of saying you’re just playing the ‘race card,’” she says. “Whenever we raise concerns, we get excuses. But when we are the perpetrator, the punishment is swift.”

The importance of data

Dr. Shah, at York University, points to data as crucial in this fight – if it’s viewed with a critical eye. For example, if there’s no immediate improvement in well-being or academic achievement after an initiative launches, that could give people an excuse to blame the individual or family, and not the system. Yet when the data becomes indisputable – much like the video of Mr. Floyd’s death – the conversation starts at a different point. 

“Parents seeing Charline’s story publicly, what it did is made so many other parents look to this and say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s me, too.’ It moved it out of a place of an isolated story or one singular incident, which often generates a lot of shame for people because they think they’re the only one,” says Dr. Shah. “Now they can see, maybe there is something systematically that’s happening here that’s harming my children.” 

Challenging the status quo

The fight against systemic racism, and its challenging of the status quo, has been fraught, whether over such things as the removal of statues of controversial figures or the adoption of new policies and standards around bias. Schools have taken center stage in the evolving ethos on racial injustice.

For Robert Danisch, co-author of the book “Beyond Civility” and a communication arts associate professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, systemic racism should be fought with what he calls “radical civility.” 

The idea is to avoid demonizing or belittling the other side, he says. “Persuasion and change don’t work by people just pushing their ideas and their reasons on someone else,” he says. Instead, “You have to form a connection with someone else based on both honesty and respect so that you can hold the relationship in place even if you might have a different opinion or a different belief system or a different set of values.”

But that is difficult, grounded as it is in learning to have a civil – but very honest and forthright – exchange of views. “It’s really hard to practice radical civility, and really easy to fall into the kinds of practices of defensiveness,” he says. “It’s so common for people to just attack and defend instead of practicing radical civility. And it gets harder the more charged the environment is.”

He notes, too, that the very notion of “civility” in fighting racial injustice is controversial, as it has been used as a tool to suppress minority voices.

Within school systems, Ms. Daniel says PoBC finds many parents who are not Black who want to be supportive. She says that support is key – taking pressure, both emotional and economic, off Black parents. But PoBC advocacy has also faced backlash. The group issued a press release on May 12 calling on the provincial government to investigate a series of threats made against Black educators and advocates, including one of their founders, in Ontario. They say threats made against those attempting to dismantle anti-Black racism are not treated with the urgency they deserve.

Ms. Grant says that, given the polarized situation, she is careful with her own language in this fight, despite what language has been used against her. “People’s backs go up when you say white supremacist,” she says. Instead, she uses “white supremacy,” trying to depersonalize it and talk in terms of systems, not individuals. 

She calls the moment “the awakening,” part of a long fight that continues. Her eldest is now in university, and she has two children still in the public system in York. She says she is proud of all of them for being able to identify any racism they experience and to call it out calmly.
“I get to see the change. I’m pushing the change so I get to be in it,” she says. “So I know when I’m talking to educators they might necessarily not like me, but they do respect me.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Racism in schools, and a battle for respect
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today