Posters on racism generate discussion, backlash

Posters placed in Gold Trail School District 74 schools in January were intended to spark a discussion about racism.

Instead, they ignited a bonfire, with intense online discussions last week and some upset parents contacting various media outlets to complain about the posters, which were posted in all Gold Trail Schools. A call was placed to the RCMP hate crimes line and one upset parent went to Lillooet Secondary School where she removed a poster from the wall. She was subsequently banned from the school for a month, but after the woman apologized, the ban was lifted.

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The posters feature senior School District 74 administrators offering their perspectives on racism.

One of the messages depicts Superintendent of Schools Teresa Downs alongside this comment: ”I have unfairly benefitted from the colour of my skin. White privilege is not acceptable.”

A second framed poster shows a photo of Gold Trail Secretary-Treasurer Lynda Minnabarriet and this quote from her: “I lose an opportunity if I don’t confront racism.”

The third image shows District Principal of Aboriginal Education Tammy Mountain with this quote, “I have felt racism. Have you?”

In a Mar. 8 interview with the News, Teresa Downs expressed no regrets and said she would do the same thing again.

“Our hope was to have a dialogue and we’re having that. I think some elements of the dialogue are unfortunate but Tammy, Lynda and I would not change anything we have done.

“We truly understand that a discussion about race and privilege can make some people uncomfortable but we think it’s very important to acknowledge that racism exists, and that through racism, some people are disadvantaged while others are advantaged,” said Downs.

She noted that while the posters are a hot topic on local social media, “only about 10 people have reached out to me directly. I’m very appreciative of them for doing that, and to have that conversation.”

Downs added that the School District is hearing about the poster/racism issue “from all communities in the School District. It came up about a week earlier in the Ashcroft-Cache Creek area” than it did in Lillooet and Lytton.

The school population in the Gold Trail School District is approximately 60 per cent Aboriginal.

Explaining her views, Downs told the News, “The first piece of context that’s important is that the School District has been engaged in working and addressing the concepts of racism, privilege and prejudice for the last five to seven years. These three posters are one piece of the work happening in the school district around these issues.”

She explained that during the summer, she, Minnabarriet and Mountain saw the City of Saskatoon’s anti-racism billboard campaign.

“We were quite inspired by what they had done. It really resonated with us and when we returned to work in August we were still talking about it,” said Downs. “It was also in connection to some interviews that had been done with students around feelings of safety, belonging and care at schools where students clearly articulated feelings of racism, bias and prejudice in a school setting as well as in their communities.”

Downs continued, “We felt it was very important as the formal leaders of this school district to make a point when so much of this work is happening in our schools. Our schools are getting a bit of resistance to the work, so we really want to be leaders and support that. And so we spent the fall thinking about quotes, we had the posters developed, we took them to our principals and we showed them the posters, asked them how they felt, and they unanimously agreed that they wanted them in their schools and they would go up January.”

She added that a “huge element” of the schools’ curriculum focuses on inclusion as well as compassion, communication and collaboration, “which we see this dialogue being about.”

Much of the online criticism was specifically directed to Downs’ statement on white privilege.

On Mar. 6, local parent Kansas Allen posted copies of the three posters on her Facebook account and asked other parents, ”Thoughts? Opinions? As a parent, how do you feel about the posters?’

The response was immediate and overwhelming and Allen soon found herself as the spokesperson for those opposed to the poster campaign.

“I’m just a messenger and I’m surprised how this has taken off on social media,” she told the News Mar. 9. 

She said she was initially concerned about the white privilege comments and about smaller “Got Privilege?” posters at Kumsheen Secondary in Lytton.

When she asked her 14-year-old son how he felt about the posters, he told her, “It makes me feel like there’s hatred towards the white man, mama.”

Allen continued, “He’s in Grade 9, he’s 14 and he’s sure a lot smarter than the adults.”

Allen and her husband have raised their children in a blended family. She said the administrators’ posters do not take blended families into consideration.

“Those posters are black and white. The kids don’t take this into consideration until they see what Teresa Downs did – ‘Mommy’s white and Daddy’s Aboriginal.’ That’s bringing racism into our homes and it’s doing damage. Why didn’t they speak to parents before doing this? They should have talked to parents about this.”

In her interview with the News, Teresa Downs acknowledged that parents and PACs (Parent Advisory Councils) were not consulted: “We did not think about that. There are lots of messages that are put out in our schools that we don’t consult about.” And although the Gold Trail Board of Education was aware of and supportive of the poster initiative, Downs said the Board did not pass a formal motion approving the poster proposal.

Kansas Allen said it’s clear from comments on her Facebook page and “a lot of comments everywhere – people don’t want to see this. They strictly don’t want to see this. What a sad situation. I have a hard time even discussing this with my 14-year-old. Can you imagine discussing this with a five-year-old?”

She told the News, “Basically what Teresa Downs has done in two sentences is she has called down the white race…My biggest thing about Teresa Downs is that hers is an opinion. There are many factors in what she said about white privilege and her belief that she got ahead because of white privilege. She said on the radio that she’s walked down the street and nobody’s ever locked their door. It could be because she’s a small woman. There are many factors that come into play – can she boil it right down to that it’s because she was white? If there was a big white man walking down the street towards me at midnight, I might get a little nervous, too. Race doesn’t come into play; there are so many other factors.”

Allen said she “just wants people to be equal. Let’s all try and be equal. Nobody is going to be better than anyone else. I think a lot of people have a problem with the term ‘white privilege’ to begin with. It may be more relevant in the States. We don’t need to introduce it into Lillooet. We know racism is here, but we certainly don’t need to drive a wedge between people. We need to empower our children and unite our children and make everybody feel welcome in our schools.”

She noted that one student posted on her Facebook page that he felt ashamed to be white.

“When one child feels that way at school, you’ve done something wrong.”

Commenting on her ‘white privilege’ statement, Teresa Downs told the News, “I know it is uncomfortable for lots of people. I think ‘white privilege’ is a term that is jarring to people when they first see it. I think as a society, we’ve gotten increasingly comfortable talking about racism. The piece of the conversation that rarely happens is when one group defined as a minority has privileges that are lessened, which innately means another group has privileges that are in excess because of that. I think this is a really important next step that needs to occur around our conversation about racism.”

She explained, “I think for some people it’s the first time they’ve seen this term and I think they have an assumption about what it means; I’m hearing a lot from people that they think I am asserting that I did not work hard and I should quit my job if I did not work hard. That’s not what I’m saying – I worked very hard in my life to become the superintendent of this school district but I am mindfully aware that my journey was easier because I was white.”

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