Why I feel that what Blacks are hearing from the Ottawa school board is a polite version of “Negro, know your place”
by Richard Sharpe
“We are so proud of how your group has advocated for your community.” This comment, made by an Ottawa Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) Superintendent, was directed at me after I had given a presentation on the need for disaggregated race-based data to support anti-racism initiatives in the school board.
The Superintendent’s words echoed lightly in the small room. The majority in the crowd received the compliment with that quiet politesse that defines most gatherings here in Ottawa. Some tilted their heads and smiled. The Black folk in the back of the room visibly cringed in disbelief at the condescension.
A coalition of Black community members had begun interventions at the OCDSB over a year ago to push for direct engagement on equity issues. The official’s comment was made in reference to the board’s response to our demands and at face value, the pride that was expressed towards our little group was genuine. However, I couldn’t help but interpret it as a figurative pat on the head that accompanies the gushing warmth and admiration that white leadership express in their response to the advocacy of racialized communities.
That’s not what we are looking for.
I became involved in school board issues because of my son. Last year, he was added to the long list of Black youth who are suspended from Ottawa schools. He received this consequence for challenging an administrator over what he believed to be racial profiling. As I sought community support to deal with the suspension, I was struck by the fact that almost every Black family I encountered had similar experiences. It became clear that this was a systemic problem and that we needed hard data to support our stories.
Just a few months prior, in June 2017, the Ontario government in power at that time had already issued a directive that all provincially regulated institutions were to collect disaggregated race-based data to better understand what happens when racialized citizens interface with those institutions.
With that in mind, I called a coalition of Black parents and organizations together and we went political. We met with three provincial ministries to insist that school boards start collecting the data immediately, and that our communities be present through every step of the process. Through our efforts, we were able to force the issue onto the agenda of the school board.
But despite those feelings of pride directed towards us by the OCDSB’s administrator, there has not been a legitimate invitation to us to be at the table as they move forward on design and implementation of a process. We are effectively being told that this is not our place.
After the end of formalized enslavement of Black people in Canada in 1834, we were still told “Negro, know your place” within the society. Human bondage was replaced by Jim Crow laws to keep the races separate. The rules, along class and race lines were clear. The “N” word was replaced by “Negro”- a word not so directly associated with the whips and chains of those earlier years of Canada’s nationhood. A word that suggested a more “scientific” description of us chocolate coloured people. But what the term Negro does most effectively is rob us of our connection to our true identity, original language, cultural and geographic origins, ancestral science, philosophy and ways of knowing. The term defines us only by our skin colour. Non-white. Other. For a long time, the term, along with the other societal drivers of the state, framed the status of Black people as second class citizens. Other than in tokenistic ways, we had no real voice or possibility for agency within the institutions that impacted our daily lives.
Speed forward to 2016 where, under the backdrop of the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent, came a UN review of the state of Blacks in Canada. Not a good story. After everything was said and done, 42 recommendations were shared with the Federal government to address anti-Black racism across public federal, provincial and municipal governments and institutions. The education systems across the country were called out for practices that adversely targeted Black children and disenfranchised their families. This reality we share with our Indigenous sistren and brethren. The OCDSB was one of those school boards interviewed by the UN working group.
Black communities here in Ottawa have been vocalizing for decades that the elementary and secondary school systems in this city disproportionately target our Black children. Anecdotally, we have shared with the OCDSB’s exclusively white leadership and administrators, horror stories of the experiences of our kids being suspended or expelled for minor offenses, pushed out of institutions or streamed into lower level programs that deny them access to university courses and the higher paying, more fulfilling careers that flow from them. We were told by board officials “Don’t worry, we know what’s best for your children. We will institute diversity and inclusion training and workshops.”
Well that obviously on its own has not worked so well for us.
So, over the last few years, there has been a renewed movement of Black parents and organizations pushing to address issues of systemic anti-Black racism across this country. And here was our coalition pushing for the same here in Ottawa. As Black communities we asked the OCDSB and the other school boards in the city for data that differentiates the school experiences of children based on race. We were told that information does not exist. We then asked/demanded the OCDSB engage members of our community directly in efforts to collect disaggregated race-based data as has been the case in school boards in other jurisdictions like in Greater Toronto Area.
Even after the OCDSB adopted, to much fanfare, a proclamation in support of the International Decade for People of African Descent that explicitly speaks to the board’s commitment to engage Black communities on this business of education, we remain sidelined. What we were told by the superintendent after my presentation that evening was that the OCDSB will inform us after their consultant has developed the methodology that will be used to conduct the work.
Although the “N” word has never been verbally directed at us, we continue to hear the refrain.
That we continue to be excluded from this critical work remains unacceptable and reminds us of how we have been treated historically.
Given the systemic failure of school boards over the decades to address our legitimate concerns, we have very little trust that, if left solely to themselves the right questions, right approaches, right methodologies will be used to give us a true picture of what is happening to our children in their schools. This is not just an equity and inclusion issue. This is at its core, a human rights issue.
After shaking off the vestiges of slavery and later racial segregation that earlier generations had to endure when they came to Ontario, our communities are now comprised of academics and professionals, such as human rights lawyers and performance measurement practitioners to name a few. Our community possesses all the skills the OCDSB needs to contribute to the collection of disaggregated race-based data.
A new Director of Education has been selected to lead the OCDSB in the new year. She is from the Black Community in Durham where they grappled with and came to understand how to engage our people as key stakeholders in the success of schooling for our children. We welcome this development. However, will this incoming professional be shackled by a data collection process that the OCDSB staff and outgoing administrative leadership put in place prior to her arrival? Will the process and methodology meet the needs and expectations of Ottawa’s Black communities? Will our Black communities buy in? Or are we going to be forced to collect our own disaggregated data? What does true parent and community engagement actually look like?
Without true engagement there will be no peace.
As I shook hands with the meeting organizers and the superintendent at the end of the event, I could not help but think that despite how Black folk, as citizens and taxpayers continue to be treated by these bureaucracies, I very much know our place. It is seated at the table with these people charting a collaborative course for the betterment of all our children.
About the writer
Richard Sharpe is a community activist and co-founder of the 613/819 Black Hub. He can reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source: A shortened version of this article was published in the Ottawa Citizen on 29 October, 2018.