Last week I came across an article that really stuck with me. Although it pertains to the education system, the questions it yields can be applied to organizations from all sectors. It’s actually quite a familiar story. Think H&M’s monkey shirt or Gucci’s blackface balaclava. It’s the issue of egregious displays of anti-Black racism by organizations that should have the resources to know better.
In this case, an elementary school class had been assigned comedic mystery book for a reading assignment. While listening to his son read the book aloud on a car trip last May, a father was surprised to hear his son utter racially offensive language. The French equivalent of the N-word. Naturally, Dad reported it first to the school, the school board, the Ministry of Education and eventually to the Quebec Human Rights Commission. The school board reports that as of the end of the 2018-2019 school year, it’s no longer in the elementary school’s curriculum – but the board cannot confirm that it’s not being used in other institutions.
I’m sure it’s of no surprise that Dad and his son are of African decent.
Before I go any further, let me address the questions you likely have. First, the book uses racist language with racist connotations. There’s no question about it when a Mum in the book says to her son, “And you're old enough now to understand that in life we do not always do what we want and that we are often someone's Negro, and that someone is me." And this is just one exchange referenced in the article. Second, the book is not from another time when we were less evolved about race and otherness. It’s from 1997 – things were different of course, but not to the extent that this kind of blatant language would ever be acceptable. It’s not say, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Merchant of Venice. Finally, to be fair, we don’t know whether the teacher provided social-historical context to this language – they might have but they also might not have. We don’t know for sure, but Dad felt that critical conversations were missing to provide his son much-needed context and took it upon himself to fill in those gaps.
Obviously, as an educator who started her career working with young people disengaged from schooling, I had a whole host of reactions. What impact will this event have on this young boy’s development – his trust that the school system is there to support his needs? And what will this do to his sense of belonging in the classroom? What lessons will he learn about his safety, particularly when the people who have been entrusted to protect him could be placing him at harm? Why is being Black presented as something bad?
When I put on my consultant hat, the organizational lens takes over. Instances like this typically come to the surface when a person directly affected notices and takes offence -- kind of like this father and his son. From an organizational standpoint, what this means is that nobody who would challenge the choice to have children read such an objectionable book was a part of this decision-making process. Diverse representation must have been lacking for it to go this far.
So what does this look like? It could be that the organization does not attract and/or retain a diverse workforce. Or perhaps that diversity is relegated to specific spaces within organizations (for example, on certain teams or at certain levels, usually based on stereotypes). Alternatively, it could suggest that even where there is diversity vertically and horizontally across the organization, there is a lack of safety for those who embody difference to speak up and ask the difficult questions necessary to challenge biases and stereotypes at the leadership table or elsewhere in the organization. It yields further questions about organizational inclusion and engagement – questions that could be asked about the school, the school board, and even in educational publishing. It’s organizational, but it’s also systemic.
As a consultant, I’m also curious to learn about the teachers’ readiness to facilitate challenging conversations about difference in a way that prioritizes the needs of their students, while also maintaining their own sense of safety and security in their jobs. I want to know whether educators at this school feel they have the tools to host these discussions, and whether they understand how this language speaks to an historical oppression that travels across generations, with similar impact. From a purely pragmatic perspective, I would suggest that if the teachers do not feel prepared to have these tough conversations, it is not fair to the students to put this book in the curriculum.
Ultimately, I end up thinking about my role as a member of society and the type of world I’d like to live in. In that sense, what’s most concerning to me is that by making this disappointing decision, the school made it okay to be racist. Kids are so smart – I talk to young people often and I’m consistently impressed with their insight and depth of empathy – so I trust that many had their own questions about the language whether they verbalized it or not. That said, when a book like this is being endorsed in this way by a school without providing due context, adults are teaching young people sad messages about what it is to not be inclusive, to not be empathetic, to not really see our friends and neighbours for who they are. It teaches them that not everyone is valued and that not everyone belongs.
As organizations – whether in the education system, fashion or elsewhere – is this the lesson we want to teach our kids?