Her lengthy email opened with a few sentences outlining some observations she and her friends had made about the school yearbook and the location of some important photos. She was in my grade 11 Indigenous Voices English class, has been on my podcast, and is a leader among the members of our Diverse Student Union. Her observations then transitioned to pointed, direct, and well reasoned accusations about the representation of Black History Month under the pages of “School Spirit”. She said that this decision demonstrates “disrespect” and is “insensitive, and ignorant”. I know her to be stoic in her demeanour, thoughtful in her expression, and this felt like a call to action.
I reached out to the teacher of the yearbook course, and looked at the sea of mostly White students enrolled, the selected editors who were guided by the White supervising teacher. At this point, I should also make it clear that the yearbook falls under my White headship, so I include myself as one among a sea of Whiteness responsible for this misrepresentation. And, as Amanda and I have discovered through our podcast and many conversations, taking on anti racist work means that you are going to make mistakes. The only way to actually address racism is to own the mistakes, admit them early, and act with the direction of the community affected. We’ve also discovered that once you see the systemic racism, you see it a lot more than you ever have previously. This is part of the work.
I decided to get a copy of the yearbook to perform an audit of sorts – a look at the representations of the student body at the school, what is valued by dedicated pages, and what appears most often. In this first audit, I wanted to focus on events that are similar to the Black History assembly. Full double truck pages were dedicated to several one time events: Relay for Life, Coffee House, United Way Breakfast, the school dance, and the Spaghetti Dinner. Other double truck pages were dedicated to ongoing aspects of school life: School Spirit, Outdoor Education, a Barcelona trip, Friends and Buddies, and Siblings.
I looked closely at the pages called “School Spirit”, and noted that two of fifteen photos were from the Black History Month assembly, unlabelled in anyway and only recognizable because I had been there, along with other photos of what appeared to be Halloween, a holiday play, and students holding ice cream cones.
Returning to her email, she said,
Our Black History Month assembly is not an act of school spirit. It’s the only month in the year where we get some recognition on the history, culture and current events of Black people. We are well aware of the student’s AND staff’s lack of interest in Black History Month but putting our image in “School Spirit” is utterly disrespectful for us and the thousands that were and are in the fight for racial equity…
I thought for some time about her concerns and reached the conclusion that there are potentially TWO omissions in the yearbook, and one significant misrepresentation; one omission is the month itself with the many aspects that should be woven into the fabric of academic learning and the other is the Black History Month assembly, the culminating one time event. Black History month is nowhere to be seen in the yearbook. But, I do know that it was celebrated in classes, in the hallways, and on the announcements. I remember teaching lessons. I remember hearing announcements. The culminating assembly is misrepresented with two uncaptioned images.
To be fair, this decision was not committed by an individual and there were students of colour who participated in the Black History Month assembly on the editing committee of the yearbook. Additionally, the context for producing a yearbook this year was ridiculously difficult and these students did a remarkable job in the middle of a pandemic. Their White teacher was an encouraging force of support for these students, her English classes, and her own young children learning at home. They all deserve recognition for their efforts to maintain engagement in their courses and for making a yearbook during what is arguably one of the most difficult times in recent academic memory. They were doing what they could do in the situation and in their understanding of representing the school.
I wanted to be sure that the unusual nature of this school year was the most significant factor in the omission, so I got copies of the yearbook from the previous two years at the same school. The structure of the yearbook was much the same as this year, and I could not locate a page dedicated to Black History Month or the assembly – in either year.
I have come to the conclusion that the problem with the yearbook is systemic Whiteness; the students and their teacher didn’t even realize they were upholding a White culture that erases Black students and Black events at the school. I thought about Paul Gorski’s article, “Avoiding Racial Equity Detours” and how we cannot “pace for privilege”, we cannot wait for students and teachers to understand this before we act to support racialized students. I knew this required my interruption in a process that has been allowed to exist for at least the past three years, and I decided to do more research online to find out how to create a yearbook which addresses representation, equity, and inclusion. I came across this from Lifetouch:
Inclusivity impacts students
An inclusive yearbook does more than just properly represent the school, it makes students feel good about themselves. They feel they are a part of the community and are connected to their class. It also boosts school spirit. Furthermore, years from now when each student flips through the yearbook to reminisce, they’ll be reminded of all the good times they had and the experiences that helped mold them into adults.
The biting irony in this made me feel queasy. There is no question; we have to do better and I am now more prepared with evidence to take action by making the structural changes for next year’s yearbook – a two page spread for Black History Month and a one page spread for the assembly, student lessons in visual representation and the inclusion of all students in the yearbook. This is part of the work.