To Kill A Mockingbird in Blackface: Sometimes Being a Woman of Colour in School Never Seems to Get Any Better -The Toast

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The first time I was involved in a fight about racism at school, I was so young my mom was still gently introducing me to the concept as a permanent fixture in my life. It was sometime in my early elementary years when I came home from school singing “Jimmy Crack Corn” and my mom had to go in and let the school music teacher know that her Black daughter (the only Black kid in my entire elementary school, as I remember) would not be singing minstrel songs about being a slave. Racism in school starts early.

Around the same time, students at my school were asked to make a meal from the country we came from. Easy-peasy for some kids, or at least not a tale of international displacement and enslavement and permanent “homelandlessness.” Not a reinforcement of the “where are you from?” model of multiculturalism that leaves me as a permanent outsider in the only country I’ve ever called home. I had to go home and ask my mom “Where are we from?” because being Black was not a nationality, and I had to make food from somewhere. My mom saved me from what would happen if I said I was German (on my dad’s side) to my teachers and tried her best to explain that “Africa” was about as close to an ancestral homeland that we were going to be able to pinpoint.

So we dutifully went to the library and found an “African” cookbook. We burned the shit out of a pan of who-knows-what, my mom made ginger snaps, and called them “African Ginger cookies” instead. For years she was asked for her delicious African cookie recipe. To this day I admire her resistance through a snarky-as-fuck untruth about a cookie recipe, knowing she would go forever unchallenged in her assertion that a Betty Crocker, tried-and-true recipe came from the motherland.

Lots of other racist things happened in school, and lots of lonely things too. I was always in a small minority of Black people (fewer people than you could count on one hand) in all of the schools I went to. If my test scores were too high, I was accused of cheating (once this almost cost me a perfect provincial exam score, and once it resulted in me leaving a chemistry class forever, cursing as I went). If I didn’t excel at athletics (which I certainly never had) it was confusing, and my teachers and classmates often pushed the limits of racism, just to see what they could get away with (“Well, would it be so bad if I called you mulatto?” was asked in more variations than I knew was possible).

One memorable event that coloured my K-12 experience was a high school performance of To Kill A Mockingbird. I think I was in grade 10. There were maybe three Black students at my school at the time, and clearly, none of us were into drama. Or at least not Harper Lee’s kind of story. So, the drama teacher recruited any of the ambiguously-ethnic-to-possibly-Italian students, burned some cork, and outfitted them in blackface to perform caricatures of Black folks from a book that I think we all know is pretty damn racist.

To be honest, blackface didn’t actually seem all that out of place in a play based on a book built on underdeveloped Black characters, white saviours, and a white protagonist thrown in to make the whole damn thing seem “relatable to readers” (I know, I know). I went to the play –why, I don’t know – and I left feeling pretty exposed and alone in my school. And pretty disappointed in the adults in charge of making decisions that should create a safe school space for everyone.

We also read To Kill A Mockingbird in my grade 11 English class. I was definitely the only Black person there. I hated that book so much. I’m pretty sure I tried to talk about all of the things that were wrong with it, but sixteen-year-old me wasn’t able to say “when you assign something this racist it makes me want to leave school forever and ever,” and I was pretty outspoken (big surprise, I know). Also, how do you start to safely talk about how people should do their own damn work on their own damn privilege, or at least read The Autobiography of Malcolm X or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or The Bluest Eye or any book by any Black author about Black people, before taking the word of a white author about how things were back then? I already felt like I stood out too much.

I skipped most of grade 12 and took off to a new city two months after I graduated with just $900 in my bank account and no plan – other than to never, ever go back to school.

But at 21 I decided I was ready, and back to school I went.

I attended a community college in a smallish university town, where my academic achievements were celebrated, where there was no gym class, and where I even won a small bursary for Black students attending college (the very fact that this college had Black students was a big deal).  By and large, it was pretty okay. I had a few weird professors, particularly those who had spent time in “Africa” and felt we had a special bond as a result. But I was good at school, and I loved it, and I decided I would transfer to the university and complete a four-year degree.

University was tough for me as a Black woman. There were more Black folks, and I quickly met and made friends with a rad multi-ethnic community of great people. But we were spread across the faculties. My program of study had an anti-oppressive focus, but it was a work in progress in many senses. I was split up from half of the other students of colour in our cohort (where again, there were less than 5 of us to begin with), and was told at one point that it was beneficial for the learning of non-racialized students if we were intentionally split across the two classes. No mention of what might make a safe space for us to learn.

The Indigenous faculty members and the programming that they created for Indigenous students kept me from losing all hope in the program, because I saw that people could make safe spaces for themselves. It was not my space, but it inspired me, and the time, and friendship, and advice that these women and men shared with me made me stronger. I worked hard to give back what I got from these folks, because their powerful work helped me to believe that things would get better as Black folks gained critical mass in the academy. And I held tightly to that hope.

Still, the hope I found could not save me from a brutal and racist practicum placement, from constantly being called on to be the expert on racism, to read articles that were written about my experience for a white audience, and to never, ever feel like my learning experience was a consideration of the program. I really struggled.

I stayed to do an MA that focused specifically on Black issues, and again found myself alone as a Black person in my classes, although my population was often the focus of racist, outdated, and offensive literature. I was really tired.

Sometime during my MA, a student group decided to put on a version of Othello. And because their efforts to recruit Black students didn’t yield any success, they decided to go with a white student in blackface. I heard this through the grapevine, maybe one day before the play, and I went through all of the regular human rights channels to see the issue addressed, with no success. I won’t go through all of the calls I made, the emails I sent, the tears I cried, or the hopelessness I felt. Eventually, I reached out to an ally who worked at the university, who made some calls up the chain of command, and on the day of the play, the blackface was disallowed. I sent many emails sharing my disappointment with those who were responsible for maintaining an anti-racist campus, thinking of my mom taking a stand on “Jimmy Crack Corn” all those years ago. I felt defeated, angry to have to fight these fights that our people have been fighting for so long, and ready to go far away from the university.

I moved to another city to write my thesis, and I didn’t write another word for two years. My topic was so heavy, and my university experience was so disempowering, and I could not process the weight of the racism that I was writing about in an academic context. So much of my academic experience had been an exercise in racism, I couldn’t find a way to make my work within those confines anti-racist. So I worked in the community, and eventually I slept for a couple of months, and then I wrote. And I did myself proud. I defended my thesis successfully, and I walked away from the university with my head held high.

And I decided to do another Masters at another university. As a way for me to integrate my social justice beliefs into my daily practice. I was scared. I was scared the school wouldn’t want me. I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to be me. I was scared that I might be the only Black person in my cohort again. But I wanted to be a better practitioner, and I wanted to bring my now-more nuanced and practiced understanding of intersectionality back into the classroom, to apply it to theory, and then back to practice.

And it’s been exhausting. There are some great folks in my program – faculty, staff, and students. I have made some excellent friends, and have grown to admire many people. But, I find that the material is often exclusionary, untrue, or outright discriminatory. And this is not just about me as a Black woman. I find myself raising my voice about transphobia, and about narratives that erase the impacts of ongoing colonialism on unceded Indigenous territories, and about fatphobia, and about all kinds of racism masked as the challenges of being a “culturally competent” practitioner (don’t even get me started), and about weeks that have “discrimination” as a special topic, without addressing it at any other time, and about social determinants of health that do not address intersectionality wholesale, but rather pick and choose only a couple of marginalized identities, and about a sexual assault alert email that tells women to be more cautious, but doesn’t tell men not to rape. And, and, and, and. Every week I listen to fighting music on my way to school, so I can raise my voice, because if I don’t, and no one else does, what happens when things get left unsaid?

I keep on wanting academia to get better, because I don’t think that feeling like this is supposed to be a part of accessing it. I often say that I’m paying what every other student is, so shouldn’t I be guaranteed the same experiences of safety that they have?  And I don’t see that being delivered.

I can only self-care so much erasure, and discrimination, and exclusion away. I can try to balance the feelings of disempowerment with the feelings of power I find when I read a transformational text about social justice. I can be as intersectional in my practice as I know how to be. But I can’t climb above where we are at as “the academy.” And I can’t really accept that things are much better just because the language around these issues imply better practice. And really, from minstrel songs, to being separated in learning environments, to going in every day ready to fight just to see more equity in the classroom, I sometimes wonder: will it ever get better for me in the academy?

Jessie is a perpetual grad student, studying all the social justice issues. She is a lover of all food (cheese is the only food, also bacon), critical analysis of everything all of the time, and really bad TV shows.

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