Being aware of racial issues and on guard against racism is one thing, being fixated on race quite another. These days we seem to have drifted into an unhealthy fixation.
Look at what just happened at Toronto’s Etobicoke School of the Arts. ESA is a marvelous place. The halls teem with creativity. My daughter goes there. Her sister did, too. Its students often proceed to brilliant careers in dance, film, theatre, photography or visual art.
But like many places these days, it has been affected by our current fixation. Last year, the Toronto District School Board issued a report noting that the student body at specialty schools such as ESA tends to be whiter and more prosperous than the board average. Detecting bastions of entitlement, the authors of the report recommended shutting down the schools in the name of equity. That was an awful idea. Toronto’s specialty schools are gems. Parents revolted and the school board backed down. Specialty schools would stay. But a cloud continued to hang over ESA. Its principal, Peggy Aitchison, wanted to do everything she could to make sure the school was not “creating inequity.” So “with an objective of supporting success for all students, particularly those for whom we know as a group there are gaps,” she came up with a plan. She would give teachers a list of black students. It came to be called the “black list.”
Another awful idea, so awful that only an educator steeped in years of equity-speak could dream it up. Naturally, the students identified on the list were insulted. They felt singled out and stigmatized. They said the list was drawn up solely on appearance. One of them, Noah Brown, 18, pointed out that he was already a straight-A student. The melanin in his skin had nothing to do with it.
Parents were outraged, too. Some called the list a form of racial profiling. Mr. Brown’s father said he was launching a human-rights complaint. Ms. Aitchison beat a retreat. She acknowledged “that this was a limited, flawed and ultimately inappropriate approach to identifying gaps.” The apology didn’t cut it and she asked for a transfer out of ESA. Some students want more: They want her resignation.
Their anger is understandable. Even with the best intentions, Ms. Aitchison should never have grouped students on a list based solely on the colour of their skin. No one likes to be separated out that way, regardless of the motive.
But in a way I feel sorry for the principal. She meant no harm. In her farewell letter to the school community, she said that “At no time would I ever want to cause any student any amount of pain, even inadvertently.”
Ms. Aitchison is simply a product of her time.
She focused on the race of certain students because, in this era of identity politics, that struck her as perfectly okay. At institutions such as the Toronto board, which distinguished itself by banning the word “chief” from job titles to spare the feelings of Indigenous people, the air is simply full of talk about white privilege and systemic racism. The old ideal of colour blindness has gone right out the window. If you say that individuals should be judged by the content of their character not the colour of their skin, you simply don’t get it.
Here is the paradox of today’s Canada. Thanks to evolving attitudes and the critical work of crusaders for racial justice, prejudice is less prevalent that it has ever been. This country is approaching a moment that idealists have dreamed about for centuries − the moment when who you are matters more than how you look, how you pray or where you come from. Yet at this very moment, so full of promise, we find ourselves positively obsessed with racial identity. Just last year, the government of Ontario announced it would start gathering information on the ethnicity of students − all to aid in their success, of course.
That’s the wrong way to address inequality. The best way to make sure that students succeed isn’t to group them by heritage and treat them differently, it is to make sure that teachers treat every student who comes into their class equally no matter what they look like.