A Durham Catholic high school has apologized after staff and students were encouraged to don do-rags as part of a dress-down day to promote Black History Month.
The event came to light after a screen-grabbed Facebook post began to circulate on Twitter Thursday morning, after it was shared by Andray Domise, communications director for the Toronto-based Black Business and Professional Association.
In the post, which Mr. Domise said was in a private group he is a member of, the parent (their name was cropped out of the post seen by The Globe and Mail, and Mr. Domise said they did not want to speak to reporters) wrote that their daughter had informed them her school – Archbishop Dennis O'Connor Catholic High School in Ajax – was celebrating Black History Month by encouraging everyone to wear a do-rag to class.
"In disbelief and shock I asked her what she would like to do. She asked that we allow her to handle it," the post reads.
In an e-mail response to The Globe and Mail on Thursday, principal Dave Chambers said the idea had been suggested by the students' Black History Committee "as a way to promote Black History Month in combination with a dress-down day. This was a club-initiated activity for students and staff – not a board-wide initiative."
"We acknowledge that this was not the outcome that was anticipated and we apologize that the activity offended people," he said.
Mr. Chambers and the Durham Catholic District School Board did not respond to follow-up questions. It's unclear who these students were, or whether they had guidance in their planning from teachers or administration.
Mr. Domise said that he was not seeing responses of outrage in response to the parent's post, but rather disappointment and bafflement. "It was one of those things where we just sort of sigh and shake our heads," he said.
Carl James, a Professor and Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora at York University, said the incident sounds like "a missed opportunity," particularly given that the student was allegedly sent to the office for speaking up.
"If Black History Month is going to be meaningful, it should engender the conversation that this student was trying to have with her teacher," Mr. James said.
While he doesn't see it as cultural appropriation – "it's not that [a do-rag] is sacred or anything like that, but it is a symbol" – he feels the dress-up component "falls into an area of black face."
He says the gesture could leave black students questioning whether this was the only way they could be conceptualized or thought of in the system. "And I can understand black students taking an offence to that," he said.
"It raises bigger questions about Black History Month, how it's taken up in schools, and the work that needs to be done if it's supposed to serve the needs or the expectation of the students, their parents and the larger community," he said. "This becomes an educational piece we're going to have to look at, if these programs that are being pushed are going to have any meaning."