Multiple students from St. Michael School in Calgary have been suspended after a portion of a conversation between a group of Black students and their principal was shared online.
The audio recording in question catches the principal uttering a racial slur.
“So how come it’s OK for you to say [the N-word]?” principal Lianne Anderson asked a group of Black students, questioning their use of the word.
Principal Lianne Anderson was recorded using the N-word with a group of Black students. CBC News has bleeped the audio. 0:06
One of the students shared the recording with a family member, who posted it online, calling the principal’s choice to use the N-word “unacceptable.”
The Calgary Catholic School District is defending Anderson’s actions and said the principal chose to use the word “strictly for educational purposes.”
“The word was more so used in a situation to explain, like, ‘If it’s not OK for me to use the word, why is it OK for you to use the word?'” said district spokeswoman Sandra Borowski. “I think the whole point was to kind of clarify that, bottom line, the use of the word is just generally unacceptable for anyone.”
Adora Nwofor, an anti-Black racism activist and coach in Calgary, said this type of response illustrates the need for more anti-racism training in schools.
“To use the N-word without saying ‘N-word,’ if you are not part of the oppressed population, is oppression,” Nwofor said. “To police Black people on the use of a term that we are taking back for ourselves is not really the correct response.”
Multiple students have since been suspended for violating the school’s code of conduct.
“I definitely understand that there is, you know, the possibility that it’s coming across that the students are being disciplined for the use of that word,” said Borowski. “But at the end of the day, they’re only being disciplined for having recorded a conversation, taking clips out of context and posting that conversation online. So it’s unfortunate that the topic of a negative racist term is the focus of the conversation.”
The student code of conduct states that “making, possessing, selling, accessing or sharing any audio, visual or audiovisual recording of any individual without the individual’s consent unless the recording is of a public space or an event open to the public” is considered to be “unauthorized” by the school district.
Nwofor, who also is a leader for the local Black Lives Matter chapter, said the conversation never should have happened, because Black people are allowed to use the word if they choose.
“It is a word that we are reclaiming that was used to oppress people, and if you are not Black and you are using that word, you are using it as an oppressor and it means you have privilege,” she said. “If you have privilege and you use that word, you are being an oppressor and you’re being racist, quite frankly.”
A case of ‘taking that power back’
Alberta activist and education consultant Sagal Yusuf said hearing this story makes her emotional, because she remembers situations just like it happening to her during her school days.
“It’s supposed to be, you’ve taken the power that [the word] has to be violent and to be used against you and you use it in a completely different context, and you’re using it as a way of expressing affection for somebody else,” she said.
“When someone else uses it who is not Black, who is white, especially someone in a position of power like this, you are basically saying, ‘I’m taking that power back from you … and I’m going to use it in the same manner that it was used in the past, to put you in a traumatic and violent state.'”
The Calgary Catholic School District said all its staff are required to provide welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environments that respect diversity.
“Each of our staff members are part of our faith development, in other words a Catholic community of caring, where we teach values based on faith, caring, respect, responsibility, trust and family. Staff also attend a mandatory annual boundaries presentation, which outlines appropriate staff behaviour,” the district said in an email to CBC News.
The district said it has also recently formed a committee that examines and addresses racism and discrimination.
“[We are] currently looking into providing additional support that will create a better understanding and ability to recognize derogatory and or racist language.”
Board has ‘zero tolerance for any instances of racism’
Borowski said the school board takes these situations seriously. “We do say that we have zero tolerance for any instances of racism and discrimination at our schools.”
Nwofor said she understands why there might be rules about using the word at a school, and said if there is zero tolerance, then the principal should never have said the word.
“I would tell the authority figure the correct way to handle it is to say, ‘We have a zero N-word policy here, and we are going to discuss with your guardians about how to move forward.'”
The Calgary Catholic School District said the principal is not facing any disciplinary actions. Nwofor said that’s not fair.
“That principal should be reprimanded, there should be a very high cost to using that word,” she said. “What the white children who are privileged are seeing is that it’s OK to say it. They’re seeing that they’re not going to get in trouble — it’s the Black kids who are going to get in trouble.”
Yusuf said there are plenty of ways the principal could have had a discussion with the students about the word without actually using it.
“Given the context that we’re living through, you have to be completely, deliberately trying to ignore everything in order for you to be able to use the word. If it was a sincere discussion, if she wanted more information about the use of the word, it’s very simple to use … ‘the N-word,'” she said.
“If it was supposed to be an educational thing, if it was supposed to be something where they can have a discussion, you don’t actually have to use the word.”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.