Students share their experiences of anti-Black racism in Windsor's schools

·7 min read

Seventeen-year-old Natisha Archer remembers teachers being quick to tell her to stop talking during class, while giving leeway to white students who did the same thing — but an incident which she calls "the last straw" ultimately led her to leave her former high school after just one year.

"I grew up in Jamaica where people of my skin tone are the majority, so I've never experienced racism until I came here to Canada," said Archer whose family immigrated to Canada when she was 10 years old.

Following the public school board's recent announcement that it would be developing a policy aimed at tackling racism, CBC News heard from a number of Black parents who said their children had been targeted in Windsor's schools because of their skin colour. All of them related experiences of unequal treatment and disproportionate punishments compared to white students.

Student sent home for wearing head scarf

According to Archer, in her Grade 9 year, three different staff members gave her trouble for wrapping her hair in a scarf, even though it was simply an expression of her culture.

One of the teachers even brought her to the principal's office. When she got there, administration asked her once again if she could remove her head scarf, she said, adding the situation left her confused since Muslim students weren't being asked to remove their head coverings.

"No, I'm not taking it off," she recalled saying to the principal, adding he even threatened to call her mother if she wouldn't remove the scarf.

Instead, Archer called her mom directly, who instructed her not to remove her scarf even if it meant being sent home for the day.

Sanjay Maru/CBC
Sanjay Maru/CBC

"This made me change schools ... That's why now I'm at Kennedy because I heard they allow you to express yourself more," she said, adding there were other race-based incidents that had happened at her former high school, but this one caused her to reach her breaking point.

Holding back tears, Archer said she was "appalled" at the situation — one which made her feel belittled.

"It doesn't make me feel a way about my skin. I'm still proud to be Black. I would not change who I am because of their opinion," she said.

Archer said "it feels great" to know the public board is moving forward with an anti-racism policy, but it needs to include the implementation of more Black history into the school curriculum — from the beginnings of colonization and slavery to the origins of racial slurs, like the N-word.

"A lot of people don't know what it means. They say it sometimes and they don't know what the meaning behind it is."

Student suspended following unequal punishments

Dallas Harris-Talbot, a student at Kennedy Collegiate, said he's been treated fairly well at his current school — but it's his former school where Harris-Talbot says he experienced racism from staff.

"I experienced a lot of silent discrimination," he said, pointing to "unequal punishments" between white and Black students. "We got more severe punishments, like more days of suspension."

Harris-Talbot admits he got physical with another student last year who had been making "hurtful" comments about him over an extended period of time, he said. The incident led to him being suspended.

Sanjay Maru/CBC
Sanjay Maru/CBC

The 16-year-old's issue, however, is that when another student — one of Harris-Talbot's friends who is white — got physical with a student in a separate incident, he didn't face the same punishment.

"A lot of the time, they may see some angry, Black man and they may think he's going to start something [or] he may be very dangerous," said Harris-Talbot, adding a lot of people tend to have prejudicial views toward Black kids "from the west side" of the city.

"They assume that, just because it's less affluent than other communities, that these kids are juvenile delinquents. 'We have to put these kids in check. We have to be on their tails. We've got to make sure they don't do drugs. We have to be on the children as much as possible.' I don't do that stuff."

Racism started in kindergarten, says parent of public school student

Maxine Ebegbuzie-Shelton's daughter entered junior kindergarten at one of the city's public schools. At the young age of four, she was called names like "Mickey Mouse" for her afro puff hairstyle. One of her classmates went as far as saying they weren't allowed to play with her because she was Black, her mother said.

"She came home and didn't understand. Trying to explain that to her was really difficult. I wasn't quite sure. Being my first child, [I did my best] to help her process that," said Ebegbuzie-Shelton.

The racist bullying took a toll on her daughter's confidence, she said. There were even times where her daughter would ask why she didn't have hair that looks similar to her white classmates, causing her to question her self-identity.

Sanjay Maru/CBC
Sanjay Maru/CBC

The bullying against her daughter continued for years, Ebegbuzie-Shelton, leading up to grade school where a fellow student physically attacked her. When the student tried to hit Ebegbuzie-Shelton's daughter for a second time, she pushed her away.

According to Ebegbuzie-Shelton, her daughter was immediately suspended without being given a chance to explain her side of the story, she said, adding no one at the school would listen because she had been made to feel like an outcast for years.

"She was treated so horribly that I took her out of school and home schooled her for two and a half years," she said. "During that time, I began to show her about her culture and how beautiful it was ... and overtime, she no longer cared as much what other people thought of her."

Besides home schooling her daughter, Ebegbuzie-Shelton has also taught children as a former public school teacher herself. She said there needs to be more representation in Windsor's public and Catholic school boards to better reflect the population.

"The systemic issue needs to be tackled. I remember being at school and I used to wear a big, huge afro because I love my afro. One of the kids in the class — she always pulled her hair back so tight," she said. "One day, she came with her afro and she must have been in Grade 4 and she goes, 'Miss, I have hair like you.'"

"From that day, this girl wore her afro every day proud and I found that little thing made a huge difference. It made my whole world. When you lack the representation of people that look like some of these Black students, it affects them. Kids need to see people that look like them."

It ends up exacerbating the existing problem that they're set out to solve. We know that Black and Indigenous students have a disproportionate amount of the zero tolerance policy enacted against them." - Maxine Ebegbuzie-Shelton

School's zero tolerance policies on violence also need to be reexamined, Ebegbuzie-Shelton said. She explained it allows for teachers to play out their "stereotypes and biases" against children from diverse backgrounds.

"It ends up exacerbating the existing problem that they're set out to solve. We know that Black and Indigenous students have a disproportionate amount of the zero tolerance policy enacted against them," she said.

"At the end of the day, these kids need a safe space where they can go and deal and speak to someone about what they are going through ... I feel that's mainly the focus that they should be on to increase the possibilities of guiding all children to reach your full potential."