A student at a Toronto high school said his whole class was shocked and confused after a teacher wore blackface during Halloween celebrations on Friday.
The Toronto District School Board has since placed the teacher at Parkdale Collegiate Institute on home assignment.
Otis Stang, a Grade 9 student at Parkdale C. I., witnessed what happened.
"The whole class was shocked and confused," Stang told Jason D'Souza on CBC Radio's Metro Morning.
"It made me feel uncomfortable," he said.
Stang said students asked the teacher what his costume was and the teacher became defensive and said it "looked cool."
After class had ended, Stang said students and teachers gathered at the auditorium for an assembly.
"No one approached him. No one confronted him about what he was doing," Stang said.
Parents, however, are demanding more action from the board, saying incidents involving racism and discrimination should not be tolerated.
Stang's mother Liz Ikiriko called the school after learning about what had happened. She said the principal called her back and apologized for what had taken place.
"As things kind of sunk in through the afternoon and evening I realized that there were other instructors, there were other teachers who saw him and who were interacting with him throughout the day before he was asked to take the makeup off," she said.
"And that's the part that's really so devastating, is that really the only action that took place was because the kids stood up and said something."
Ikiriko said the incident shows a massive misunderstanding of the impact of blackface and how it affects BIPOC students.
"How would you feel to have your teacher come in with blackface, then be asked to remove it and continue teaching you?" she said.
In a letter to parents and guardians, Principal Julie Ardell called the incident "racist and dehumanizing." She said the teacher was told to wash his face and the school has filed a report with the TDSB. The teacher will remain on home assignment "pending the outcome of an investigation," the letter says.
"Caricatures of peoples' race and culture are not appropriate and are offensive and hurtful," Ardell wrote. "While we have begun the work of addressing anti-Black racism and all forms of discrimination, it is clear that we must do more."
Ardell also noted that anti-Black racism and other forms of discrimination targeting any race, culture or group contravenes the school's code of conduct and several TDSB policies.
Several students reported incident
The incident itself was brought to light when several students reported it to the vice-principal. Ardell applauded students for "doing the right thing." Several parents learned about the incident from their children.
Parent Sarah Latha said her son shared a photo that his friend took that shows the teacher in blackface in the classroom.
"One of the main reasons we pushed for our kid to go to Parkdale was because of the diversity, so that he would see himself reflected in the school," Latha said, noting she's a parent of a child of colour. "To have something like this happen ... it's shocking."
"We're trying to push the school and the TDSB to look at how and why this happened."
Parkdale, in the city's west end, is one of Toronto's most multicultural neighbourhoods.
After speaking with other parents whose children attend Parkdale CI, Latha said change needs to happen on a wider scale.
"When you're trying to build inclusive, anti-racist environments that challenge white supremacy to create safe spaces for learners, it's not about the individual intent of a person," Latha said.
She still has concerns, notably about previous instances of racism where students may or may not have come forward, or how a school or school board's culture permitted such an incident to happen in the first place.
Parents want more transparency when teachers hired
Cathy Gatlin, another parent, said she helped her friend Leila Sarangi draft a petition demanding more action from the TDSB. She saw photos of the teacher in blackface from another parent.
The petition outlines suggestions to help students report racist and hateful incidents and calls for more transparency in the hiring of teachers.
"I'm exhausted, dealing with it emotionally. Imagine being a person of colour," she said.
Gatlin's children are mixed-race, she said, and she often thinks about their experiences and what they might face because of the colour of their skin.
"It makes me think about all the times I witnessed racism with teachers against Black children. I didn't say anything, because I didn't want to rock the boat," she said.
"I have to start speaking out."
The petition, which had 619 signatures as of 9 a.m. on Monday, provides details of the incident as well as recommendations for the TDSB.
"This is not a one-time incident," the petition reads. "As parents, many of us have witnessed overt and micro-racial aggressions toward our children. This incident, however, is severe, shocking and concerning."
While parents "commend the principal" for taking action and listening to students, they add the current policy and protocols are not enough.
They offer five recommendations to the TDSB to "ensure safety in our classrooms." Those are:
A zero-tolerance policy for hate and racial discrimination.
Create a safe, supportive and anonymous complaints mechanism that is supportive of students and grounded in principles of anti-oppression so as not become a snitch line.
Public reporting on complaints of discrimination and racism.
Hiring practices that are transparent, equitable and seek to diversify the workforce.
Ongoing and frequent professional development in areas of anti-Black racism, anti-colonialism, anti-oppression and building in accountability through regular and rigorous performance appraisals.
According to the TDSB's current policy on racism and discrimination, school administrators and staff are expected to report incidents and address discrimination by providing support for affected individuals, holding people accountable for their discriminatory actions and examining what else needs to be done to prevent it from occurring again.