TDSB school was sent hate mail over anti-Black racism course. But for the teachers, it’s just ‘strengthening their resolve’

·3 min read

Newtonbrook Secondary School received hate mail over its new course tackling anti-Black racism, but administration says it’s just “strengthening their resolve.”

Last week, the principal of Newtonbrook Secondary School received a manila envelope with no return address. Inside, was a copy of the Star’s newspaper article about the school’s new course on deconstructing anti-Black racism, which was scrawled over with racist remarks.

“N------ have taken over the school system!” the anonymous sender wrote, along with a note about not wanting their children to attend school with Black boys.

Toronto police were called to the school and an investigation is underway.

D. Tyler Robinson, co-author and project lead of the course, said that the tone of the letter, coming from an adult or parent, doesn’t surprise him.

“Kids aren’t the issue. The student interest is not the issue,” Robinson said. “Parents with fixed notions of how things are, and other community members at large with fixed notions of how things are, this is where the problem lies.”

Robinson has taught for 11 years at seven different schools across the TDSB — from affluent areas to economically and socially depressed areas — and he said he’s always found that students want to discuss race and racism.

News of the course was first covered last month by the Star, and as it gained more media attention, a TDSB parent’s event where Robinson was speaking was “Zoom bombed.” Anonymous attendees hijacked the virtual event playing Guns N’ Roses music videos when Robinson attempted to speak about the course.

The Grade 12 university prep course “Deconstructing anti-Black Racism in the Canadian and North American Context” covers language, the history of Black people in North America, media stereotypes and how oppression connects to other groups.

It was written by four past and present Newtonbrook teachers over the summer of 2020, and the team has been working to bring it to other schools around the province. At least six will be teaching it next year so far.

Instances like the hate mail and the Zoom bombing are overt forms of racism, which Robinson says he can find some “empathy” and understanding with the fact that they have yet to unlearn hate.

“But how do we deal with the covert racism?” he wonders. “How do we engage principals who don’t want to run this course?”

TDSB spokesperson Shari Schwartz-Maltz said that principals and superintendents met with TDSB equity representatives right after the hate mail was received and while they “were appalled, and incredibly upset,” it also reaffirmed the work.

“(It was) beautiful to see such a strengthening of the resolve ... to continue the work.” Schwartz-Maltz told the Star. “It opened a lot of eyes and said, ‘This is why we need the course.’”

This incident comes just weeks after the TDSB’s released its first human rights report, which revealed the degree of racism and oppression it has to reckon with within its schools.

Racist incidents — particularly anti-Black ones — made up the majority of hate incidents that had been investigated between 2018 and 2020.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce condemned the hate mail in a statement to the Star, saying: “We condemn this vile form of anti-black racism — it has no place in our province or country … We are committed to combating racism in our communities and systemically in Ontario institutions.”

Schwartz-Maltz echoed that the role schools play is more than teaching math, but these lessons of addressing racism as well.

“Schools are places where we help kids become the people that they should be: compassionate, tolerant, open their eyes to the world, and understanding and loving of people,” Schwartz-Maltz said.

Angelyn Francis is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering equity and inequality. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach her via email: afrancis@thestar.ca

Angelyn Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star