Black students in Lethbridge schools are taking to social media to raise awareness about the racism they’ve been experiencing for years.
Chelsea Oyebola, a Grade 12 student at Winston Churchill High School, created #LethSpeakUp earlier this week to encourage current and former students of Lethbridge schools to share their personal stories of racism.
Global News met with three Black high school students on Tuesday, who are all in different grades and go to different high schools in Lethbridge, which are predominantly made up of white students.
The students, who were all females, say they’ve had non-Black students make fun of their appearance, say they’re not feminine enough, among many other hurtful and demeaning things.
Amy Mpofu, who is a Grade 11 student at Catholic Central High School, says she’s received several remarks about her hair from both staff and students, she’s been asked if it’s real, some students will even touch her hair without her permission.
Oyebola says she’s also had non-Black students make fun of her hair by saying things like, “You can’t grow hair, that’s why you have a wig on, you’re bald-headed.”
She adds people have also made comments such as: “Where’s your dad?”
Many Black students have been sharing both recent and older messages this week of non-Black students hurling racial slurs at them, many of the messages containing the N-word.
“Another big thing, that we see a lot in school is the use of the N-word by teachers for educational purposes, which I just don’t think is right,” Mpofu stated.
She says many Black students don’t feel comfortable hearing teachers say the N-word, especially when students then go on to abuse the use of the word in order to provoke a reaction from Black students and bully them.
They also feel racist attacks are more prominent on social media, where non-Black students may feel more emboldened.
The students say it makes them feel sad, sometimes angry, but mainly disappointed, especially when they feel their concerns aren’t being taken seriously by school administrators.
“Black people and people of colour have always had to be the bigger person in this city. And that’s the issue… Why do we always have to be the bigger people?” Oyebole asked.
“For years, it’s been like that,” she added.
David Este, a professor of Multicultural and Diversity Issues at the University of Calgary, says these experiences can have a profound affect on racialized students, especially when it comes to their mental health, leaving them to feel depressed and demoralized.
“It could impact a young person’s sense of self, it could also impact their sense of belonging, and that’s important when you’re going to school because you want to fit in, you want to have good relationships with your peers,” Este said.
He goes on to say when Black students are attacked with derogatory language, they can be made to feel “inferior,” which can create additional challenges for them to overcome, outside the world of academics.
In a statement released on Tuesday, the Lethbridge School Division says it has been made aware of several hurtful online interactions that recently took place online and “outside of the school environment.”
The statement goes on to say:
“The schools, along with members of the Lethbridge Police Service School Resource Officer team, are investigating.
“Investigation into the incidents will follow the Division’s Policy 502.1: Welcoming, Caring, Respectful and Safe Learning Environments.
“Lethbridge School Division supports every one of our students and strives to ensure all can learn and work in schools that promote equality of opportunity, dignity and respect.
“This incident demonstrates that we continue to have work to do in our schools and community to overcome racism.
“We need to dig deeper than the one incident and ask ourselves what we can learn from this, and more importantly, what we can do. Beyond taking appropriate action with the incident, we need to listen, understand and hear the profound hurt and anger that racism causes. Lethbridge School Division wants to be part of positive change.
“We will begin by listening to the voices of students and hearing their stories. Our high schools plan to facilitate discussions that will illuminate the ongoing issues that present in our schools related to racism. It is our desire to move our collective school communities to places that do, indeed, embrace dignity and respect,” the statement reads.
On Wednesday, the division added that plans for these discussions will include roundtable conversations, organized at the high school level, beginning after the Easter break.
Division office staff will also be engaging in these conversations, which will likely be virtual to adhere to COVID-19 protocols.
The Holy Spirit Catholic School Division released a statement to Global News on Wednesday, reading:
“We know that racism is a systemic problem and that, as educators, we must be part of the solution; teaching our students to love each other and to respect, appreciate and welcome diversity.
“As individual concerns are brought to our attention, we will address the issues in a matter that is consistent with our policies and procedures, ensuring the human dignity of each person,” the statement reads.
The students Global News spoke to say they hope the divisions are serious about creating and sustaining positive change around anti-racism throughout schools, whether it is inside or outside of the school environment.
“Things are not going to change unless other people also start doing things,” said Buthina Mohamed, a Grade 11 student, at Chinook Regional High School.
“We can’t be the only ones who are fighting for a change.”