How should teachers proceed when they encounter racism, transphobia, homophobia, and/or xenophobia on school grounds? How should they respond to students who casually use hateful speech in conversation? What should they do when they see hateful words and symbols drawn and scratched into desks? These questions often comes up in my work as a high school teacher. I have worked through concepts relating to Otherness and decolonization as a graduate student, but the theoretical spaces that I traverse as I complete my PhD are not providing me with clear guidelines regarding what to do with hate speech passed off as casual conversation in schools. The theory that I encounter, although it moves me to act in ethical and relational ways, does not give me an action plan. How should a teacher/facilitator react, then?

In my quest to find an ethical (and diplomatic) way to ‘handle’ these situations, I have come across administrators who have warned me to be careful not to ‘shame children’ who use words that they ‘may not understand.’ I wonder: should I not call out students who are using homophobic and racist slurs? Should we not call students out for towing the line of hate speech?  This is, at times, the message I have received. I am hoping and hopeful that advocacy and teaching/facilitating can live in harmony, however. 

Image by Grade 8 student

Supporting a school-wide action plan to ensure student safety is pivotal. My first action step, however, was to facilitate student-led initiatives. When I asked my students what we could do to address hateful and discriminatory language, they recommended that we start a creative anti-hate group. We met at lunch to discuss hands-on actions, and they came up with the idea of making stickers that we could use to replace the hateful vandalism with anti-hate messages.

They doodled out their ideas. They did visual research to determine what imagery, iconography, and symbolism would be best to combat hatred. They came up with slogans, messages; they dreamed big. Then they had a deep desire for words that inspired “all the haters” to move towards peace and unity:

A senior, as he was passing by, saw some of their designs and asked what they were doing. In response to their anti-hate stance, he recommended that they become ‘less oppositional.’ He explained that people would deface something with a strong message, that a clear opposition to the symbols and words that were used would just instill a desire to fight back. A debate emerged. Do these instances of hatred become fueled by backlashes? How can we mediate, educate, mobilize, resolve? He recommended that we depoliticize the stickers with positive symbols, the school’s animal mascot, for example.

Students debriefed after having consulted with this senior, and decided that we would create a couple of options to use. They decided that there was a place for stickers that contain a clear anti-hate stance, and stickers that replace the vandalism with positive imagery. Student advocates and allies decided that the most important point is to act: “We can no longer remain as bystanders.” As the designs receive final touches before they enter into production, we remain eager to witness and address what emerges next year. 

How can we ensure that this creative student-led initiative is also supportive by cutting-edge school policy? 

We live in a society that is increasingly at risk of being radicalized by hateful rhetoric found online. In an interview on CBC’s The Passionate Eye, Bernie Farber, CEO and Chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, stated that hate groups are on the rise in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia and target women, Jews, Muslims, Indigenous Peoples, the LGBTQ2 community, along with other minorities and immigrants. According to Statistics Canada as cited in a Barrie Today article, members of these hate groups “are mostly white males, aged 16 to 30, and the group committing the most hate crime is children under 18”.  As reported by CBC News, recently in Ottawa, for example, A 17-year old pleaded guilty following a racist spray-painting spree targeting synagogues, a mosque and church between November 13 and 19, 2016. 

We need to act against hate speech and hate crimes, and schools need to be the beating heart of this action. Inspiring and facilitating spaces that engage youth to act against the hateful rhetoric found in schools is paramount in the quest to inspiring positive change, but teachers and administrators need to be willing to facilitate and support initiatives and follow through. Hate speech and symbols are all too often passed as not being serious, and do not get the attention they warrant.

The list of encounters over my career so far are already countless. I have stood up against homophobic and racist slurs on so many occasions: “Hate speech is a serious offence.” “Love is love.” “Diversity and unity are at the cornerstone of a healthy society.” “Why do you feel so strongly about your position against this group, these humans?” “I want to have a thoughtful conversation with you.”

The agency I have to address this keeps growing. My work has just begun. Educating youth about this ongoing and growing problem while paying close attention to the bodies and voices that are being oppressed and marginalized promotes humanization, presents counter narratives, fosters peace building, and demonstrates allyship and care for social justice and human rights. We have a lot of work to do, but there are many of us to do this work together. 

School administrators should look towards a few resources before they create an individualized action plan for their school. I recommend that administrators, teachers, counsellors, and parents read Fact sheet #1: The Ontario Human Rights Code before they ask themselves: Does my school’s anti-bullying policy contain policy to protect the human rights of diverse student bodies? Does my school have adequate prevention strategies to ensure that students are not targeted by discriminatory language? Am I providing students with opportunities to express their need for tolerance, acceptance, respect, peace, and creative agency?

Policies need to adequately protect student voice. Moreover, and importantly from an art teacher’s perspective, students should have access to spaces where they can make an impact in the creation of sensitive spaces in their school. When students call for a creative anti-hate group, the possibilities for creating sensitive spaces are endless. 

In solidarity,
Genevieve Cloutier

Genevieve Cloutier

OCT (PhD Candidate)