The poster featuring SD74 Superintendent of Schools Teresa Downs talking about white privilege has sparked controversy. Photo: School District No. 74.

School District No. 74 anti-racism posters spark controversy

A poster challenging white privilege has drawn the most attention, pro and con.

A poster campaign aimed at starting a conversation around racism within School District No. 74 (Gold Trail) schools has done just that, and in a much bigger way than District management—who devised the campaign—could have anticipated.

In January 2018, three posters featuring the formal leaders of the District—Secretary Treasurer Lynda Minnabarriet, District Principal of Aboriginal Education Tammy Mountain, and Superintendent of Schools Teresa Downs—went up in all SD74 schools. All three feature the speaker’s picture, with Minnabarriet’s poster reading “I lose an opportunity if I don’t confront racism”, and Mountain’s reading “I have felt racism. Have you?”

It is the poster featuring Downs, however, that has attracted the most attention. Downs—who is white—is featured beside the words “I have unfairly benefitted from the colour of my skin. White privilege is not acceptable.”

While the posters featuring Minnabarriet and Mountain have attracted little comment, the one featuring Downs has proved to be a lightning-rod. Many commenters applaud her highlighting of white privilege, but many others have seen the comment as a type of reverse racism, an attempt to make white students feel ashamed of their background, or Downs admitting she only got where she has because she is white, not because of her own efforts.

Downs notes that the posters came about as part of a larger effort to discuss colonization, discrimination, race, and privilege that has been going on within the District for more than five years. “Two years ago we interviewed secondary students, and they said they saw racism and prejudice in their schools and their communities.

“We knew we needed to be addressing those issues.”

The posters were inspired by something similar done in a Saskatchewan school district, which Downs thought was “very brave.” The posters were devised last fall, and Downs says that all the District principals were approached about them and were very supportive.

The decision for the posters to feature Downs, Mountain, and Minnabarriet was a conscious one. “As the formal leaders of the District, we wanted to have a message and be a part of the conversation, not be seen as isolated from it. We wanted to be a piece of the puzzle.”

Downs notes that she did not hear a single word about the posters until the beginning of March, when she began learning about comments on social media. Since then, a number of people have reached out directly to her to discuss the matter, and she says she is “very appreciative of the people who reached out to us. I’m happy to engage with them.”

She is very aware that the focus of the majority of comments is about the poster featuring her. “There have been a lot of assumptions about my statement. Whenever there is the reality of racism, one group is held back while another is benefitting.

“I’ve been requested to hold a public meeting to defend my position, but I’m interested in one-to-one talks with people.”

Downs says the hope was that the posters would initiate a dialogue, adding that they have. “One recent grad engaged really respectfully with a discussion about privilege and race. And a group of students in one school went to the principal to say they didn’t want to the posters to be taken down. They were worried.

“One of the things I’m receiving the most feedback on is that I didn’t work hard to become superintendent,” says Downs. “I worked very hard to get where I am, but being white was an asset. A discussion about race and privilege is a difficult conversation to have, but it’s important.”

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