For school kids everywhere, the hot summer sunshine has melted away any thoughts about education. All they feel is relief. But for many parents of public school students across Ontario, education is still top of mind. And tensions are high.
Case in point: in mid-July, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) began distributing pre-made lesson plans on so- called “white privilege” to be used by their members teaching across primary, junior and intermediate grades in the province. The new lesson plans are an extension of ETFO’s larger White Privilege Project, which includes a workshop for educators.
White privilege instruction teaches students that, if they’re white, the successes they experience are not primarily achieved through personal effort but are bestowed upon them because of the colour of their skin. Conversely, students of colour are taught that despite personal effort, their chances of success are significantly diminished because society, as a whole, is systemically racist and thus against them. (White privilege instruction always avoids mentioning that Canadians of East-Asian and several other non-white ethnic groups have for many years achieved higher average income and educational attainment than whites in Canada).
One component of white privilege instruction seeks to convince white students that even if they hold no conscious animosity toward non-whites, unconsciously they embody racist tendencies which put them, intractably, in the role of oppressor. The only means by which they might lessen their oppressiveness is to step back or recuse themselves from opportunities as a means of denying – or “checking” – their privilege.
The concept of white privilege is an element of the larger curriculum initiative known as “anti-racism” education. As it’s currently being applied in educational settings, the term “anti-racism” is misleading. In this pedagogical movement, discrimination based on skin colour is actually encouraged. The top-selling instruction manual on the topic, How to Be An Antiracist by American academic Ibram X. Kendi, categorically rejects the idea of treating all people equally. Instead, Kendi insists that to make society “equitable” whites must be denied equal treatment and be made to pay for historical misdeeds. He claims, “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination.”
Both white privilege and “anti-racist” education are underpinned by a larger philosophical project known as critical race theory (CRT). CRT is not really a theory, since one expects a theory to be based on solid, empirical evidence. Instead, it’s more properly viewed as a worldview that promotes particular truth claims. The truth claims of CRT have a Marxist flavour because, in fact, CRT evolved out of Marxist ideology. In particular, the Marxian notion of society being divided into oppressors and the oppressed is appropriated by CRT. Rather than apply the labels according to economic status (capitalists versus the proletariat), however, CRT applies them to according to racial status (whites versus non-white).
The Growing Resistance to CRT
CRT has been receiving a lot bad press of late as parents across North America have come to realize it’s heavily influencing their local schools. While parents in Canada are just waking to this danger, for almost two years moms and dads across the U.S. have been coming before their boards of education to speak passionately about the negativity and polarization their kids are experiencing on account of CRT instruction in the classroom. Conservative-leaning elected officials have been supportive of the parents but those on the political left have tended to demonize anyone challenging the doctrines of CRT, casting them as bigots or even “domestic terrorists.”
By last fall fears over CRT had grown sufficient to flip an important state election when the liberal stronghold of Virginia chose Glenn Youngkin, a relatively unknown Republican, as governor. The incumbent Democrat had led in the polls up to the closing weeks of the campaign, making Youngkin’s win an upset. His political fortunes changed when he began promising to ban the teaching of CRT in state schools on “day one.” In Florida, after making a similar promise, Governor Ron DeSantis passed legislation making CRT instruction illegal in his state; at least 35 states have followed suit.
The increasing negative attention paid to CRT in the U.S. has caused some school board officials to avoid using the term in statements or policy documents. But often, even if the term is gone, the pedagogical concepts from CRT – “anti-racism” training and instruction in white privilege – remain. And parents are noticing this attempted sleight-of-hand.
Given the EFTO’s recent actions to push the concept into Ontario elementary schools, it is now a live issue for Canadian parents as well. The experience in my own community of Waterloo Region in southwestern Ontario, a community of nearly 625,000, is instructive.
A Case Study in School Board Madness
My day job is that of professor at a local university, but in mid-June I began a local chapter of the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR). FAIR began in the U.S. when some parents noticed their kids’ schools were teaching that people should be judged by their immutable traits and not by their actions or character. As leader of the Waterloo Region chapter of FAIR, hundreds of local parents have come to me with concerns about the Waterloo Region District School Board’s (WRDSB) embrace of CRT; with one of my own kids still attending a WRDSB school, I’ve been able to corroborate and commiserate. Further, many parents have also told me they’re equally troubled by the tendency for secrecy and authoritarian-style action among a majority of WRDSB trustees.
Let’s consider the authoritarian urges first. Many parents have discussed with me the hostile silencing of teacher Carolyn Burjoski when she recently spoke at a trustees’ meeting about the explicit sexual content of some new library books. Burjoski, a 20-year teaching veteran, had just begun questioning the age-appropriateness of such books that she had found in elementary school libraries and K-6 classrooms across the WRDSB when the Board Chair, Scott Piatkowski, stopped her from speaking and kicked her out of the meeting. The books featured transgendered characters and Piatkowski justified his censorship by claiming Burjoski’s questions were transphobic and tantamount to “hate speech.” Burjoski has since launched legal action against the board.
Parents also highlighted the ouster of trustee Mike Ramsay. Ramsay and fellow trustee Cindy Watson stand out in the board for their calls for greater transparency and open debate on contentious issues. Ramsay’s insistence that trustees allow diverse opinions to be voiced seemed to play a significant role in his ejection by his less-open-minded colleagues on the board. I say “seemed” because all the information around his ejection has been kept secret. The WRDSB’s suppression of information has been so extreme that the Waterloo Region Record newspaper called for the provincial government to intervene. As yet, the recently re-elected Progressive Conservative government of Doug Ford has not done so. All that’s publicly known is that a trustee issued a complaint against Ramsay, and six others agreed that he should be sent packing.
Ramsay, who is black and conservative-leaning, condemned the secrecy and called out his ideological opponents (who have strong links to the NDP) for their hypocrisy, telling The Record, “They pretend to advocate about diversity, inclusion and equity. But the irony of all of this is that when a Black person disagrees with them, they’re quick to put me in my place.” In a public letter Ramsay provided some clarification related to the core of the matter, writing that, “The complaint is motivated by disagreement with [my] positions at board meetings and statements made to constituents.”
Clearly, Ramsay’s opponents on the board are feeling some public pressure. Recently, trustee Carol Miller felt the need to defend the secrecy surrounding his expulsion. In an op-ed, she claimed that Ontario’s Education Act mandated the nondisclosure of the details. She has since been challenged on her interpretation of the legislation. Investigative reporter Sue-Ann Levy, for example, recently revealed that the Toronto District School Board was able to release full details in a trustee conduct case of its own. Levy chided Miller, writing that, “Hiding behind the Education Act is both disingenuous and cowardly.”
Just prior to his removal, Ramsay and his ally Watson had crafted a motion calling for a detailed account of the WRDSB’s “anti-racism curriculum.” Then, in Ramsay’s absence, Watson advanced the motion. It asked staff to answer specific questions related to how CRT was influencing instruction and, in particular, sought clarification as to what was being taught about the concept of white privilege. Watson and Ramsay had heard concerns from numerous parents that such instruction was occurring and they worried it could internalize a “sense of shame or guilt” and create “stigma in the school atmosphere” for white children.
After kicking him off the board, Ramsay’s board opponents continued to vote as a bloc to ensure that positions he supported would never see the light of day. The Ramsay-Watson motion was easily defeated but, not content in their victory to obscure transparency, the opposing trustees maligned Watson’s desire to represent her constituents. Trustee Jayne Herring insinuated the motion was morally corrupt, proclaiming, “We’re better than this.” Upping the emotional extremism, trustee Carol Millar suggested that bringing forth the motion had done harm, saying, “I would suspect that our staff, our students and families have had to deal with the hate and racism as a result of this motion.” The motion’s introduction caused the director of education at WRDSB, jeewan chanicka (who insists on spelling his name without capitals), to weep openly.
The Evidence, if Anyone Cared to Look
The week after the motion’s defeat I was allowed to make a presentation on behalf of FAIR before the WRDSB’s trustees in the hope they might reconsider and allow parents to know what is being taught regarding CRT and white privilege. It was certainly within the board’s purview to reverse course.
Given their track record, I had my doubts. However, I was armed with a trove of empirical evidence that I thought might at least change one or two of the recalcitrant trustees’ minds. These were the leaders of our educational system, after all; surely facts grounded in scholarly research could dislodge a few beyond from their ideological obedience? After reminding the trustees that Section 4 of their governing bylaws require them to “make decisions in a manner which is open, approach all Board issues with an open mind and respect different points of view,” I began to review the peer-reviewed data.
In 2019 a study was conducted to measure how lessons on white privilege would affect students’ attitudes. Published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General the study found such instruction did not make students more sympathetic to people of colour – there were no positive results. It did, however, increase hostility toward poor whites. The researchers concluded that, “Learning about White privilege reduces sympathy, increases blame, and decreases external attributions for White people struggling with poverty.”
Next, I highlighted a study published just two months ago in the online journal PLoS One. The research involved an experiment to see how introducing the concept of white privilege would affect online discussions on issues related to racial equity. The researchers found that doing so actually shuts down open discussion and lowers support for racial harmony. They concluded that, “Mention of white privilege seems to create online discussions that are less constructive, more polarized, and less supportive of racially progressive policies.” In fact, receiving white privilege doctrine made previously supportive whites less engaged in the conversation and “led to less constructive responses from whites and non-whites.”
I then turned to a massive study published last year in the Annual Review of Psychology. The lead author is world-renowned psychologist Elizabeth Paluck from Princeton University. Paluck and her colleagues performed a meta-analysis of over 400 existing studies. Their goal was to see if mandatory instruction in diversity, equity and inclusion works to decrease prejudice and increase harmony. As white privilege is one of the core modules in most diversity training programs, this meta-analysis was highly applicable. After analyzing hundreds of research papers, Paluck and her team concluded that, despite the bold claims made by people developing and facilitating this kind of instruction, the average impact of diversity, equity, and inclusion training is zero.
In addition to doing no measurable good, I explained to the trustees that even more evidence shows such instruction does actual harm. Specifically, I highlighted the conclusions of Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin. In Anthropology Now, he surveyed hundreds of studies that have measured the effects of diversity training, including instruction on white privilege, and found no positive impact. And in the Harvard Business Review he cautioned, “a number of studies suggest diversity training can activate bias or spark a backlash.” It was just after I explained that the research proves this kind of instruction can actually cause more prejudice that Piatkowski interrupted my presentation to say I had just one minute left.
The interruption was not surprising as I’d been told there would be a one-minute warning signalling the end of my 10-minute slot. What was surprising was that Piatkowski shaved a minute off my allotted time. There is a video recording of my delegation and those watching can see I have two minutes left when I’m told one minute remains.
Rather than complain (and potentially lose more of my time) I edited on the fly to get to my finishing statements. The trustees would otherwise have heard about other research showing that concepts like white privilege and similar “anti-racism” instruction are likely to do the most harm to students of colour. Specifically, I was going to summarize the findings of hundreds of academic studies on the psychological phenomenon called stereotype threat. They show that when racial minorities are taught to perceive themselves as disadvantaged – as happens when instructed about white privilege – that perception can lead to diminished academic performance.
In my rushed conclusion I said, “Racism is real and it is harmful. And for our schools to do much better we must work toward solutions and strategies proven to bring unity. And those solutions need to be based on evidence and open discussion.”
Every Action Creates a Reaction
My call for open discussion fell on deaf ears. Trustee Watson, hoping to spur on others, asked if there was more research to be explored on the effects of diversity-type instruction and I told her there was. None of the others said anything. And while, apart from Watson, there was no response from the leaders of the WRDSB, the contents of my presentation generated an outpouring of comments on social media. Like the rest of the board meeting, it was livestreamed on the internet and many watching wanted to voice their perspective.
There were those who expressed gratitude that I had done what the board refused to do by providing information on the effect of teaching so-called “anti-racist” material like white privilege. Others condemned me for providing the research evidence that I did. In their eyes, only activists speaking from “lived experience” and promoting more white privilege-styled instruction deserved a hearing. A WRDSB high school English teacher posted this to my Twitter account: “@DMillardHaskell you should probably listen to the [pro-white privilege instruction] delegate who spoke after you. Saying white scholars conclude ANYTHING about racism just doesn’t cut it anymore.”
Many should find it shocking that an employee of the WRDSB with direct influence over high school students would boldly assert in an online public forum that some research should be viewed as worthless if the authors have white skin! Besides being a textbook example of a racist claim – wherein one’s standing is praised or condemned according to one’s skin colour – the comment also demonstrates a complete lack of logical reflection. Further, the woman making this claim appears to be white in her Twitter bio picture. By her own admission, anything she says should also be ignored as it “just doesn’t cut it anymore.”
For other important reasons, though, we should not ignore what this teacher is saying. Rather, her comments deserve careful scrutiny. Perhaps it’s comments like hers that trustees of the WRDSB wanted to keep hidden when they voted down Watson and Ramsay’s motion to explore how CRT was influencing the board. But they can’t hide a problem that has become so widespread. Even the board’s own equity department has since been exposed as racist; one staffer opined on social media that “history is paved with white-led violence.” (The thousands of non-white tyrants – from Mao Zedong to Idi Amin to Pol Pot – would be right to criticize this equity staffer for her lack of inclusivity).
Beyond what’s happening on social media, what’s happening in the classroom is really starting to catch attention. More and more parents are hearing from their kids about activist teachers promoting highly-biased, factually-questionable, ideological instruction and they’re joining forces with others to bring change. In the last few months, FAIR has opened chapters in every Canadian province. My organization in Waterloo Region is one of six new chapters in Ontario alone. Every week new members are joining.
Other established community groups have also focused their efforts on fighting CRT in the classroom. With school board trustee elections happening in Ontario this fall, organizations Parents as First Educators (PAFE) and Action4Canada have launched recruitment and training efforts for candidates who will stand against the influence of CRT, and will use their networks to help in the subsequent campaigns.
And while school board elections are often shrugged off as inconsequential, having the right people serve as trustees – people who value real education over ideology – can still pay off. A perfect example comes from the Regional Municipality of Durham, east of Toronto. In June, after considerable study and open debate, the Durham Catholic District School Board banned concepts and language rooted in CRT from its new anti-racism policy. Doing so allows the board to prevent the kind of problematic instruction that the Waterloo Region board and others are now supporting.
Given that the world is run by the people who show up, there is no alternative to getting the right people into the right positions. Right now. Of course, the folks who promote and celebrate “anti-racism” education, white privilege instruction and CRT know this and have been engaged in their own “long march through the institutions” for decades.
For the good of our children, it’s time the rest of us got marching orders of our own.
David Millard Haskell is a social scientist and university professor. He leads the Waterloo Region Chapter of the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR). WRDSB trustee Mike Ramsay contributed files to this article.