Jennifer Dorner was dropping her young niece off at the first day of school at École Lajoie. She says it was a nice Monday, the sun was shinning, kids were running about excited to see their friends after the summer. Then she saw it: a crowd of kids wearing construction paper headbands with feathers attached, and teachers in headdresses handing them out to the students.
Teachers and staff at a large, public, multicultural school in the Montreal neighbourhood of Outremont thought it would be okay to caricature a particular culture.
Dorner says she was shocked and shaken, especially since she had spoken to staff at the school the previous Christmas about using blackface in a school play.
I’m not going to call the school and staff racist, because I think if they knew better they would behave better. If they were in fact racists who thought the cultural touchstones of others were there for their consumption, they probably would not have done this publicly for fear of negative publicity. Though their actions are racist, they are the result of not knowing any better. It’s likely that these teachers simply wanted to create something fun for their students.
But this is a serious problem. Ignorance is dangerous, more dangerous than hate or contempt, because even good, caring, well-meaning people can be ignorant. The danger with ignorance is that you do not know you are wrong. You think you’re not at fault, because you’ve always done it this way. It’s hard to admit you’re wrong, and it can be even harder, once you put your foot down on a subject, to admit that you don’t know what you’re talking about. When the criticism begins, the walls go up, defences come online, and you wonder why people are attacking you.
Ignorance is the reason that cultural appropriation keeps happening in schools, at concerts, and in clothing stores. Members of the dominant white culture don’t have a context for this kind of thing.
There’s a reason it’s okay to make fun of white people and white culture. Taking aim at the Church has almost become passé, from crucifixes in vats of urine, to basically most of Madonna’s career. We are supposed to make fun of the Church because of the power it has held over people. But because it’s okay to make fun of what the dominant white Canadian culture holds sacred, people think everything else must be fair game. This ignorance glosses over power dynamics. To the ignorant, it’s a level playing field; to everyone else, the playing field is anything but.
Colonialism, and the systems of power that support it, have fostered this ignorance.
It’s why people don’t realize that when the European powers first came to this continent they didn’t just seize the natural resources, lands, and waters. They also raided the cultures of the people they colonized, picking and choosing what suited them best, from tools of survival such as the kamatik and dog team to beautiful dances and regalia. These items were stripped of their meaning and became products for consumption by the dominant society. Ignorance shielded the general populace from knowing and understanding this.
Teachers in their headdresses handing out feathers to young impressionable minds are not at fault. They are unknowing. Though intention and outcome are two very different things, our anger should be directed at the systems of ignorance that perpetuate this kind of behaviour.
These teachers in Montreal probably had teachers who did something similar when they were children. Now more children are being indoctrinated into ignorance, and as they grow into adulthood this lack of understanding about the appropriation of other people’s iconography will become cemented in their psyches.
Ignorance is passed down through the generations until something disrupts it. Anger and frustration will not disrupt it.
Instead we should reach out to people from a place of teaching and sharing. It does not mean they will listen, but it’s a good place to start. We would do so for the children at this school, and we should also do so for the adults. Unless real people who know better step up to help fill in these gaps of understanding, the problem will never go away. So for the sake of both Indigenous and settler societies, let’s learn together, let’s know better.