COLUMN: Jessica Iron Joseph — Nov. 2, 2012

Jessica Iron Joseph
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Your child could be practising slavery at this minute, at school and without your knowledge. This is precisely what happened to me last week.

I was mortified when my 12-year old son came home and announced that he was basically a slave owner for one day. I was doubly horrified when his cousin announced that he was my son’s slave.

Really, am I in 2012??? I was astonished when my son talked fondly of his class’s fundraising victory. At the school assembly they were allowed to embarrass and “own” students from the competing Grade 7 classroom.

My panic-stricken face alerted my son to downplay the day’s events. I knew he might not understand the significance of his actions. We’ve always intended to share world history with our children, but the topic of slavery hadn’t naturally come up yet. I decided that day was the perfect opportunity to explain the harrowing truth of slavery.

It was not easy to impress the devastating horrors upon my son. I could see in his eyes that he was resisting my lesson. He was impatient with my interruption, annoyed that I would not share in his harmless joy.

I insisted that slavery was anathema to both black people and First Nations people everywhere. I ranted and raged over the loss of souls, dignity stolen, the unjust imprisonment and accursed evils inflicted on people just because of their skin colour. My son shifted nervously in his chair. It was clearly evident he was having difficulty linking his actions to those in the past, but I insisted that a mockery of such events, even on a small-scale symbolized disrespect for everything minorities have suffered through and the equality that they have fought and died for.

So I promised him that I would talk to his principal, if nothing else, so that my son would know that I absolutely abhorred “Slave Day,” and would never tolerate something so despicable and outrageous. I maintained that people must always speak up when they witness injustices in the world, and by speaking with his principal I would model for him precisely how to resist to such events.

I had a restless sleep. I tossed and turned, furious that my son was exposed to a diminutive, toy-sized version of slavery, perfectly sized for little humans. I tried to console myself that he didn’t know it was wrong, but it only made me feel worse that he was so young and impressionable. He was easily swayed by the mob mentality. His innocence was exploited, unbeknownst to him.

By the next day, I was tired and irritable, but I spent some time meditating and contemplating what I would say. I reminded myself that the principal was new and would likely take full responsibility for such a callous error and apologize profusely.

Well, to my shock and dismay, he was apathetic and quite defensive. He admitted that Slave Day had been a tradition at the school for a long time and no one “saw it that way.” I tried repeatedly to stress how vulgar and reprehensible Slave Day was, considering the history of First Nations and black people. I reminded him of the predominance of Aboriginal students in the school, along with a small minority of black students.

He had the gall to say that no one else was offended. No other parents had complained. He interpreted this omission of protests as permission to continue their barbaric tradition!

I tried numerous angles. I argued that there were many different and more acceptable ways to fundraise. I spoke of how Slave Day would never exist in the United States, because it is wrong and an embarrassing blight on American history. I mentioned that they would never host Slave Day if they had a black principal, or a black teacher. I brought up how hundreds of thousands of First Nations people were forced into slavery too, and the population of Aboriginal students in the school exceeded 65 per cent. I asked if he was waiting for a black parent to be offended — for Slave Day to make headlines before he changed their tradition.

He scoffed and patronized me, saying I was making a big deal out of nothing — after all one of the teachers who organized Slave Day was First Nations. As if one ignorant teacher’s approval made everything OK! At this point I lost all of my words, and could only think of four-letter cuss words. I was grateful my husband was there to take over while I collected myself. My husband told him that we were aware that most people viewed Slave Day as innocent fun, but we, as minorities, had an entirely different perception of it. He calmly reminded the principal that we were entitled to feel as we did, given the history of slavery and for him to react in such a condescending fashion was no different than the master-slave imbalance of power.

The principal finally agreed he would talk to his staff. That’s it. That’s all he would commit to, after our lengthy protests. We politely shook his hand and left, but I walked out just as enraged as when I had first entered the building. I didn’t feel much was accomplished, which is why I wrote this column.

Everything about Slave Day is wrong to me; the title, the role of one group owning another, the act of “punishment,” the ridicule of one group in front of the entire school. Even the idea that one group raised more money, effectively “owning” the other class, suggests a hierarchy that these teachers are subliminally projecting onto an entire school of children.

I was a teacher once. I have an education degree. I know that this group of educators were trained to consider race, gender, class, religion and ability level at all times. Where was this consideration during Slave Day?

What frightens me is that a child could theoretically witness Slave Day annually from kindergarten to Grade 8, possibly being desensitized to the atrocities that have been committed to First Nations and black people, all because they think Slave Day is “fun.”

This isn’t over for me. If I have to start a petition and make parents aware, I will. I would suggest that other parents get involved in their children’s schooling too. If you don’t, your kids could tragically get a taste for white supremacy … like mine unfortunately did.




Organizations: First Nations

Geographic location: United States

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Recent comments

  • doug
    November 06, 2012 - 13:11

    I agree that the school is guilty of very bad taste in using the slave concept as a "fun" event. Nothing funny about slavery regardless of any spin you may want to put on it. At the same time, after years of not seeing much change in the way people are in acceptance of other races, I've concluded that for me, a treaty indian, race isn't about the color of my skin, but how thick it is, when dealing with the other cultures. Learn to laugh, and realize that for the most part, we aren't really dealing with racism, only stupidity..

  • Angela
    November 06, 2012 - 12:55

    Wow, My child goes to this school and was in fact a slave for the day. I can't believe that this is even an issue. It was a fun day for the students and a great way for both classrooms to try and raise more money for the school. Please dont turn everything into racism. You have now taken something fun that all the students at this school enjoy and ruined it.

  • Joe S.
    November 06, 2012 - 12:18

    How does one minimalize slavery? Slavery at any level is wrong, yes, even at school. Harmless fun!? The writer is minimalizing slavery? Yikes! I think the writer did quite well in demonstrating how the school and its staff is minimalizing slavery, I think the witter also demonstrates quite well how the school and its staff seriously needs to touch base on the harm they are causing the children. Ignorance! Here's an idea, teach the real history of Canada. First Nations should get over it and move on! Victimhood mentality? Really? Really?! This is typical ignorance at its finest. No matter what one says, ignorant people will never ever (refuse to) comprehend the atrocities experienced by a culture that isn't theirs. Blinders is right, rather than accepting that wrong is wrong, they will defend idiocy with ignorance. You're a fool for misconstruing surviving 500 years of genocide as weakness. 90 million indigenous people across the Americas wiped out since the arrival Europeans. Get over it he says. Children raped and murdered! Get over it! Children mentally, physically, emotionally abused! Get over it they say! Must be nice to forget the true history of Canada, heck, even the prime minister denies that colonization ever existed here in Canada, so i'm certainly not surprised that the average Canadian continues to shrug off its first peoples continual struggles. 21st century, 14th century mentality. Thank goodness the school doesn't have a "Residential School Day" or do they?

  • Daniel M
    November 06, 2012 - 00:57

    It disheartens me to read some of the responses to this article. The main point of the article is that slavery in any form is bad. Examples from the authors point of view were used. The long responses to the article focus on how first nations have a "victim mentality" and how this article some how makes light of "actual" slaves. These comments serve to somehow diminish the uncomfortable feeling the readers got from this article. The cognitive dissonance displayed is unsurprising. The blinders are on quite firmly with some people and it takes an article like this to shake up a few feathers. Keep up the good work Jess. Don't let a few apologists shake your tree.

  • Bill
    November 05, 2012 - 21:10

    Slavery! Really, I think that the author of this article is really taking this a little far. There were no races or genders singled out alone to be 'slaves' in this innocent classroom exercise. The word 'slavery' is being greatly taken out of context, and quite frankly should not be used so loosely. How do you misconstrue a fun day in school, with racism, oppression, poverty experienced by people of all races, classes, sex, religion throughout the world! Quite frankly, the author should be embarrassed for downgrading the seriousness of past slavery. To compare the unthinkable tasks that 'actual' slaves were asked to do, to that of a classmate doing a simple errand or heaven for bid classwork for them, is simply laughable. The sole purpose of the exercise is to have fun and build unity within the school and at the sometime raise money for much needed school items. Maybe familiarize yourself the purpose of the exercise and focus on that and let the good teachers that teach our children do their job and use their discretion for how to have constructive fun within the boundaries of the school. Thanks

  • Audie
    November 03, 2012 - 20:10

    While I can appreciate your horror at the seeming minimization of the idea of "slavery" by this school, you do a great disservice by not recognizing that slavery has been present throughout human history. Even first nations were guilty of raiding each others for slaves, horses and women. In current day Africa, child soldiers are slaves of the war lords. In Canada there are sex slaves even today. To indirectly imply that blacks and first nations were the only victims of slavery weakens your argument. First Nations people have to get over the past and look to the future. This does not mean that they need to forget the past but to use it to strengthen their resolve to better their future. I'm not aware of any current day first nations or black slaves in North America but I am aware of the long lasting effects including the residential school debacle. But we need to move past this history and build the future through education and economic development. I agree that the idea of minimizing slavery through casual games is wrong but lets agree that others were victims as well. Your closing statment of "white supremacy" is the bordering on extremism and minimizes the value of your opinion. Lets not continue the "victimhood" mentality of first nations people and look to building a better future by educating and being proud of the heritage. I wonder why you are not teaching today given your strong convictions and cultural pride. What a loss for first nations students.