How does someone remain a school board trustee after calling a mother the ‘N-word’?

How can a trustee who reportedly called a black mother the N-word still have the moral authority to advocate for quality education and properly communicate with the public?

Nancy Elgie, a trustee with the York Region District School Board (YRDSB), used the racial slur toward Charline Grant, a black mother with a son in the YRDSB, during a public meeting back in November. Elgie has recently apologized, a gesture for which the mother of three says she is thankful, but Grant maintains that an apology does nothing to address the issue of systemic racism in schools.

Charline Grant York school board racism

Grant accepted Elgie’s apology, but she is still concerned about racism and discrimination in schools. (CBC)

Now Elgie is back in headlines after failing to attend a board meeting in which dozens of parents presented a petition calling for her resignation. Instead, the trustee sent in a letter calling what she did “plainly unacceptable.”

To some, Elgie’s ownership of what she did should exonerate her of further scorn. She is, according to the portraits painted of her in various media, an 82-year-old widow. The incident, as several papers noted, was preceded by a head injury sustained only a few months earlier. And she does not, according to her son, “have a single racist bone in her body.”

Using euphemisms

All of these details serve to humanize Elgie. But they say nothing of the dehumanization inherent in Elgie’s words. Indeed, I wish I could repeat Elgie’s slur as she said it, placing them squarely at the centre of this paragraph, and thus, squarely at the centre of our minds. We all know what the “N-word” stands for, but the euphemism doesn’t carry the vulgarity, the power and pain of the actual word. Perhaps if we saw it, or heard it, we would be far less willing to overlook such a shameful act — an act so unbefitting to any citizen, let alone a public official.

Elgie used the power and visibility afforded to her by the YRDSB to publicly demean a community member and mother.  She says she will undergo equity training, but there is no amount of training that could bridge the chasm between a mother fighting racism in education and a board trustee spewing anti-black racism into the world. And even if Elgie is magically “reformed” through training, she has lost all credibility as someone who is supposed to promote student achievement and well-being.

Several school boards across the Greater Toronto Area have begun to acknowledge the problems with systemic racism in their schools. The YRDSB is one such board. Yet without concrete actions geared toward making change, these incidents will continue to occur. The Ontario government has now called for an “urgent review” of the YRDSB in the wake of this incident and other allegations of racism within the system. But in the interim, Elgie is still on the board, and her ongoing presence sends the message that calling a mother the N-word is somehow acceptable.

The YRDSB must come to terms with the fact that its handling of this matter speaks volumes about how seriously (or not) it takes the issue of racism and discrimination in schools. Elgie’s actions violate the YRDSB’s anti-discrimination policy — a fact that has yet to be acknowledged by the board’s director.

Elgie is no longer fit to serve as a trustee, and the more-than 2500 who signed a petition calling for her resignation agree. Elgie may not have “a single racist bone in her body” but she did have a single racist word in her mouth. She released it, clumsily invoking histories of violence, trauma, and hatred, and abusing her authority as an elected official. She must be held accountable.

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