parkdale blackface

Toronto teacher showed up at school in Parkdale wearing blackface

A teacher at Parkdale Collegiate is under investigation after wearing blackface makeup while teaching on Oct 29. The incident has raised the question – how could a TDSB teacher fail to identify wearing blackface as an act of racism?

Around 9:15 a.m., a student in Gorian Surlan's ninth grade class sent his mother pictures of Surlan's 'Halloween costume'. In the photos, Surlan is clearly wearing a full face of black makeup.

The mother of that student, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid repercussions for her son, asked if Surlan had said anything about his costume. Her son reported that, when asked directly, Surlan said he "just put some makeup on" because he "didn’t have an idea."

By late morning, upset by what they recognized as blackface, students made complaints to other staff members. Surlan was asked to remove the makeup, and is now on leave pending an investigation into his actions.

There is some variance in accounts of how events unfolded at Parkdale Collegiate that morning.

The student who took the photos, and a student interviewed by the Toronto Star, both say that Surlan was in blackface during a gathering of students from multiple classes.

In their accounts, other teachers saw Surlan in his makeup but didn't seem to address it. Robin Pilkey, the school board trustee for Parkdale Collegiate, was not at the school that day but says that there was no such assembly.

However, what is clear is that Surlan was teaching at least one classroom of students while wearing blackface. The school, via a letter written by Principle Julie Ardell, has been quick to label his actions as "racist and dehumanizing".

So the question becomes – how did a TDSB teacher think that blackface makeup was acceptable in the first place?

"How was it allowed to go on for that long?" asked Leila Sarangi, a parent with kids who attend a school in Parkdale. "That he could get through the front doors and into the classroom and teach for however long he taught is just shocking."

Sarangi and Parkdale Collegiate parent Cathy Gatlin wrote a letter to Superintendent Debbie Donsky demanding accountability from the TDSB, which has now become an open petition. Gatlin says that for her, it's about "the larger picture."

"Part of our thinking was, this isn’t just a one-time incident," said Sarangi. "This is connected to what the TDSB themselves have identified as deeply entrenched anti-black racism in the school system."

"It begs the question of what’s happening in the classroom that can’t be captured in a photograph, that might be less overt, more insidious, and just as harmful."

Earlier this year, the TDSB released a first-of-its-kind human rights report, which found that the board had a "serious racism problem." 

54 per cent of human rights complaints submitted to the board were race-related. Last week, just blocks from Parkdale Collegiate, there was a second incident of racist hate mail being sent to a staff member at Queen Victoria Public School.

Despite on-going conversations about anti-racism at the TDSB and across North America, not all of the parents at Parkdale Collegiate think that this incident should be a priority.

"Those parents who are saying that are not understanding that this teacher has the ability to pass or fail a black student. They don’t understand power. That person is not neutral in the classroom," says Cheryl Thompson. Thompson is a professor at Ryerson University who studies the history of blackface in Canada

According to Thompson, part of the problem is that the TDSB hasn't adequately addressed the history of blackface in Toronto public schools.

Thompson says that blackface was common in communities across Toronto until the 1930s. "They would actually have high school graduations and the graduation would cap off with a blackface performance…That's how common place these events were."

"I think blackface as performance is actually violence because that violence has never been addressed in any real systemic way."

Thompson feels that teachers have no excuse to plead ignorance. "You teach students how to acquire knowledge that they don't know anything about, right? I just don’t understand why educators can’t do the same thing for themselves."

"If you don’t know that wearing blackface is a racist act, that's ridiculous," said Pilkey, who added that the TDSB sent multiple emails to teachers about inappropriate costumes in the weeks leading up to Halloween.

Pilkey maintains that the problem doesn’t lie in TDSB policy. "The reality is that it's a big shift," she said of the Board's anti-racism work. "That doesn’t mean that we don't continue to interrupt, we don’t continue to talk about it... but the reality is we're not gonna get everybody, and it takes time."

However, given the potentially devastating effects on kids, many parents feel strongly that the TDSB needs to do more.

"It's such a signal that the work of the TDSB is not translating into classrooms," said Sarangi, "it seems to be performative."

Lead photo by

student take in the class

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