What was Parkdale Collegiate Institute teacher Goran Surlan thinking when he coloured his face black and appeared in his class with a number of Black students? Not to give him any excuse, but Surlan didn’t even present his blackface in context. No raggedy zombie clothing, no costume like the one Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wore in 2001 at “Arabian Nights” party at the private school where he taught. Surlan just taught it was cool.
Even as this newspaper regrettably gave Trudeau a pass, the general feeling in our society was that Black face is hurtful to the Black community. We know that the behavior going back to the Jim Crow days in the US demeaned an already badly abused people. We could have been a little less gentle on the Prime Minister especially following NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s statement about the real harm that this does to people “who are going to think about all the times in their life… that they were made to feel less because of who they are.”
What followed was serious reflection on the part of our society, no doubt precipitated by the public lynching of George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis. No one could have missed Mr. Trudeau’s obvious shame and abject apology together with a largely contrite society and open empathy for the feelings of Black Canadians.
Here we have a country sickened by the effects of the Residential Schools on our Indigenous brothers and sisters, how could one not be aware of all this; and a school teacher at that? From under what rock did Mr. Surlan emerge?
According to one Parkdale student, Gurlan said ‘I thought it would look cool.” Really? The student added that he thought even as Gurlan stood among about 100 students and teachers, the student said that he thought some teachers were not sufficiently moved to take a firm position. “They were way too chill. They should have told him to take it off or to leave.” Apparently they did neither.
While it would be too much to expect teachers to go after a colleague in a public way in a room full of students and teachers, what may seem like a “chill”, nonchalant attitude, is more likely shock and the private thought of “what could he be thinking.” Here we give the benefit of the doubt to the teachers.
We must, because we cannot accept a professional teaching staff not having a problem with Gorian Surlan’s extreme lack of judgment. If we accept this, then our children are in more trouble than we thought.
Mr. Surlan, it was not cool, it was racist, and you had ample time and opportunity to know this. You must accept the consequences of your actions. An apology is necessary but not sufficient.
Over to you, Toronto District School Board. The ball is now in your court.