The government of the Region of Durham is under fire after an offensive Black History Month activity they planned for employees came to light on Wednesday.
Toronto author and activist Desmond Cole tweeted about the initiative called “Rise to the Challenge,” which included activities such as “dance to a Reggae song” and “have a conversation with a Black employee.”
The image tweeted out by Cole appears to be a form and contains activities for “Week 1” of what was presumably a four-week “challenge.” Employees were encouraged to carry out the activities and then complete the form indicating what they did for each one.
so @RegionofDurham created a black history month scavenger hunt activity for employees and I am ????????????
this what we're doing in 2021? pic.twitter.com/jwcNrGHoBE
— negro frolics (@DesmondCole) February 10, 2021
The Region of Durham responded to Cole on Twitter with a statement saying “we hear you.” The statement says that part of their Black History Month activities included “opportunities for staff to learn more about Black history, culture and achievements,” adding that “we acknowledge that mistakes will be made when addressing anti-Black racism. This challenge activity is one of them.”
We hear you. Please see our statement: pic.twitter.com/FXjYmrR4Y2
— Region of Durham (@RegionofDurham) February 10, 2021
“How does that make you feel like a sense of belonging when you are telling your white colleagues, ‘You can get points if you talk to Celina today. Forget every other day, just today. And hand in the report by Feb. 8th and you’ll get points’,” said former Whitby MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes. “What’s the prize? Fried chicken and watermelon? You might as well round it all out to make it completely racist.”
She added that this is what happens when there is a lack of diverse voices in leadership positions.
Professor and activist Ashley Marshall, a resident of Durham region, echoes Caesar-Chavannes’ feelings.
“This is what structural, institutional racism looks like and this is an experience of Black people on a daily basis,” she said.
Marshall adds that another example of such tone deaf insensitivity is the Durham Regional Police cruisers that have been covered with decals of Black heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.
“Our culture is being appropriated, because it’s Black History Month, by the police we have called to abolish and defund for years,” she said.
Durham’s Regional Chair John Henry told Breakfast Television Toronto on Thursday that the scavenger hunt event has been stopped.
“We will review this over the next couple of days and we’ll do everything we can to regain that trust with our community,” he said.
Henry added that neither he nor city council had prior knowledge of the event, and that it was brought to his attention by a member of the community. He noted Black History Month events for the region are created through a specific committee, which he claims is made up of a diverse group of people.
“We have worked very hard to build great relationships throughout the entire region with our Black community we’ve done a number of great things, and this just shows the reason why we have to be more sensitive to our community and what’s going on,” he said.
The region’s chief administrative officer Elaine Baxter-Trahair told BT Toronto they will be “much more rigorous” in their review when planning Black History Month next year.
“The region is setting up a diversity equity and inclusion office next month, and combating anti-Black racism and racism in general is a clearly stated priority of the region, so we’re very sorry that this one went awry.”
Comments on Twitter called the initiative an “epic fail” and many questioned the lack of an actual apology in the tweeted statement.
This is a fail….this statement is an EPIC fail.
— The Health Institute (@InfoTHI) February 10, 2021
WTF. You couldn’t even apologize?!? Are you serious? Someone, probably some many, need to get a talk, and maybe get fired.
— Rahul Mehta (@OpportunCity) February 11, 2021
You so made it worse. Thought you were being pranked until I saw this. Wait maybe this is part of the prank? There is no way anyone would put “talk to a Black employee” and then a space for the NAME???
— Samantha (@Scaramantha) February 11, 2021
With files from Shauna Hunt and Breakfast Television Toronto