When Do Questions Get Asked?

By: Irfan Toor  •  October 17, 2022  •  (4 min read)

Where are you from?” It’s a question I get asked, and have been asked my whole life, on a regular basis. Sometimes, the context and intent make sense and are a reflection of someone’s interest in my cultural, historical or family background during a longer interaction. Sometimes though, it’s out of context and only based on the aspects of my identity that reinforce that I’m not part of the dominant group – my skin colour, my name, etc. It’s a question that is commonly asked to racialized people and rarely asked to white people.  

So who gets asked questions and when don’t we ask questions?

One of the regular media stories these days continues to center on a teacher at a school in Ontario and their appearance. To be more specific, the stories mention that the teacher transitioned gender over the summer and is now attending school as a female. The stories also focus on aspects of the teachers’ dress and their physical attributes.

Although the school board officials are consistently releasing messages about the importance of honouring identity and supporting human rights, other groups are using this situation as an opportunity to vocalize their hate and fear. Protesters, many of whom do not seem to be connected to the local school community, continue to be present and make their views known.

Would a cis-gender teacher be subject to the same questions and scrutiny? How have other staff with similar physical attributes or wearing the types of clothes that are mentioned in the articles been questioned? Is this a ‘professional’ teacher dress code issue, is this a body shaming issue or is it reinforcement of transphobic sentiments in society? This kind of media attention, and also harmful conversation, does not commonly come up just because of someone’s physical attributes or their style of dress. Harmful accusations related to criminality do not commonly get made because of physical attributes or style of dress.

Marginalized identities have faced harm historically and continue to do so, and one form of that is the questions that get asked, how they are scrutinized or the observations that get made. It might show up as the sexualization or shaming that happens to females and how they dress; it might show up in the attitudes towards Black hair; it might show up in the assumptions attached to someone’s cultural or religious clothing or jewelry or the observance of significant faith days. Not all identities are treated equally (or even equitably) when it comes to being questioned.

I have appreciated the comments of many students – to be left alone, that they support gender diversity, that they appreciate the teacher’s courage but also their ability to teach. It reminds me that, frequently, we need to make space to let the students lead the way.

Scenarios like this one reinforce the need for fostering inclusive environments and for the representation of diverse identities in classroom content, schools and staff teams. As a school leader, how do you honour, support and embrace different identities in your school community? If school environments are not safe for different identities, how will we ever be able to meet the goals and derive the benefits of diverse representation in education? These are the questions we really need to be asking.

Irfan Toor, Director of EDI 

To connect please email at equity@principals.ca.