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Rights + Justice

One Girl’s Experience of Being #BlackInSchool

In a new book, Habiba Cooper Diallo cracks open her high school diary to expose the racism inherent in Canadian schools.

Katie Hyslop 9 Sep

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach them here.

Habiba Cooper Diallo has been keeping a diary since she was 12. The act of writing, reflecting and taking stock of her life — during good times and bad — served her well in adolescence.

The death of her father. Her family’s move from Ontario to Nova Scotia the following year, where she would finish her last three grades of high school. Joyful memories of her best friend. The racism she continually faced in the classroom… it all found a place in her pages.

But unlike many young people who hide their diaries, in some cases securing them from prying eyes with a lock and key, Cooper Diallo has turned her private thoughts into a published book.

#BlackInSchool is a curated collection of journal entries from her Grade 11 and 12 high school years that provides a firsthand account of the encounters with racism experienced daily by Black students in the Canadian school system.

Though not the first text to examine systemic and overt anti-Black racism in Canadian schools, Cooper Diallo’s book — published by University of Regina Press and in bookstores as of last week — stands out, as its insights come straight from the pen of a teenage girl.

Now in her early 20s, Cooper Diallo’s experiences are not far removed from those of teens today. And while she hopes everyone will crack open her book, it’s youth — and their teachers — that she really wants reading #BlackInSchool.

“For the Black students, [the book is] perhaps a source of courage, of inspiration, of empowerment for them. For students of other races, it offers a tool of understanding, a way of knowing what their peers are going through,” Cooper Diallo said.

“Very importantly, educators need to read it, so they know what they’re dealing with in the classroom, who they’re dealing with and how Black students are experiencing school differently from others.”

The Tyee recently spoke with Cooper Diallo, who opened up about courage, the need for racially based school data and why just not using the N-word doesn’t cut it when it comes to dismantling Black racism. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Katie Hyslop: Why did you decide to publish your high school journal?

Habiba Cooper Diallo: To inspire others. You can see that during this time I had a lot on my mind, a lot to say. I was angry about some things and disheartened about others. I really just use writing as a tool of self-expression, a means of healing, of release. I never knew it would turn into this, an actual publication.

How do you think your teenage self would have reacted if she’d known her diary would be published one day?

I would have experienced a mix of emotions: excitement, and at the same time, some apprehension in terms of how it’s going to be received by the world and knowing that I would be required to be so vulnerable, which was what was required of me to ultimately agree to do this.

You have to be so courageous. Being vulnerable requires courage, right? And to share all of this, some of your innermost feelings, it’s not the easiest thing to do because you open yourself up to the views, the opinions and the criticisms of other people.

Schools can be authoritarian spaces. But you were really assertive with authority. Was that unique to you at the time? Or was it something you saw in your peers?

On the one hand, I say it was unique to me just because I had a strong sense of myself, something I got from my parents. I was brought up in a household that encouraged me, that made me feel good about who I was and who I am. I know not every Black child is brought up in such a household.

On the other hand, I do think that’s something you see in other Black youth, but it often comes from frustration that leads to conflict with teachers: telling them off, reacting in a way that is deemed inappropriate or aggressive. But that behaviour stems from frustration, a last resort, not knowing what to do with this treatment, how to express it, where to go, and then it expresses itself in, like I said, a way that’s deemed inappropriate.

Compared to your peers, were you forced to grow up faster?

Without a doubt. Because many of our white teachers see us as guilty until proven innocent. For example, two students get in a fight or there’s some sort of conflict and all the kids report to the office. Sometimes the principal or the teacher will assume the Black kid is the aggressor — that’s the problem.

And I’ve seen this play out very recently, with someone I know who is much younger than I am. The principal ended up apologizing to him and said, “Yeah, you’re right. It wasn’t you, I blamed you, but actually you were the victim in this situation.”

Staff and administrators have absorbed assumptions about Black youth, which are steeped in racism, misconceptions and racist attitudes they’ve been brought up with and that have been conditioned into them from society.

Recently in Vancouver there was a community debate about whether police should be in schools, where members of the Black community spoke about anti-Black racism from police. And some people responded, “This is Canada, we’re not the U.S. We don’t have that kind of racism here.” What’s your response when people say that?

First of all, to be frank, that’s such an idiotic idea people can have, because the U.S. has a much larger population than we do. So naturally we’re going to see acts of anti-Black racism there play out on a larger scale.

What we have here is the same type of anti-Black racism, of racial profiling, of systemic abuses we see in the educational system, the criminal justice system, the workplace. Now there’s talk about the Black federal employees [filing a lawsuit] and the Black employees from the Human Rights Commission [filing a grievance against] the Human Rights Commission — imagine!

It’s so pervasive across all levels of society and all sectors. Individual experiences of racism: a Black guy driving his car profiled because of his skin colour; a Black kid in school forced into a program he doesn’t want to be in.

You cannot tell that individual experiencing it that it’s not a valid experience simply because they’re not in America where they have it worse. That’s the most insulting thing you can say to someone. We need to get rid of the idea once and for all.

What needs to change in the Canadian school system so it can become a safe and nurturing place for Black students?

A lot. We have to understand the context everyone is coming from. Just a [few] decades ago we were dealing with segregation in schools.

And for people now to just sort of want to sweep everything under the covers, [with statements such] as: “We’re a multicultural society. We’re inclusive, we get it; how can I be racist? I don’t use the N-word; how can I be racist? I serve Black people at the restaurant where I work.” They’ve missed the point.

[Anti-Black racism] is something much deeper than that. It has to do with conditioning, with the images we see on TV and billboards. When we watch commercials of people taking out investments and loans, a mortgage from the bank, who do we see predominantly in images of a homeowner? It’s white people. So already we start having certain ideas about who is financially stable, who can aspire to own a home and who has the financial means to really move in society.

There’s a lot of heavy racist undertones in TV shows, stereotyping and tropes we see still play out in a lot of movies. Like the angry Black woman or the strong Black woman. Or archetypes like the magical Black man, for example, who is funny, but who also is portrayed as being very foolish and idiotic.

And they’re harmful because yes, you might not use the N-word, you might serve Black people at your work, but you can be deeply racist if you’ve never really critically thought of the beliefs you hold — many of which are unconscious.

The schools need to implement training in anti-Black racism and unconscious racism elimination. Bring in people who are trained in this — consultants, experts, diversity strategists. It has to be a committed effort; they have to put their money where their mouths are.

It’s not enough to say, “We don’t tolerate racism, we don’t tolerate discrimination,” yet their students are being bullied due to their accent or their skin colour. It’s for the school to say, “Where have we gone wrong? And how can we change this culture within our school?”

And then there’s the whitewashing of the curriculum. The scientists we learn about in school, they’re white European male scientists. The history of Canada begins when Jacques Cartier and “settlers” [that] arrived and formed the treaties with Indigenous peoples.

There’s a lot that school trustees, administrators and teachers can do, but they have to be willing and committed to doing it. Many of them don’t want to do the work. They think it’s hard, but it’s not hard. They need to start by educating themselves. An article a day, that’s all it takes to begin raising your consciousness. It’s that easy.

In B.C., student data is already broken down racially for Indigenous students, so you can see how they are doing in school. Is this something that we should be doing for Black and other students of colour?

Yes, most definitely. And it’s not hard, we can even look to the U.S. as to how to do it. We need disaggregated data. There’s a lot of evidence in terms of my book, for example — testimonies and a plethora of scholarly research. But we need to know numbers, we need some statistical evidence to back up our efforts and what we're trying to do.

What’s next for you?

In terms of my literary career, people can definitely expect something soon. There’s something in the works. I’ll be working away silently and really promoting this book, both in schools and with the world.

And now, an excerpt from #BlackinSchool:


March 21, 2014

“Any acceptance of humiliation, indignity, or insult is acceptance of inferiority.” —Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

I walked into school this morning and there were posters all over the walls advertising a six kilometre walk to raise awareness about women and children who carry water on their backs. The idea is for the participants to walk six kilometres with one litre of water on their backs in solidarity with those who do.

I asked two fellow classmates — student government people — if they knew who was behind the event. As it turned out, they were the organizers. I asked them right then and there:

“What’s your purpose for doing this?”

“To raise awareness about the ‘issue.’”

“Raise awareness and then what?”

“It’ll help to raise money for organizations that will build wells closer to the people’s homes.”

“It’s ridiculous.”

“It’s better than people being ignorant about what’s going on.”

As I got in the elevator to head up to my first-period biology class, a teacher (already in the elevator) asked me, “Why do you take the elevator?” I could sense the harassment brewing. #TheStoryOfMyLifeInTheElevator

Me: Because I have an elevator pass.

Teacher: Why?

Me: I don’t want to tell you.

Teacher: You know, that’s not a very respectful way to respond.

Me: I have an elevator pass because I spoke with my vice-principal, and that’s my business.

Teacher: So, a better question to ask would be: Where is your elevator pass?

Me: I don’t have it on me.

Teacher: Now, that’s a problem.

Me: No, I think you want to start creating problems, and I’m feeling very frustrated right now so I’m not going to engage.

I walk out of the elevator.

All within the first 15 minutes of school...


Excerpted from #BlackInSchool Copyright © 2021 Habiba Cooper Diallo, published with the permission of University of Regina Press.  [Tyee]

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