Take a pass on ‘the pass’


October 6, 2020 Gail-Ann Wilson (she/her), Black Teachers Association of Alberta

I’m looking in the eyes of a teenage boy who has just called my daughter the N-word. He’s not Black, but I am. Neither of us look away.

We’re behind the closed doors of a small office in our school, in the midst of an enormous conversation about racism. I’m speaking as a social studies and anti-racism teacher, not as a mom. I’m focused on explaining the history of racial degradation against Black people. Apathetic, he leans back.

“My Black friends gave me the pass,” he says. “We call each other by that name all of the time. You can’t stop me. I have a right to free speech.”

His racism isn’t hidden like it is with most because he’s rationalized his racist behaviour in the form of “the pass.” I lean in and respond.

“Your words are free, but your hate is not.”

The pass is a hidden social norm, one that you’re not likely to hear about unless you have some familiarity with Black urban culture. Considering that teenagers have never been shy about adopting Black culture, many junior and senior high students are familiar with this racist act.

Black students who use the pass are actually making themselves the target of racism which, unfortunately, displays a high degree of racial ignorance. When Black people willingly transfer power as the oppressed to the privileged, they disconnect from the historical legacies that have been central to understanding the powerlessness of racism.

The idea likely evolved from the classic American practice of racial passing. To reduce the harms of discrimination, Black people who could conceal their racial identity passed themselves off as members of other ethnic groups. Historically, the idea was to gain the benefits afforded to White people, but today the pass is commonly reversed, with others attempting to appropriate elements of Black culture.

Understand that this is a subtle and even passive act within a social group. A Black person offers it to members outside of the race by granting them a verbal pass, a permission to speak freely. Generally, the idea is that a non-Black person uses the pass only when they’re with the Black group that provides it, but this is difficult to contain. Racism can’t be borrowed or returned to the sender.

On the surface, the pass may appear to be an example of agreement with the group. Don’t be misguided. It’s closer to a state of submission to the conditions of racism.

Humour creates a broader social acceptance of racism, and Black humour is well-consumed by audiences of all races. Dave Chappelle and Kevin Hart have large followings centralized on racial comedy. It’s about subtly leveraging their power as entertainers. The Black comedian invites or grants a pass to the audience to laugh at Black issues, even racist Black issues, but the understanding is that you don’t do this outside of that forum. If a non-Black person repeats a Black comedian’s joke, they are given a pass. But if a non-Black member makes their own culturally degrading joke, there is no pass, and they are being racist. As we live in acceptance of the pass in comedy, we will struggle to shift thinking on all forms of racism.

Now consider whether you have ever used the pass. It’s easy to assume you haven’t if you don’t use the N-word. But we’ve all heard of teachers and administrators that appropriate the N-word at school under the guise of learning. Think of the undesirable stress that climate creates for Black students. That word is not relatable to students when spoken by any teacher. Let’s be clear: it’s never appropriate to use the N-word in education. Make a point to end that practice.

Also, consider not acting as an expert on racial oppression if you don’t have authentic knowledge of Black communities. This is a play on the pass too. If your expertise on anti-Black racism is sourced from having a Black friend, a Black co-worker or a Black student, you are using the pass as a form of credibility to speak on issues that are not a part of your own experience. This does not complement anti-racism behaviour. Racism does not allow for people to choose their own experience.

Taking on anti-Black racism at school is going to be hard for us all. We have to consciously accept responsibility for our own actions while we navigate hidden forms of racism. Being culturally responsive in education may feel like we’re going backwards at times. But this change will not come from intention; it will only come from socially informed action. ❚

Gail-Ann Wilson is a teacher with Edmonton Public Schools and an active member of the Black Teachers Association of Alberta.


Opinions expressed on this page represent the views of the individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

Also In This Issue