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Canadian Universities Using 'Black Death as a PR stunt': Students

Black students say their experiences on campus are in sharp contrast to the rosy Black Lives Matter statements universities have been making in recent weeks.
June 18, 2020, 3:58pm
university, black lives matter
Protesters gather during a rally in Toronto on Saturday, June 6, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Chris Young

York University student Tara Tomlinson, 22, likens being Black on her campus to an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. The university promotes itself as progressive, fair, and equal—but as a Black woman, Tomlinson knows the on-campus experience is a different story: professors have said the N-word repeatedly, Black faculty is severely underrepresented, and campus security has been armed with handcuffs and batons. At York, she says, Black struggle is downplayed and Black students are gaslit.

The state of police brutality against Black and Indigenous people and defunding the police have become a worldwide conversation after the deaths of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer; Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an Afro-Indigenous woman who fell to her death from her apartment in Toronto after an interaction with police officers; Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who died in March after being shot eight times when three officers forcibly entered her apartment, among many others.

As a result, institutions and brands have succumbed to what many call “performative allyship” or “virtue signalling”—a symptom of social media activism that has resulted in the popularized phrase “open your purse” and counterproductive movements such as #BlackoutTuesday.

Now, students are calling Canadian universities out for Black Lives Matter solidarity statements that don’t accurately reflect how little schools have actually done to combat anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism on their campuses.

York University, located in Toronto and Canada’s third largest university, is just one of many schools being called out. On June 1, university president Rhonda L. Lenton wrote in a one-page document that the school “recognizes the deep pain and frustration” of the Black community and references York’s “scholarship and innovative programs,” such as its Black Canadian Studies Certificate as well as the York TD Community Engagement Centre to work on improving access to education.

It does not, however, acknowledge any part of its history of being criticized for upholding anti-Blackness on its campus.

Tomlinson’s five years at York highlight the disparity between what universities claim about themselves and what Black students are dealing with on campus. “These universities were (not) created for Black students, for Black people, for racialized people, (or) for Indigenous people,” said Tomlinson, who is a part of York United Black Students’ Alliance. Tomlinson is currently ramping up to a release of a documentary about being Black at York, Ryerson University and the University of Toronto—three of Canada’s major post-secondary institutions.

A glimpse into anti-Black racism on campus

It doesn’t take long to come across the anecdotes of both interpersonal and institutional racism at Canadian universities.

At the University of British Columbia this past October, far-right speakers Richard Duchesne and Mark Hecht were invited to speak at an event to discuss the freedom to discuss immigration and diversity in Canada. They were only a couple of the speakers the university continues to welcome on its campus, said journalist Zak Vescera, listing others.

Canadian universities aren’t exempt from the racist statue debate, either. At Toronto’s Ryerson University, a statue of Egerton Ryerson, a key developer in the residential school system that contributed to the genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada, still looms over the campus—and a petition has gone around, again, demanding its removal. McGill University has also been called on to take down the statue of James McGill, who had Black and Indigenous slaves.

There have been numerous instances of professors using the N-word out of academic integrity or free speech. In October, a professor at Western University in London, Ontario was called out on social media for using the N-word in class as well as a prof at the University of Waterloo.

Many students have also come forward with their experiences of being criminalized on campus—an issue that especially endangers Black and Indigenous community members.

Black faculty are not exempt, either. Currently, York University faces two discrimination complaints by Black staffers at the Glendon campus. Lydia Dosu, an administrative employee, alleges she was “made to use a lesser title than non-Black people who did the job, assigned menial tasks, and punished for complaining,” and Aimé Avolonto, a professor in the French studies department, accused the school and six of its employees of discrimination and harassment, and said that a “poisoned and toxic environment” is “ongoing in nature and continues to this day.”

However, many people still choose not to report their experiences out of fear of not being believed; often the only channel to report racism is through a department head, who is white. Victoria Rodney wrote about this underrepresentation in ByBlacks.com, highlighting a 2015 study that found that Black professors only make up 3.1 percent of all university professors in Canada. “This number should force us to ask, ‘Why?’ and while the specific mechanisms are plentiful, there is really only one culprit: structural racism,” Rodney wrote.

Rodney, the associate vice president equity at Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association, was doing digital consultations with students on anti-Black racism on campus earlier this month. She recalled one of the video consultations when a student broke down, crying to her after he had an experience with Waterloo police harassing him. “It really fucked up his psyche.”

Rodney was overwhelmed by the need of mental health resources specific to the Black experience needed on campus—neither she nor her coworkers were trained to aid a student going through something so traumatic.

The problem with performative allyship

In a Medium article, writer Holiday Phillips described performative allyship as when a non-marginalized group—in this case any brand, institution or corporation—expresses outrage over a cause in a way that isn’t helpful, or even harms the cause. It’s often talked about on a more individual basis, with many infographics circulating on how to avoid this pseudo-support to the movement, such as Mireille Cassandra Harper’s 10 steps to “non-optical allyship.

But with institutions as established as universities, performative allyship is more than your white friend who does nothing other than post a black square or repost the aesthetically pleasing explainers on why “all lives matter” is racist.

“It’s very dangerous having so many institutions jump on the Black Lives Matter movement, co-opt it, and use it as propaganda to show they’re on the right side of history,” said Tomlinson. Because at the end of the day, “we still have cops on our campuses that brutalize students, we still have security that cards students, we still have racist profs that say the N-word in classes,” said Azinwi Kien, president of York Federation of Students.

In 2015, McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. hired the ex-police chief of the Hamilton Police Service, who’s known for his advocacy of carding and condoning of a civilian’s anti-Black remarks. Despite ongoing student protests, Glenn De Caire remains employed by the university.

Wahi Mohamed, a McMaster University graduate, has seen students protest De Caire hiring since her first year of university in 2016. She also remembers when the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ was still a taboo thing to say, but now, “Black death is being used as a PR stunt.”

Mohamed compiled a list of students calling out their respective schools in a Twitter thread. “I wanted to highlight how anti-Blackness is a really big issue in Canadian universities,” she said. “It’s [not] just a McMaster thing.”

On June 11, York Federation of Students published an open letter to the school. “Our question to you is: what have you done to dismantle the deeply rooted racism and anti-Blackness within your institution besides disingenuous condemnations?” the letter asked. It demands no cops on campus, a channel specific to reporting instances of racism, as well as student-led organizing on campus safety.

Kien said students have every right to call their schools’ allyship performative. She said the open letter gives the “tangible ways through which you can support the Black and racialized students on your campus.”

Carleton University’s journalism school students and alumni are also taking it upon themselves to demand institutional reform. In an open letter, students wrote that Carleton’s journalism school “fails to support students who identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of colour.”

While Ryerson University recently cancelled the plan to have special constables on campus, campus equity groups previously criticized the inadequate consultation with affected students. The cancellation did not come until after the BLM movement’s recent uptick.

There’s a sense of distrust between institutions and Black students, Black professors, and Black faculty, Mohamed said. At a certain point, she says, it doesn’t matter if the effort is genuine or not—“as long as results are accomplished. If McMaster finally ends up firing De Caire, just because it’s bringing back PR to the school...that’s fine by me.”

Tomlinson said there’s the onus is unfairly on students to call things out, and that more Black representation in staff and faculty is needed so students don’t experience this disproportionate amount of pressure.

“Release scholarships. Release Black hires. Everything else that’s performative is distracting people,” said Tomlinson. “The only way (these universities) can stay is if they change and adhere to the needs of these people they’ve worked so hard to keep out.”

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