By Audra A. Diptee. There have been quite a number of student protests in the United States in response to the issue of racism on university campuses. In Canada, it is easy for us to get smug and self-congratulatory about race relations on university campuses. But racialized faculty, staff, and students understand that any such thinking is sadly out of touch with the reality. How else can one make sense of an Ottawa based student’s self description as a “Black face in a white space” on social media? Or more disturbingly, the posters that went up in Toronto promoting the “White Students Union” – which is supposedly a group that sees itself as the “Students For Western Civilization.” If you want more on that particular gem read Desmond Cole’s article in the The Star.
Some might argue we have our own particular brand of prejudice and racism here in Canada. Think of it as “politely practiced prejudice.” In the university system, rarely – though it does exist – would one find explicit “in your face” racism, sexism, or other forms of prejudice. What you are certain to find, however, is a strong dose of prejudice properly dressed up with Canadian politesse and an overstated commitment to academic collegiality. In fact, there’s an infantilizing vocabulary, that is seemingly innocuous, which gets used in the practice of inequity and that ensures there are different standards for those who “naturally fit in” and those who should shut up, stop complaining, and be grateful that they were let into the academy in the first place. I’ll save my thoughts on that for a future post.
Unfortunately, what passes for Canadian politesse and the claims to academic collegiality are far from benign. In my very humble opinion, it is one of the tools used to silence dissent and quiet those who want to speak up about the injustice of prejudice on Canadian university campuses. And heaven forbid a visible minority shows any emotion – worst of all a sense of frustration – when trying to address an injustice of some sort. Under those circumstances, be advised, white liberal colleagues who are invested in minimizing the role that prejudice plays in the Canadian university system, are sure to pull out another of their trusty tools from their bag of tricks – the “angry visible minority” trope.
Ah yes, it is overused, unoriginal, and intellectually lazy, but rest assured it gets used all the time. And it comes with the simple question always asked with a tone of made only in Canada innocence and befuddlement: “Why is he (or she) so angry all the time?” As a strategy, it is nothing less than genius. It is a perfect way to shift the focus and shut down a conversation. It nicely and neatly sidesteps the issue at hand – the offending action – and instead directs attention to the supposedly highly emotional state of visible minorities. The assumption implicit in the very asking of the question is, of course, that visible minorities are less emotionally mature and more irrational. And so, they are less capable of fitting into Canadian academic culture, an academic culture that is – you’ve guessed it – defined by Canadian politesse and collegiality. It’s damned near fool proof.
But Canadian politesse and claims to academic collegiality, at least when we’re addressing the politics of prejudice, serve to mask something far more insidious. It articulates the expectation that you “put up and shut up” with whatever injustices you are forced to confront. It is an insistence that you suffer the indignities of prejudice silently in order to “keep the peace” and “maintain collegiality.” It serves to empower those who are inclined to act with prejudice and silence those who are inclined to stand up and speak out against it. To be clear, Canadian academics are happy – no let me correct that – they are delighted to participate in intellectual discussions about prejudice in all its forms. It is a badge of honour that they wear as evidence that they are progressive and forward thinking humanitarians. What they have little time for, are discussions about the lived experience of prejudice in the university system in which they participate and can be implicated. The racism that they abhor is typically elsewhere. It is almost never in their immediate world.
Unfortunately, there is no effective way to fight prejudice, if no one is prepared to acknowledge it. Furthermore, aren’t academics given tenure precisely so they can engage in difficult debates that make society better without fear of retribution? How is “not wanting to get involved” a defensible position when one is aware of an injustice? And why is there always so much more concern about speaking up and potentially offending other white liberals who act with prejudice, but yet the offense that visible minorities suffer because of racism is of no priority? Why is it that those indignities must be suffered in silence?
When an academic treats tenure as little more than a system that gives job security and so enables him (or her) to take out a 25-year mortgage, I consider it a betrayal of trust. Academic freedom is not there to merely protect scholars as they defend their scholarly interpretations of obscure theories that no one outside of their field knows or cares about it. It is also there so they can defend the principles of a just society and a just university system. In the words of the black feminist Audre Lorde “your silence will not protect you.” Visible minorities should offer no apologies for speaking out against those acts they understand to be injustice. Afterall, this is our Canada too. The psychological costs caused by the indignities of racism are too much to bear. When someone – white liberal or otherwise – provides me with an example of a battle against prejudice that used “putting up and shutting up” as a successful strategy, I’ll reconsider my position. Until then, the fight for a Canada that holds people accountable for the practice of inequity must continue.
All that said, I conclude with much thanks to those truly progressive white liberal academics who actually do stand up, say what needs to be said, and do what needs to be done. Few in number you may be, but you too are not afraid to fight the good fight. You know who you are …