Commentary | An Open Letter to Morton Weinfeld, Chair in Canadian Ethnic and Racial Studies

We would like to share our deep concerns about the event titled “Blackface, Ethnic Comedy, and the Tension Between Free Expression and Racism,” presented on March 28 by the Minor program in Canadian Ethnic and Racial Studies at McGill, in conjunction with the UN Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Despite important contributions and critical presentations by Anthony Morgan, Dr. Charmaine Nelson, and Fo Niemi, we were disturbed by the “ethnic comedy” of Franco Taddeo, who performed a stand up routine that included jokes with underlying heteronormative and misogynist tones.  More so, we were outraged by the presentation made by Julius Grey, who from the start set out to counter claims made by previous panelists Dr. Nelson and Fo Niemi.  He opened his presentation by asserting, “I taught here for 27 years and I started every single one of my classes with the words ‘I reserve the right to be totally politically incorrect. Anybody who can’t take it should take another course.’  I kept my word, I was totally politically incorrect; I will be politically incorrect here.”

“Political correctness,” for Grey, is a form of “presentism” that attempts to “fashion other people’s thought” and jeopardizes the right to free speech.  He observed, for example, that “We now all agree, that it [homosexuality] is something that is inherent, that the person has no choice, that there’s nothing wrong with it, that there’s nothing morally wrong with it in the sense that it’s just the way the person is. There is an unfortunate, an unfortunate parallel with another thing which we have come down on like a ton of bricks – pedophilia.  There’s plenty of evidence that a person cannot change, that that’s just simply how he’s wired. You can tell me pedophilia causes great harm, but of course wasn’t that argument used on homosexuality, where for years and years [the claim] that it involves child abuse was spread in order to repress it?” He added that in his view “it is not true that all forms of pedophilia cause harm.” (Note: The authors of this letter felt it important to acknowledge these statements by Grey as they offended several people. We recognize the complexity of pedophilia and that despite how the label is often used, not all pedophiles necessarily commit child sexual abuse.)

Grey’s presentation centered on an argument in favour of the right to “free speech” and emphatically against collective rights for minority groups.  He went on to argue that racialized/ ethnocultural groups should assimilate rather than organize and assert themselves collectively.

“Yes, I am opposed to collective rights,” he asserted, “…I think groups have no right to survive.  I think it’s a bad thing that they survive. My solution for black rights is assimilation. My solution for Jews is assimilation. I hope to see an America or a Canada…in which there’s no such thing as a black man, no such thing as a white man, no such thing as an Asian man.”  Certainly the eugenicist tone of these statements is deeply troubling.  And he acknowledged, “It is obvious that neither black community activists, nor the Jewish community, nor the Greek community is going to be happy to hear what I’m saying. It means taking away their privileges or influence and everything else.”

Grey disputed the notion that our society is “nice” and the value in attempts at “legislating niceness.”  He pointed to the manner in which society in his opinion disproportionately punishes those who break our current value-based rules. “What is the fairness, for instance,” he asked, “of prosecuting criminally an 18-year-old kid, who gets drunk at a party and paws some girl and then you say ‘ahhh, no means no; it’s a criminal offence’ and that will be…on his record forever…”

Grey’s entire presentation was underscored by the fact that in delivering it, he asserted his own individual right to “free speech” over the collective rights of those present to be protected from his psychological violence.  The power that he wielded in this situation as a renowned, older white male attorney and former professor at McGill – such that fellow panelists and audience members did not interrupt his twenty-minute presentation despite experiencing it as oppressive and hurtful – exemplifies how freedom of speech certainly does not extend to all equally; it is governed by existing power relations and can indeed be used to maintain them.

Grey concluded by stating, “So if we’re going to have a society which can change, which can evolve, which can have true equality…we should say not only that minorities should be protected but also, as I say, that minorities should disappear; safe to say without any form of racism whatsoever.”  Dr. Weinfeld, attaching an “ought” statement to the sentiment of minorities disappearing is racism! This needs to be acknowledged.

When confronted by several members of the audience, we found Grey’s responses to be dismissive and argumentative.  As tensions rose, Dr. Weinfeld, you attempted to return matters to “business as usual” (as observed by a member of the audience), calling for academic rules of decorum.  Given the racism and identities-based marginalization that many people experience at McGill on a daily basis, the event attracted a number of students in search of an inclusive space in which these issues might be addressed and discussed.  Instead, many of those present found themselves in yet another situation at this university where racism was present and permitted to flourish; where white privilege and patriarchal power were asserted and used to try to silence the voices of those who expressed their objections to what was happening.

It is our position, Dr. Weinfeld, that you had a responsibility to use your power as the moderator of the event and as the Chair of Canadian Ethnic and Racial Studies to interrupt  Grey’s presentation which clearly was inappropriate (if ironic) at an event organized in recognition of the UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Rather than an issue of Grey’s “right to free speech,” we understand this situation as being about the choice to give him a platform for that speech at our university.

In a March 30 debriefing about the event among several people who had attended, comments were shared about the ways in which Grey’s speech and behaviour had caused attendees physical and psychological symptoms of stress in the 24 hours following the event, such as feelings of anxiety, insomnia, and tension-related bodily pain.   People questioned the event’s putative association with the UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the precise point of the event, and whether its objectives had been met in the opinions of the organizers. Questions were raised about the ordering of panelists, such that Grey was the final presenter and indeed given the final word of the event.

We hereby call on you, Dr. Weinfeld, to address these concerns and to issue a public apology to the attendees of the event for your failure to moderate the panel in a manner in keeping with a commitment to working toward the elimination of racial discrimination and indeed all forms of discrimination.  For despite Grey’s assertion that the damage done by “mere speech” “doesn’t matter,” we expect that you recognize that speech, particularly in the context of unequal power relations, can be assaultive; that words can and are (and always have been) used as part of the matrix of domination to “ambush, terrorize, wound, humiliate, and degrade” particular groups of people.

Finally, and looking forward, we call on the university community to consider the following questions:

  • How do we ensure that events organized for the university community to engage in constructive dialogue about important issues of marginalization and systemic inequalities are as safe as possible for our university community, particularly those members who most directly experience said marginalization and inequality?

  • How can we respond to individual and collective actions criticizing, confronting, and challenging discrimination at the university in ways that understand and legitimize talking back in such situations, and recognize the unequal power dynamics that frame our interactions?

The details and concerns surrounding the nature and outcomes of this event have been shared with the University Ombudsperson, and we encourage anyone at McGill who experiences oppression to consult with the Ombudsperson (ombudsperson@mcgill.ca), an Assessor for cases of Harassment and Discrimination (mcgill.ca/harass/contact), the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (sacomss.org/contact.html), the SSMU Equity Commissioner (equity.com@ssmu.mcgil.ca), the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) Equity Commissioner (equity@pgss.mail.mcgill.ca), or the VP Diversity and Equity of your departmental student association.

Signed,

Shaina Agbayani, SSMU Equity Commissioner, 2012-2013

rosalind hampton, VP Diversity & Equity, Education Graduate Students’ Society (2012-2013 & 2013-2014); AGSEM: McGill’s Teaching Union Unit 1 Grievance Officer (2012-2013); PhD student, Department of Integrated Studies in Education

Gretchen King, PGSS Equity Commissioner, 2012-2013; PhD candidate, Communication Studies

*The complete version of this letter including signatories can be found at: openletterblackface.wordpress.com


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