Before you roll your eyes at yet another article that cries out against racism on campus, know that we aren’t going to reiterate the oh-so-familiar argument about whether or not something is racist.
However, as black students at McGill University in 2012, we consider ourselves fortunate to be able to address issues of racism; thirty years ago, the Black Students’ Network (BSN) and black students around campus would not necessarily have been able to speak up against the racist situations they encountered.
We are frustrated that the blackface incident was permitted in the “Safe Space” of a SSMU event. The incident is an example of how SSMU has failed to enforce its equity policy. Those of us in BSN who attended 4Floors went with the intention of having fun, but the presence of students in blackface took away from the festive experience. While we recognize people’s right to freedom of expression, we would like to echo Davide Mastracci’s point that “The right to free speech does not mean the right to an audience” (Bull & Bear, “Halloween Costume Controversy,” November 2).
We are frustrated that such an offensive image was allowed to circulate within the McGill community. A person had to allow the culprit entrance to the event, a photographer was needed to take the pictures, and someone had to post and approve the images on Facebook. How did none of these people realize that this was unacceptable? If preventive measures had been taken by any one of these people, the extent of the damage would have been greatly reduced.
A staff member of the Bull & Bear (the publication that posted the controversial photo) commented on the article, “It’s McGill, what do you expect from people who forced MUS to cancel tribal Frosh three days before the event?” This comment is indicative of a sentiment that is shared among many on campus, who attempt to justify offensive incidents in order to protect the integrity of social events. What do we expect? We expect to be able to attend events and not feel targeted and uncomfortable. One person’s fun should not come at the expense of others’.
Moreover, we are frustrated at McGill’s response and SSMU’s apology, which included no decisive points of action to prevent the incident from happening again. We would like to stress that these offensive acts are not isolated incidents. For instance, at a Halloween event this year at the University of Florida, students from a fraternity dressed up in blackface. Despite the fact that the event took place off campus, the University of Florida has taken a very proactive stance. The Orlando Sentinel wrote that the university held a town hall meeting the week after in order to address “the issue and its effect on the Gainesville campus of almost 50,000 students.” Janine Sikes, spokesperson for the University of Florida, was quoted saying: “We recognize that what they did is hurtful and perpetuates racist stereotypes of African Americans….We work very hard to create a welcoming environment for all of our students regardless of race or ethnic background.”
By contrast, SSMU VP University Affairs Haley Dinel’s explanation felt more like a slap on the wrist. Dinel said that “this year there was ‘no substantive talk’ on the issue, and that the current executive team felt ‘uncomfortable’ monitoring the door” (“Blackface and other costumes stir controversy at 4Floors,” News, November 1, page 2). As a result, those of us who are supposed to be protected under the umbrella of SSMU’s “safe space” mandate are instead fighting to uphold it. As members of the McGill community, we recognize that SSMU must be held accountable for what happened and we demand that they take more decisive actions to prevent this from occurring ever again in the future. We speak for all marginalized groups when we ask that SSMU effectively enforce its equity policy.
We expect McGill to uphold its standards of “advancement of learning” for its “outstanding” students as emphasized in the University’s mission statement. If McGill is to be measured against the “highest international standards,” then it must address the often evaded issues of race. The tolerance and/or denial of offensive situations in which race plays a key factor are not unusual occurrences. If we as the student body of McGill fail to recognize the relevance of challenging race consciousness today, we are doing ourselves and the wider community a disservice.
We’d also like to emphasize that the sole purpose of this letter is not to berate SSMU or the McGill community, but to educate. University is not just meant to be a learning experience within the classroom, but a place where we are provided with an opportunity to learn and grow as individuals. We learn from the people we meet and the conversations we have. University is not a place to be coddled; it’s a place to be challenged. What we see and experience here is only a microcosm of what we will experience later in life. Let’s take this time to learn from our mistakes.
This statement was issued by the Black Students’ Network of McGill University. You can reach the organization by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org, or by going to their website at ssmu.mcgill.ca/bsn.