Panel tackles racism in universities

by Daniel McCabe

A white professor teaching a course on a religion practised primarily in India is asked by East Indian students in her class to avoid a certain topic that could perpetuate a negative stereotype of the faith. A young professor of colour, busy establishing her teaching and research activities, wearies of the pressures placed on her to join a wide range of faculty committees--each wants her perspective as one of the few black professors at her school.

Few issues are thornier for an academic community than those involving race. And while all universities are striving harder to create "colour-blind" campuses, the examples above--recently related during a panel discussion entitled "Racism, Free Speech and the University"--demonstrate the subtle ways in which racial tensions still creep into the every-day realities of university life.

Corinne Jetté was the first speaker at the event, co-sponsored by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and the University's Canadian Ethnic Studies program. As an aboriginal woman who earned an engineering degree and is now the adviser to Concordia's dean of engineering on communications and equity affairs, Jetté has long been interested in how universities deal with issues of race. She thinks universities simply duck the issue altogether more often than not.

"The issue of racism for university departments is a little bit like gay rights for government caucuses. People talk about it, but it always gets shoved to the side in the end to make room for more 'pressing' issues."

Jetté argued that, despite evidence of "a rising tide of racism in this country," few academics pursue the subject of racism in the course of their research. And although there is increasing cultural diversity in kindergartens and graduate schools throughout Canada, textbooks still tend to focus almost exclusively on the experiences of white Canadians.

She related that she was almost envious of the way in which the country's black community has recently rallied around Black History Month in February to uncover details of their shared past. "What a revelation it must be for black children to discover that their ancestors helped to build this country. That's something my children still haven't been taught. They rarely see themselves in history books."

Jetté takes exception to arguments put forward by some academics that unconditional free speech must be safeguarded--even in cases where certain types of discourse might be wildly offensive or racist.

She likened free speech to an antibiotic. It's usually a positive influence, "but when used indiscriminately or too abundantly, it can be poisonous."

Religious studies professor Katherine Young offered a different perspective. "The boundaries between harassment and free speech can be delicate. It's often a difficult grey zone."

While teaching about Hinduism, Young was approached by East Indian students who wanted her to avoid the topic of sati--the ritualistic burning of women after the death of their husbands. The students argued that sati was a rare occurrence which was used in the past by the British empire to help justify its colonization of India.

Young avoided the topic the next year, but it came up in the course of class discussion anyway. "We ended up devoting a class to it, but I didn't do as good a job as I could have had I prepared a lecture in advance." Her interest sparked by the subject, Young pursued research on sati and ended up helping unearth a forgotten passage in an ancient Hindu holy book which presented a strong argument against sati--a significant finding that drew large-scale scholarly attention in India.

In retrospect, Young isn't sure she did the right thing when she initially dropped sati from her course. "The analysis of controversial topics is the most important work an academic can do." But she wonders what would have happened had students filed a complaint against her for continuing to teach about sati.

"Who would have judged my case? The principal? An harassment assessor? Neither necessarily would have been schooled enough in the issues surrounding the subject" to come to a fully reasoned judgment. Young feels that such a charge could only be fairly investigated "by people in my field" who would be able to determine if her conduct met the standards of good scholarship in her discipline.

Young argued that measures adopted to prevent racial or sexual harassment must be applied across the board. "There shouldn't be a double standard where we allow stereotypes about some groups, but not about others." Young says that men and people from European backgrounds are still targeted by some "as the source of all problems." She pointed to Mahatma Gandhi's "struggle in cordiality" against British rule in India. "He didn't allow his followers to think the British were evil as a class of people. It was the system they opposed."

When men and Europeans are scorned by dint of what they are, "it leads to a new form of biological determinism" where, regardless of their current beliefs or accomplishments, the wrongdoings of the past are viewed as "inescapable by nature."

Law professor Richard Janda chairs a Senate subcommittee focusing on equity matters. His subcommittee recently surveyed incoming students on their cultural backgrounds and on other matters to get a sense of who is--and who isn't--attending McGill.

Janda said it's still too early to come to any decisive conclusions on the data received, but he thinks the survey did point to some disquieting trends.

Less than one per cent of the students surveyed identified themselves as aboriginals "despite the significant aboriginal communities in our midst in this city. Looking at my own faculty, it's something of a pretence to say that we have a national program in law if our students are unlikely to encounter aboriginal students here."

Only slightly more than two per cent identified themselves as disabled. Janda said that despite recent improvements geared to making the campus an friendlier environment for disabled students, "these students still find it difficult to get into--and to last--in this place."

Although the overall figures point to a welcome cultural diversity among students, Janda said this doesn't tell the whole story.

"If you look at the countries of origin of our students, you find that much of the diversity of our student body comes from people who arrive here from outside Canada and the U.S. Close to 85 per cent of the North American students attending McGill come from European backgrounds. That percentage is even higher once you factor out the Americans." Janda added that there is far more cultural diversity among graduate students than undergraduates as well.

Addressing recent criticisms of McGill in La Presse that the University focused too much on attracting international students, Janda said, "Students take it as a given that much of the learning in a university takes place between students. An absence of diversity in their milieu is an impoverishment of learning."

Joanne St. Louis, a law professor from the University of Ottawa currently pursuing graduate studies at McGill, argued that universities tend to be disingenuous about their authoritative role as gatekeepers in our society.

"When you talk about access to universities, you're also talking about access to professions. You're talking about the people who will go on to be the policymakers in our society."

St. Louis noted that universities often argue that their admissions standards can't be compromised. "What is the universities' justification for keeping whole cultural communities out of the professions? That puts the issue in a very different light, doesn't it?"

The composition of a university's faculty has an enormous impact on what gets studied and how research is pursued, said St. Louis. "Look at what's happened to women's health now that there are more women doing the research. The whole field has changed. Women needed to be there for that to happen."

St. Louis said she's attended several events featuring the University of Western Ontario's Phillipe Rushton, a psychologist who claims that blacks tend to be less intelligent and more sexually aggressive than the general population.

"One scientist berated me for criticizing Rushton, because evolutionary psychology is a specialized field and this is really an issue for peer review. The academy is telling me that I have to qualify as an evolutionary psychologist to deal with this man? Maybe if a diverse group of scholars had evaluated his research in the first place, we wouldn't have to deal with this now."

St. Louis recounted another instance she was familiar with, in which a white professor described black mothers on welfare as cockroaches. "He said he was trying to be provocative, that it wasn't his personal belief."

Small comfort if you happened to be a person of colour attending his class. St. Louis said professors often allow racially charged material "to float in space during a class--expecting their students to navigate through this provocative material for themselves. I've been there as a student. I remember thinking, 'Should I say something? I'm the only black here.' That's not a student's job. That's a professor's job and as a student I have a basic right to be in an environment that is racism free."

St. Louis ruefully noted her popularity as a member of several faculty committees. "As one of the few people of colour who managed to slip into the university, I'm expected to bring the colour and diversity to every committee."

Universities should offer a professoriate that is representative of the larger society "the opportunity to define what universities should be. It's not good enough for a few people of colour to be added on to what has already been constructed." But St. Louis is sceptical that this will happen. "The people who have invested in universities as they already exist get to be the arbiters of how they will change."

Towards the end of the event, a student asked St. Louis how she should determine if what she was about to say might be offensive to people of colour. St. Louis answered, "If I'm about to say something, but I suspect it might be offensive, I hesitate and think it over. I trust my instincts. Being offensive is a pretty big thing and it's easy enough to avoid if you're careful and thoughtful."

Katherine Young wasn't so certain. "As a professor, I'm often thinking aloud. I don't have total thought control. There has to be some margin for error. Otherwise, we'll all have these yellowing lecture notes that we'll hold onto for dear life."