Two U of M academics penned an open letter to the university community on Oct. 23 to decry the use of the N-word in post-secondary institutions and express disappointment in the support garnered for the use of the racial slur by academics and politicians.
Leisha Strachan, a professor in the faculty of kinesiology and recreation management, and Delia Douglas, anti-racism practice lead in the Rady faculty of health sciences, both contributed to the letter and are two of the three signatories.
The third signatory is Jerome Cranston, a dean and professor in the faculty of education at the University of Regina.
The letter was sparked by a recent incident at the University of Ottawa. Professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval used the N-word in class. Thirty-four University of Ottawa professors signed a letter in support of Lieutenant-Duval, saying disallowing the racial slur infringes on academic freedom.
Lieutenant-Duval was suspended but has since returned to teaching. Amid mounting controversy and outrage, she has also publicly apologized.
Prominent politicians have also come out in support of Lieutenant-Duval, including Quebec Premier François Legault and Bloc Québécois leader and MP Yves-François Blanchet. Conservative party leader and MP Erin O’Toole also did not condemn the use of the slur by Lieutenant-Duval, saying it is an issue of freedom of speech.
Strachan said she was unsurprised upon first hearing about the incident but was disheartened by responses from people in the academic community and politicians.
“There’s so many times this word has been used in academic institutions for years and years and years,” she said.
“For me, the larger impetus for the letter was working at my computer at home and listening to the news in the background and the press conferences that then came from the politicians, the Conservative leader [O’Toole] and the Bloc [Québécois] leader [Blanchet] in particular, and their refusal to denounce the use of the word even when asked a super pointed question.”
Strachan said she began writing the letter after hearing of the wave of support for Lieutenant-Duval and the use of the slur in academia.
“That was it for me,” she said. “I had to stop everything I was doing and start writing something.”
Strachan said she received a positive response from the Black student community at the University of Ottawa, who have been directly affected on their campus.
“I’ve been very heartened by the response from students at the University of Ottawa,” she said. “After I sent it out, I tagged [on social media] the Black students [association] at U of Ottawa.”
“They’ve been reaching out to me, saying ‘thank you’ for putting it out there.”
Strachan said she believes the N-word should never be used in higher education.
“Its continued use continues to victimize people,” she said. “To me, there’s just no place for it […] in the higher institutions that we belong to.”
Douglas said the focus on the debate on academic freedom is drawing attention away from the targets of the slur and “privileging the voices of the powerful.”
“This isn’t a debate, it’s not a controversy,” Douglas said. “It’s an example of anti-Black racism.”
Strachan pointed to a line in the open letter that reads, “focusing on intent maintains racial hierarchies, thereby sustaining racism by privileging the initiator.”
“It’s not freedom to oppress,” Douglas said, noting the well-documented underrepresentation of Black and Indigenous people in academia.
“It’s privileging the voices of those who are racially dominant.”
“What that says to me is that the dignity, the rights of Black students, Black staff, Black faculty, Black peoples is irrelevant and that we are just not seen to be of value, we are not seen to be human,” Douglas said.
“We’re constantly fighting for recognition of our humanness, this constant fight to be seen and to be heard.”
“I just thought about the students, the students who complained [and] essentially nothing happened,” said Strachan.
“You subject Black students to racism, and then they are supposed to [do] what? Teach you about it?” said Douglas.
“The message [from the institution to Black students] is ‘You don’t belong, and we’re happy if you leave,’” she said.
In terms of anti-racism policies, the U of M’s Rady faculty of health sciences approved the first anti-racism policy at any post-secondary institution in Canada just this past August. Douglas was instrumental in its creation and implementation.
Strachan said an anti-racism policy could serve as a first step but that more needs to be done.
“We know there has to be more changes in the academy, there has to be more Black people in the academy, more strategic hirings, things that could happen that could support more Black voices in the academy,” said Strachan.
“We actually need to talk very specifically about racial equity,” said Douglas. “Because of the lack of racially different peoples in leadership and senior admin, the vision is narrow.”
Black student leaders say more needs to be done by universities to curb anti-Black racism
Reem Elmahi, the president of the University of Manitoba Black Students’ Union (UMBSU), and Vimbainashe Daisy Gudu, vice-president advocacy of the UMBSU, were also not taken by surprise by the incident at the University of Ottawa.
“The thing that surprised me the most was the 34 professors who were in favour of the faculty member that did use the word,” said Gudu.
“That alone as a Black student made me personally feel violated that someone else who is not in my shoes [feels] okay to use that word.”
“Regardless of the context [in which] the N-word is used, it should just be completely banned to protect Black students,” Gudu said.
Gudu said post-secondary institutions have a role and a responsibility to publicly denounce the use of such slurs.
“The universities should be at a place where they’re able to denounce any stakeholders that use such terms within the university, and only just to take it upon themselves to make a difference regardless if it didn’t happen to us because we do know we have our own issues.”
Elmahi said it is “disheartening” to see the lack of Black faculty at the U of M and the previous lack of an organization for all Black students.
“I remember specifically [when] me and my friend first joined the U of M, we were looking at all the clubs to join and [thought] ‘we’re going to join the Black student union,’” Elmahi said.
“And then we just looked, and there wasn’t one, and we were so shocked to find that.”
Elmahi said the main aim of the UMBSU is to help make the U of M “more inclusive for Black students,” and that she would welcome the implementation of anti-racism policies.
“Many times, we find that in classrooms, Black students still feel the need to go an extra mile to be seen or to be acknowledged, and I don’t feel like that is right,” said Gudu.
“Putting in that extra effort to denounce racism and make sure Black students feel comfortable in a place of education is really important to us,” said Elmahi.
“Putting ‘Black Lives Matter’ on your university Instagram page isn’t enough.”