Context should be considered in student conduct discipline

Photo: 

Going after a student for breaching a student code of conduct without taking the broader social context of their comments into account is a serious misstep for any university administration.

Vice-President of the Dalhousie Student Union, Masuma Khan, is facing disciplinary action from Dalhousie University for a Facebook comment which another student believes discriminates against white people.

Khan responded to a post by the Nova Scotia Young Progressive Conservatives (NSYPC), which criticized the Student Union’s decision to not support Canada 150 events.

According to a Globe and Mail article, Khan’s reply included the words, "At this point, f*** you all…#whitefragilitycankissmyass".

In a statement, Dalhousie said Khan violated the student code of conduct that prohibits "unwelcome or persistent conduct that the students knows, or ought to know, would cause another person to feel demeaned, intimidated or harassed."

As reported by the Globe and Mail, the University’s statement on the situation explained that they felt it was "understandable that the Complainant who identified as White (among other identities) disclosed feeling targeted on the basis of their White identity.”

The decision from the Dalhousie University administration to go after Masuma Khan is a choice that infringes on the student’s right to protest and free speech. When investigating the complaint filed against her by a fellow student, the University would’ve also come across the Facebook post and the comments on it which led to her frustration and outburst.

The University had a responsibility to look not just at the inappropriate language she used, but the provocation that brought it on in the context of a heated debate in the comment section of a Facebook post.

Furthermore, the claim that Khan’s comments went against the student code of conduct hinges on the argument that she was harassing other students based on their race, which isn’t the case. Khan’s post mentioned white fragility, which a portion of her peers took as a discriminatory comment against white people.

The ‘white fragility’ that Khan refers to is the concept of white people reacting to issues of race differently than others, usually in a disproportionally defensive way. Rather than be a discriminatory idea, her comments point towards the extreme reaction of white people under racial pressure not seen in racial minorities. One ironic example of such a situation was the subsequent comments on Khan’s reply, calling for her to ‘pack her bags.’

Khan didn’t denounce white people with her comment. She called attention — albeit with expletives — to her frustration with the rhetoric expressed by the NSYPC in their Facebook post.

As a student leader, Khan is responsible for holding herself to a higher standard when it comes to engaging in debate. Her choice of words took the focus off of the issue she was arguing and showed poor judgement. But that doesn’t necessitate the University working to punish her for harassment.

Masuma Khan’s situation plays into a larger debate concerning the idea of reverse racism. Khan isn’t in a position of systemic power in North America. When she comments on whiteness, it doesn’t carry the same weight comments from white people can. There’s a power imbalance there and one that’s unjust to ignore when considering disciplinary action.

The University isn’t taking the broader social context of her comments into account when evaluating whether or not to penalize her. Setting a precedent that discourages student leaders from speaking their minds and policing how they protest and express their freedom of speech is a mistake. 

— Journal Editorial Board

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.