Race, racism & blackface

When trying to decide on a university, Kareena Elliston, ArtSci ’06, said she was warned by her high school teachers and counsellors against choosing Queen’s.

“Word of mouth travels a whole lot faster than anything else,” said Elliston, a Toronto native. “When I was leaving high school, teachers and counsellors told me not to go. I met students who transferred out because of the potency of racism [on campus].” Elliston said it wasn’t long before she encountered racist attitudes during her first year.

“One student told me I ‘wasn’t really black,’” she said.

“The sad thing is that every single student, particularly of African descent, has an example of [experience with racism],” Elliston said.

Elliston said one student’s recent Halloween costume is another example of racism on campus.

A second-year Arts and Science student sparked an online debate after a photo of herself at a Halloween party in costume—in blackface as “Miss Ethiopia”—was circulated via e-mail and posted on several web forums. Elliston said she was “absolutely horrified” when she first saw the photo.

“I couldn’t believe that somebody would have the gall to dress up like that,” she said. “This is something that’s not a joke. It’s degrading ... it’s really important because it speaks to what we tolerate and what we accept and what we maintain here at Queen’s University. It’s not a coincidence that we happen to be the lowest on the diversity ranking of [the Globe and Mail] every year and we have something like blackface showing up here.” Elliston, who is a member of the African and Caribbean Students’ Association (ACSA), said the campus group wants to make sure the University is proactive in dealing with racism among students.

“I think that in terms of what ACSA or students of African descent want to see happen is the University come forward and condemn this behaviour, and sensitize students and faculty,” Elliston said. “[A] stronger effort should be made on their part to address the issues of racism and discrimination that are experienced by students on campus.” ACSA is also planning to take action by hosting events next semester that aim to raise awareness and educate students.

“We’re hoping to have a speaker series that will address specifically the history of blackface and representation of race in the media, and that will hopefully shed some light on this situation and come out of this ignorance because ignorance isn’t a justification for offence,” said ACSA executive member Nitha Karanja, ArtSci ’08. “ACSA wants to work very hard at making sure there isn’t ignorance.” However, Karanja added that the University’s stance is ACSA’s primary concern.

“ACSA want to make it clear we’re not coming out against any individual or any individual act,” she said. “We’re more concerned about the University’s approach to certain acts or the way [they’ve] dealt with certain things.

“Queen’s seems not to want to defend against or take any responsibility for this type of ignorance. The responsibility doesn’t have to come in the form of discipline, but [they need to ask] ‘Are we preparing students for this global society if they don’t know it’s wrong to dress up in blackface?’ Students should question this too. You have to take responsibility for your education.” Elliston pointed to a similar case at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. According to the Orlando Sentinel, members of the university’s all-white women’s softball team dressed up in blackface to impersonate the varsity men’s basketball team this past Halloween at a city bar.

As a result, the university enrolled the softball team members in diversity training that included watching documentaries and writing a reflection paper about autobiographical accounts of racism.

“I think we have a responsibility to help them understand the significance of that behavior and why there are such wide-ranging concerns about it,” Leonard Nance, dean of first-year studies and university adviser on diversity, told the Sentinel.

Elliston said she approves of Stetson University’s approach.

“I thought that was great. The university made a great effort to get up and deal with it.”

According to Stephanie Simpson, a human rights advisor at the University’s Human Rights Office (HRO), anybody who has experienced harassment or discrimination on campus may meet with her or another advisor to discuss options for addressing the issue informally.

She said mediation provided by the Human Rights Office is based on the principles of natural justice and attempts to hear all sides of the story surrounding a given issue.

“It’s a complaint-driven process, so what [the complainant] has also asked for will be taken into account,” Simpson said. “What we do at an informal level is try to facilitate a resolution to the issue ... by nature of the informal procedure, it’s a voluntary thing.”

Based on the HRO’s investigation, the Office may recommend to any University departments or bodies involved that they take disciplinary action, but compliance with HRO recommendations is always voluntary, Simpson said.

“Most of the issues that come to the Human Rights Office are resolved informally,” Simpson said. “Certainly, for serious matters, it would have to go through administrative channels. If we felt something was serious enough to warrant that kind of discipline, we would make the recommendation to the appropriate bodies.”

Students may also file formal complaints to the Senate Harassment and Discrimination Board, which will make a binding ruling on the complaint application and may pass its decision to one of several other Senate bodies, including the Senate Committee on Non-Academic Discipline, for ratification.

“It’s at that level that sanctions can be imposed,” Simpson said, adding that they may include suspension or expulsion, but also educational measures such as sensitivity training.

“Part of the principles of human rights resolution is that the resolution should be remedial in nature if it can be.”

The scope of the University’s human rights policy is often defined on a case-by-case basis because of Queen’s residential nature, Simpson said.

“It says ‘on or off’ campus, but it’s intended to cover Queen’s-sanctioned events,” she said, adding that the Human Rights Office could consider off-campus events if it found they affected an individual’s on-campus experience.

“What we’ll also look at is how that affects a person’s ability to work or study on campus,” she said, noting that if a person becomes afraid to go to class, or if off-campus harassment extends to on-campus locations as well, then off-campus harassment or discrimination could be taken into account.

Elliston said she is not aware of any students who have approached the Human Rights Office specifically about the blackface costume, and is concerned that students aren’t aware they have the option of going to the office. Moreover, she said, any student who feels the need to file a complaint with the office is already at a disadvantage when compared to others who do not encounter racist behaviour.

“The reality is, psychologically speaking, that’s a lot more stress than someone who never has to go fight [discrimination], and that in itself gives an entirely different experience [on campus],” she said. Professor Audrey Kobayashi is an anti-racism advisor with the Human Rights Office. She is also a professor in the geography department and has taught an interdisciplinary studies course on race and racism since the course’s inception in 1994.

Kobayashi said the course was developed after an outcry over the presence of a white supremacist group on campus.

“The Heritage Front had been active on campus,” she said. “That is what sparked the original process that led to a couple of major reports and a Senate motion to run a course on racism. That was a precipitating factor, but the passion with which students and a very small number of faculty wanted to see change made a big difference, and until that time Queen’s had seen very little anti-racism initiatives.”

She added that over the past decade, she has noticed more anti-racist education on campus than there used to be “in terms of student activism but not necessarily more in terms of curriculum ... there’s very little anti-racist curriculum.”

Kobayashi added there has been some progress made on increasing diversity on campus, but there is still under-representation.

“We have adopted employment equity practices in hiring, but it’s very uneven. Those policies address hiring. They don’t address the climate people face when they get here. In terms of students, there’s no sort of policy except the will to become more diverse.”

Kobayashi said she believes the University should actively try to increase the diversity of its student body.

“I would like to see some sort of affirmative action program that does not sacrifice merit. There are many ways of doing affirmative action in a positive way ... . You’ve got to have the program to bring people, but you’ve also got to change the atmosphere.”

Kobayashi said that as an anti-racism advisor she has spoken to many concerned students.

“Students have told me how they often feel uncomfortable in social situations at Queen’s,” she said. “What we have to address is the culture of whiteness: whiteness is normal, blackness or browness is not. Now scholars call it ‘the new racism’ ... people believe racism doesn’t exist anymore so it [racism] takes new forms.”

Kobayashi said the student’s blackface costume is a prime example of “new racism.”

“[The costume] doesn’t surprise me at all, and I wouldn’t doubt that she had no ill intentions because that’s how racism nowadays works ... . Seemingly innocent acts like dressing in blackface, or acts that aren’t intended to be racist but nonetheless have that effect. Racism of the unintended kind doesn’t make it any less racist for the person experiencing it ... [The excuse is] ‘If I didn’t mean it to be racist then how could it be?’ If we could establish that racism doesn’t have to have an intent, it’d be a lot easier.”

Kobayashi said education is an important step in confronting racism.

“There needs to be an open discussion and education. People don’t instinctively get over racist practices. They don’t realize they are perpetuating discrimination ... . You need education to help people to understand, from the point of view of the person who is racialized, about what it feels like to be discriminated against.” Elliston said that the blackface costume has been the catalyst for one positive change.

“This incident has definitely opened up the dialogue,” she said. “A lot of students are suffering.”

—With files from Emily Sangster

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