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Anti-racism rally led by faculty draws huge crowd at Queen’s University

BY CELIA RUSSELL | FEB 11 2008

By 3:15 p.m. on Wednesday, January 16, more than 700 people had gathered in front of Queen’s University’s Stauffer Library for a faculty-organized rally against racism.

The day, time and location of the rally were no coincidence. Exactly eight weeks before, a faculty member on her way to teach a class was forced off a sidewalk in front of the library and taunted with racial slurs by four male students wearing engineering jackets. A university investigation has yielded no leads so far, and the professor, whose name hasn’t been released, didn’t report the incident to city police.

The incident was widely condemned by members of the university community, including Principal Karen Hitchcock. And it led the Queen’s Coalition of Anti-Racist Faculty to organize the January rally, which attracted hundreds of faculty members, students, administrators and staff, as well as other residents of Kingston, Ontario.

“Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident at Queen’s, and faculty members need to play a critical role in addressing systemic racism at the university,” said rally organizer David McDonald, professor and director of global development studies at Queen’s. “Although real change will only come about with sustained efforts on a broad front from hiring practices to curriculum development, there is a role for public demonstration of opposition and solidarity.”

Immediately after the racist incident in November, the university sent letters to all students, describing what happened and condemning it. Dr. Hitchcock, on the university’s website, said that Queen’s would not tolerate such behaviour and asked anyone with information about the incident to come forward. She has encouraged faculty members to discuss the issue of systemic racism in their classes and has asked all members of the university community to consider how Queen’s might work towards achieving a more respectful and supportive environment.

Faculty members at Queen’s are urging the university to take immediate and aggressive action to stop systemic racism at the university. History professor Adnan Husain, a member of Queen’s Coalition of Anti-Racist Faculty, called for programs that teach about different cultures and a transitional year for minority students, saying these should be viewed as concrete and achievable goals.

Racism is an issue on every campus, geography professor and anti-racism activist Audrey Kobayashi told the rally. She said that even though Queen’s may not have the diverse representation of students, faculty or staff evident in some other Canadian universities, especially those located in big cities, it is not alone.

Indeed, 10 days after the rally at Queen’s, student groups at York University in Toronto quickly organized an anti-racism rally, after graffiti insulting to blacks was found on the door of the York University Black Students’Alliance’s office and in a nearby bathroom. At both rallies, organizers called on the university administration to do more to combat racism. A spokesman for York said the university plans to tender a call for an external safety audit.

In recent years, Queen’s has taken steps to increase diversity and promote equity, including establishing an employment equity council and an aboriginal council and launching high-level committees to gather data about equity and to recommend policy. Around the same time as the racist incident in November, Queen’s announced the appointment of its first diversity adviser – Barrington Walker, a Queen’s history professor.

Several reports on race relations and equity at Queen’s have been tabled over the last 18 years, including a landmark 1991 report on race relations that tackled curriculum issues and led to the establishment of the Queen’s Human Rights Office. The latest report, Systemic Racism Towards Faculty of Colour and Aboriginal Faculty at Queen’s University by Frances Henry in 2003, sought to explain why, within a short period of time, six female faculty members from visible minorities, including aboriginal faculty, left the university.

“One of the reasons that we are here today is that we want to see the experience in these reports acknowledged,” said Dr. Kobayashi.

Dr. Walker, the new diversity adviser, told the rally that as a black professor, he was familiar with many of the experiences highlighted in these reports: “Chilly climate, exclusion, both overt and covert, and a devaluation of anti-racist work both inside and outside of the classroom are something that faculty of colour and to an extent their allies have to face.”

He noted that some people have dismissed the Henry Report as ideologically driven and methodologically flawed, deriding the notion of “a culture of whiteness.”

“For faculty of colour, however, the report was not a revelation but rather an affirmation of our lived experiences,” he said. “We have to address the systemic issues that linger upon our campus, issues of culture, climate, entitlement – a constellation of beliefs that allowed the perpetrators of this act to believe that they could do so with impunity.”

Queen’s student politicians Jessica Soedirgo and Jenny Glozman said they were pleased that faculty members mobilized to bring issues of race and racism to the forefront. Graduate student Jeff Welsh said that although rallies can boost morale, they do not provide a framework for sustained engagement that leads to change. He called for anti-oppression training for faculty, students, staff and administrators as well as a less “Eurocentric” curriculum and more effort to attract and retain visible minority and aboriginal students, staff, and faculty.

Dr. Walker said, “We’ve had, to be sure, our share of false starts at this university on the anti-racist and diversity front. I hope this show of solidarity is the beginning of a renewed and vigorous commitment across all parts of this university, with the lead of the administration I have been asked to advise, to fight racism – to root it out whenever we see it – to call its name.”

Celia Russell is editor of the campus newspaper, Queen’s Gazette.

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