One of the highlights of Rule Out Racism week was a panel discussion on March 20 on the intersection of academic freedom, personal expression and racism. Led by Peter Wanyenya, International Student Advisor and PhD student at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice, it included a range of perspectives from a panel comprised of UBC faculty, students and community members.
Rule Out Racism, March 20 panelists included:
- Annette Henry – Professor, Faculty of Education – Language & Literacy Education
- Nitya Iyer – Human rights lawyer and co-author of Implementing Inclusion report
- Urooba Jamal – International Relations major, Community Animator at UBC Global Lounge and co-founder of The Talon, UBC’s alternative student press
- Kerry Jang – City of Vancouver Councillor and Professor, Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine
- Magnolia Pauker – PhD student, Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice
Kerry Jang, who made headlines earlier this year when he asked the University of New Brunswick to investigate the allegedly racist views of Professor Ricardo Duchesne, had two messages for the audience. “If you’re going to talk about something that is very controversial make sure the highest standards of scholarship are met, talk about all sides of the issue, make sure you cite your sources and that you do original research.” He added that it is also important to “remember what you talk about does have consequences for somebody and sometimes those consequences are not very nice.”
To help frame the discussion, lawyer Nitya Iyer outlined the legal definitions for freedom of expression, academic freedom and hate speech for the audience. “Academic freedom is not freedom of expression in the constitutional sense. Academic freedom says something about the university, and the importance of freedom of expression in the university community. What academic freedom is about is prohibiting the university (which is the government in this context) from interfering with people’s freedom of expression when they are a member of the university.”
Iyer said there are many examples of expressions we might not agree with but “from a legal perspective in our society, for good or for ill, our view is criticisms of expression deserve as much play as the expression itself.” She added, “The way to address issues of racism, xenophobia, ethnocentrism, discrimination of all kinds, is by talking about it. We need to increase the ways in which we create incentives for people to engage in responsible discussions but if we silence the irresponsible that is not going to promote the values we have as a society.”
Annette Henry, shared her perspective on academic freedom as a faculty member of colour. “I am under scrutiny in ways that my other colleagues may not be. As I think about academic freedom I think about the possibility of sharing alternative viewpoints with students, for example, and knowing that they may go and complain to one of my superiors.” She shared an example from when she taught in a US university and students complained that Henry’s views on black and latino students was different than what they were learning with another professor who described the children as having a deficit due to their race. “In this example the notion of academic freedom can mean different things to different people, she said.
Henry said “I really love being at UBC but I know we can do a lot better. The amount of students who come to my office, students I don’t even know from around campus, who say what I’m learning is not relevant to my life as a black person, as a person from the Caribbean etc. I think we can do a lot better. In terms of racism, since this is rule out racism, I think we need to really think about our curriculae, look at our course outlines and really think about giving our students the education they deserve.”
Henry also pointed out that with social media the ability for people to make racist or other comments is on the increase. “We have to be aware as a university who is interested in diversity and retaining its faculty of colour, its students of colour, of some of these things.”
PhD student Magnolia Pauker addressed white priviledge in her comments. “We white people, and here I mean both inside and outside the university, all-too-often approach racism as something that is done by others. We look at how groups of people are marginalized, but we do not often enough look at whiteness as a cultural logic and white supremacy as an ideology that is a constitutive part of who we are as individuals and as a culture.
“So, for me, rather than ruling out racism, I would like to acknowledge its foundations presence—to look closely at it, to think constantly about it, and to commit to learning and un-learning, to listening, to decentering the coercive force of whiteness as a cultural norm, and to unsettling my colonial privileges as a life-long process,” said Pauker.
Undergraduate student Urooba Jamal shared her perspective “as a person of colour navigating what I and many others deem white academia.” She explained as a UBC student “on these unceded indigenous territories we have lectures, we have textbooks, and course materials that are very euro-centric and these are the dominant perspectives that are being reproduced within the classroom.” She shared a story about a recent history class on “War and Society” that she attended that included a textbook with a chapter titled “Uncivilized vs. Civilized warfare.” The textbook talked about eastern cultures, and indigenous cultures being inferior to western cultures. “For me as a student in that class it was a very uncomfortable experience. An experience I found to be very personally offensive. These kinds of discourses are still being reproduced within the classroom, they are within the bounds of what we consider to be academic freedom, and these textbooks are still being used.”
“At the same time what I do find is there are only designate spheres within the university where I can find academic scholarship, and classes that are outside these dominant paradigms. The classes that I felt to be the most critical and classes where I felt the most safe to express myself in as a student of colour because there was an established ethos of a safer space have been the three gender, race, sexuality and social justice that I’ve taken.”
- CBC video: UNB defends prof’s academic freedom in wake of racism complaint
- ca article: Equity and Inclusion office challenged racism with Rule Out Racism week
- Read Magnolia Pauker’s opening statement “Towards academic freedom”