Implicit racism: the need for deep diversity at Brock University

Brock University is fortunate. It has not had overt incidences of racism like those that have so marred the reputation of other institutions. Yet, what makes this institution fortunate, the absence of ‘in your face racism’, has lulled it into complacency. When people work hard to maintain a culture of civility, and have high-minded policies such as the Respectful Work and Learning Environment Policy (RWLEP), it is easy to assume that tacit racism is neither pervasive nor spiritually corrosive to the culture of the University. In fact, whereas overt racism spurs short-term debate, action and policy reviews, the obverse is true of implicit racism because harm is not intended.

The absence of overt racism – the kind which jolts and leaves White onlookers morally conflicted about what to do – can often generate the idea that racism is only a problem if there is blood on the floor. The pervasiveness of tacit White racism is accompanied by microaggressions, which is defined by Derald Sue as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”

Tacit racism also leads to the belief that if racism persists, it is only a problem of ‘bad apples’ or a nagging holdover from bygone times. But the issue here is not simply a question of how tacit White racism is defined: it is also the practical matter revealed by studies in Canada, the US and UK that it impairs the health, well-being and longevity of people of colour. It is here, I suggest, that civility policies and superficial diversity initiatives are not only problematic but, in the hands of administrations indifferent to racial justice, they are shape-shifting: such policy instruments perpetuate systemic racism, but grant administrations plausible deniability.

I suggest below that two results are achieved by routine declarations of civility and diversity in statements such as that in the RWLEP: “Brock University opposes behaviour that is likely to undermine the dignity, self-esteem or productivity of any of its members and prohibits any form of discrimination or harassment whether it occurs on University property or in conjunction with University-related activities”.

First, independent of ongoing and substantive action from the highest levels of the administration – including education campaigns, robust University-wide employment equity, an arms-length Human Rights and Equity Services Office and meaningful disciplinary outcomes for discrimination and harassment – the foregoing statement constructs racist incivility as an anomaly whereas it is, in reality, the norm. Related to this inversion of reality is that to name racism becomes an act of impossibility, because the RWLEP is an act of institutionalized refusal to listen and transform. Confronted by the in-built denial of White racism in such policies, the victims of microaggressions are simultaneously silenced by the perception that it is they, for daring to name systemic White racism on the campus, who are the ones acting in bad faith.

Before I move on to briefly elaborate how plastic smiles and diversity styles deepen the racist rot at Brock University, a word to the White administrators, colleagues, staff and students with whom I have excellent work relationships. Given the experiences I will describe may be shocking, you may find it difficult to believe that such conduct occurs at Brock University. After all, since you don’t consider yourself to be a tacit racist because you tell yourself you ‘don’t see colour’, you may likely miss the insidious racism that surrounds you. Indeed, because Brock’s administration, staff and student body is so overwhelmingly White, it is easy not to ‘see colour’. Quite aside from the privilege of White innocence that comes with ‘not seeing colour’, some of you may be rightly offended for me and may even be inclined to apologize for the sins of others. True allies neither apologize for others nor require personal exoneration.

Aside from those reactions, I cannot leave it to chance that some may misread me and take personal offence that I have not carefully parsed my language to separate ‘good’ from ‘bad’ White people. The point of such an objection is that I might be accused of committing one of academia’s cardinal sins – failing to be nuanced. Given what I will say about the suffocating racism at Brock, I can only state that I feel no special obligation to assuage anyone who is not prepared to consider what is long denied an airing. This is not to say that my experience at Brock has been all bad. To the contrary, it has been quite good. So good that I feel at liberty to speak a truth I have suppressed. After all, since I always reciprocate professional courtesies, genuine kindness and respect, I see no need to address my experience with White racism and the myth of diversity in compromising or qualifying tones.

Now, in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 ‘black face’ incident at Isaac’s pub, the third I was aware of at the time of my eight years as a professor at Brock, I gave a lecture to one of my classes on whiteness and neoliberalism. In fact, the lecture specifically situated whiteness and systemic racism as logically consistent with the corporatist regimes of higher education. As have recently Drs. Audrey Kobayashi and Annette Henry, I explained then that universities, governments and corporations loudly trumpet equity and diversity, but have spectacularly failed in this objective. The lecture, to boot, centered on how White students were the beneficiaries of a racist regime that buys their compliance and complicity, all too cheaply, with the belief that their life’s achievements are the result of ‘merit’.

Angered by the lecture, a clique of White students openly mused about killing me. The word was that my vehicle should be identified for the deed of cutting my break cables when the time was right. A concerned student attempted to expose this conspiracy to me shortly after it happened. Presuming it was nothing more than racism as usual, I told the student I don’t want to know as it might bias me toward the students. The student was so afraid for my life, however, that he persisted and disclosed the threats to my partner, who is also a Brock professor.

My relations with White students are generally positive, despite the not infrequent complaints to chairs and deans about my ‘high expectations’ and ‘unapproachableness’ and, of course, the all-too-frequent pillorying on course evaluations. I was not surprised that my life could be threatened, but I was deeply shaken. In a country shy to acknowledge its culture of White racism, those who prefer to imagine themselves as innocent of the privileges they derive from systemic inequality tend to be righteously indignant when the reality of the situation is brought to their attention. That jarring experience affirmed my decision to limit my time spent in a work environment I found sickening. But this and other routine episodes of tacit White racism that I experience at Brock, the most recent being an aggressive Parking Services employee demanding to know whether I could read, reveals how unsafe and emotionally unhealthy the workplace can be for me and others of my ilk. I have told myself that these and other instances of polite racism are a condition of my employment at Brock University. But if these are the experiences of an African Canadian professor, what must it be like to be a student ‘of colour’?

I attribute ongoing racism to the higher administration’s indifference toward pervasive racism at Brock University. So how do you imagine I place the implicit racism of White students and staff at the door of the president and higher administration? Let me state categorically there is a poisoned atmosphere of racism at Brock. Not in any way by malice, I don’t believe, but rather by smug indifference. Tacit White racism percolates, cultivated by a refusal to heed warnings, and, like any noxious gas, bit by bit, it corrodes until an open breach is reached. I am at that point of boiling. Quite contrary to the platitudes in the RWLEP that Brock University does not tolerate any form of racial harassment, this is patently not the case in my view.

Take, for example, the more well-known response of Dr. Lightstone to the 2014 ‘black face incident’, with the troubling title “Blackface Halloween costumes, and a lesson in historical consciousness”. Despite the tough language in the RWLEP, he tried to parse what was funny from what would be offensive in a Halloween costume all the while referring to ‘black face’ as a costume. I will not rehearse my reaction to the president’s claim that the ‘black facers’ were merely insensitive because they lacked “historical consciousness”. My principal point then, as it is now, is that there is no meaningful understanding at Brock University of what Joyce King calls “dysconscious racism”: “…an uncritical habit of mind (including perceptions, attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs) that justifies inequity and exploitation by accepting the existing order of things”.

The population of Black, Brown, Red and Yellow students is, in visual terms, radically altering the student body. Such change has far reaching implications for racial climate and the need for greater racial representation among faculty, staff and administrators. The administration is keenly aware of declining student enrolment at present and over the coming decade. But when disaggregated by race, African Canadian, Indigenous, South Asian communities are brimming with young people and are ideal recruitment targets. One cannot help but notice the significant uptick in South Asian students from Brampton. Indeed, since the late 1990s and into the early 2000s census data predicted African Canadian and Indigenous communities will have the youngest cohorts for the foreseeable future. Students ‘of colour’, particularly African and Indigenous Canadian youth, are a considerable recruitment market for universities and colleges in major census metropolitan areas such as the GTA.

I have noted with serious concern that since the 2014 ‘black face’ debacle, the Brock University homepage is routinely awash with the smiling faces of real Black (and other students ‘of colour’). It may only be coincidental, but I noticed that from September, 2015, to February, 2016, African Canadian students were at any time between 20 per cent and 60 per cent of all persons represented on the homepage. Odd: the same university administration that did not give even a whit about addressing anti-Black racism is now disproportionately representing African Canadian students on its official website. Whether for recruitment and/or impression management purposes I cannot say. For my part though, I have decided since blackness is a commodity of representational convenience, I will no longer attend graduation or knowingly allow myself to be photographed as a Brock employee.

In addition to problematic strategies of racial representation by the University, the president has quietly undertaken a radical change in the reporting structure of the Office of Human Rights and Equity Services (OHRES). Interestingly, just at the time Dr. Lightstone was exonerating the ‘black face’ performers, he was in the process of shuffling OHRES, which reported to him, off to the Department of Human Resources. The former director of OHRES, Lynn Bubic, walked out the door in late 2014, leaving Marla Portfillio, who in turn left of her own accord in early 2015, OHRES was without personnel until at least July 2015. When I met with Kim Meade in May of 2015, former Associate VP, International and Student Affairs, my aim was to determine how Dr. Lightstone arrived at his decision not to discipline the ‘black facers’. I left her office with no clear answer, but she admitted there are “grey areas” in enforcing the RWLEP. We agreed, however, to have further meetings that would include staff, student and faculty stakeholders to explore how racism generally and anti-Black racism specifically might be addressed. The result was the Taskforce on Racial Climate, whose first meeting was convened in June 2015. At this meeting, ignorant at that time that OHRES was moved into Human Resources, I suggested the taskforce should serve as an advisory committee for hiring staff for OHRES. No such advisory committees were struck. What is clear is that the office is now staffed by two White women, hired between July and October 2015. Why, you may ask, is any of this a problem?

By moving OHRES into Human Resources, and without any explanation, the president has unwittingly sent a signal that implies equity, diversity and human rights are not important. Indeed, failure to communicate to the University community changes in the offices’ location, reporting structure and investigative practices signals lack of transparency about an office which can little afford a crisis of confidence. When I asked why the administration made this move without consulting the campus community I was informed that “[restructuring OHRES] is consistent with the University’s authority to develop its organizational structure to serve the objectives of the University”. It is no doubt a good thing that in moving OHRES, the RWLEP which that enforces, will finally get a review – it has been nine years since this was last done, though it should be every two years. But just as concerning as a closed-door hiring process for the new OHRES staff, the administration has declined to explain whether employment equity provisions were used for hiring the new staff.

The exercise of the president’s authority to move OHRES from its once highly accessible and visible location at Decew into the labyrinth of Human Resources might well serve the higher administration. It is, however, difficult to see how such a move is in the interest of the University community. Whether students ‘of colour’, and what very few staff of colour there are at Brock, will feel comfortable going up to Human Resources to make complaints remains to be seen: I doubt it, however. Whether students ‘of colour’ will feel comfortable talking to an office solely composed of White women about the kinds of racial microagressions they experience also remains to be seen: I doubt that too. But if diversity is to mean anything, the higher administration, being all White and nearly all male, should be humble and admit it lacks expertise and experiential knowledge to effectively develop a transformative racial climate on the campus.

What is needed is real diversity. Deep diversity! The type wherein women, people ‘of colour’, people with disabilities, LGBTQ, religious ‘minorities’ and varied political opinions are manifest in the higher administration. Three proposals: 1) through the Joint Committee on Employment Equity and establishing a new position of Equity Officer on its Executive as well as an Equity Committee the Faculty Association is exercising leadership on diversity issues. Now it is time for the administration to follow BUFA’s lead. They can do so by immediately institutionalizing an aggressive 10 year campus-wide program of employment equity. As suggested by Carl James, there is need for racial diversity among faculty given Canada’s changing demographics. But I go further and argue that administrations must themselves be diversified through benchmarks for the representation of women, people ‘of colour’, people with disabilities, LGBTQ, religious ‘minorities’ and political diversity. This diversification must be carefully tracked and reports made public. Here they can follow the example of U of T, which will begin a Fall 2016 census that is not limited to gender, racial and sexuality. Why stop there? 2) the Board of Trustees too must also establish an aggressive 10 year program of diversification. Currently on the 29 person panel there are only three persons ‘of colour’, the Chancellor and two male students, and 10 women to 19 males; 3) the administration must establish an OHRES that is arms-length and can speak truth to power. The OHRES must be visible with an independent office away from the administration, easily accessible to students and staff, staffed with people ‘of colour’ (one of whom ought to be Black woman), brought back under the president’s portfolio and overseen by a joint council consisting of representatives from the administration, BUFA, BUSU, CUPE, OSSTF, the Student Justice Centre and a member from the St. Catharines community.

Why put forward such proposals if I think the administration is secretive and indifferent to equity and diversity? I can think of three ideological and practical reasons. First, as a fundamental democratic right, the University community has a duty to check the authority of the powerful by demanding accountability and transparency. Second, what is proposed is eminently possible and requires only political will. Third, as George Dei argues, if we are to move toward a social ecology of liberation, we must decolonize the university. Finally, as the Brock University community struggles to effect deep and high level changes to create a climate that is a model for civil society, all of us must call “bullshit” when we see it.
Aluta continua.

-Dr. Tamari Kitossa
*** Dr. Tamari Kitossa is an Associate Professor in the Sociology Department at Brock University.

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