On Dec. 5, the SSMU Legislative Council met and decided that a listserv sent by the SSMU VP Internal Brian Farnan containing a GIF image of Barack Obama kicking down a door served to reinforce the negative stereotypical image of the hyper-masculine aggressive black man. They decided that the Equity Complaint Investigation Committee’s recommendation of a public apology was both necessary and beneficial to the entirety of the student body. It was not. Instead, this apology has made a farce of McGill and, even worse, trivialized the issue of racism.
The Equity Complaints Investigation Committee’s recommendation was made in response to an equity complaint filed on Oct. 30 in response to the Obama GIF. The complaint was filed, unbeknownst to many, for two reasons and not just one. The first was because the complainant felt that the image of Obama reinforced a negative stereotype. The second reason was because Farnan had not responded to the complainant’s initial email; as a result, the student filed an official equity complaint. Once the recommendation was drafted, it was sent to the SSMU Legislative Council to make the decision of approval or rejection.
When presented at Council, we were given an explanation of the situation by the equity commissioner. After our initial questions were answered, we opened debate on the recommendation. As the lone black voice in the room, I felt the unfair pressure of having to speak on behalf of our black community. However, I also hoped that my perspective as a black male could shed valuable insight onto the situation.
I spoke against the approval of the public apology. Although it is true that we should recognize the concerns of the complainant, such response could be best communicated to the student directly. Public apologies to the entirety of the student body should only be sent if there is a breach of trust against all students and the mandates of the society. In this case, a public apology would surely backfire.
Although black masculinity is often portrayed negatively by the media through violent and hyper-masculinized representations, the Obama image was not a good example of the reinforcement of this stereotype. Its central feature was not of a black man violently attacking a door, but rather of a public political figure being humorously discomposed. As it was mentioned during Council, this would not have been an issue had it been Stephen Harper or Hillary Clinton instead of Barack Obama.
Despite this, arguments were brought up as to why the recommendation should be approved. A majority of councillors felt that, beyond validating the complainant’s thoughts, the image was indeed reinforcing the violent black male narrative and that by speaking against this, we could educate our student body on racism and microaggressions. They felt that this was a good opportunity to promote a safe space, and that sending out a public apology would be beneficial. To these councillors, my arguments that the apology would politicize a non-political issue and that this politicization would only hurt the genuine concerns of the black community were not valid enough reasons to vote against the apology. One councillor even told me, the lone black student in the room, to “recognize my privilege” and that my opinion could not represent that of all black students. (He didn’t seem to have a problem with not recognizing his own privilege.) They believed that by approving the recommendation they were promoting equity.
I was troubled by their comments. These councillors wanted to educate students on an issue that they themselves misunderstood. We were robbing Barack Obama of his individuality by fitting him into a stereotype. We were taking a notable and respected figure of the black community and reducing him to being a violent black male—all of this in the name of education.
The recommendation was approved: nine for, five against, five abstaining.
As the session ended and a motion to adjourn was made, councillors began gathering their belongings, eager to go home. I had to remind the councillors that we were supposed to take a minute of silence to mourn of the death of Nelson Mandela. Embarrassed, everyone sat back down. I sat there baffled by the irony that these councillors believed they were helping the black community, unaware that they had silenced and ignored a black student on the night that one of humanity’s greatest activists died after a long life of battling for the equality of all races.
I felt that SSMU Equity was misrepresenting the needs of visible minorities. Throughout the process itself there was minimal consultation with members of the affected group, and the lone black student who spoke—me—was ignored. The recommendation was made by the four members of the Equity Complaints Investigation Committee. They were trying to speak for the black community without asking for its opinions. Ultimately, this apology has misrepresented the struggles that I encounter on a daily basis. By presenting a poor example of black stereotypes, they have confused, instead of educating, our student body about the issue of racism.
People often think that racism involves malicious actions of ill intent, but this is false. Racism often involves a set of implicit attitudes held even by well-meaning people. Racism is pervasive and it has been vastly studied in psychology. Columbia professor Derald Sue defines microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of colour.” These are everyday actions that range from racial slurs to cultural appropriation, and collectively they help construct the exclusion that marginalizes minorities. A microaggression is when you censor someone from using the word “black” while not censoring the word “white.” Acts such as telling a black person that they don’t “act black” because they do not appear “ghetto,” saying that a black person is “lucky” to be in university, misappropriating “ratchet” culture, or dismissing allegations of racism as “pulling the black card” are microaggressions.
By being overly politically correct while misidentifying what microaggressions are, we took away Obama’s character and replaced it with a stereotype. Under the pretense that “education is good,” the nine councillors attempted to teach our community about a topic that they had gotten wrong. In doing so, we drew the attention of our community into making fun of the apology, and consequently trivializing the issue of racism, instead of teaching them about it. Racism is real, microaggressions do exist, and equity plays a large role in minimizing the struggles of visible minorities.
I am for equity, I want equity, I need equity. But I neither want nor need this equity. I don’t need equity that confuses the issue of racism and makes students laugh about microaggressions. I don’t need equity that unfairly scapegoats its own members in the name of education. I don’t need equity that taints the university’s reputation instead of bolstering it. The decision to approve the recommendation not only outlined a poor example of black stereotypes, but also of educational equity. Education is good––but only so as long as we know the subject that we are teaching. Our student body cannot learn about the struggles of our minorities if those attempting to teach are not educated.
Élie Lubendo sits on the SSMU Legislative Council as the Services Representative to SSMU. This is his second year as a councillor. This piece was written in collaboration with Christian Service, Political Coordinator at the Black Students’ Network. The Black Students’ Network will be having a discussion on marginalized peoples in academia, and the dynamics of culture and ethnicity in North America on March 20.