Editorial, Opinion

McGill’s commitments to Black History Month require sustained action

On Feb. 1, an opening ceremony with keynote speaker Dr. James Jones marked the lineup of events for McGill’s fifth annual celebration of Black History Month. In an email to students, Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier and Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) Christopher Manfredi acknowledged that the work of McGill’s Anti-Black Racism plan builds upon ongoing advocacy by the Black Students’ Network, the McGill African Students’ Society, and the Dr. Kenneth Melville Black Faculty Caucus, and that celebrating Black excellence should be a year-round commitment. These words are an important, yet minimal, first step in reversing the documented apathy toward the sustained, storied, and long-standing realities of anti-Blackness at McGill. Committing to promises of anti-racism and truly honouring Black History Month requires bolder, multilateral solutions that fundamentally reimagine the core structure of the university—which disproportionately impacts Black community members’ abilities to flourish.

McGill’s commitment to year-round care for Black history has yet to be realized. This, in part, stems from the university’s initial reluctance to officially recognize Black History Month—21 years after the House of Commons’ official recognition and years of grassroots Black student advocacy. McGill’s involvement fails to extend beyond surface-level engagement. For example, the university often pigeon-holes Black academics’ events into February, rather than offering them prime speaking opportunities at more “prestigious” events, like the Beatty Lecture. Although McGill has finally admitted that its namesake, James McGill, enslaved at least three Black people and two Indigenous people, it took repeated instances of vandalism before his statue was taken down—for “repair and restoration.” Year-round support for Black lives means well-intentioned engagement, beyond funding, that challenges McGill’s tendency to exclude and ignore Black presence on campus.

McGill’s hesitancy to engage could be perceived as giving Black student groups autonomy to organize, but it is critical to remember that the administration ultimately holds power over the university’s direction. Consider the underrepresentation of Black faculty––who made up just 0.8 per cent of the over 1,700 tenure-track or stream academics in September 2020––especially in, but not limited to, disciplines like science and engineering. The focus on Black excellence, already concerning in its validation of Black humanity only within spheres of neoliberal achievement, has not translated to representation on the syllabus or in the classroom. 

At the faculty level, departments must question why race-critical approaches sit on the periphery of curricula. Professors have a responsibility to understand that teaching one Black thinker on their Eurocentric syllabus is hollow without meaningful engagement. Courses centred on race are often offered solely at the 400 and 500 levels, rather than being seriously integrated into introductory courses across the sciences and humanities. In turn, programs continue to value a white status quo over the experiences of Black and racialized people often affected by the radical, white supremacist misinterpretations of these disciplines. McGill students can currently graduate without understanding how colonialism and systemic racism subsist and survive as all-consuming forces—all of which affect what courses are taught, who gets to teach them and how, and how Black students connect lived experience in the world with those in the classroom. 

McGill students are not exempt from these changes. To lazily criticize McGill without taking action or changing one’s own attitude is to allow systemic anti-Black racism to propagate for personal, performative benefit. In spite of their limited diversity, McGill student organizations need to go beyond rhetorical shows of support—and in the Students’ Society of McGill University’s case, need to go beyond utter radio silence—they can further share calls to action and concretize constitutional commitments to equity. Unburdening Black students involves fairly compensating them for their labour and sharing power, rather than consulting them in symbolic “safe spaces.”

McGill needs to hold itself accountable for its commitments to Black people. These actions are neither all-inclusive, nor easy for students, faculty, or the administration—and they should not be either. McGill needs long-term changes across all levels and must raise the bar to which it holds itself. McGill should communicate progress updates on their Anti-Black Racism plan more clearly and consistently, as should SSMU with the Black Affairs Committee. The tiered, multi-layered process of breaking barriers and making space for McGill’s Black community is necessary in the pursuit of an equitable, just, and anti-racist future.

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