Published on Brock University (http://www.brocku.ca)
Calls to Protest Racism on Campus
The following two open letters were written by Brock Labour Studies and Brock Sociology in response to the racist performance and celebration of blackface on October 30, 2014 in Isaacs Pub.
Open Letter re: Blackface at Brock University
On the night of October 30th, Issac's Bar and Grill in the Brock University Student-Alumni Centre hosted a Halloween party and costume contest. Several non-Black students participating in the contest were dressed as the Jamaican National Bobsled Team.
These students wore blackface: black make-up or paint on their faces. Blackface can never be disassociated from the vicious legacy of white supremacy and institutionalized anti-Black racism in the United States and Canada, just as redface or “playing Indian” cannot be disassociated from colonialism and the subjugation and dispossession of indigenous peoples.
Very close to Brock University, in Niagara Falls, blackface minstrel shows were aimed at white tourists until the 1950s. However, blackface is not simply a remnant of a racist historical past, but part of a broader set of cultural practices which maintain and normalize anti-Black racism and systemic oppression. Students, staff and faculty at Brock University need to understand that such costumes are not “just a joke”. Regardless of the intent or motivation of the students in question, donning blackface for Halloween is never okay; it is racist, full stop.
The incident at Isaac's has generated concern and anxiety on campus, particularly because the students wearing blackface were awarded a cash prize for their costume and the Student Union's initial response to the incident was halting, at best.
Given this history and contemporary reality, we are extremely disappointed at the lack of a response to this incident from the university's administration. A university committed to equity, diversity, and anti-racism must address such incidents head on. We fear that without a strong rebuke from senior administration and a clear anti-racism plan of action moving forward, what happened at Isaac's will be validated and a message will be sent to the Brock community that racism is an accepted reality of campus life.
Professor Simon Black, Assistant Professor, Centre for Labour Studies, Brock University
Professor Kendra Coulter, Associate Professor, Centre for Labour Studies, Brock University
Nick Ruhloff-Queiruga, Brock Labour Studies Students' Association
Professor Larry Savage, Director, Centre for Labour Studies, Brock University
Open Letter from the Department of Sociology on Racist Incident at Brock University
On the evening of October 30, 2014, the Brock University Student-Alumni Centre hosted a party at the Isaac’s pub featuring a Halloween costume contest. At this event, several student contestants impersonated the Jamaican national bobsled team (of Calgary Winter Olympics fame), as portrayed in the 1993 film comedy Cool Runnings. Painting themselves with make-up, these students deliberately appeared in “blackface,” recalling the notoriously racist “minstrel” shows that were aimed at entertaining white audiences in the United States and Canada as recently as fifty years ago. The proudly flaunted blackface-costuming netted the students a $500 prize, which, disturbingly, was awarded based on audience applause. That evidently no one at the event chose to protest these students’ appropriation of blackness as a “costume,” and that, to the contrary, this racist performance was greeted with such favour by the assembled party-goers should elicit strong condemnation from all those committed to ending racial oppression in all its forms.
This was not the first blackface incident at Brock. Students at a Halloween event at the Isaac’s pub did much the same thing in 2007, and, at the time, Isaac’s management, BUSU and the Brock administration failed to condemn the incident for what it was: an ignorant and arrogant display of the racism and white supremacism that remains all-too pervasive in our society. By ignoring those who raised their voices in protest and trivializing the incident, these parties effectively contributed to normalizing anti-black imagery and facilitated its repetition.
The Department of Sociology unreservedly condemns those who were involved in this latest eruption of racism and calls upon Brock students, faculty and staff to be vigilant in protesting and combatting all manifestations of racism on campus, and beyond. We believe this vigilance should be exercised through the unions, department councils, and student associations of this university. At the same time, we caution that this incident should not be used as a pretext to empower the administration to limit free speech and expression on campus under the cover of fighting racism.
BUSU and the Brock administration, through a written statement from President Lightstone, have criticized the incident in question, and that is certainly to be welcomed. BUSU has apparently pledged to institute and promulgate policies promoting equity, and Dr. Lightstone has reminded the Brock community of the need for a higher level of “historical consciousness” to avoid similarly “offensive” actions in the future.
That said, as social scientists committed to anti-racist education and activism, we would be remiss if we failed to point out that racial prejudice and oppression are by no means simply the remnants of a distant “racist past” – and that an effective struggle against racism today must go well beyond decrying the racist “symbolic” actions of a few students, who may or may not lack historical consciousness. For racial oppression is a pervasive and persistent contemporary phenomenon, manifested in a myriad of everyday practices and attitudes: in the functioning of the police, the courts and the prisons; in the operations of the labour market; in the implementation of mean-spirited social welfare policies; and in the structures of exploitation that define our deeply antagonistic economic system, in Canada and globally. It is all too easy to condemn symbolic acts of racist stupidity, while ignoring the systemic and institutional racism that is manifested in Canada’s “economic apartheid” (documented so well by Grace-Edward Galabuzi), in the complacent response of “mainstream Canada” to the epidemic of murders of aboriginal women in recent years (an issue that Prime Minister Harper notoriously referred to as simply a “criminal” rather than a “sociological” matter), in the xenophobic discourses that legitimate Western aggression in the Middle East (disguised as a “war on terrorism”), and in the equanimity with which literally millions of non-white human beings are allowed to die of starvation and easily preventable diseases each and every year. In light of this overall context, the continued fetishization of skin colour – and the concomitant privileging of whiteness and demeaning of blackness – acquires an unmistakably sinister significance.
Racism is deadly business, and that elementary fact must be driven home in our determined response to even its most seemingly “trivial” and ostensibly “humorous” manifestations.
If Brock aims to be an international centre for excellence, fostering a respectful learning environment for a diverse range of students, then we must engage with the often-difficult conversations that challenge white supremacism on campus and ensure that the laissez-faire language of multiculturalism is not used to mask the ongoing effects of systemic, institutional and everyday racism.
Compliation of Social Justice Websites
The list below was compiled by students and faculty with the goal of providing access to information about groups that may be of interest to those with a general interest in social justice and equity issues.
First Nation Information Project
Indian and Northern Affairs
Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres
Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples
Animal Advocacy Radio – Animal Voices
Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach
Brock Animal Rights Club (BARC)
Niagara Action for Animals (NAfA)
Satya: A Magazine of Vegetarianism, Environmentalism, Animal Advocacy and Social Justice
Society & Animals Forum
New Internationalist magazine
The Standard (St. Catharines’ newspaper)
U.K. journalist George Monbiot
Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA)
Citizenship Studies Media Lab
Ryerson University: CAW – Sam Gindin Chair of Social Justice and Democracy: Portal of Progressive Research in Canada
Action Canada for Population and Development (ACPD)
Amnesty International, Niagara Region (AINR)
Amnesty International Toronto Organization (AITO)
Buffalo Peace People
Citizens for Public Justice
Food Not Bombs Movement
Food Not Bombs - Niagara
The Miss G___ Project
Ontario Coalition for Social Justice (OCSJ)
Syracuse Cultural Workers
Third World Network
Toronto Social Forum (TSF)
Social Justice Centres
Centre for Social Justice
Centre for Studies in Social Justice – Windsor University