A prof's view of the Ryerson racism report - Macleans.ca

A prof’s view of the Ryerson racism report

Academic life gets complicated when tolerance and freedom clash.


Ryerson University released its sweeping report into racism on campus, yesterday, and the full text of the report was just made available on its web site today. Looking over its  recommendations, one sees numerous suggestions that will, if implemented, surely make Ryerson a better place. Still, in the areas where the report deals with the issues of warming the “chilly climate” at the University, especially when it comes to teaching, I suspect many readers will be struck by just how vexing the intellectual problems are.

Related: Ryerson racism probe seeks to coddle students

These questions are not unique to Ryerson, of course. I arrived at the University of Western Ontario as an undergraduate when the furor was raging over psychologist Phillipe Rushton and his research on racial differences; my view then was the same as it is now, that Rushton’s work should be judged by his peers in the field of psychology, not by protesters or politicians. Not too long after that, a scathing report came out at Western about the “chilly climate” for women on campus, which sparked wide-spread debate. Here at my own university, I was once shocked when student advocates told members of my school that we should never use racist language, even if it meant avoiding teaching classics of literature like Huckleberry Finn. We didn’t have the skills, we were told, to deal with the complexities of the issue.

I have been to Ryerson, by the way, though I did not spend enough time there to know it intimately, so I freely admit that I cannot speak to the specific conditions there. But I do find the larger questions intriguing, and would like to venture a few more thoughts occasioned by the new report.

Consider, for example, recommendation 6C, which calls for a stronger anti-discrimination policy at the school, and for every course outline to include a statement to the effect that all individuals are to be treated “with respect and dignity.” So far, so good. I include such a statement in my own syllabi, though my university does not require it. But note carefully what follows:

While ideas will be debated vigorously, no one should be made to feel
disrespected because of their race, language, religion, gender, sexual difference or ability.

Now things get tricky. Notice the emphasis on feelings, a theme that runs throughout the report. What would it take to make someone feel disrespected? I sometimes teach Robertson Davies’ novel The Rebel Angels, which includes a scene in which the main character sings a racist song in public. Could assigning that book cause a “racialized” student (an interesting word used frequently in the report) to feel disrespected? Does it matter that the character in question is generally represented positively? Does it matter that she later feels ashamed of her actions? Shakespeare poses a host of similar difficulties. Problematic depictions of race? Check (Titus Andronicus). Religion? Check (Merchant of Venice). Gender? Check (all of them). Ability? Check (Richard III). In short, how does one reconcile free and vigourous debate with the difficult need to not make anyone ever feel disrespected? Where does one draw the line?

In fact, the task force has an answer to that. In the section on academic freedom, they propose a limit to free academic discourse:

Issues of academic freedom are contested since there is a fine line between free speech and hatemongering. A person has crossed the line when their protest/speech diminishes another person’s self-respect and identity.

To be fair, the report freely acknowledges that while this may be the line, drawing it in actual cases, academic and legal, is not a simple matter. And elsewhere it makes several statements about the importance of academic freedom. Still, I wonder about the emphasis placed on the emotional state of the student or professor whose self-respect and identity are supposed to be at risk here. Consider the following anecdote, given as an example of the “chilly climate” at the university:

The instructor used powerful PowerPoint images of women being stoned to death. She then used a Canadian case in which a father and brother were charged with the death of their daughter/sister. The case was presented as an example of honour killing common in Muslim societies. The student found the presentation of the material patently biased against Muslims. It left the impression that all Muslims acted this way. This was particularly difficult to deal with for Muslim students who wore identifiable markers such as hijabs in class. They felt that all eyes were on them and that their colleagues were either hostile or judgmental – which made it difficult to even look up in class. Subsequent to their complaint, the instructor rejected their concerns saying that they were over-reacting and offered them the option of making their own presentation about their understanding of Islam. The students argued that the environment was too poisoned for them to be able to address all that had been said over two lectures and that they no longer felt comfortable speaking up in class on the issue. The instructor said it was sad they felt that way but there was nothing she could so [sic].

This story seems to be told to show how insensitive instructors can be to the needs of their students, but how badly has the instructor acted here? She presented factual information about a pressing social issue, and when students complained that it was biased, offered them the chance to present their own presentation on the issue, but the students refused. Now, I was not there, so I cannot comment on whether the presentation was a good one or not, but based on the account provided in the report, I am troubled by the underlying assumption that the real problem is not what was presented but how it made the students feel. The students “found” the presentation biased and no rebuttal was possible because “they no longer felt comfortable” in the class. Notice, too, that the professor is not accused of saying that all Muslims acted in this way, only of leaving that “impression” according to the Muslim students.

The implication made both by the story and the more explicit statements is that academics must always take care to avoid causing discomfort, at least when that discomfort arises from one’s most deeply felt convictions. But isn’t it often the role of a professor to cause discomfort in students? When I teach Oscar Wilde, for example, I discuss Wilde’s sexuality and ask students to consider whether there are sub-textual homo-erotic themes in The Importance of Being Earnest. I know this makes some of my students uncomfortable — they literally squirm in their seats — because their cultural, religious, and sexual backgrounds have taught them that such things are not to be openly discussed, and if they are, to be the subjects of jokes, not serious contemplation. But I think that discomfort is good. Whatever their conclusions about Oscar Wilde, they should be confronted with ideas that they find troubling because that is where there is often opportunities for real intellectual growth. But, again, based only on the evidence at hand,  I worry that the Ryerson students who saw the presentation about honour killings were not inclined to ask difficult questions about their religion because tolerance seems to tell us that such things are beyond debate.

I’m not trying to suggest that there should be no line at all when it comes to respect for others. I would not maintain that anything goes in academic discourse. In fact, on exactly one occasion, I told a student that his remarks were not acceptable in my class after the student complained that “Americans” were idiots and war-mongers. I cut him off and firmly told him that characterizing a whole nationality in a negative way was a non-starter. I think I did the right thing, and I would do it again if it came up, but it never has. Maybe the climate isn’t so chilly here.

The point I am trying to make is this: the Ryerson taskforce has rightly called for a more inclusive atmosphere where diversity is welcomed and celebrated. Moreover, they have quite rightly acknowledged that intellectual freedom makes fostering such an atmosphere complicated.

But it may turn out to be even more complicated than they think.


A prof’s view of the Ryerson racism report

  1. Eloquently written.

    I honestly believe the situation at Ryerson was blown way out of proportion. I personally have not read the report but I wonder if the questions asked while conducting this investigation slightly lead students of colour on to the idea of being discriminated? And I agree with the premise that students should be challenged and made to feel uncomfortable (for the purpose of education). I can’t remember the countless number of History classes I’ve had where I was just shaking in awe with the number of elephants in the room that jump out when adressing issues such as Homosexuality, Women’s Rights and Religion. It really makes students think critically, and to re-examine what they thought was whole and just beforehand.

    Again, very nicely written.

  2. In an undergraduate psychology class, we discussed the work of educational psychologist Deanna Kuhn. Kuhn found that students don’t have the reasoning skills required to form proper counter-arguments to claims made by an opposing party. Instead, people (particularly in North America) believe that the opposing party is entitled to their opinion instead of working towards the superior solution. We need to educate students how to properly argue before they reach the university level.

    I remember a conversation I had with a Christian colleague regarding gay marriage. He believed that homosexuals were not entitled to the same rights straight couples, but could not form a reasonable argument to explain why. He relied on scripture and could not form a reasonable argument (the phrase “next they’ll be marrying dogs” was used). This was a fourth year political science student! I realize that this student was probably not the best representative of the opinion, but this example highlights the problem.

    I agree with the author- religion is not beyond debate. Maybe there are some arguments that are superior to other arguments. Homosexuals should be extended the same rights as straight couples. Women should not be stoned to death for any reason, certainly not infidelity. It is NOT okay to kill an “infidel”. It’s okay to eat shellfish (they’re not unclean).

  3. This is a great entry. I have frequently debated with a friend about the fine line between free speech and inappropriate comments. It is a difficult and complicated issue and I think you have struck a nice balance in your writing.

    It is often an issue that gets even further complicated when a university’s human rights department gets drawn in. For example. Cape Breton University’s, human rights policy on harassment is written in such a way that it is based on perception, not action or intent. To be clear, it is written in such a way that if I was to pass someone in the hallway and perceive them to be giving me an angry look, the person giving me the look is “guilty” of harassing me. Broad policies like this end up breeding, in my opinion, the situation at Ryerson. One of my favorite professors frequently uses the following line in class in regards to learning “you need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable”. I think when human rights policies are brought in, and written broadly, one is actually unable to obtain an education because of fear. Neither professor nor students will challenge an view is they fear it might be perceived as racism and/or harassment (since they are often brought in together in human rights disputes) and result in a human right investigation.

    Do not misunderstand me, I believe we need to have inclusive policies within every institution, but they are policies which need to reasonable and not take the issue from one end of the continuum to the other.

  4. I agree with your view for the most part. However, clashes between intellectual freedom and respect for other cultures would be way easier to navigate if Canadian faculty were not so monolithically white male for the most part.

    If an arab/ muslim prof had taught material as it relates to that course (particulalrly if it had primarily to do with Islam), students would gain a less superficial understanding, offense would naturally be avoided and we would not have such problems.

    So long as most Canadian Univeristy maintain a tenure system that effectively endorses racism and exclusivity, this is their well deserved hole.

  5. I generally think your analysis is thoughtful, but I have some concerns about the comments. To the poster who said issues were “blown out of proportion” – does a university have to be a cauldron of racism and hatred before a report is commissioned? i think not. kudos to Ryerson for being pro-active.

    regarding the anecdote about honour killings – if the professor suggested they were “common” in Muslim soceties, it’s really incumbent upon them to qualify it. perhaps they are more common in Muslim societies than Sikh or Christian cultures, but is it provable? it’s not fair to use your authority to make one point and tell students they (who instantly have less credibility) have to bear the burden of guest lecturing in a university class – a daunting task – if they want balance. That’s not equality. No other students have to have their culture taunted, or described as inherently violent.

    • Thanks for the ignisht. It brings light into the dark!

  6. In response to the above post – Muslims are far from being the only group which have common stereotypes which are frequently toted in public forums. It is always a daunting task for a group to defend themselves against common stereotypes, but that is the way of the world – if you feel differently from someone else, it’s your responsibility to express yourself. It’s not everyone else’s responsibility to refrain from offending you. French-Canadians need to speak up and explain that they’re not the English-Canada-hating zealots that some people would portray them as. The Irish have to explain that they don’t necessarily support the actions of the IRA. The Muslim community is hardly the first to be subjected to stereotypes. However, it is important that these stereotypes, while not exactly fair, do arise from actual, fact-based events. There really was a woman killed on Canadian soil in an “honour killing;” there really are bombs made by muslim extremists in order to kill infidels; just like there really were bombs made by members of the IRA. If you’ll look closely, I think you’ll find that many muslim communities, particularly the heads of the canadian muslim community, are encouraging their members to speak out against terrorism, and to encourage their members to dispel what myths currently exist, while at the same time acknowledging that which is true. They don’t claim these things don’t exist, they simply state that they do not support these actions.

  7. Oh come on – just because someone committed an “honour killing” doesn’t taint the whole religion they are part of. Last I heard, white Christian Canadian men also from time to time abuse and kill wives or daughters. Violence against women, sadly, is not limited to one religion or culture, but is a widespread problem. While it has been curbed in recent years in the West it was only a few decades ago that Canada did not believe a man could rape his wife, and a generation or two before that which considered women property and not even “persons.” So it’s not a Muslim thing.

    On a per capita basis, is gender violence in Canada more pervasive among certain ethnic communities? Perhaps, and if that is the case the prof should have said so.

    And point taken than Muslims are not the only ones stereotyped. Since James Moore (the MP who is not even a francophone) decried the lack of French in the Olympic opening ceremonies, I cannot even begin to express how many vitriolic, anti-Quebec tirades I have heard. However, I think in the post-9/11 context, Islamophobic remarks have been more prevalent, and we should expect more from our professors.

  8. I have been torn, really torn, about this issue for a very long time. There are two principles, really. On the one hand is freedom from harm, and on the other is freedom of discussion (speech). Neither principle is absolute, I think.
    If a student tells me that everyone who disagrees with her or his religion should be converted or killed, then I get to argue with that student and tell her or him that his religious views are extreme, and, I think, have no place in the Canadian context. If that makes her or him feel uncomfortable, well …. Or if someone’s belief is that women should be infribulated, with or without a clitoridectomy, I get to bring into question those cultural values, and if they feel uncomfortable, well …. Gee, few, I think, would argue with that. On the other end I don’t think it’s good to make comments like “I think we need to keep Canada pure by keeping out all green people, and we should remove all green people already here, or kill them.” Few, I think, would argue with that. The question becomes where to draw the line in terms of “hurt.” One place I don’t think we can draw it is someone’s perceptions that they feel uncomfortable or feel slighted or prejudiced against and such. That, of course, would mean that if anyone felt that I am a racist then it follows that I am a racist. No discussion or trial or anything needed: just shoot me. Conversely, if this were the case, then in my presence we couldn’t discuss what the europeans did to the natives (gee, I’m uncomfortable), or white privilege (gee, I’m uncomfortable), or male spousal abuse (gee, I’m uncomfortable), atheism (gee, I’m uncomfortable) or … and the list, I think, is endless (would that not be racism, sexism, religious discrimination, or … other bad things). These kind of dialogues would target white europeans and males, hetero-atheists – well, that’s kinda me. And to whom do we attend – am I anti-Jewish if I point out my disagreement with the treatment of the Palestinians, or anti-Palestinian if I point out my disagreement with some of their military tactics? Am I anti-American if an American student is uncomfortable with my take on US foreign policy? Religion and politics are inseparable in many arenas. So now can I not comment on either. I guess I can’t say anything if I have a Israeli, a Palestanian, an American, a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew and an atheist, a male and a female (this is an example, I do not mean in any way to leave out any nationality, any religious perspective, any belief structure, or any sex or orientation not named, etceteras) in the same room unless we talk about the weather, then we talk about nothing at all.
    On the other hand is the freedom to express any opinion or value, to have it debated fully and openly in an academic venue. If we constantly have the thought police telling us what to think, and the discussion police consistently telling us what and how to discuss, and the … police telling us what and how to …, then there is no discussion, just “right thinking”, “right expressing” and “right discussing.” The problem is, who determines what is “right.” I remember quite a number of years ago I marched with the Canadian First Nations folks in Ottawa because they, in my opinion, did not enjoy the same rights as the rest of us – and based on “race”, something I found abhorent, where I was called names by some folks and had our friends, the RCMP, crack our heads to boot. Then, some saw my thinking as wrong. A couple of years ago I was at a First Nations discussion and I objected to the political system where First Nations folks could vote on their reserves (like their country) but non-First Nations folk could not, even though they lived in the country, paid taxes, and were subjected to the laws of their country. In that case the First Nations folks were “uncomfortable” and called me a “racist” because that’s what they “felt.” Now, folks are permitted to feel whatever they like, but their feelings should in no way restrict my freedom to express my opinion and engage them in debate. If I am wrong, then publicly show me to be a fool, and two things will happen – I will change my mind and others will be educated. Think Germany in the 30’s and 40’s, and the restriction of debate about the “Jewish Question”, where those who tried to engage were dismissed, fined, jailed, and exterminated. Again the question, who gets to decide what is “right thinking” or what we should be able to discuss. Would we now say that those who wanted to discuss it should not have because it made some Germans “uncomfortable” or created a “chilly atmosphere” for them. Again, I think not. America in the 50s and McCarthyism – “right thinking for the masses.” We must protect the weak minded from any discussion that we don’t think they should be exposed to. Thanks so much, but I don’t need protection. I NEED free and open information and argument so I can form my OWN opinion (isn’t that the aim of “education”, not to give an opinion but rather the tools to form an opinion? Tools such as open debate and information, and points of view, and so …). We talk about “critical thinking” but then we don’t let our students engage in it!
    Because there are no absolutes in this debate, it can be pushed from one extreme to the other. We have laws in Canada regarding what constitutes hate speech, inciting to harm, and so on. If someone crosses that line, then get ’em. However, these star-chamber like quasi-judicial panels of self-righteous crusaders need their claws clipped. Think if we ran our courts like that – outside of the law, if someone “felt” that you had injured them, then they have you convicted on the basis that they felt wronged (gosh darn, it sounds like the ol’ wild west, where, if he done ya wrong then he needs dyin’). Even where there is a “judge” it’s like Judge Roy Bean – you’re always guilty, and you’re always hung.
    One last thing – if Ann Coulter had come to my area, I would have gone to listen to her speak. Not that I agree with her, but because I DISAGREE

  9. Hi all,

    I wrote the preceeding after reading the professor’s view of the Racism report. I have just browsed the report. I don’t have a year or two, and the resources those folks had at my disposal, and the socialized language to make everything sound as though it had meaning and weight, so I’m sure that my words will not be as politically tuned as theirs, but that report certainly deserves a response – and one that takes each specific part and analyzes it, and gives argument. As a very left wing person, that report is disturbing in its method, its findings, its conclusions, and, perhaps most importantly, if not adequately debated and held to scrutiny, its consequences.
    Although there are some – oh boy, let me step in it – but only SOME reasonable statements, on the whole it is a totally stilted rant from some politically correct position wherein anything that might ever disturb anyone in any way when it is done by a white person is considered racism. Someone dresses up like a black beauty contestant – this was offensive? Why? (Do I now show my ignorance? Because someone has taken offense?) My background is Scot – if someone dresses up in a kilt, but is not a Scot, do I now have the “right” to take offense (or perhaps I don’t because I am not “racialized” – another of those new words that I’m not quite sure what it means). If I live in a country where most of the people are not white (say Japan), and their culture permeates their country (which it seems to, although I’ve only been there for a few weeks), and they judge my behaviour in light of their cultural patterns (which they seem to), am I thus “racialized”? The Japanese then, would be accused of (whatever colour) privilege. Either things are equal or they are not (and don’t give me any apartheid era “equal but different” stuff one would not care to step in). The authors of this paper do what they accuse others of doing – broadly painting entire institutions, peoples, country?, whatever, of being a particular way. Let me paraphrase – your culture permeates your country. Whoa – bad us! If we’re going to use an argument from one group to another, then we use it consistently (do we not, or is that just something I learned in logic courses but to which these folks don’t need to follow – or, let me guess, it’s another example of eurocentrism and a particular way of thinking that demonstrates my inability to think outside of my cultural barriers). So, if I am white and wear the clothing of someone from another culture, and they get upset and that’s racism, then if they wear clothing from my culture then I get to be upset and that’s racism too, right? Or can it only be racism if they are not white (and, but the gods, I dislike that word. But perhaps we should refer to Asian folks as the “yellows”, and I’m sure the authors of this little diatribe would find that just fine, because we’re all really equal, right, and racial slurs against one group are just as bad as against others, right?).
    Then they come up with some anecdotes about “racial” things that happened on campus and make this data. And things like, if we talk about sex in the class then some might be offended, and that’s discriminatory? Give me a “sex word” break. Unless their sex is substantially different from mine and I poke fun at the way they do it, then, sorry, it’s common to all of us and I get to talk about it. Unless, of course, they are willing to concede that any talk of any deity is offensive to me, and that will constitute a form of individual discrimination, or religious descrimination.
    If I come up with anecdotes about how a certain group makes comments about another, then that is racism too – and I would like to bet lots and lots of money that the jokes, the words, everything, goes all ways. Why single out “whites”? Because we are the majority? So, let me see if I have it right: if you are racist and a “minority” then that’s ok and no action needs be taken (even perhaps if it leads to violence? – but they don’t address that, yes?), but, if you are white and inadvertently offend someone then you need censure and “training” to bring you around to “right thinking.”
    And what is all this anti-oppression training? Can anyone say the word Chinese reeducation camps (oh no, have I offended anyone? gee, I sure hope not). If I don’t see the world the way they do then I need “education”? I think not – I need FREE and OPEN debate about this stuff, in a place (to use their concept) of safety, where I can be convinced that I am a white privileged person who has had everything handed to him and who must modify my life to suit their belief system, and to not ever ever come close to upsetting anyone (unless they’re white, of course, in which case it seems not to matter) about stuff I know nothing about, but apparently should be fully cognizant of 5000 cultures or so. It gets totally ridiculous!
    Enough of that … let’s take a quick look at their questions to see exactly what their biases are:
    – attitude toward “racialized” students, faculty, and staff (why not ask about variants of attitudes toward various groups on campus (that way even people who are white can have attitudes towards them, perhaps by the “racialized” folks – who might have a stilted view of us because of the propaganda put out by these guardians of correct thought, word, and deed). Why do they insist in dividing us into “us” and “them”. We are all Canadians, damn it (oh, right, international students, I’ll get to that in a second)
    – awareness of any acts of … against “racialized” …, or “other acts” – oh, I guess that is the “include white people” statement. I would flunk a lower level methods student for writing a question like that (and the one above). No bias there, eh?
    OK – last one for the night: International students – I’m so sorry, but why do we need to provide education for international students at the same rates as for our students. I’m paying taxes for my sons and daughters to go to school here. Their families are not. This is NOT a matter of racialism (or whatever, I don’t give a tinker’s damn if they are any colour, ethnicity, or sex), it is a function of being CANADIAN or a landed immigrant. I am totally in favour of the authors of this report donating their salaries to bring tuition fees for international students to Canadian student rates … but I don’t want them donating my salary to do this – I already pay my taxes for that.

    I applaud their liberalism – they are liberal with my money, liberal with my thoughts and beliefs in terms of reeducation should my beliefs diverge from theirs (I think they might call this ignorance, intolerance, protection of white male privilege, or some other equally offensive label for those with whom they disagree), and liberal with bombastic crap.

    IF I could debate them in public, where I could feel safe (and we all know how safe people who disagree with liberal students get to feel, right?), then I’d have a go. They have all the power on their side – money, expertise, time. Will we hear a rejoinder from the academic world? I think not – the liberals would have their jobs in the shake of a lambs tail. We have all turned into whipped politically correct curs, our fight has been beaten out of us by years of oppression, where to make debate on an unholy topic (on the “wrong thinking” side of course) is to invite financial and career ruin at the hands of the keepers of the truth, who in council with the gods, do decree what is good.

  10. As an Asian Canadian, I’ve seen more racism directed at Asian students than any other race. But no one seems to pay attention to this at all. I’ve been harassed, bullied, made fun of, teased, and tormented, all in front of my TEACHER, who did absolutely nothing. I think teachers these days are too scared to seem impartial or perhaps, they just simply do not care. Either way, I’ve learned to develop a thick skin. Racism is a sad thing, but I personally do believe Asians have it the hardest.