Segregating white and non-white students may sound like an outdated idea, but that is what executives from the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa planned for their event to combat racism, In My Skin, to be held March 4.
The event sought to foster two conversations, according to its student union organizers: one on white privilege and another on being racialized and discriminated against. When it was posted on Facebook, there was a backlash from students who called it racist because it would split students into different rooms based on skin colours. SFUO removed the event posting and modified their plans but some students are still planning to petition that the organizer be impeached.
Alexei Kazakov, a first-year student, is spearheading the opposition. As an ethnic Russian born in Estonia, he says he experienced racism after his family had their citizenship revoked by Estonia because of their ethnicity. “I took a lot of offense to the fact that [the organizers] were disregarding any type of racism that may occur,” he said, adding he and other white students can also face racism.
After the Facebook event was taken down, Nicole Desnoyers, SFUO’s vice-president equity, issued a statement. “The structure of these two initial discussion groups were misunderstood by some students,” it reads. According to the statement the event will still include two groups of students, one for those who identify as having faced racism and oppression and another for those wishing to discuss power, privilege and how they can help those facing discrimination. In an e-mail, she added it is, “important that many different styles of spaces are created,” for conversations about racism.
Kazakov said as long as there is no segregation, he supports it. However, he says it was insulting that SFUO claimed students misunderstood. “It seems like they are out of touch with what the common consensus is,” he says. “They’re just doubling back on their words to do damage control.”
Omar Benmegdoul, an economics student, was disappointed that the event portrayed racism as something only non-whites can experience. He says SFUO should not have removed the event and shut down the debate on the Facebook page after the online backlash. “It’s not right for elected representatives to erase criticisms made by the people they’re supposed to represent.”
This controversy comes after the Student Society of McGill University was widely condemned for how it handled a race controversy. Executive Brian Farnan was forced by his peers to apologize after sending an e-mail with a GIF image that said, “Honestly midterms get out of here,” and showed U.S. President Obama kicking down a door. The clip originally aired on The Tonight Show. In his apology, he wrote that, “the image in question was an extension of the cultural, historical and living legacy surrounding people of color—particularly young men—being portrayed as violent in contemporary culture and media,” and labelled it a “microagression.” The backlash there was from white and non-white students who said there was no reason to apologize.
The SFUO is also dealing with another controversy this week after employees wrote about wanting to sexually assault president Anne-Marie Roy and threatened legal action if she went public.