TORONTO, Nov. 26 /CNW/ - On Tuesday, November 24, at public hearings before the Canadian Parliamentary Commission to Combat Anti-Semitism, Robert Steiner, Assistant Vice President of Strategic Communications for the University of Toronto, informed those present that the University of Toronto administration had taken the lead in working with concerned students to organize and facilitate a public town hall meeting on a recent incident of "Blackface" at the university. As the students and faculty who organized and spoke at that town hall, we are appalled, angered and dismayed that Mr. Steiner has falsely represented the University's role in the sequence of events that have ensued as a result of this "Blackface" incident.
Contrary to which Mr. Steiner has claimed, the university played no part whatsoever in organizing the town hall event. In fact, even as Mr. Steiner was issuing his public comments, students and faculty were trying to get the University administration to issue a public statement affirming its commitment to equity on campus. Despite repeated requests to issue a statement the University has failed to do so. In light of Mr. Steiner's comments we feel it is absolutely imperative that the university community and the wider public be made aware of the University's true role in this serious breach of equity and trust on its own campus.
On Halloween night (29 October) five University of Toronto students dressed up in "costume" as the Hollywood version of the Jamaican bobsled team from the film Cool Runnings for a party hosted by three of the university's colleges: St. Michael's; University; and Victoria. Four of the students wore blackface as part of their "costumes"; the fifth wore a white painted face. When students on campus raised concerns, controversy arose concerning what was meant by the "costume." Many students and faculty (including several who are not black) immediately recognized the "costumes" as blackface and voiced their collective dismay, given the long history of blackface performance and minstrelsy in demeaning black people and systematically caricaturing black cultures.
Members of the Black Students Association (BSA) approached those students and colleges involved to request a public apology. They also took the initiative to make the incident a "teachable" moment, bringing diverse constituencies together to learn about the historical and contemporary hurt and pain caused by enacting blackface. On November 10 the BSA, supported by the University of Toronto Student Union (UTSU), organized a town hall meeting that was attended by more than 300 people. After the meeting and in online discussions of media coverage of the event, both local and national, the BSA and its president have been victims of a disturbing backlash that has the cumulative effect of questioning the right of some students to claim full membership of the university community.
The university has failed to use its normal communicative channels to stand in support of the students who organized the town hall and who have faced intimidation following the event. The university's dereliction of duty sent a message that black voices in our midst do not matter, or matter less than those of other groups who raise similarly serious concerns.
A meeting took place on November 19 in the office of the Vice-Provost, Students. Following a seemingly positive discussion, BSA and UTSU student representatives, as well as concerned faculty, expected that the university would distribute a public statement to address the issues raised in the meeting. To our surprise when an official response did arrive it was sent in the form of a private communication to the two student leaders and four faculty who had met with administrators. The letter's recipients were asked to distribute the statement themselves to the wider university community. After a query as to whether this constituted the extent of the University's response, we received an e-mail yesterday (November 24) informing us that the letter had been posted on the Equity web site and that of the Vice-Provost, Students - where it would likely never be accessed by the wider university community.
This piecemeal approach on the part of university administrators is a serious failure of public leadership. As was made evident at the earlier town hall meeting and in subsequent meetings with senior administrators, the blackface incident is representative of much deeper issues and fissures on campus.
Typically, on matters of importance to the U of T community, senior administrators draw on a range of communicative strategies to reach the widest audience possible. The actions, or lack thereof, of the senior administration of the university suggest that black students are not equally valued members of the university community and that concerns about the alienation of other nonwhite students can be ignored and sidestepped. We refuse to accept such a position. We call on the senior administration to publicly affirm that our community is a safe place for producing knowledge, discussing ideas, and for building a multicultural and cosmopolitan community that becomes a genuinely global model of intercultural learning and academic excellence. The University of Toronto belongs to us all, and that commitment - to value us equally in our diversity - needs to be publicly demonstrated and reiterated.
In light of this history Mr. Steiner's comments represent the exploitation by the University of the pain of students who have felt targeted as a result of this "Blackface" incident and the hard work of courageous student organizers. It also represents a breach of trust with members of its own faculty who spoke at the event, none of whom was contacted by the university prior to the town hall of November 10. We demand a full public apology from Mr. Steiner and senior University administration for having exploited us all in this manner.
Daniella Kyei, University of Toronto Students' Union, Vice-President Equity
Dawn Samuel, President of the Black Students' Association
Sean Hawkins, Associate Professor of History
Melanie Newton, Associate Professor of History
Alissa Trotz, Associate Professor of Women and Gender Studies, Director, Caribbean Studies
Rinaldo Walcott, Associate Professor of Social Justice and Cultural Studies
SOURCE University of Toronto Students' Union
For further information: For further information: Daniella Kyei: (416) 978-4911 ext. 237