Use of of the N-Word in the Classroom
December 9, 2020
The Dr. Kenneth Melville McGill Black Faculty and Staff Caucus stands in solidarity with Black faculty, students and staff at the University of Ottawa, and our fellow Caucus member Adelle Blackett, who has faced backlash for speaking up in solidarity. During a time when the world is on fire over the issues of racism, inequity, and lack of human dignity, it is critical to refuse to allow academic freedom to become a red herring. The n-word is not simply a racial epithet. It has a sordid history, because, for hundreds of years, anti-Black racists have used it as a fierce weapon to dehumanize Black people. We are people, and yet are often seen as objects to be excluded, diminished, ignored, and murdered. These historic and contemporary contexts confer to members of the Black community the ultimate say regarding when and where it is appropriate to fully state the n-word.
As part of the commitment to redressing anti-Black racism within post-secondary education including our own institution, it is imperative that we examine the academic spaces in which learning has traditionally occurred, especially regarding the use of the n-word. First, only Black people have the ultimate say where use of the n-word is concerned. Second, if the objective is to highlight the historical use of the word as an academic discussion point, then insistence by non-Black people to articulate the full word in the classroom, rather than the euphemism, becomes suspect. Abandoning our dignity and humanity should not be confused with preserving academic freedom. As noted by the Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison, “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.”
Response to McGill University’s Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism
November 12, 2020
The Dr. Kenneth Melville McGill Black Faculty and Staff Caucus is heartened to see that McGill University, through the Office of the Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic), has developed and made public its Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism. Too often, statements that confirm the prevalence of anti-Black racism are empty words without deed, even as it is widely acknowledged that eradicating the systemic, entrenched anti-Black racism at McGill University and in Canadian society demands concrete, sustained, and targeted action. The issues raised below lead us to start the reflection on the implementation phase of the plan. The Caucus seeks assurance that it will be a partner in decision making, in addition to being part of the consultation with the Black community of the University. Given our shared commitments to creating favourable conditions for substantive change at McGill, we hope that the following issues will be addressed in the spirit of accountability and transparency:
The Action Plan details a commitment to “undertake an expanded McGill history project that will investigate McGill’s connections with the transatlantic slave trade” (p. 19). Our original Statement of August 1, 2020, requested that McGill strike a Task Force on Transatlantic Slavery and Colonialism. The formation of a university-level Task Force would guarantee the funding, administrative support, and gravitas necessary to fulfill this important mandate. One difference between task forces and research project teams is the assignment of authority and resources, i.e. personnel and materials needed to ensure the success of the task force. McGill’s connection to the transatlantic slave trade is not simply a matter of intellectual curiosity; it is the beginning of an investigation into the means by which we can achieve reparative justice. We seek to understand if the scope of the proposed ‘expanded history project’ would achieve the same outcome as a task force and if the findings would be similarly embraced by the University. It is therefore essential that the Caucus be involved in the design of the “expanded McGill history project”, including the drafting of its Terms of Reference.
The Action Plan provides targets for faculty and staff recruitment over the next twelve years (p. 31-33). We consider these commitments to be of the utmost importance, and as such we understand that these targets should be treated as the minimum number of faculty and staff McGill seeks to recruit, and in the short to medium term the university will work toward exceeding these targets. In order for these initiatives to be successful, and against a background of contrived explanations for the failure to hire Black faculty, however, McGill needs to address two key issues: the pipeline and retention. First, the development of a pool of Black faculty and staff to recruit from requires creativity. Cluster hiring should be considered, a practice that had been widely used by peer universities to address the diversity issue. In addition, models from the University of California and the University of Chicago, which fund post-doctoral fellowships in order to create this kind of pipeline, are excellent examples. Second, McGill must develop concrete mechanisms to retain Black faculty and staff. As outlined in our August 1 statement, this should include specifically designated funding for Research Chairs and spousal hires. With regard to the goal of increasing the number of Black non-academic staff, the University should explicitly commit to filling some of the positions at the senior, executive level. The Vice-Principal (Administration & Finance) must also engage all administrative units to meet the goals of the Plan. Specific plans for the professional development of Black non-academic staff should be spelled out. Without attention to these issues, any recruitment efforts will be significantly undermined, because our new hires will probably leave McGill after a few years, leaving us in the same position in which we began.
The Action Plan proposes to establish a Working Group to explore possible expansion of the African Studies Program to include African diasporic/Black Studies. The Caucus acknowledges the recent invitation to participate in the Working Group, but, nevertheless, would like to ensure that its expertise is fully recognized both in the formation of the Working Group and in the drafting of the Terms of Reference.
The Action Plan recognizes that successful implementation depends on its acceptance at all levels of the University. It should therefore incorporate explicit steps to ensure that Deans, Directors, Chairs and other unit heads sign on to the vision and goals of the Plan.
The Action Plan (p.43) gives oversight responsibility to the Office of the Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic). While this might be a convenient, short-term arrangement, the Caucus reaffirms its recommendation that responsibility for university-wide equity initiatives be vested in an office headed by a senior executive (e.g. a Vice-Principal), properly funded and staffed, with a great deal of autonomy, and reporting directly to the Principal. Among the responsibilities of such an office would be the development of mechanisms for handling complaints by faculty, staff and students about microaggressions and discrimination.
The Action Plan commits $15 million over five years for implementation and identifies several measures for accountability and transparency. The Plan should demonstrate the feasibility of this commitment in relation to the hiring targets and other actions by providing a projection, however tentative, on how the money is expected to cover the costs. If the current Black faculty and staff are expected to assist in the implementation of the Plan, it would be appropriate that they be compensated (e.g. course release time, work-load adjustments, staffing reallocations, etc).
We look forward to continued cooperation with the administration to ensure that the Caucus plays a leadership role in the successful implementation of the Action Plan, ensuring that it truly contributes to building a better university and enhances its overall excellence.
Statement of the Dr. Kenneth Melville McGill Black Faculty Caucus
August 1, 2020
The Dr. Kenneth Melville McGill Black Faculty Caucus stands in solidarity with the recent anti- Black racism protests, which began in the United States after the Minneapolis police killed George Floyd while handcuffed in their custody. These protests have reverberated worldwide, illustrating the need to confront and uproot the stigmatizing scourge that is systemic anti-Black racism—an existential threat to all Black people.
In Canadian society, systemic anti-Black racism permeates our institutions, including academe. McGill University is on the eve of commemorating its Bicentennial in 2021. That commemoration is inextricably linked to James McGill’s chattel enslavement of people of African and Indigenous descent at his Old Montreal residence and Burnside Estate, the property on which McGill University now stands. The Bicentennial is also profoundly connected to the profits that James McGill derived from goods that enslaved Africans produced on West Indian plantations.
A long overdue reckoning with anti-Black racism and the need for reparative justice is pivotal to honouring the humanity of Black people within academia and beyond. Our Caucus is heartened by Principal Fortier’s and Provost Manfredi’s respective statements on June 30th and July 3rd acknowledging the urgency and pressing importance of addressing anti-Black racism for McGill University, and committing both to build the McGill Plan for Addressing Anti-Black Racism consultatively, and to allocate the resources necessary to realize its goals. We call on McGill University to take the following urgent, interdependent actions:
Task Force on Transatlantic Slavery and Colonialism
First, McGill must convene an official task force that will excavate its connections to transatlantic slavery and colonialism. Leading universities across the Black Atlantic and including Dalhousie in Canada have led the way in building high-profile, comprehensive, consultative, research-driven task forces with respected, community-rooted academics at the helm. The space was created for the academics involved to have the research time release necessary to produce work of the highest caliber, in the broad public interest. The task forces had resources to hire graduate or postdoctoral researchers, but the structure and reporting lines were distinct, seized upon the magnitude and gravity of the work undertaken, and built in accountability to the broader Black community. Those initiatives honour the courage and vision of the universities that have entrusted colleagues with this mandate. It is not too late for McGill to act decisively and consultatively, now, to commit to building a task force around the Provostial Postdoctoral Research Fellows on Slavery and Colonialism, which will affirm that equity is a key theme of McGill’s Bicentennial (p. 7).
Targets and Timetables for Recruitment of Black Faculty, Students and Staff, and Accompanying Support
Second, McGill needs specific targets and timetables for the recruitment of Black faculty and students as it has rightly built for Indigenous colleagues, alongside targets and timetables for the recruitment of Black staff. Concerning faculty, the abysmally small current cohort of 10 self-identified Black tenured or tenure-track colleagues (out of approximately 1,700) illustrates the urgency with which McGill must recruit and retain excellent Black professors, and librarians. Representation should go beyond census numbers, to take into account the need to build a ‘critical mass’ of Black academics, able to respond to the disproportionate but crucial responsibilities that we assume for mentoring and community engagement within and beyond the University in keeping with McGill’s mission statement. Recruitment and retention must include specific and careful attention to spousal hiring. Similarly, specific time-bound commitments are necessary for the hiring, retention, and promotion of Black managerial, administrative and support staff. There is a significant opportunity for McGill to undertake proactive community outreach-based recruitment measures in Montreal-area Black communities.
The specific time-bound commitments for the hiring of Black tenured and tenure-track colleagues need to be accompanied by targeted, supportive measures that apply throughout the academic lifecycles of our Black colleagues. McGill bears responsibility for equity throughout renewal, tenure and promotion processes. Our University should encourage supportive practice—including mentorship—and ensure accountability for equitable procedures and outcomes. McGill should also leverage the Canada Research Chair program and internal chair program to recruit and retain Black faculty. We reiterate the reflection of the McGill Working Group on Principles of Commemoration and Renaming that there is a significant opportunity to rename the internal professorships. Moreover, the messaging on EDI in McGill’s recent CRC announcement considers racialized candidates to be over-represented. McGill’s CRC announcement therefore prioritizes Indigenous applicants, as well as applicants with a disability, but not Black applicants. In the absence of disaggregated data, the deleterious effects of stereotypical assumptions are compounded, historical exclusions are replicated, while the exceptional under-representation of Black faculty is obscured. In other words, methodological problems arise when institutions do not pay specific attention to anti-Black racism and the Black experience. In keeping with international law alongside the momentum on disaggregation following the CRC program’s equity addendum, we urge McGill to disaggregate data for Black faculty in the attribution of research chairs, while paying careful attention to the internal messaging to Deans and departmental Chairs.
The commitment to recruiting more Black students should take into account our University’s integral connections to the city of Montreal, and its historic relationships to slavery here. Consequently, McGill must ensure inclusive outreach to various Black populations in Canada and beyond that include specific targets for the recruitment of students from the Black communities of the Greater Montreal Area. At present, students from these Montreal communities appear to constitute a very small percentage of the Black students at McGill, reflecting a historical pattern of student enrolment that has overlooked the Black communities in closest proximity to the University. McGill should create an appropriately funded entity focused on Black access at McGill, with responsibility for outreach, recruitment, support and retention of Black students. This entity would build on and formalize the work that has to date been undertaken by organizations like the Black Student Network and the McGill Black Alumni Association, among others, to promote McGill to High School and CEGEP students. The entity would also establish collaborations with schools and community organizations that serve local Black communities to establish strong educational relationships with Black students in the Greater Montreal Area well in advance of the point at which they make decisions about attending
We are encouraged by the scholarly interest in the study of new frontiers of African and Black studies, including slavery as a global institution and its legacies, and the importance of relevant curricular offerings to the decisions students make about their studies. We call on McGill to increase support to the existing African Studies Program beyond its current focus on undergraduate teaching and facilitate its development and expansion as a centre of research, learning, and documentation as well as the study and teaching of Africa and the African Diaspora across the disciplines. This call is based on our shared premise that African Studies is a foundational field with a crucial role in focusing on—and providing support to—the lives and experiences of Africans and all peoples of African descent, that
is, on Black life and anti-Black racism as it occurs in Canada and globally.
Institutionalizing Equity and Representation across McGill and in Senior Administration
And third, McGill must institutionalize equity with a specific focus on equity for Black persons within the institution. We call on McGill to create an Office dedicated to anti-racism. A Vice Principal—or another senior executive with University-wide responsibility —who shares our lived experience should oversee this Office, with a staff that includes other trained Black professionals who can recognize and support the unique experiences of Black faculty, students, and staff. Furthermore, the pursuit of equity must be manifest in the actions and diversification of the University’s senior administration, and be sustained by practices of meaningful participation on the part of historically marginalized communities, including consultation with the Dr. Kenneth Melville McGill Black Faculty Caucus, in a range of decision-making processes.
These are trying times. But McGill has an opportunity to lead in confronting and uprooting anti-Black racism. Black excellence and perseverance alone in the face of unmitigated systemic anti-Black racism cannot ensure that Black faculty, staff and students will be treated equitably and with dignity. As we forge ahead in this U.N. International Decade for People of African Descent, McGill should cultivate a relationship in which members of the Black professoriate, alongside staff and students and alumni, are able to trust that substantively we are respected, valued members of the University community.