Tensions of Race in Liberal Spaces by John Harris

Tensions of Race in Liberal Spaces by John Harris


“Race” for the purposes of Dr Alexis Mootoo’s speech means Mootoo’s own ethnicity, African, described as “black (visible)” and studied in its interaction with the dominant colonialist ethnicity, which is European (Anglo-Saxon in the U.S. and Portugese in Brazil), described as “white.” “Tensions” are non-violent in the sense of attitudinal and institutionalized (“structural”). In liberal spaces, they manifest themselves verbally or as a subtle inhibiting of the aspirations of black people.


“Liberal Spaces” are universities, specifically in terms of Mootoo’s research CUNY (City University of New York) and the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. The principles of academic freedom and tenure, liberal in that they are meant to guarantee freedom of inquiry, research and speech, prevail in both universities. Both also feature affirmative action registration and hiring policies based on sex, class and race.


There are differences in the two liberal spaces. In Brazil race-based quotas are only a few years old. It was only during the 2011-2016 regime of Dilma Rousseff, an economist and leader of the centre-left (and university-based) Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB), allied with the union-based Worker’s Party (PT) under Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva), that affirmative action was introduced. And political correctness, so much a feature now in North American universities, is either non-existent or nascent in Brazil. 


Mootoo didn’t describe the origins of these differences, but history tells the story. First, Brazil has always defined itself as a “racial democracy.” Whereas in America miscegenation was frowned on if not outlawed (in some states into the 1960’s), colonial authorities in Brazil encouraged mixed marriages, though probably not much among the elites. As Mootoo put it, “black and white are not formal categories in Brazil.” This means that racial quotas for affirmative action registration and hiring are difficult to establish. 


Second, Brazil experienced twenty years of dictatorship (mid 1960’s to late 1980’s) that froze or slowed the sort of liberalization that resulted from the feminist, anti-war, civil-rights and “democratizing” agitation on North American campuses through that time. These “New Left” reforms evolved into the postcolonialist, “victim’s rights” movement of the 1980’s. Homosexual, trans-sexual, colored and aboriginal identities joined sexual and class identities in the fight for equality. 


Mootoo displayed both numerical and testimonial data to show racism in liberal places. The numerical data was detailed for CUNY but sparse for Sao Paulo, because of the absence of a formal definition of white and black and because the Americans have been collecting data for much longer. Mootoo referred to herself as a “numbers person” and called the US data “wonderful.” It was easy to see, for example, from the charts, that black registration at CUNY was respectable, but that graduation rates for blacks were lower, and comparatively fewer blacks registered for grad school. 


Problems with the Brazilian data resulted in Mootoo’s advisors suggesting that she conduct personal interviews. For these interviews, Mootoo focused on twenty black students from each university. Her talk didn’t specify how she chose the students, but their names, attached to material quoted from their interviews (projected overhead), suggested a sampling of (at least) male and female. Possibly her thesis specified other categories, like single-parent, other-advantaged (dyslexic, for example), poor, homo-and-trans-sexual, and not fluent in the colonial language. Students from these categories would have been selected for their knowledge of special services provided and the shortcomings of those services.


Mootoo would have been sensitive to at least some these categories; she described her student self as a single mom, poor enough to have qualified for a tuition waiver with full-time employment. Twenty years go, she pointed out, her circumstances would put her at the bottom of the economic ladder, and the relative lack of identity-directed institutional assistance back then would have made it impossible for her to go to university. She also mentioned that she was an ESL student. None of these features are specific to black identity, but the assumption was that they were more characteristic of that identity than white. 


The purpose of Mootoo’s speech was expressed in President Weeks’ advertising for her speech: 


While universities provide a venue to facilitate the exchange of differing viewpoints, with the recent rise in racist rhetoric around the world, campuses across the country have been struggling with a surge in intolerance.
Diversity and inclusivity are two of our core values and we recognize the importance of fostering dialogue that addresses the issues of race and inequality in higher education.


Mootoo’s contribution to fostering dialogue was certainly positive, but only in a generalized sort of way; it was compromised by the absence of detailed information about policy. To foster dialogue that contributes to ending structural racism you have to foster dialogue about structure — about university curriculum, program requirements, administrative structures, and registration, hiring and support-service policies. Only this could allow, in the case of Mootoo’s speech, extrapolation from CUNY and Sao Paulo to UNBC


Mootoo did not elaborate on university policies designed to make registration, student life, graduation and academic-job acquisition as easy for blacks as for whites. To figure out what she thinks would alleviate structural racism, the audience had to read between the lines. The fact that she approves of affirmative action registration and hiring policies was reflected in a remark she made that quotas were not being enforced at CUNY. This seemed to be a complaint — in other words, she thinks these policies help. She had no information on affirmative action at Sao Paulo; she merely implied that, in a country that affirms that it is devoid of structural racism, such a policy would be hard to apply. (Indeed, the results of Rousseff’s affirmative action policy are largely negative: many students who define themselves as black have been rejected or have had their status revoked, and are presently protesting and going to court. 


Another policy mentioned by Mootoo was political correctness. All she said, in regards to CUNY, was “we have the idea of political correctness.” She said it in connection with the interviews — with a comment that students at CUNY were “paranoid” about her research, whereas students at Sao Paulo were much more open. In this context, CUNY students were also said to be less confident that further progress in eliminating structural racism could be made, whereas Sao Paulo students were more hopeful. Here, the implication seems to be that she finds policies connected to political correctness (lists of trigger words, access to safe spaces, boycotting of courses that feature and faculty that teach western, humanistic content and ideas) not helpful (or not important).


Only one question from the audience was directed at policy. A faculty member (Social Work) asked Mootoo what she thought about policy changes aimed at giving students who face difficulties with financing, child rearing, language etc, extra time to complete assignments, courses and theses. The faculty member referred to her self as “white trash” and implied that this class status caused difficulties for her that could have been alleviated by less rigid requirements. The faculty member was obviously trying to find similarities between Mootoo’s account of structural racism and the faculty member’s own experience of structural classism, and to come up with policies to solve those similar problems. Her assumption might have been that black students and white trash students would share similar problems.


Mootoo advised the questioner to “tell your personal story” as a means of motivating students to “finish in time.” She referred to her own story, detailed throughout her speech, as an example of how structural racism can be overcome. She said that she worked harder than anyone else in her classes. Otherwise, the only other action that she recommended as a means of easing the effects of structural racism was that students and faculty should constantly ask themselves: “what are you going to do about it [structural racism]?” She said that, in her view, universities were generally lacking in talk about the issue.


Her answer, in short, was that motivation is the only solution. Obviously, however, Mootoo did not do it all on her own. There was that job and tuition waiver, for example. There was affirmative action, sex and race-based at least. Surely it is the responsibility of the university not just to motivate but also to establish expectations of students that are accommodating to their circumstances and at the same time credible in terms of the requirements of the student’s chosen field. They also have to be possible for the university to facilitate. 


The question from the “white trash” faculty member required some discussion of what extending deadlines would mean to course and degree completion, of what deadlines represent as a measure of ability, of who would pay for the cost of extended deadlines, of how faculty contracts could be modified for the increase in workload involved. Discussion on such questions could lead to useful policy.


Hopefully, Weeks understands that discussion about structural racism needs to take place in connection with the university’s student and faculty committee and governing structures. This will guarantee that it results in action and does not disperse itself into protest and motivational self-affirmation. There was too much of the latter in Mootoo’s talk, and the advice to “do something” free of any advice as to whatto do seemed like a mere populist incitement to protest. 


Carrying out such dialogue with the objective of devising policy is not easy. Weeks knows this from his “Presidential Talk Force on Sexual Violence,” that set out in 2014 to “assess the occurrence and implications of sexual violence within the student body.” The work began with an invitation to dialogue that reads very much like the invitation to the President’s Speakers Series: “An open, honest and compassionate dialogue must continue to take place in order to combat the effects of sexual violence.” 


The results of this dialogue, according to a report in the local newspaper the Citizen,were negligible. UNBC didn’t release the report publicly, so the newspaper had to get a copy through the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act. Parts of the report were redacted to prevent identification of victims, but some of the reasons for the redactions were incriminatory. UNBC confessed to “no institutional rigor” in checking the reporting of incidents, so any account of those incidents had to be redacted because they could be interpreted in any way. There was also the problem of adapting Ministry of Advanced Education and American College Health Association Guidelines to produce university-specific guidelines, requiring extensive consultation with students. It seems that, at UNBC, no agreement on these guidelines could be found.


The Citizen concluded: Put another way, the members of the task force decided that they wanted to introduce a policy towards a problem they had no way of knowing really existed at UNBC.” Also “the validity or reliability of the local data they had wasn’t even questioned.”


In light of the report on Sexual Violence at UNBC, the public has the right to ask, “Is there really a problem with structural racism there, is it possible to isolate and examine specific examples of it, and is it possible to do anything about it that doesn’t violate curriculum values, academic freedom, and freedom of speech?  Obviously racism exists; it permeates all cultures. But if the problem of structural racism doesn’t exist in liberal spaces, how do Mootoo and Weeks get the idea that it does? Are they merely the victims of, as the clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson would put it, a sort of mass academic hysteria passed on from theorizing faculty (postcolonialists in the humanities, social justice warriors in social work, and neo-liberals in economics and political science) to students, who then pass it on to society at large in their professions? 


Some journalists, mostly but not all on the right, have pointed out that, because of crusading academics and the students they have inspired, the university is no longer (if it ever truly was) “a venue to facilitate the exchange of different viewpoints,” as Weeks puts it. It is in fact, famously now, a venue for the oppression of free speech by identity groups (from white supremacist to pro-life) that feel victimized. Recently, the Campus Freedom Index has assigned 41 Canadian universities “F” grades for free-speech violations including the desecration of posters, the shouting down of speakers and the boycotting of lectures. 


UNBC achieved a “C” grade for its policies and practices pertaining to free speech; its student association did slightly less well. Weeks has got his work cut out for him.


This article in an abridged form was first published by the Prince George Citizen in December 2018.


Author's Biography

John Harris is a Prince George author, poet and reviewer feared by many. His first works were published in the  Samiamo High School news paper and he enjoyed the attention so much he made writing his life's work.