When the ‘N-word’ is used in class, especially without warning or context, this can activate unprocessed traumatic experiences for Black students.
As student representatives to the Board of Governors of the University of Ottawa, we want to express our disappointment with the response of the University and many members of our community to the recent racist events that occurred on campus.
In an initial incident, a part-time professor from the faculty of arts, while discussing in a live lecture how the word “queer” has been reappropriated by the queer community and largely purged of its discriminatory and pejorative power, used the ‘N-word’ (speaking it aloud in full) as an additional illustration of the concept she was teaching. After students took offence and demanded the word not be used in class, she apologized. However, she then proposed to the students who had expressed their concerns that they explain in class why the word should not be used. In a separate incident, the faculty of law sent a letter denouncing reports of racist remarks made by students in breakout sessions in the absence of the professor.
Following the initial incident, a group of professors, the Association of Part-Time Professors of the University of Ottawa (APTPUO) and the Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa (APUO) released statements in support of the part-time professor who used the ‘N-word’ in class. The APUO has done so without consulting its membership, including the Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) caucus of university professors and librarians, who have since released a statement condemning the APUO leadership. Over the past week, many media articles have been published about the importance of academic freedom in our institutions. In response to the incident, the University of Ottawa released a statement that does not directly condemn the use of the ‘N-word’, but says professors should expect consequences if they choose to use the word in class.
The ‘N-word’ is a derogatory term used to demean and dehumanize Black people. We are concerned that when our institution cannot unequivocally denounce the use of the ‘N-word’ and other racial slurs on campus, this can embolden those who have racist views or intentions. We have already seen this manifest itself on our campus this week, when a Black staff member was a victim of a hate crime currently being investigated by police. We have been told of another incident where the ‘N-word’ was used by a professor in the classroom. We have also personally witnessed BIPOC students become victims of online intimidation, being told they “do not belong in University” for their opposition to the use of the ‘N-word’ on campus.
When the ‘N-word’ is used in class, especially without warning or context, this can activate unprocessed traumatic experiences for Black students. The emotional reaction from the student may appear stronger than one would expect. That is because the student is not just reacting to what is happening now, but also in response to previous experiences. For those without lived experience, saying and hearing the word may seem trivial. This is not the case for Black members of the community. Importantly, the use of the word is not conducive to creating a learning environment devoid of harassment and discrimination and suitable for learning. It is also in direct violation of our institutional principles, policies and those of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.
We believe the administration of the University of Ottawa has failed the Black community on campus. The disconnect in stating “an open university where the fundamental missions are articulated in full respect for the academic freedom and dignity of each of its members and where all deserve to be treated with dignity and not to be marginalized” reiterates the fact that we are having two very different conversations where one is fearing for their academic freedom while others are fighting to be respected.
Time and time again, this conversation, like many other instances, are a reminder that those who have established these institutions and uphold those values have deliberately made no space for marginalized groups and will fight to maintain that status quo. The claim and cries for academic freedom are used as an ostracizing weapon, where Black individuals were never welcome in these academic spaces and thus, will not understand the importance and weight using the ‘N-word’ would have in enriching the learning experience.
Academic freedom is at the foundation of every university. We understand that professors will always vigorously stand behind academic freedom and against arbitrary disciplinary action by the central administration, but there are moral limits on which we can all agree. We believe that the use of the ‘N-word’ falls in that category and goes beyond what is required for the advancement of knowledge and learning. Just as professors expect respect from students, and certain words and phrases be avoided to maintain decorum in the learning environment, students should expect the same level of respect from professors.
Following the carding incident in June of 2019, which was found to be motivated by racism in an independent investigation, an advisory committee to the President was formed to tackle anti-Black racism on campus. Unfortunately, this committee has met only once since March of 2020, and is not attended by the president. In order to undertake the process of meaningful and effective change to our community with regard to structural racism, we have the following action items which we believe should be implemented as soon as possible:
1. The President’s Advisory Committee on Anti-Black Racism be reformed to an action-based committee with binding authority on recommendations, and that this committee be attended by members of central administration capable of enacting change.
2. A statement unequivocally denouncing the use of the ‘N-word’ and other racial slurs be released by the University as soon as possible. For this statement to hold weight, there must be clear guidelines and sanctions for professors that engage in these discriminatory acts.
3. That the Office of the President follow up on recommendations set forth in previous statements from the University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) and registered student governments, the BIPOC caucus of the APUO and others.
Saada Hussen, B. Sc., MD 2023 candidate
Undergraduate student member of the Board of Governors of the University of Ottawa
Jamie Ghossein, B. Sc., MD 2021 candidate
Undergraduate student member of to the Board of Governors of the University of Ottawa