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If free speech is so vaunted, why was Masuma Khan censured by Dalhousie?: Paradkar

Dalhousie University is facing scrutiny for investigating a student leader's polarizing social media comments as a group of law professors and a civil liberties group accuse the university of censoring political speech.

Masuma Khan, a Dalhousie University student, is under investigation for an online post she made related to Canada 150 celebrations.

Zane Woodford / Metro Order this photo

Masuma Khan, a Dalhousie University student, is under investigation for an online post she made related to Canada 150 celebrations.

Here’s a little story:

A kicks and punches B.

B fight backs but is silenced through fair means and foul.

B’s friend C roars in defence of B.

That’s rude, cries A. Punish C.

Think that’s fair?

Who holds A accountable?

I’d wager that kids in Grade 3 would have a pretty clear idea of where they would stand on this. But Dalhousie University in Halifax wrestled with it and found C’s words merited disciplinary review.

Masuma Khan— vice-president of the student council executive at Dalhousie; the activist who had led thousands in the streets to protest against high tuition fees; who identifies more with Malcolm X than Martin Luther King— will face a disciplinary committee come November or December.

The review comes over a now-deleted Facebook post in which she defended her motion to the students’ union to not celebrate Canada 150. She said she would not stand with “privileged white people,” or be proud of a country that is responsible for “over 400 years of genocide” and “the stealing of land.”

For good measure, she added the hashtags #unlearn150, #whitefragilitycankissmyass and #yourwhitetearsarentsacredthislandis.

Unlearn 150. White fragility can kiss my ass. Your white tears aren’t sacred. This land is.

Fierce words. Fighting words. Challenging words.

Words worth censoring?

A university investigation concluded that there was enough evidence for a committee to review Khan related to “unwelcome or persistent conduct that … would cause another person to feel demeaned, intimidated or harassed.”

On Monday, statements of support poured in for Khan.

“While our constitutional order offers protection to many kinds of speech, none is more valued and protected than political speech,” a group of 25 law professors from Dalhousie’s own Schulich School of Law wrote in a letter to the university’s senate.

“Expression which challenges majoritarian views, traditions, and practices that have caused harms to marginalized and oppressed minorities lies at the very core of Canada’s constitutional commitment to the protection of political speech,” they wrote.

“We write this letter to ask that Dalhousie University repeal its policies that use student discipline to suppress the freedom of expression of its students,” the Ontario Civil Liberties Association wrote in another letter to Dalhousie.

“The irony in this situation – where a university that proclaims to value academic freedom and free speech penalizes a student for openly challenging oppressive power structures – would be laughable were it not deeply worrisome,” said the political organization Solidarity Halifax.

If free speech is so vaunted in Canadian social and legal consciousness, why did Khan’s words cause anger in the first place?

To my mind, it’s because Khan mentioned “white” in a not-complimentary way. And because her response didn’t cater to how white people felt about this.

If you don’t know what “white fragility” means, the reaction to Khan’s statement is the definition of it. One of the triggers of fragility is when people of colour choose not to protect the racial feelings of white people when talking about race.

The term “white fragility" was coined by Robin DiAngelo, who taught multicultural education at Westfield State University in Massachusetts. White people move through a racialized world with an unracialized identity, she says.

For example, white people see themselves as representing all of humanity, while they see people of colour as representing only their racial selves. This is why suggesting that a white person’s viewpoint comes from a racialized identity is seen as a challenge to their objectivity. These challenges are highly stressful and even intolerable, DiAngelo says.

“White fragility,” then, is white pushback to regain racial position and equilibrium.

How did this fragility unfold in the Dalhousie case?

Khan’s initial motion last summer for students to not celebrate Canada Day was more a symbol of solidarity than an actual boycott given that it fell over the holidays. But it upset the good members of Nova Scotia Young Progressive Conservatives.

“The Dalhousie Student Union should be helping instill pride in our country, not boycott it on our most significant national holiday,” the group said in a Facebook post.

From an Indigenous perspective, Canada 150 celebrations are part of an ongoing colonial legacy, but perhaps this isn’t visible to those who have not learned history from multiple lenses.

Khan responded, not with “love and courage,” but with rage. “At this point, f*** you all,” she said in her Facebook post before she unleashed her hashtags. “I stand by the motion I put forward.”

A white graduate history student named Michael Smith complained to the university that “targeting ‘white people’ who celebrate Canada Day is blatant discrimination.”

Arig al Shaibah, the vice-provost for student affairs, investigated and found that Khan’s “choice of language” was concerning but that she did not target a specific group. Challenging “white fragility” is not the issue, she said in a statement Monday.

Does that mean using the f-word was the problem? And if it wasn’t Khan’s words, was it her tone? Is anyone policing the tone and content of the abuse being hurled at Khan?

“People might say it wasn’t an appropriate response. You have to understand I deal with Islamophobia on the daily,” she told the Canadian Press. “I’m the one that gets called a terrorist when I walk down the street.”

Khan was told she could attend training sessions on coalition-building and write a reflective essay on her learnings. She refused, and will now face a disciplinary hearing.

“Suggesting I should take some training about how to talk about racism, that’s incredibly invalidating,” she said.

Shree Paradkar writes about discrimination and identity. You can follow her @shreeparadkar

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