Racist cyberattacks at U of T highlight barriers to addressing anti-Blackness
The attacks belong to continuing legacy of anti-Black racism, Shree Paradkar writes.
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A series of racist cyberattacks — as evidenced by screen shots — on a Black first-year engineering student at the University of Toronto is throwing light on the continuing legacy of anti-Black racism on campus as well as institutional barriers to redress the issue.
Last week, the university’s Black Students’ Association held a town hall to highlight the latest incident as part of larger systemic structural anti-Blackness.
A senior U of T official acknowledged the existence of anti-Black racism on U of T campuses and that “there is more that we can do to address it.”
In June, an international student from an African nation preparing to come to U of T was invited to a WhatsApp group chat called Chestnut 2017, named after a U of T residence.
She had chosen Canada over the U.S. because after last year’s elections “it became very evident that the States wouldn’t be safe for a Black student.” U of T brochures depicting itself in glowing terms as a draw for international students also helped.
She was introducing herself on the chat, as were others, when a senior year frosh leader who organized and facilitated the chat said, “I’m a trap n-----” spelling out a diminutive form of the N-word. That is the term used for someone who hangs out in a trap, or areas where drugs are sold. The Star has reviewed screen shots of their conversations.
She was taken aback.
“You’re not Black, are you?” she asked him.
“Only between my legs,” he responded.
“Don’t say the N-word, please” she wrote.
At one point he wrote, “You made it all the way to university, don’t be a little bitch over a word. This isn’t California.”
This set the tone of the conversation that followed — for three days. It involved her posting links to stories explaining why it was wrong to use the word, and the painful history tied to its use.
“It spiralled out of control,” she told me on Thursday, speaking to me reluctantly on the phone and on condition of anonymity for fear of a bigger backlash. “Everybody was giving their two cents, even people not in the Chestnut chat.
“People were messaging me privately why being an SJW (social justice warrior) is detrimental.”
On the chat, she was told to “calm down” and “stop ruining the chat” and “creating trouble before school has even started.”
When she messaged the frosh leader privately, the best she could get from him was, “I’ll try not to say it anymore.”
She came to Toronto but decided to live off campus after this incident and move on.
In September, she came across a public Facebook group called U of T Confessions, where people anonymously post lighter questions.
There, someone asked, “Where are all the Black boys in engineering?”
One response: “In prison.”
She let it go.
A few days later, another U of T Facebook chat, another incident where someone else used the N-word. This time, when she asked him to stop, the student apologized. He said he didn’t know it was wrong, that his friends said it all the time.
In the discussion that followed, one student shared an image that was sent to him by another student. It was of a digital Blackface with the words “Yo yo n----” also with the diminutive form of the word spelled out.
“That was the end game for me. The point I decided I needed to speak up,” she told me. “It became evident it wasn’t an isolated incident. It was a culture of anti-Black racism in the institution.”
To paint your face black and lips red, “that’s a direct attack. I felt small and belittled at that point.
“And I decided to take it to the BSA (Black Students’ Association).”
The incident brought back memories for Beverly Bain, who teaches women and gender studies in the department of historical studies at the University of Toronto Mississauga.
“I was an undergraduate in the ’70s,” she said. “We had a similar situation come up with two students who were in the engineering department. One from Africa, the other from the Caribbean, who actually faced similar kinds of taunts. In those days it was really in your face. One student was called ‘monkey.’ The other was told if living in Canada was an issue, they should go back to where they came from.”
The students brought it to the attention of the African-Caribbean Students’ Association.
“We took it to administration,” said Bain, “and, of course, nothing was done about it. If anything during that period we were often targeted by security as a group that was problematic.
“We were seen as a threat.”
The authorities said the information was sketchy, she said. And “if the student felt offended, they can make a complaint, they should take it to their head department and launch a formal complaint.”
There was no process in place to deal with discrimination, she said. “It wasn’t at all seen as something that needed attention. It wasn’t seen as grievous.”
On Nov. 5 this year, the Black Students’ Association took up the international student’s case and sent an email to the dean of engineering and other faculty in which they referenced the code of student conduct.
On Nov. 20, they met with Sandy Welsh, the vice-provost of students, Christina Aman, the dean of engineering, Michael Stickel, an engineering professor, and Sandra Carnegie-Douglas, the head of Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office.
At the meeting, “we went over the breaches in the code of conduct and the repercussions that are listed in the code of conduct as well as responsibilities to uphold the code of conduct,” said Justice Huyer, the vice-president of the BSA.
The student representatives were told the procedure involved informally reaching out to the accused (called a respondent), appointing a third-party investigator and, finally, a hearing.
“We asked how long this process takes,” said Anyika Mark, president of the BSA. “We were told the average time this takes is about a year. We can’t accept that as a sufficient answer.”
The longer it takes the longer the complaining student is vulnerable. And what happens if the BSA executives now involved graduate from school? In addition, they are full-time students with full course loads — now expected to make time to prepare and attend multiple meetings.
“They had no answers about how we can work around that and how that process works with us being students,” said Mark.
Sandy Welsh, the university’s vice-provost of students, said to me, “The focus is on doing it in as timely a way as we possibly can but in the fairest way possible.
“I can’t speculate on exactly how long the process is going to take … the majority of it takes under a year.”
According to U of T’s database, which captures all “code cases” at the university since 2011, there were 82 cases related to a breach of code of student conduct, and two that “may have a connection to racial discrimination,” according to Althea Blackburn-Evans, director of media relations.
Forty-six of those cases were resolved in less than six months, 12 within a year, 13 within 18 months and four took longer than 18 months.
“The longer timelines are for complex cases, generally with multiple offences or ones involving the Criminal Code,” Blackburn-Evans told me by email.
Although she did not speak about this specific incident, Welsh acknowledges, “This is a type of behaviour that could be an offence under the student code of conduct.”
Bain was invited to speak at the Nov. 28 town hall. “I looked around and said, the only difference here is that there are more of us. More Black students. We’re still dealing with those issues.”
Black students today say hearing the N-word from non-Black students is a frequent occurrence. They are a minority on campus (the university does not keep race-based data, so exact figures are unknown) and there is no Black faculty at the engineering college.
Back in the ’70s, there were no policies to deal with racism on campus, Bain said. There are policies now, but they are a deterrent.
“What is in place to resolve those issues is not meant to actually enforce. Whatever is in place is meant to discourage any kind of challenge to issues of racism, sexism and other forms of direct, oppressive violence that students experience.”
“These policies are meant to make the institutions look good. They are not meant to change the structure of the institution.”
So what next?
Justice Huyer of BSA said, “There is a list of penalties (in the code of student conduct) that was not created by us. We demand they be upheld. That’s what is acceptable for us. And going forward we will accept nothing but a safe space for Black people on campus and to do better in terms of dealing with cases of racism.”
An adequate space where Black students can feel supported is one of the other demands of the BSA, which is also seeking funding toward an anti-Black racism campaign and for the National Society of Black Engineers program, which has no physical space at all. Its members are contactable only by email, Huyer said.
“We have LGBTQ positive spaces that have signs and invitations,” she said. “We have a First Nations House for Indigenous students to come together.
“But the Black Students’ Association, we have the third-largest student association on campus. We have a cubicle that is semi-private with glass windows in a basement that can hold approximately five people and we serve hundreds.”
The students say when they tried to raise the other issues at the meeting, the faculty didn’t engage with them. “We were just met with blanks stares. And kind of silence,” said Mark.
Then the faculty suggested another meeting, a move Mark sees as a “derailing tactic” to tire them out.
“There certainly have been discussions around (office) space issues for Black students,” Welsh said. “I think these are things we are talking about right now.”
It’s past time to still be in the discussion phase of these changes. And the university could extend some of its own solutions used for other marginalized groups.
At an orientation for international students on campus, the complainant who is anonymous, says, “We were taught about how the university is an LGBTQ-friendly space and we were made very aware of the fact that we needed to use neutral pronouns, that we needed to not be transphobic, not be queer phobic because a lot of our backgrounds are countries where homophobia is unfortunately the culture.
“There shouldn’t be a reason they can’t do that as well with anti-Blackness,” she said.
There shouldn’t be a reason they can’t do that with all students. An Asian Canadian, a South Asian Canadian and a white Canadian were involved in the N-word and digital Blackface messages, she said.
“We know anti-Black racism exists on our campuses and I know there is more that we can do to address it,” said Welsh. “We need to continue to listen — and hear — what are the concerns of our students, our faculty and our staff.”
“More than anything else, students are saying, we want to see change,” said Bain.
“We’re asking for something fundamental, something concrete. We want to see the institution itself start looking at the way it functions on a day-to-day basis.”