By Jason Herring, November 9 2017 —
Another act of racism occurred this week at the University of Calgary. Posters stating “It’s okay to be white” were found scattered throughout campus. The Rock displayed the same message for students returning from the weekend.
This message was not unique to the U of C. Over 100 similar instances of discrimination took place at universities across North America. The message has origins on the online 4chan message boards, where users were encouraged to plaster posters around campuses to “expose the media’s anti-white bias through their reaction to a harmless flyer.” 4chan is notorious for breeding alt-right rhetoric and extremism.
The message is designed to be covertly racist. It’s harmful in its intentions and implications. It’s meant to give those proliferating the discriminatory statement plausible deniability — to say that they’re being attacked by the leftist media because they’re white, or to equate their manufactured victimization to the discrimination they’re carrying out themselves.
That’s bullshit. Anyone who dismisses these posters is complicit in their racism. The proliferation of “It’s okay to be white” posters clearly targets marginalized groups on campuses because it defends white supremacy. The perpetrators and the posters deserve categorical condemnation.
Knowing that acts of racism continue to happen on our campus is bad enough. The U of C’s public-relations team stumbling through them is even worse. In response to the incident, they issued two statements. The second, given to the Gauntlet on Nov. 9 after a bit of prodding, condemned the posters and iterated that the school will not tolerate racism. This should have been said in the first place, but at least they arrived at that conclusion eventually.
Their first statement, however, exemplified exactly how institutions shouldn’t respond to an instance of discrimination. Students deserve to know what they sent as their first response, so we’ll examine it here. Since it was filled with so many problematic statements that it’s hard to know where to start, we’ll go through it line-by-line.
The initial statement starts with “The concept of freedom of speech is a foundational principle of all great universities. The University of Calgary is committed to fostering an environment of free inquiry, open debate and diversity of opinions.” Freedom of speech on campuses is intrinsic to their functioning. It’s what allows us to publish this article, which is immensely critical of our university’s administration, without fear of punishment.
However, freedom of speech does not include hate speech. And though “It’s okay to be white” is crafted to skirt the lines of the legal definition of hate speech, it’s clear that the creators intended to be hateful. Universities can and should condemn acts of hate on their campus if they wish to create an inclusive environment and make marginalized populations feel safe and welcome. The University of Alberta also dealt with these posters last week, but their president promptly called them racist and said that they would not be tolerated. That the U of C initially chose not to follow that precedent is alarming.
The statement continues with, “The university supports students or others sharing their views about subjects — including those that are controversial — in a safe and respectful manner.” But these views cannot be respectful because there is no way to share racist sentiments respectfully. The posters, because of their content and their placement, attacked students of colour and Indigenous students. And to say that racism is merely “controversial” is sickeningly regressive.
“We understand that some members of our community might find the materials distressing and upsetting” reads like the classic non-apology of, “I’m sorry if you were offended.” The statement acknowledges that some members of the community were upset and shirks responsibility because it doesn’t share any of the anger or frustration of the rest of the community.
“We endeavor to work closely with individuals in a collaborative manner regarding matters of concern” concludes the statement. We sincerely hope this will actually come to fruition. The U of C needs to take steps to address the growing problem of discrimination on campus in ways more substantial than half-baked statements. We look forward to seeing what that entails.
The most powerful and loudest voices at the university sometimes fail to condemn discrimination. This time they did, after a second try. Regardless, statements like one originally provided by the U of C are an embarrassment. Students must continue to demand that their institution recognizes, denounces and works to combat racism on campus.
Articles published in the Gauntlet‘s opinion section do not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.