“Racial Incidents” are Clothespins Hanging on a Clothesline of Institutional Whiteness

Saint Joseph’s Parish opposite Tabaret Hall. The University of Ottawa was founded by the Oblate fathers, a male Catholic religious order with a long history as the vanguard of settler colonialism — including the operation of, and employment in, Residential Schools— across Canada. Photo by Meredith Terretta.

Meredith Terretta (for the uOttawa Antiracist History Group)

Too often, a consideration of students has gone missing in conversations about race unfolding on university campuses across Canada this year. It is as if one skill professors have yet to learn is how to actively listen to their students. All of them. Including racialized students for whom our institution, perhaps like yours, has for too long had a tin ear, at best. And yet, we’re here: professors who care about the wellbeing and belonging of students, and who would rather find common ground with them than view them as our adversaries.

At uOttawa, a group of historical educators and researchers, independent of any institutional or departmental structure, launched a website called Histoire antiraciste uOttawa Antiracist History during Black History Month (February 2021).

The website evolved from an antiracist group that began in the summer of 2020 with conversations among a few uOttawa historians in the wake of the killings of Ahmad Aubery, George Floyd, and the local movement No Peace Until Justice dedicated to seeking justice for Abdirahman Abdi. We knew our work had to go far beyond declarative virtue signalling, and started to think about what kind of substantial change was necessary and possible on our own campus.

Then, an “n-word crisis” emerged on our campus in October 2020, generating public discussion across Canada.

We lived through it with our students and spoke about it in our Zoom classrooms. Many professors had urgent and meaningful conversations during those weeks and since. Significantly for historians, many students and professors did not see this incident as a “crisis” as much as they saw it as a punctuated moment in of a long history of racism.

Crisis language is reactionary. Crisis thinking isolates an incident from its historical context, framing it instead in presentist polemics, pitting antiracism against national identity, for example. Thinking historically about structure and about how humans act—or fail to act—as agents of change can help extract us from thinking about racism as an aberration rather than as part of a historical continuity. For me, it helps to see the uOttawa crisis of Fall 2020 as a clothespin hanging on a much longer clothesline of history. I have thus begun to refer to it as The Clothespin Incident.

The uOttawa “clothesline” is an institutional structure shaped—like all universities across Canada—by whiteness and settler colonialism from the time of its founding over 170 years ago, until now. Built on unceded Algonquin lands, the University of Ottawa has an institutional structure that requires racialized students, staff persons, and faculty to navigate an overwhelmingly white space.

Institutional whiteness requires far too many students to sit in classrooms as the only or nearly the only representative of a given racialized minority group. In this setting, racialized students are often made to feel either invisible or, perhaps, too visible as they face pressure by students or instructors to teach others about questions of race and racism.

The whiteness of the university encumbers the too few colleagues of color for whom mentorship takes an inordinate toll because university hiring practices have yet to align with present day racial demographics. From departmental units to the central administration, institutional whiteness closes the doors of decision-making to valuable viewpoints that, if allowed in, might highlight shifts that must be made to ensure equitable belonging on a campus that has, for too long, privileged some and marginalized others.

Structural whiteness increases the workload of equity seekers, be they students, staff persons, faculty, or administrators in ways impossible to quantify although some, like Dr. Rita Kaur Dhamoon and Dr. Nisha Nath, are now trying. Institutional whiteness is blind to the metrics of inclusion, success, and attrition that leverage empirical evidence to antiracist policy making although PhD students, like Karine Coen-Sanchez , are producing research to begin filling the gap.

Restructuring universities as anything more than white—as equitable, diverse, and inclusive, for example—will take longterm commitment to a concerted antiracist effort on every front where power operates, including in the classroom, and everywhere decisions are made, from the executive committees of departments and faculties to the Board of Governors.

Change is difficult to effect, as we have seen at uOttawa where partisan politics have seeped into the mix. Leaders near and far have stridently pitted freedom of speech against antiracism or declared their government’s official opposition to critical race theory. Nevertheless, students remain keen to discuss topics surrounding race, including the structural and historical foundations of racism.

Rather than remove these discussions from the classroom, now is the time to build the trust that will enable us to navigate these discussions as co-learners. The challenge hinges on how to teach ethically, with the respect and civility necessary to ensure safe and productive knowledge exchange between professors and students, an approach that is sometimes misperceived as a threat to academic freedom. The members of our uOttawa antiracist history group view such challenges to knowledge exchange as generative, rather than as posing a risk to academic freedom.

In the wake of the Clothespin Incident, the antiracist working group forged an informal, self-organizing, co-creation approach to support and contribute to the work of formal discussions and structures (as well as everyday scholarly research) through expedited, focused, and iterative work that leverages digital tools. We designed and then launched Histoire antiraciste uOttawa Antiracist History to publicly communicate our thinking, our antiracist commitment and our short and long term goals to history students at all levels of our programs (and whose associations, crucially, have partnered with us in this initiative), as well as to potential allies across our campus and beyond. The group has grown to include professors from other disciplines—including education, Indigenous Research and Studies, political science, and information sciences—whose research is historical in significant ways. Collaborating across conventional disciplinary boundaries is nourishing a dynamic cross-fertilization in support of our learning to better integrate antiracism into our teaching, research, and service.

Another of our goals is to mobilize knowledge that shores up our commitment to ensuring the safety, wellbeing and dignity of our students, especially when it comes to teaching literary works and/or historical documents that contain injurious racial terms. In this, we are guided by the principles of experienced educators whose works we share on our website, for example, Dr. Koritha Mitchell’s idea of the classroom covenant. Our website features readings, films, podcasts, and other resources, all drawn from our larger, collaboratively curated Confronting Racism bibliography that serves as a springboard for learning about histories of race, slavery, and colonialism, globally, as well as nationally. The bibliography contains material on historically rooted forms of oppression and discrimination, as well as intersectional ways to overcome them. Members of our group have also shared syllabi, and we plan to grow the site as a tool to announce events on campus of interest to students and colleagues doing antiracist work, as well as our organization of antiracist pedagogy sessions for instructors and teaching assistants.

We view as false the premise that academic freedom and antiracism are in opposition. Such a notion dates back several decades to a time when some scholars denounced multiculturalism and postmodernism as distortive of the Academy’s commitment to objective knowledge. Yet the inclusion of marginalized and equity-seeking groups in the university has both required and produced new forms of knowledge that challenge conventional disciplinary boundaries and scholarly approaches.

Some view the integration of an antiracist approach as an ideological campaign reducing historical analysis of past societies to a single viewpoint. In contrast, we understand an antiracist approach to history as an intentional scholarly opening to expand what constitutes legitimate knowledge.

We recognize that institutional structure is hard to change, even when university leadership commits to fighting racism as ours is at this time, and even when professional associations, such as the Canadian Historical Association, call for greater attention to inclusive histories from different perspectives. We also recognize our responsibility, as educators, to forge ahead of institutional time as we continue teaching on topics related to race and racism at a university that has yet to develop a policy on racial discrimination. In so doing, we aim to learn with our students, with each other, and with those who would join us, as we chart a new course and contribute to similarly transformative antiracist initiatives across our campus and beyond.

Meredith Terretta is Gordon F. Henderson Chair in Human Rights and Associate Professor of History at the University of Ottawa. The author would like to thank Eric Allina, Chad Gaffield, Brenda Macdougall, Laura Madokoro, Heather Murray, Sarah Rotz, Nicholas Ng-A-Fook and Sarah Templier for comments and suggestions to ameliorate the text.

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