Racial Tension Builds

HEC Students Caught in Blackface on Campus

Photos Anthony Morgan

During the Vaudeville era nearly a century ago, one could have seen any number of what we would now consider rights violations paraded on stage for entertainment purposes. From little people boxing to manacled bears and physically deformed people labeled as “freaks”—there was no limit to who or what unscrupulous people would take advantage of for money, all of them humiliated simply for the amusement of the audience.

On Sept. 14, Anthony Morgan, a McGill Law student, witnessed a spectacle that most thought had been left behind one hundred years ago: university students with faces and arms painted charcoal black, sporting fake dreadlocks and chanting, “Smoke more weed! Ya mon, ya mon, ya mon!” A few members of the costumed party were even carrying plush monkeys as part of the display.

“This is more than offensive, this is egregious. Some would say that this is an act of hatred—we are human beings and that is what is being lost,” Morgan told The Link.

The spectacle was a part of the Université de Montréal’s frosh week. The Hautes Études Commerciales students’ intention was to encourage new students to join the track and field team. The Rastafarian impression, according to HEC spokesperson Michael Lartigau, was intended as a tribute to Jamaican sprinter and Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt.

“They certainly didn’t want to offend anyone; it was really in the spirit of the Olympics,” Lartigau told The Gazette.

On Monday, HEC—which is affiliated with, but operates independently of, UdeM—offered an official apology for the students’ actions, as well as to Morgan personally. As of yet, however, they have not been able to get in touch with him.

The school and its Bachelors in Business Administration Student Association came forward with a joint prepared statement that acknowledged that the group had “touched upon some sensitivities” and said those involved acted “unintentionally and unknowingly.”

The statement also entailed plans to offer “a training program on intercultural issues, as a way of ensuring that future student activities respect the different values of our increasingly multicultural world.”

Whether this apology will be considered sufficient or timely remains to be seen, but Lartigau’s initial response to the shocking display has fallen under harsh criticism.

“I’m actually quite alarmed by the response of the spokesperson who’s speaking on behalf of the university,” said Charmaine Nelson, an associate professor at McGill University who specializes in Race and Representation and the Visual Culture of Slavery. “They are basically, in their statement, condoning and dismissing as innocent this racist act. […] You have to really be living under a rock to not know that blackface is offensive.”

Nelson asked her class what they thought the ramifications for the offending students should be. The answers varied from expulsion to community service that would have the students working alongside black people, in the hope that the students will learn to see past skin color.

“[It] suggests a dehumanization of black people. And it’s tied to a longer history of demeaning black people—seeing them as sub-human, [lacking] intelligence and being buffoons,” Morgan said. “I know a lot of students will say ‘We didn’t mean it,’ [or] ‘We didn’t know,’ but that’s exactly the point—this needs to be known. Of all places, this needs to be known at a university.”

Fo Niemi, the executive director of the Centre for Research Action on Race Relations, wasn’t only surprised by the student perpetrators, but more so by the reaction of the university itself. “Obviously it shows that there is a lot of ignorance out there. And from what I understand, the university doesn’t see anything wrong with that. They don’t see what the big deal is,” Niemi said.

After his initial shock, Morgan captured a video of the black-faced students with his phone and posted it to YouTube. The video has since been taken down from YouTube because it violated YouTube’s anti-hate speech policy, though copies from other accounts remain up.

Morgan is considering filing a lawsuit through the Quebec Human Rights Commission. The Black Coalition of Quebec is backing him in this endeavor.

“As Canadians, an incident like this will hopefully wake us up to not just think about the nature of this incident today, but that there is a legacy of racism in this country that many Canadians do not want to face,” said Nelson. “Everybody wants to talk about the Underground Railroad and how we saved the black American slaves, but for the two hundred plus years before that we were enslaving people too.”

The incident also calls to mind a March 2010 incident, when two fans at a Montreal Canadiens game used shoe polish and afro wigs to show their support for defenseman P.K. Subban, who is black.
Unfortunately, these are just two events in a recent fad of blackface events among young white people, including hip-hop parties popular around universities where white students dress up like black caricatures and play rap music.

“Maybe in the Francophone community there is not enough of the historical—as well as social—context linked with this kind of stereotyping because, possibly, of different experiences.” — Fo Niemi, Centre for Research Action on Race Relations Executive Director

The problem at hand, both Niemi and Morgan agree, is not with the students themselves, but with a system that raised them ignorantly to believe there was nothing wrong with their actions. “For many of us in the English-speaking community it’s easy to say this is inappropriate,” said Niemi. “Maybe in the Francophone community there is not enough of the historical—as well as social—context linked with this kind of stereotyping because, possibly, of different experiences.”

Nelson believes the problem is closely tied to black people being more successful in today’s society. With people like Barack Obama, Condoleezza Rice and Usain Bolt in positions of power and celebrity and other black people, like herself, attaining professional positions in the work force—Nelson fears that this resurgence of blackface is a specific form of racism aimed at these successful black people.

“This idea of white superiority is the assumption that white people are always the best, the top, the brightest, the most civilized, etc.,” Nelson said. “If you’re a person of colour, a black person, a native person that’s very successful, educated, upper class, you get a special kind of racism reserved for you, where it’s a kind of ‘how dare you’ racism. ‘How dare you make more money than me? How dare you have more credentials than me? How dare you be more educated than me?’”

If ignorance is the problem, then education is the solution, said Morgan, who believes that the students need to learn more about Rastafarian culture, and the university needs to do more to educate students on the historical legacy of black culture and racial sensitivity training. Morgan suggested they should offer classes in black history, start groups for cultural relations, offer diversity training and anti-discrimination policies.
“Black students who know the history of blackface and who know the history of Jamaica need to feel that this is a safe place as a university,” Morgan said.