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n September 26, 2017 the University of Toronto campus erupted after a racist incident at one of its affiliated Colleges. The incident took place over lunch when Senior Fellow of the elite Massey College Michael Marrus (emeritus historian of the Holocaust) gestured at the College ‘Master’ before uttering to a Black woman Junior Fellow: “You know this is your master, eh? Do you feel the lash?” The context for the incident is key. Junior Fellows at Massey, who are also graduate students at the University of Toronto, have been organizing to address systemic racism and transform their college for some time. Efforts specifically directed at changing the name of the head of the college and dropping ‘Master’ have been underway since last year.
A media frenzy no doubt encouraged a quick response from the college to a letter and list of demands issued by Junior Fellows. The word ‘master’ has been taken out of circulation and Professor Marrus has stepped down. Yet more than a week later, the temperature on campus rises to a simmer rather than cools.
Last week’s reprehensible ‘laughing at lashing’ incident was followed by an event on campus this week where three white men, including the head of Massey College, would debate the existence of social inequality. In response to criticism, organizers later added a white woman to the lineup. Still the event was disrupted by a group of well-organized, mostly Black students, who tried to explain to a hostile audience the inequity built into its design. The students also drew connections between incidents, with one sign reading ‘#you are not our master.’
The Junior Fellows’ exhaustion, having all this land on their laps in the academic rush hour of funding deadlines and new courses, is palpable. Black faculty’s immediate response was to send a letter to the head of the college in strong support of the junior fellows and their demands. In addition, Black faculty and staff have been working overtime, supporting students, dealing with media and administrators, and a newly tense campus climate. Indigenous staff and faculty—also on unpaid overtime—pulled together and penned a special letter of solidarity with the Junior Fellows and with Black Faculty. It is time for the rest of us to step up.
I helped write and organize the faculty solidarity letter that was (unintentionally) made public last week. I come from a German Jewish family that mostly survived the Holocaust and feel I honor the struggles and courage of my ancestors when I am accountable to the calling of antiracism. Antiracism entails intolerance of all its forms, not only the kinds that hit closest to home.
Racism not only surfaces within, but sculpts the experience of everyday life in the University. Racism works by keeping many things out: particular bodies from lecture halls, but also particular ideas, histories, and authors from pedagogies. Racism also works by what is kept inside the institution, and sadly this includes white supremacy.
When we listen to the accounts of those most impacted by racism rather than defensively dismiss them, we can see the pervasiveness of violence. We can see that for Professor Marrus’ ‘joke’ to provoke humor rather than pain and rage, our Black colleagues would first need to feel liberty, equity and basic safety where they work.
Thankfully, the commitment to make change is strong among a large and growing campus community. We welcome new members with open arms.