Peter MacKinnon. Photo: Dalhousie website crediting Danny Abriel photos

Peter MacKinnon’s book, University Commons Divided: Exploring Debate and Dissent on Campus, has been shortlisted for the Donner Prize.

The selection criteria for the prize identifies three areas of scrutiny:

  1. The importance of the subject;
  2. The soundness and originality of the analysis in terms of identifying and defining the issues in question and presenting authoritative analysis and evidence to illuminate the issues and support the conclusions reached;
  3. A well-written, well-presented book that can be read and understood not only by experts, but also by interested and informed laymen.

Keep these criteria in mind as you read this article.

In an article I wrote for the Halifax Examiner about MacKinnon’s defense of blackface, I identified how MacKinnon’s arguments lack a scholarly basis. He frequently does not quote or misleadingly quotes opposing arguments, omits context, misrepresents events, lacks citation, and shows little to no evidence of research in scholarly fields. In that article, I contacted half a dozen leading scholars on blackface, including acknowledged expert in the field Eric Lott, author of the book Love and Theft. Every single scholar comprehensively debunked MacKinnon’s scholarship.

As Dr. Rinaldo Walcott wrote:

Any book that claims to be critiquing blackface and does not cite, engage or debate the voluminous scholarship on blackface is engaging in shoddy, unethical scholarship.

Dr. George Elliott Clarke, a Dalhousie Alumnus, argued:

Any scholar who believes that contemporary, ‘blackface mimicry’ is merely a case of poor taste or mere tomfoolery is no scholar.

MacKinnon’s writing on blackface was only one section of his book. While much attention has been focused around his views on blackface, the issues with MacKinnon’s questionable scholarship are certainly not confined to his opinion on Halloween costumes.

In another example, MacKinnon draws conclusions about an incident that occurred at Ryerson University. MacKinnon characterizes this incident as taking place when “Henry Parada, director of the university’s School of Social Work, left an anti-racism meeting” (51). The Black Liberation Collective at Ryerson responded to this incident by identifying Parada’s behaviour as anti-Black. MacKinnon goes on to conclude the following:

In the case of Parada, the outburst of the Black Liberation Collective Ryerson Branch is inexplicable on the known facts. We do not know why Parada left the anti-racism meeting when he did: time pressures, health break, or an important cellphone call? Was he feeling unwell? Perhaps he found some of what was being said at the meeting distasteful. It is credible to suggest that this may be an example of an attempt to extend safe space from the private to the public domain, and in that sense comparable to the Concordia and University of Ottawa examples above. If the anti-racism event was a public one, people in attendance are free to leave when they wish, for any reason. Even if it was a private one, those present can choose the timing of their departures. (53)

MacKinnon is correct that the facts as he understands them are “inexplicable.” That is because the “facts” he assumes are not actually the facts at all. There is no mention in the statement of the Black Liberation Collective of an “anti-racism meeting.” Since MacKinnon doesn’t cite any other source for his information about this incident, his mischaracterization of it is a total mystery.

The incident in fact took place at the job interview of a Black woman which was loudly disrupted by Parada. I know this because I contacted the Black Liberation Collective with questions about the incident. Not only did I contact the Collective, I also spoke with the Black female academic whose job interview was disturbed by Parada.

I was able to do this simple research for an article in the Halifax Examiner. I wonder why the University of Toronto Press, which is supposed to be the most prestigious academic press in Canada, did not have even these standards for work they publish.

MacKinnon himself made no effort in writing his book to contact the Black Liberation Collective for clarification or to research the incident and attempt to understand what he sees as “inexplicable.” Instead, he imagines a certain kind of event, and then projects a series of further imaginary theories about why Parada may have left. He uses these flights of fancy to draw conclusions about “safe space” policies and to opine about the threat to university values this incident supposedly represents.

Desmond Cole. Photo: Halifax Examiner

Desmond Cole has called this phenomenon “white supremacist improv,” where white people defend an incident of racism by conjuring imaginary scenarios and then installing those scenarios as fact and proceeding to argue as though their speculative, fictional, version of events occurred.

In order to proceed with these assumptions, MacKinnon must first begin with the idea that when Black people talk about and identify racism, we do so wildly, without reason, and without foundation. When MacKinnon encounters an incident of Black people identifying racism that seems inexplicable to him — that Black people would call someone racist simply for leaving a meeting — rather than interrogate his own assumptions, he instead accepts that it is reasonable to conclude that Black people would act in these irrational, incomprehensible ways. Therefore, he does not engage in even the bare minimum of research, fact checking, or any attempt to understand or clarify the incident, since he has already concluded that Black people normally engage in this kind of inexplicable behaviour.

While Black people are imagined by MacKinnon as an irrational mob hurling unsubstantiated and random accusations of racism, his arguments consistently stretch throughout the book to defend abusive, uncivil behaviour by white (or white passing) students and faculty. Loudly disrupting a job interview is surely against all the “values” of the university. That MacKinnon was only interested in facile condemnations of Black students and not uncovering the facts of the incident suggests where his interests lie, but that is hardly “illuminating,” nor useful in formulating any policy that would possibly benefit any Black members of the university.

Similar factual inaccuracies are found in the chapter on Dalhousie Dentistry: MacKinnon did not contact any of the four faculty members who filed the complaint for clarification or comment.

This type of ungenerous reasoning underlies MacKinnon’s approach to arguing throughout the book: those whom MacKinnon disagrees with are consistently constructed as hysterical, emotional, uncivil, irrational, threatening, and unwilling to participate reasonably in the “commons.” This may have attraction as a polemical argument, but it is not the basis for constructing meaningful policy, or for engaging in good faith debate.

A book that makes so little effort to even be factually correct, and has so little concern with bothering to understand the issues under contention, surely cannot be considered an “excellent” contribution to public policy writing.

It is less surprising that a book so soundly critiqued by Black scholars would be chosen for this award when we look at the jury.

Every single member of the jury is white.

Not a single member of the jury has any expertise in issues of race or racism.

The Donner Canadian Foundation states that this prize was created:

[T]o recognize and reward the best public policy thinking, writing and research by a Canadian, and the role it plays in determining the well-being of Canadians and the success of Canada as a whole [my italics].

Implicit in the commissioning of an entirely white jury to make these decisions about what books and conversations are critical to the making of policy is the idea that Canada “as a whole” does not include Black people or Black scholarship.

When I contacted Helen McClean, the Executive Director of the Foundation, for comment, she indicated to me that she was aware of the “controversy” on blackface, and suggested I contact Sherry Naylor, the person responsible for jury selection for further comment and clarification. (Naylor, whose PR firm was hired by the Donner Foundation, has not responded to my query at the time of publishing this article.)

Writing off the research of Black scholars, decades of scholarship on blackface, and the entire field of critical race studies as a matter of “controversy” indicates exactly the problem with convening juries without any Black presence.

As scholar of blackface Dr. Cheryl Thompson commented to me when I informed her of the shortlisting of the book:

Just as we have begun to rethink the demographics of students enrolled in universities across Canada, we need to rethink who sits on juries for these kinds of prizes. Whether the book has some merit is a moot point as far as I am concerned. I would be more interested in knowing what about this book is extraordinary given that experts have already unpacked a substantive argument in the book as being fundamentally flawed.

Blackface portrayals rely upon stereotypical, vulgar, degraded representations of Blackness and Black people. The harm of those representations is perpetuated by MacKinnon’s erasure of Black scholarship on the matter, and compounded again by an all-white jury’s declaration that this contribution is significant.

Jean-Marie Dufour

When I contacted juror Jean-Marie Dufour for comment, he repeatedly indicated to me that the book was important because it was “starting a conversation” about an issue that “attracts attention.”

However, when I pressed Dufour about whether he thought it was a problem that a jury of white people were deciding what was important about that conversation and were ignoring the scholarly consensus by academics who study blackface, he repeatedly returned to the idea that the book was important because it is “controversial,” as though the only issue with MacKinnon’s book is people’s response to it and not the quality of the book itself. Provocation, though, is not policy.

Along with the racial make-up of the jury, what is worrisome is the institutions these jurors represent.

Dufour is a professor at McGill, which had a blackface incident in 2011. While Dufour emphasized to me that a nomination does not speak to whether the jury agrees with the views put forward in the book, the shortlisting of the book certainly indicates that the jury considered the book to have “sound” arguments and “authoritative analysis and evidence” according to the criteria for selection.

When I asked Dufour if he thinks that nominating the book nonetheless sends a message to institutions about what arguments and scholarship are seen as valuable contributions to policy and sends a message about the acceptability of blackface, he suggested it did not.

The Chair of the jury is David A. Dodge, who among other occupations was Chancellor of Queen’s University from 2008 to 2015. In his book, MacKinnon minimizes a racist costume party that took place at Queen’s university in 2016, condemning the “lack of proportion” in responses to the incident. That Dodge seemingly sees particular merit in MacKinnon’s arguments suggests that MacKinnon’s views — not only on blackface but on faculty unions, BDS campaigns, pronoun usage, divestment campaigns, and other key issues — are attractive to the “elites” of the university administration world.

Another jury member is Peter Nicholson, a Dalhousie graduate who has been a frequent presenter to the Dalhousie Board of Governors. This entire board was given a copy of MacKinnon’s book.

Lawrence Stordy

Lawrence Stordy, Chair of the Dalhousie Board of Governors, vigorously defended MacKinnon’s book and suggested that anyone protesting the book did not understand its arguments.

“If they read the passages they’re [students calling out MacKinnon’s blackface comments] protesting against,” Stordy told, “they’re really about disproportionate response to issues without actually understanding the issues, and stopping the debate before engaging in the debate. And that’s what they’re doing — protesting without really understanding why he said what he said.”

This argument that readers could not understand the book interestingly defies the third criteria for selection, which indicates that the nominated books should be understood by both experts and laymen.

Ken Whyte, the chair of the Donner Canadian Foundation, praised the selected books as texts that “will undoubtedly provoke debate and elevate the conversation in Canada.” But if anyone “elevated” conversation, it is the Black scholars who contributed the substantial scholarly evidence and research to counter Mackinnon’s unsubstantiated opinions and shoddy conclusions. Yet MacKinnon is eligible for a $50,000 prize.

Dufour suggested to me that if I objected to the decision I should write a critique of the book. I told him that I had, and that I had spoken to a number of Black scholars in that article. I asked if he or any members of the jury had read the article. He did not indicate that he had. I wonder, then, who this conversation is intended to engage. And if it is a conversation at all when Black people’s repeated evidence of the problems in his arguments are consistently ignored and dismissed.

Perhaps a jury should be selected that understands that “conversations” about race and the university did not begin with MacKinnon. There has been writing for decades by scholars of colour about these issues. But as this nomination makes clear, it seems to be only the words of white people that matter.

El Jones holds the Nancy’s Chair in Women’s Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University.

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El Jones

El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. Dalhousie continues to sink lower and lower. Thank you for shining a light on the fundamental flaws and racism behind this book

  2. Black face is a visual representation of the n-word. Seems pretty simple and awfully racist.

    Why would anyone try to contextualize it as anything else let alone as free speech?