On Monday afternoon, Dalhousie students protested the welcoming reception for incoming president Peter MacKinnon.
As Tim noted on Tuesday, “The students are particularly riled over MacKinnon’s book, University Commons Divided: Exploring Debate & Dissent on Campus.”
One of the serious issues students identified in their press release is MacKinnon’s declaration in the book that blackface is “not always” racist and that to protest blackface or to condemn people who wear it is to dangerously “divide” the university.
How does MacKinnon arrive at the idea in 2018 that the worst thing about wearing blackface is people calling it racist?
PART ONE: BLACKFACE
MacKinnon addresses incidents of white students wearing blackface costumes on campus in a chapter called “Safe Space, Comfort, and Freedom of Expression.” Here, MacKinnon’s concern is not with the wearing of the blackface, but with the response by Black students and others who identify blackface as racist and unacceptable.
Let’s look how MacKinnon frames these incidents.
Here is an image of blackface costumes worn at Brock University:
MacKinnon describes the Brock incident this way:
In the case of U of T and Brock students, the discussion centred on their use of blackface or make-up used by non-Black performers to portray Black persons. Its use has a long history and one frequently, though not always, viewed as racist. Here, the students were not portraying Black persons in stereotypical, oppressed or disadvantaged situations. Nor is it likely that they were paying tribute to the participation of a tropical team in a winter Olympic sport that inspired the movie Cool Runnings. It was their use of blackface that ignited the controversy (44).
It is unclear to me how donning black face paint is not the very definition of a “stereotypical” portrayal of Blackness, but MacKinnon does not expand on this argument.
MacKinnon goes on to condemn the “lack of proportion in the responses to [blackface costumes]” (45). So what did students and faculty do at Brock that has MacKinnon so concerned? Did they hold protests that shut down the operations of the university? Did they leave offensive graffiti and vandalize property? Were the offending students expelled from the university? Was there violence on campus?
In fact, what happened is that members of the department of Labour Studies wrote a Facebook post. Part of this post provides historical context:
Very close to Brock University, in Niagara Falls, blackface minstrel shows were aimed at white tourists until the 1950s. However, blackface is not simply a remnant of a racist historical past, but part of a broader set of cultural practices which maintain and normalize anti-Black racism and systemic oppression. Students, staff and faculty at Brock University need to understand that such costumes are not “just a joke.” Regardless of the intent or motivation of the students in question, donning blackface for Halloween is never okay; it is racist, full stop.
The only part of this segment MacKinnon quotes in his book is the last three words.
That this post explains the historical roots of blackface is particularly significant, since in declining to discipline the students who wore blackface, university president Jack Lightstone argued for the innocent intentions of the white students, claiming:
[T]he costume incident, meant to reference the 1993 “comic movie” Cool Runnings, occurred due to a lack of “historical consciousness” and awareness, which is a university’s “duty to inculcate.”
One wonders where the “lack of proportion” is in the Labour Studies department providing the very “historical consciousness” that the university president himself argued was necessary.
Perhaps what bothers MacKinnon more is that the Brock University Student Union pledged to run an awareness campaign about appropriate costumes, and that in future costumes would be vetted before they were presented on stage.
Yet, MacKinnon repeatedly emphasizes the importance of “civility” in the university. While he doesn’t clearly define what he means by civility, it seems simultaneously to excuse wearing blackface and to condemn writing informed letters about it. Surely asking students not to wear costumes that invoke the degraded stereotypes of enslavement is a civil act?
Black students are not to be allowed the “comfort” of not being confronted by degraded depictions of themselves, and their discomfort is apparently necessary collateral damage to white expression. Yet white students must never be denied the “comfort” of their fun. These incidents are minimized as “just Halloween parties” when people who object want to identify racism, but if they are so trivial, then why is it a terrible thing to tell students to wear something else? After all, it’s just a costume.
Nowhere in MacKinnon’s book does he talk about incidents of white supremacy on campus. Dalhousie, for example, has had numerous incidents of racist graffiti on campus. In February, MacKinnon’s mentee Richard Florizone, then the president of the university, called the latest incident of racist graffiti “abhorrent.” Presumably, MacKinnon does not object to the lack of proportion in his mentee’s response to racism, yet he is seemingly uncomfortable when Black people recognize and speak out against racist symbols and imagery.
One might question why MacKinnon is concerned with faculty writing letters about racism, but finds no space in his book about a “divided” university to worry about growing alt-right and racist forces on campuses.
In 2015, in response to another blackface incident at the University of Toronto, Black students held a town hall to discuss racism on campus. This was not the first blackface incident on campus, raising a question MacKinnon neither asks nor answers about what exactly would be an effective response other than silence to address racist incidents when they keep happening.
In the forum organized as an open discussion about racism (surely an act of debate MacKinnon should approve), white students organized and occupied the seats in the room well before the talk to intentionally shut Black people out, and then taunted Black students arriving for the event. Black students ended up sitting on the floor. Is this the civility and commitment to open debate MacKinnon touts? Yet there is no mention of these kinds of incidents in his book.
So if people can’t identify blackface as racist, and can’t write posts about blackface, and can’t provide historical research about blackface and its racist roots, and can’t ask for blackface costumes to not be worn, and can’t suggest education or diversity training, and can’t hold open forums, then what exactly would MacKinnon consider a proportionate response? At Queen’s (where costumes depicted “sheiks, guerrillas from the war in Vietnam, Buddhist monks, Mexicans, and other national or ethnic peoples” ), the demonstration MacKinnon mentions was students standing outside of Senate holding signs. All of these acts seem to fit MacKinnon’s ideal of “free expression.”
But apparently when it comes to blackface, the only acceptable response is to remain silent.
Critics of the idea of “safe spaces” argue that fragile students want to be insulated from views with which they disagree. Yet it seems from his book that it is MacKinnon who wants to be protected from hearing opposing views.
PART TWO: THE “DEBATE”
Throughout his book, MacKinnon positions himself as the defender of university values, and the various left-wing groups on campuses as “the antithesis of the commons,” (124) a “divisive” force that threatens the essential mission of the university.
However, in reading MacKinnon’s book, a different picture emerges of MacKinnon’s commitment to academic debate. What becomes clear is that those who MacKinnon agrees with are quoted and their arguments are given space to speak in the text, while those who challenge MacKinnon’s views are largely only summarized and then characterized.
For example, in Chapter Two where MacKinnon discusses the Dalhousie dentistry scandal, despite numerous references to the complaint lodged by four Dalhousie faculty members, he never quotes their complaint, nor cites it in his notes. Similarly, there are no quotations offered from the feminist groups who protested, the members of the public who objected, the student groups on campus, or the numerous amorphous “critics” of whom MacKinnon disapproves. All of these groups are represented only though quotations describing their views from the Report from the Restorative Justice Process, which is quoted extensively and approvingly throughout.
The problem with this pattern of arguing is that it is not debate at all. When critiques are not cited and we must only rely upon MacKinnon’s representation of opposing views, the reader has no way to come to their own determination about the merits of those arguments. MacKinnon’s insistence on the importance of debate, discussion, and robust scholarship is undercut by his own unwillingness to actually engage the arguments of the opposite side.
Let us turn again to MacKinnon’s support of blackface.
In this section, as reviewed above, MacKinnon summarizes three incidents of blackface costume parties at the University of Toronto, Brock, and Queen’s University. While MacKinnon does quote from Queen’s student’s demands for accountability and diversity training (itself quoted from an article in the student newspaper), the only discussion of the racism of blackface itself that he includes is a quote from Brock’s Labour Studies faculty and a student that blackface is “racist, full stop” (44).
MacKinnon cites only one scholar, Stephen Johnson from the University of Toronto. Discussing the University of Toronto students who dressed as the Jamaican bobsled team, MacKinnon writes:
U of T drama and English professor Stephen Johnson, who has researched the performance of race on North American and British stages remarked, “If you asked 50 different people [about the costumes], they’ll all see 50 different things.”
That quotation is taken from an article for the Toronto Star by Denise Balkissoon, “How a Halloween getup went badly wrong.” In fact, Balkissoon goes on to note in the very next paragraph that:
Johnson says that while actors and costume-wearers want to invoke specific characters, viewers who have had racist experiences could be legitimately hurt or offended.
MacKinnon’s selective quoting from this article gives the impression that Johnson feels that blackface is impossible to recognize as racist and is subject to many interpretations — that he supports MacKinnon’s contention that “the episodes described here were just Halloween parties,” (45) and that blackface is “frequently, though not always, viewed as racist” (44) (italics mine). Leaving out the significant second part of Johnson’s statement, where he affirms the legitimacy of the hurt and offence Black people feel at these portrayals, essentially misrepresents Johnson’s position. Surely this kind of deliberate and misleading omission is not what passes for the model of scholarly debate?
In fact, Johnson’s publication record — not quoted or cited in the section — suggests quite the opposite to MacKinnon’s views on the matter.
On page two of his introduction to the book Burnt Cork: Traditions and Legacies of Blackface Minstrelsy (easily accessed through the preview on Google books), Johnson describes a student in a senior seminar at McMaster University in the late 1980s bringing into class a videotape of “a fully produced blackface minstrel show, with makeup and wooly wigs, white gloves, and dialect jokes” performed as a charity fundraiser. Johnson writes:
In our class discussion, we wondered aloud what would have happened if we had gone to the men who produced this event and confronted them with their clearly racist portrayals; my own suspicion was and is that they would have looked at us dumbfounded, and then angrily denounced us as the “real” racists, reading derogatory portrayals into what was to them a de-racialized (or never racialized), abstract, clownlike performance of comedy and song. Their argument would not have been disingenuous; they would have believed what they were saying, however much we might have disagreed.
It seems safe to say that MacKinnon never read this passage when he writes:
If there was insensitivity to issues of race in the selection of costume by party goers at the three universities, there was also a lack of proportion in the responses to them. These were Halloween parties, not cultural misappropriations, Nazi mimicry, or manifestations of disapproval of other peoples. So describing them risks diminishing real problems of intolerance, discrimination, and racism. It also risks backlash from a bewildered public observing these episodes. No country in the world has adapted to multiculturalism more successfully than has Canada; most Canadians know that and appreciate our diversity. They would also remind us that the episodes described here were just Halloween parties (45).
MacKinnon’s conclusion that denouncing blackface takes away from “real” racism mirrors very closely the “dumbfounded” response Johnson anticipates to scholarly arguments that show the historical grounding of racist portrayals of blackface. (I wrote to Johnson for a comment on the use of this quotation in MacKinnon’s book, but he had not responded by the time of publication.)
Other than this one partial quotation from a newspaper article, MacKinnon does not cite a single other scholar on blackface that allows him to draw the conclusion that it is “not always” racist. The entire field of Critical Race Studies is ignored in his analysis, and MacKinnon gives no indication he is even aware that there is critical writing on blackface going back more than 100 years. He certainly does not cite any of the numerous Black Canadian scholars and thinkers who have written about Blackface, including Ryerson professor Cheryl Thompson, McGill professor Philip S.S. Howard, or University of Toronto professor Rinaldo Walcott.
PART THREE: THE SCHOLARS
It is doubtful that one would find a book published in 2018 by University of Toronto Press that argued, for example, that there is debate about whether the enslavement of Black people was good or bad. Clearly, there are historical facts that are settled opinion. Blackface portrayals themselves derive from representations of Black people during enslavement, so this is not a ridiculous comparison. Insisting that there is still a necessary debate to be had about blackface before it can be declared racist depends upon ignoring all the significant published scholarship produced on the matter.
MacKinnon certainly understands that not all issues are up for debate. For example, he rightly condemns Nazi imagery, which is why he disapprovingly quotes Black objectors to blackface who compare the “costumes and makeup to the wearing of Nazi regalia” (44). Yet between 10 and 30 million Africans are estimated to have been forcibly transported during the slave trade, Canada enslaved African people for over 200 years, and enslaved Africans were tortured, starved, raped, branded, and exterminated during the slave trade. If an educated man like MacKinnon is able to minimize and excuse the imagery and symbols derived from enslavement while understanding the horror of Nazi symbols, it is only because histories of slavery are not taught, or are barely taught, in Canada.
Surely if one is to defend the mission of the university, that defence should begin in the basic academic practices of reading in the field, understanding opposing arguments, citing sources, engaging in the existing critical conversation, and providing evidence to draw conclusions. As Dr. Rinaldo Walcott wrote to me in response to MacKinnon’s conclusions:
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. From the passages I read, MacKinnon clearly by-passes scholarship on blackface that would concretely demonstrate its racist corrosive practice against actual Black people in favour of comments from people who engaged in the racist practice, and from one scholar discussing “race on stage.” MacKinnon is misleading. He should read Love and Theft by Eric Lott.
Walcott is the director of the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto. His first book Black Like Who? is considered one of the most important texts theorizing Black Canada.
Dr. George Elliott Clarke is a Dalhousie alumnus, a member of the Order of Canada, and the E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature at University of Toronto. He was Canada’s Parliamentary Poet Laureate from 2016-2018, and wrote the bicentennial poem for Dalhousie’s 200th anniversary.
I sent Clarke the pages from MacKinnon’s book about blackface. Clarke wrote back, and wanted to be clear that his comments are not to be taken as a criticism of the president personally (he has never spoken to the president), but are to be understood only as commentary on the scholarship surrounding blackface. Clarke comments:
Any scholar who believes that contemporary, ‘blackface mimicry’ is merely a case of poor taste or mere tomfoolery is no scholar. The practice is related to a history of the violent and pseudo-violent degradation of people of African heritage. It is a cartooning that presents as comic the imagery of slavery (a genocidal traffick/trade that reduced African peoples by millions and increased the profits derived from ‘free labour’ for white-controlled empires by millions of dollars).
TYP founder, the late Rocky Jones — one of Dalhousie University’s most stellar graduates and social-change activists — would have been appalled by anyone taking such a position.
Dr. Cheryl Thompson is an Assistant Professor in the School of Creative Industries at Ryerson University. She was awarded a Banting post-doctoral fellowship from 2016-2018. An article she wrote on blackface in Canada can be read online here.
Thompson read MacKinnon’s argument and commented:
In 1993, U.S. cultural historian Eric Lott wrote a book called Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class where he argued that blackface, which began as a distinctly American popular entertainment in the 1830s, was “organized around the explicit borrowing of Black cultural materials for white dissemination, a borrowing that ultimately depended on the material relations of slavery, the minstrel obscured these relations by pretending that slavery was amusing, right, and natural. Although it arose from a white obsession with Black bodies, which underlies white racial dread to our own day, it ruthlessly disavowed its fleshly investments through ridicule and racist lampoon”(3). Lott is a white American male.
I state this quote for context for what I’m about to write below:
Blackface has been performed in Canada since the 1840s. Multiculturalism is a policy, now ethos, that was created in 1971 and institutionalized in 1988. Canada was founded in 1867. The late-19th century was the height of blackface in North America and Britain. Thus, blackface in Canada is, was, and will always be racist. Attempts to deny its latent lampooning, bamboozling, and mocking of Black bodies is offensive in the first instance, and points to a lack of cultural, historical knowledge in the second instance. If blackface weren’t racist, I think Peter MacKinnon and those who support him need to ask themselves why is it majority white people do it and don’t think it’s racist?
It is time to get real, and be open to having honest conversations about difficult topics, like the centuries-long practice of mimicking black bodies for entertainment. This is what blackface is, and whether it happens at Halloween (which, by the way, has Celtic/Gaelic roots that have nothing to do with Black people) or not, is a complete distraction from addressing the real issue of white supremacy, which is brought to light every time another white person appears in public, especially a university in Canada which is a publicly funded place, wearing blackface.
Since his book was repeatedly cited by scholars, I wrote to Eric Lott regarding MacKinnon’s comments about blackface and including the relevant passage. Lott’s 1993 book Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class received numerous awards.
Lott responded to my email with apologies for the brevity of his message, pointing me towards Chapter One of Love and Theft and his latest book Black Mirror: The Cultural Contradictions of American Racism (2017). He writes:
Chapter One of Love and Theft…lays out the history and political devastations of blackface, words I still stand by. I hope that will help.
In short, wearing blackface in any context in this day and age is a racist practice that seeks to traffic in black bodies and black images.
You can read a journal article by Lott here, material which would become the book Love and Theft. There, Lott writes:
We might, after Laura Mulvey, call this dynamic the “pale gaze” — a ferocious investment in demystifying and domesticating black power in white fantasy by projecting vulgar black types as spectacular objects of white men’s looking. This looking always took place in relation to an objectified and sexualized black body, and it was often conjoined to a sense of terror. This may recall the common charge, leveled most compellingly by Nathan Huggins in Harlem Renaissance, that minstrel characters were simply trash-bin projections of white fantasy, vague fleshly signifiers that allowed whites to indulge at a distance all they found repulsive and fearsome (36).
So it is that white wearers of blackface are granted understanding and empathy, while Black students who complain are the source of MacKinnon’s “fears.”
When I wrote each of these scholars, they all replied to me within hours. They all read the pages provided and sent considered responses. In many cases, they suggested further reading. No one could suggest that these critical and thoughtful responses nor the generosity these professors showed with their time in responding represent the “antithesis of the commons.” If MacKinnon wants to inform himself about the history of blackface, he only has to ask.
And yet, every single one of these scholars is unequivocal in their condemnation of blackface. Every single one states strongly that it is racist, full stop.
What is more likely? That all these expert scholars are not committed to debate, or is it that MacKinnon is constructing the idea of an open debate and unsettled question where none seriously exists?
To do so requires ignoring the work of Black scholars altogether. As Anthony Morgan observes:
His scholarship perpetuates the erasure of Black people, experiences and scholarship in Canada. This epistemic violence of invisibilizing Black critical reflection and expression on the anti-Blackness of blackface is reflective of the broader struggle of Black people in Canada to be seen, heard, valued, and listened to in the wholeness of our humanity here in this country.
PART FOUR: THE BLACK HUMAN
Anthony Morgan, in fact, is one of those student protestors whose actions MacKinnon “fears” promote divisions and who:
[U]ndermine university values; a commons in which freedom of expression is the paramount value; a commons that privileges conclusions founded on evidence and reason; a commons that is well-governed and one free of discrimination; a commons in which civility is valued and practiced; and one that discharges its social responsibilities without presuming to pursue social justice (125).
As a law student at McGill in 2011, Morgan filmed white business students in blackface during frosh week. He subsequently filed a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission.
In MacKinnon’s formulation, “the commons” must be protected against students like Anthony Morgan. In his introduction, he suggests that objections to “expressions” such as blackface performance are not only a threat to the university but to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, “a constitutional right of all our commons, or a constitutional value demanding high fealty” (5).
So who is this Charter violator Anthony Morgan? Today he is an internationally recognized human rights lawyer who comments extensively on public policy, writes commentary for a number of news sources, and is one of the foremost voices in Black Canada. He has:
[A]dvocated on the issue of anti-Black racism in Canada at various levels of court, including the Supreme Court of Canada, and before two United Nations human rights committees in Geneva, Switzerland. In both 2016 and 2017, Anthony was nominated as one of Canada’s Top 25 Most Influential Lawyers by Canadian Lawyer Magazine.
Far from being a threat to the mission of the university, Morgan is the kind of student universities profile and trumpet on their websites. It turns out that expressing the reality that blackface is “racist, full stop” does not make one unequipped for debate, for the job market, for the hard work of policy or law, for meaningful scholarship and writing, or for education and advocacy at an international level. In fact, motivated by his experience confronting blackface, Morgan went on to present on the cultural rights of African Canadians at the United Nations and has developed a Universal Charter on Media Representations of Black People.
It also turns out that “learning experiences” from incidents of racism aren’t only for white perpetrators.
It is interesting that MacKinnon leaves out the McGill episode from his list of examples. One might think that the fact that a human rights complaint was filed would make this case significant for MacKinnon, a former law professor. Perhaps, if MacKinnon is even aware of this incident, even he would feel that someone like Anthony Morgan resists facile characterizations of Black people who object to blackface as lacking in “reason.”
And perhaps this is why MacKinnon avoids quoting from any scholarship. Because, like blackface itself, the objection to those who oppose blackface depends on lazy stereotypical portrayals of protesters drawn from newspaper commentary rather than on actually understanding or researching these positions and why people advocate or protest them. It’s easy to inflame “the public” with the image of hysterical, triggered snowflakes; privileged young people screaming about safe spaces and taking offence at mere costumes and other trivial matters.
But the mission of the university surely isn’t to pander to public stereotype, but to rigorously challenge these unfounded conclusions. MacKinnon’s book fails in this respect in his writing about blackface, seemingly drawn from nothing more than his own opinion, and from the notion that white students must be protected, defended, and given the benefit of the doubt, while Black students are the object of his “fears.”
White students are “the commons,” a commons which inherently excludes any Black people who speak out about their human rights and dignity.
On AllNovaScotia.com, Larry Stordy, the chair of Dalhousie’s Board of Governors who appointed MacKinnon, suggested that the student protestors simply don’t understand MacKinnon’s book:
If they read the passages they’re protesting against, they’re really about disproportionate response to issues without actually understanding the issues, and stopping the debate before engaging in debate.
And that’s kind of what they’re doing — protesting without really understanding why he said what he said.
I showed MacKinnon’s passage on blackface to numerous scholars. As you see from this article, these prominent researchers also challenge MacKinnon’s conclusion that there exists a non-racist blackface and that these incidents are trivial.
Are all these academics — holders of chairs, winners of major research grants, writers of significant books — simply unable to understand MacKinnon’s reasoning as Stordy presumes, or is it possible that he is, quite simply, wrong?
Are people protesting these views because they lack civility and reason or are they speaking out justifiably against harmful and racist perspectives and a demonstrated disregard for the views of Black people?
And what is the proportionate response to the defence of practices that dehumanize Black people? If it’s not protest, and it’s not education and training, and it’s not producing research and scholarship, then what speech and expression are we allowed? Or is that Charter value of expression only meaningful for white people?
Is MacKinnon the only one allowed to “fear” for the university mission, or can Black students reasonably fear for what his tenure means for them if and when they experience issues of campus racism?
Blackface has always been racist. Its genesis is for Caucasians to don black face paint before degrading their demeanour, encompassing all the heinous stereotypes afro-descendants have suffered since slavery.
That one of Canada’s most prestigious academic institutions would place a person who defends a racist practice at its head is an insult to an entire community of Canadians. Having a blackface apologist lead this institution is an affront to multiculturalism.
This article addresses only one small passage in MacKinnon’s book. Writers and researchers into divestment campaigns, BDS movements, faculty unions, student organizing, campus sexual assault policy, etc. could also no doubt similarly challenge his conclusions on these issues.
In his introduction, MacKinnon writes that activities like protesting against blackface “reduce” commitment to the value of freedom of expression. “That is not good enough,” he says, “in institutions committed to the search for truth” (5).
Yet, as Cheryl Thompson commented to me:
It is really important that we speak to truth, not conjecture. History can’t be rewritten to make folks feel “comfortable” in the present. In fact, discomfort is only a signal that something has not been healed, and in the case of blackface, it is an open wound.
MacKinnon’s book panders to the idea of campuses out of control, filled with dangerous left-wing indoctrination, and coddling young people from challenging ideas. The idea of an authoritative white male figure who stands as the bulwark against chaos and division may seem comforting. If this is what appeals in his appointment, fair enough. But if he is being defended because people imagine that his work upholds values of scholarship, debate, and reason, then give his book a read. You may find the reality is quite different.
El Jones holds the Nancy’s Chair in Women’s Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University.
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