UW statement risks chilling Black anti-racism scholarship

On June 6, in relation to a matter with a faculty member that prompted a public outcry and media response, the University of Waterloo told the press that “The University of Waterloo unequivocally believes that there is no place for the use of the N-word in class, on campus or in our community.” 

At the June 15 meeting of University of Waterloo’s Senate, we heard from UWaterloo President Feridun Hamdullahpur that the University would revise and reissue this statement, but we still feel it is important to release our response, originally written prior to this announcement at Senate. At the time we are publishing this response, the University’s June 6 statement is still online in its original form. 

FAUW is deeply concerned about the harm that racialized students, colleagues, and community members experience because of racist language. We are also concerned about the chilling effect that the University’s statement will have on University of Waterloo scholars, especially on Black, Indigenous, and other racialized scholars who research and teach about race and racism. Indeed, we are aware that at least two local Black scholars have also expressed this concern to the University in the last week. 

FAUW strongly opposes the prohibition implied by the University’s statement. Whether a word is appropriate for use in class is a scholarly decision that instructors must be free to make. In particular, instructors who teach about race and racism must be free, according to their best judgement, to lead unvarnished discussions about racist language. 

FAUW President Bryan Tolson made the following statement at the June 15 Senate meeting: 

Feridun, I appreciate your update on the important topic.  It is too important for FAUW not to comment on this.  Your statement published on June 6th of this year about the n-word was wrong.  You said, and I quote: 

“The University of Waterloo unequivocally believes that there is no place for the use of the n-word in class, on campus or in our community.” 

This statement must be publicly retracted and revised immediately. When FAUW first discussed this with you last week, FAUW said it would have a chilling effect on instruction on our campus. Today, you and I know it is having this precise chilling effect. Last week, I also became aware of three other separate communications to you, two of these from brave and courageous local Black scholars, all asking you to revise or retract your statement. I can’t pretend to synthesize their immense frustration because I haven’t lived their experience and so I can only quote some of what a group of Black scholars have told you. They said: 

“The sentence I have reproduced above clearly has a chilling effect on almost anyone who does research relating to Blackness, and a seriously harmful effect on the ability of Black faculty to teach and speak directly to issues related to Blackness, both historically and in the modern world.” 

I’m incredibly disappointed and frustrated, and many faculty across campus are equally frustrated, to see you have yet to retract and revise your June 6 statement.  

It is not a surprise that non-Black people have been and continue to be wrong about Black race issues over the past 400 years and that is why Black people face systemic racism. In the Black Lives Matter movement, non-Black people like you and me are going to be called out when we are wrong. Anti-Black racism can only begin to disappear by people speaking up when they see mistakes or wrongs and when the person or institution responsible for the mistake can admit they were wrong. These are the necessary conditions required for learning from our mistakes.  

FAUW appreciates President Hamdullahpur’s willingness to recognize this mistake and we thank him for affirming at Senate the University’s support for Black anti-racism scholars and confirming that the University does not ban the use of the “n-word.” 

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