Friday, November 27, 2009

Blackface Petition To U of T

To: People of Good Conscience


On Tuesday, November 24, at public hearings before the Canadian Parliamentary Commission to Combat Anti-Semitism, Robert Steiner, Assistant Vice President of Strategic Communications for the University of Toronto, informed those present that the University of Toronto administration had taken the lead in working with concerned students to organize and facilitate a public town hall meeting on a recent incident of “Blackface” at the university. As the students and faculty who organised and spoke at that town hall, we are appalled, angered and dismayed that Mr. Steiner has falsely represented the University’s role in the sequence of events that have ensued as a result of this “Blackface” incident.

Contrary to which Mr. Steiner has claimed, the university played no part whatsoever in organising the town hall event. In fact, even as Mr. Steiner was issuing his public comments, students and faculty were trying to get the University administration to issue a public statement affirming its commitment to equity on campus. Despite repeated requests to issue a statement the University has failed to do so. In light of Mr. Steiner’s comments we feel it is absolutely imperative that the university community and the wider public be made aware of the University’s true role in this serious breach of equity and trust on its own campus.

On Halloween night (29 October) five University of Toronto students dressed up in “costume” as the Hollywood version of the Jamaican bobsled team from the film Cool Runnings for a party hosted by three of the university's colleges: St. Michael's; University; and Victoria. Four of the students wore blackface as part of their “costumes”; the fifth wore a white painted face. When students on campus raised concerns, controversy arose concerning what was meant by the “costume.” Many students and faculty (including several who are not black) immediately recognized the "costumes" as blackface and voiced their collective dismay, given the long history of blackface performance and minstrelsy in demeaning black people and systematically caricaturing black cultures.

Members of the Black Students Association (BSA) approached those students and colleges involved to request a public apology. They also took the initiative to make the incident a “teachable” moment, bringing diverse constituencies together to learn about the historical and contemporary hurt and pain caused by enacting blackface. On November 10 the BSA, supported by the University of Toronto Student Union (UTSU), organized a town hall meeting that was attended by more than 300 people. After the meeting and in online discussions of media coverage of the event, both local and national, the BSA and its president have been victims of a disturbing backlash that has the cumulative effect of questioning the right of some students to claim full membership of the university community.

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