We can and must speak up

– for ourselves, for each other

By Anthony Morgan

A Jamaican who was born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Anthony Morgan is a Caribbean law student at McGill University, Faculty of Law. He enjoys thinking and writing about Caribbean international relations, relating specifically to diaspora affairs, regional integration, international trade and Haiti-Caricom relations.

My name is Anthony Morgan, I am a 25-year-old Jamaican, born and raised in Toronto, Canada. I am currently in my final year of law school at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. I will begin by sharing with you a bit about who I am, so that I can best explain how my identity as a diaspora citizen has affected my reaction to a very intolerable incident I experienced on a Montreal university campus on September 14, 2011.

First, some background. Before the summer of 2007 I was just another Black Canadian. During that summer, however, I was fundamentally transformed into a Caribbean-Canadian Diaspora Citizen. This came as a result of my participation in Grace Kennedy’s Jamaican Birthright Programme (GKJBP). The GKJBP is a world-class cultural and professional internship for students of Jamaican heritage who were born and living in the US, UK and Canada. For this programme, students from the diaspora are chosen to go live and work in Kingston, Jamaica to boost their professional skills and experience, and also help them more deeply connect with their Jamaican roots and culture.
Before taking part in the GKJBP, I was merely incidentally Jamaican, mostly identifying at a superficial level through our music, food and manners of worship. My amazing birthright experience, however, transformed me into not only a Jamaican nationalist but also a Caribbean regionalist.

As a result of my participation in the GKJBP, I have become committed to a journey of learning ever more about Jamaica and the Caribbean, particularly in relation to our history, as well as our current position in the global arena of geopolitics, trade and development. This journey has also caused me to become increasingly influenced by a Caribbean intellectual heritage emanating from the thoughts, lives and works of individuals such as Marcus Garvey, Walter Rodney, CLR James, Eric Williams, George Beckford, Lloyd Best and contemporaries, such as Kari Levitt, Norman Girvan, Anthony Bogues and Brian Meeks.

My GKJBP experience has ultimately moved me to use every opportunity I have to share what I have learned about the Caribbean and encourage other Caribbean young people to take a much keener interest in learning and caring about their regional heritage as it relates to Caribbean historical and geopolitical affairs.

It is out of this Caribbean-grounded context that I walked into the serious incident that has brought me to write this column.

On the campus of Université de Montréal two weeks ago, I came across students from a prestigious business school in Montreal, HEC Montreal, publicly (mis)representing Black people and Jamaicans in a manner that was culturally illiterate, hurtful, racist and unacceptable.

While participating in a school-initiation, sports-themed rally, a group of between 15 and 20 white students chose to represent the sport of track & field by dressing up in sprinting clothes in the colours of the Jamaican flag, and covering their faces, necks, arms and legs with charcoal black paint. In other words, they were in full-body blackface. Added to this display was the waving of several large Jamaican flags, the wearing of at least one ‘rasta hat‘ with fake dreadlocks, and the passing around of a stuffed monkey as a sort of mascot. One student was also wearing a monkey hat while another student wore boxer shorts with a monkey print on them over black tights. As a rallying cry, the group also had a cheer that it repeated during the event: One group leader would yell, “Smoke some weed!” and the rest of the group would shout back in mocking Jamaican accents, “Yah man! Yah man! Yah man!”Aside from the 4 or 5 visibly uncomfortable Black students present at this outdoor student rally, all of the 120+ other students seemed to be having a great time with this blackface-featuring caricatured representation of Black people and Jamaicans.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and couldn’t quite process what I was experiencing, but I knew that something serious had run amiss. I thought to myself, “Is this really happening? Why isn’t someone stopping this? How long did it take to plan and prepare this? Are they even aware of how deeply hurtful and offensive what they’re doing is, to their Black classmates, other Black students and to Jamaican people?” I also wondered, “Do I do something? If so, what do I do? How do I do something without being stereotypically perceived as an ‘angry and aggressive Black man’ just trying to spoil other people’s fun?” I decided to just take pictures and record the events on my cellphone, and later posted the videos on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v= tJn12-QFw2E). I then called the local media. A few journalists and reporters in Canada and the United States watched the videos and quickly called me back to hear me explain what I had seen and experienced:

Some people have wondered why I called the media. As a young Black man of Jamaican descent living in Canada, I have grown tired of seeing Black and Caribbean people continually and harmfully degraded, misrepresented, under-represented for the good and/or over-represented for the bad in the media, school textbooks and in public places. As a result, when I encountered this shocking display, my dignity, knowledge of self and sense of self-respect would not let me do anything other than speak up for myself and my community in a way that most forcefully and effectively got the message through that this behaviour should not ever be tolerated – period.

Through local and national media coverage and the accessibility of the videos on YouTube, more people have now seen what I saw, and discussion of the incident has spread to news organizations across the globe. The initial public position of HEC Montreal was to defend the students’ actions as “in no way racist,” and to suggest that I had “misperceived” what I had seen.  But after a few days of hearing the public outcry, HEC Montreal changed its position, acknowledging that the students’ actions were racist and unacceptable. For this they apologized, publicly on television and radio and personally to me over the phone as an institution and on behalf of the students.

(http://montreal.ctv.ca/servlet/an/local/CTVNews/20110919/mtl_blackface_110919/20110919/?hub=MontrealHome. Curiously, only the initial response is on the website, not the change of heart apology.) They have also stated that they apologized to their Black students enrolled at HEC Montreal.  HEC Montreal administration has also committed to taking long-term policy focused actions such as committing to provide courses in cultural awareness and sensitivity training and also re-evaluate its policies and practices so as to try and prevent an incident like this one from ever happening again.

In the immediate term, I think that HEC Montreal should be commended for its apology and acknowledgement of the fact that their students’ actions were a very serious offence. At least in the short term, HEC Montreal has provided an exemplary demonstration of how a word-class academic institution should respond in cases where there is clear evidence of wrongdoing. Their response so far has been superior to those of other Canadian universities that have been recently faced with blackface incidents on their campuses. But of course, what will matter most going forward is the details and enforcement of what HEC puts in place.

Looking to the future, I think that a credible long-term response by HEC Montreal should include the following:
Working with recognized community organizations outside HEC in reviewing and implementing programmes and policies addressing anti-racism and cultural diversity
High levels of student participation in this process, especially by Black and other racialized students

Meaningful deepening of diversity at HEC Montreal – review of recruitment and hiring practices and academic curriculum with a view to equipping a diverse student population with intercultural literacy for a diverse world

To be sure, I do not think the students involved should be punished, but that HEC should seize this opportunity by helping them to educate themselves and their peers about the background of the symbols they used. In light of how the students chose to represent Jamaicans, HEC should also consider how it can use its resources as an academic institution to educate its students, not only about Jamaica, but also to inform them of the business opportunities that exist there and within the wider Caribbean.

In terms of further action, I intend to file a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission. It is my hope that the informal process, expertise and resources of the commission will help HEC as it tackles these important and difficult issues.

Although I have received a tremendous amount of support, for which I am immensely thankful, many others have defended the students by saying “they were just joking, they weren’t trying to be racist or culturally insensitive.” I have never maintained that I think that the students meant to do what they did. More importantly, the students’ intentions are irrelevant. You do not have to have racist intentions to do something racist and offensive. If I and 15-20 of my friends dressed up in Nazi soldier uniforms for a costume party and shouted “Sieg Heil!” at Jewish students because we thought it would be hilarious, would it be acceptable for us to say, “c’mon, we weren’t trying to hurt anyone, we were only joking”? No, not at all.

I am convinced that if people start to feel that they can get away with publicly ridiculing, disregarding and/or minimizing the deeply hurtful history of one group of people, it will not be long before they move on to trivializing the histories of other peoples who have endured some of the past’s most heinous atrocities. Such slippery slopes amplify the danger of repeating the grievous mistakes of the past.

Any person with a credible understanding of the histories of blackface and the practice of comparing Black people to monkeys will immediately recognize that these things are inseparably connected to perpetuating negative stereotypes about Black people as being inferior, less than human, having child-like intelligence and only being good for entertaining other people like well-trained circus animals. My history tells me that we are so, so much more than this.

Finally, as a proud Jamaican young man, if there is one thing that I have learned from my immersion and continual exploration of Jamaican and Caribbean history, culture and politics it is that our greatest successes have only come after great men and women have stood up for themselves and their communities and emphatically determined that “enough is enough!” Such is my heritage. I intend to keep it alive, in me, for us. Selah.

Around the Web