She was the only Black student in one of J. Philippe Ruston's classes. She never got an apology.
Notisha Massaquoi dropped J. Philippe Rushton's class after he said Black people were intellectually inferior
In her second year at Western University in the late 1980s, Notisha Massaquoi signed up for J. Philippe Ruston's psychology course. He groomed the class, she says, for a final big reveal that spewed racism and hate.
Massaquoi is part of the Black at Western Alumni Group, which is now calling on Western to take concrete actions to mend the past. Massaquoi spoke to CBC London Morning's Rebecca Zandbergen.
When did you realize in Rushton's class that things weren't right?
When I signed up for the course it was like any other course that I was taking at the school at the time. And what started happening very slowly throughout the course would be small bits of racist ideology being spewed to us. And I equate it to being groomed for the big reveal of his theory, to be honest. So little things like positive stereotypes such as Asian people are extremely bright. But then it started escalating in subsequent classes to things like Black children develop much faster than white babies because they have to be able to become more independent because their families can't parent appropriately or take care of them. The big day came when Rushton started to reveal what we then come to find out is his theory of racial inferiority and which he proclaimed that we were ranked intellectually with Asian people being more intelligent than whites and Blacks being more or less intelligent than white people.
A student asked at that time, 'Is this always the case? Can we always guarantee that this will be the case?' And he then turned to the class and said there is some variation except if you are Black. If you are Black, you are genetically inferior and intellectually inferior to all other races.
And you were sitting in class that day?
I was sitting in class that day. There were many sections in a course. I happened to be in the section taught by him. And I have to say as undergraduate students, we were very young and we had a lot of deference to professors at that time especially in the 80s, it's different now. But you didn't ask questions and you were afraid to ask questions. There's one student putting up his hand to ask a question, it wasn't a challenge, it was to guarantee that, 'Okay, I can say this definitively because my professor has done the research and proven it to be a fact.' It was a devastating day for me and I subsequently dropped the course immediately because I didn't believe that I would be fairly graded in the course, and I couldn't deal with the level of humiliation of being the sole black person receiving that kind of racism in a classroom.
Three decades later, when you think back to this, how has this impacted your life?
We organized on campus, which is not widely known and formed an organization called the Academic Coalition for Equality. I was also the president of the African Students Association at this time and we fought the university administration daily, weekly protesting outside of class to have him removed, organizing people to come and support us on campus because we didn't have support widely on campus, to refute Rushton and to have him removed from the classroom. The impact that it's had, it has been really a lifetime of trying to understand how at such a young age, we could have been subjected to that level of racism in an academic institution without any support. And I think it has stayed with me.
My entire career has been about research, lecturing, teaching, developing organizations that all address the fight against anti-Black racism. But at the core of it is this initial experience of understanding for the first time what systemic racism actually looks like and systemic anti-Black racism where a professor could be allowed until his death, in 2012, to continue researching and teaching, supported by a university in Canada without any recourse and without any apology to those of us that absolutely suffered during that period.
Many of us were arrested for protesting. Many of us were threatened with expulsion which was my experience for protesting. It was a very very trying time to be a Black student in an environment where you were expected to still learn but be under the level of racism that we were experiencing.
If you want to understand my career addressing anti Black racism you need to understand the experience of 18yr old me in a class with prof.Rushton telling me that you are genetically inferior, you are intellectually inferior and no one challenging him.<a href="https://t.co/Rhp8stzVkh">https://t.co/Rhp8stzVkh</a>—@NotishaMassaqu1
The Black at Western Alumni Group, of which you are a member, is calling on Western to take concrete actions to mend this past. What do you want Western to do and why are you making this call now?
We're making this call now because after 30 years, Western, in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of us dealing as Black people with the death of George Floyd, has decided to put out a statement referencing the teaching of Rushton at the university, as well as the psychology department. The statement does not apologize. The statement makes no effort to even explain what happened. It didn't talk about the student resistance that happened during that time period. It simply acknowledges that Rushton was here and that his teachings were racist. So to come back and to make such a shallow statement without any form of reparations, we decided to come together — many of us haven't seen each other in 30 years — and challenge the university and demand some changes. We don't want to be hearing about racism on campus, after 30 years, particularly anti-Black racism, which is the case.
Have you ever received an apology?
Never. Not even an acknowledgement of that time period.
Would that be enough?
It's not about the apology. An apology is empty if it doesn't come with a list of demands answered that we have asked for. So that there is systemic change in the university. We never want this to happen again, and what people don't understand is that anti-Black racism has been allowed to proliferate on the university campus for those 30 years because there hasn't been a disruption in the root cause of the anti-Black racism that allowed Rushton to be supported for all of that time, for his research to be funded, for his teachings to continue. He wasn't removed from the classroom because of what he taught. He was removed from the classroom for his safety because of us protesting outside and disrupting the students who wanted to learn from him.
That is extremely problematic and absolutely does deserve an apology. But more importantly, the demands that the Black at Western Alumni have made to actually see systemic change in the university need to be addressed.