London

Use of racial slur in class got lukewarm response from King's University College, student says

A Black student says she got a lukewarm response from both her London, Ont., university and her white professor after he used the N-word in class with no warning.  

Affiliated Western University trying to fix racial blindspots after similar incident

Tamia Chicas is a third-year English student at King's College University in London, Ont. She said she felt embarrassed, sad and uncomfortable after her white professor used the N-word while discussing Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. (Colin Butler/CBC)

A Black student says she got a lukewarm response from both her London, Ont., university and her white professor after he used the N-word in class with no warning.  

Tamia Chicas said the incident happened in an October class at King's University College, which is affiliated with Western University.

Prof. Coby Dowdell was discussing the book Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad when he used the word in a quote. His class explores racism in historical literature and looks at the ethical responsibilities of studying such works.

Chicas said Dowdell never warned her or, apparently, anyone else the racial slur would be used in class.

"I was shocked because I was the only Black student in that English class," Chicas said. "I think a lot of other people were caught off guard too, because everyone kind of went silent and then everyone turned to look at me."

"I felt embarrassed. I don't know why. I was sad obviously and uncomfortable. I stopped showing up to that class after that happened."

Western University created a working group on racism in order to foster a more diverse and inclusive experience on campus for students and staff. (Colin Butler/CBC)

At the time, Western was grappling with a similar incident in which a Black student took exception to her white professor using the same epithet in class. 

recent report by Western said the school has "a deeply entrenched anti-Black legacy that remains pervasive — evident to those who live it, but hidden from, willfully ignored, or denied by those who don't." 

Third-year King's University College student Tamia Chicas tells London Morning how she was the only Black student in a class where her professor used the N-word while quoting a text. 8:25

Missed the mark

Chicas says she stopped going to class and complained — first to Michael Milde, Western's dean of arts and humanities, who referred Chicas to Laura Melnyk-Gribble, the acting vice-principal and academic dean at King's. 

Chicas said she met separately with Melnyk-Gribble and Dowdell to discuss what happened. But Chicas said she felt Melnyk-Gribble missed the point. 

"She told me she was really good friends with [Dowdell] and he was a really good guy. That's fine. You can still be a good person, but as a white, male teacher you shouldn't be using that language knowing that it's not a good word to be using, especially because that course I was in was highlighting how racism affects Black people."

Chicas says Dowdell's response also missed the mark. 

"He told me he was given permission by a Black staff member to use the word and, in his opinion, he thought it was OK just because he was quoting from a book," she said.

CBC News asked to speak to both Dowdell and Melnyk-Gribble but received a written statement instead, in which a King's spokeswoman said Dowdell has since apologized.

"The professor realizes the harm he has caused by quoting Conrad's racist language," spokeswoman Jane Antoniak wrote in an email to CBC News.

"[Dowdell] is deeply sorry that he quoted the texts using the full word. This word will not be used in full when the course is held again this fall."

The statement said Dowdell "had brought forward Joseph Conrad as an example to help students think through historical racism and the ethical responsibilities of studying works of literature from the past."

A statement from the college says the professor is 'deeply sorry' for his language. (Colin Butler/CBC)

Racial blindspots 

Western is looking to fix racial blindspots after its "deeply entrenched anti-Black legacy" was identified in the June report. 

The report made 23 recommendations, including the creation of an anti-racism task force, anti-racism training programs, support for people affected by racism on campus and the recruitment of more racialized students, faculty and staff. 

It was commissioned after a student reported her professor's use of the N-word in class, which led to the student, who is Black, being the target of multiple racist comments online. 

Chicas said she doubts the university will make campus a more harmonious place. She believes the reason her complaint went nowhere is because her professor and the dean are "good friends." 

A report published last month by Western University found the school has a 'deeply entrenched anti-Black legacy that remains pervasive — evident to those who live it, but hidden from, willfully ignored, or denied by those who don't.' (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"There's no support from the dean. Obviously, I did not feel supported from [Melnyk-Gribble] because their issue is that they wanted to support one another."

Chicas starts her third-year of a French and English double major at King's University College this fall and is anxious how her complaint and, moreover, the fact that she went to the media, might affect her grades.

"I still have to take mandatory classes with him and I'm kind of nervous about how Western is dealing with that and whether there are any alternative classes I can take because obviously he's not going to be too pleased."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

With files from Rebecca Zandbergen

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