London

This 3-time grad says Western University hasn't learned much about racism in 25 years

A biracial London woman who earned three degrees from Western University says the school doesn't appear to have learned much when it comes to how it responds to racism since she was a student there 25 years ago.

Lorraine Brown points to the fact that 'Heart of Darkness' is still being taught

Lorraine Brown is a biracial woman who identifies as Black, but only because that's how she was seen by others. 'It was kids in the neighbourhood, it was teachers, it was the police, they started teaching us that we were Black by our experiences in public places,' she said. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

A biracial London woman who earned three degrees from Western University says nothing much has changed when it comes to how the school responds to anti-Black racism in the 25 years since she studied there. 

Lorraine Brown went to Western from 1990 to 1996. In that time, she earned a bachelor's of English in women's studies, a bachelor's of education and a masters of journalism. 

She said she was shocked to read the response from King's University College to an in-class racial slur after Tamia Chicas, a Black student, complained her white professor used the N-word while quoting from the 1899 novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. 

"I think the response should be outrage and I think there needs to be accountability. There's no good reason we're using the N-word in a class in university."

Brown said reading about Chicas' recent experience brought back her own traumatic memories at the school 25 years ago. She was given a zero, rebuked by her white professor and removed from class after she wrote a paper criticizing Heart of Darkness as a racist and sexist book that dehumanized Black people. 

Student excluded from class for arguing novel was racist

Lorraine Brown points to a photograph, where she's posing with family after she graduated with honours from Western University in 1994. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"I felt it perpetuated colonialism, that it was indeed through the white male lens, it objectified Black people, it was denigrating," Brown said. "[I] handed it in and the professor read my paper and told me I didn't appreciate the literature and my opinion was wrong and I got a zero."

"I was shocked. How do you get a zero?"

Brown was attending Western as a 26-year-old single mother of three. She couldn't afford to fail a course, let alone take the time to repeat it, so she decided to try to reason with the professor. Brown visited the professor during her appointed office hours to discuss why she failed.

"She stood her ground, that I didn't understand the literature, that it really wasn't racist, that it was really my misunderstanding of it."

When it was clear the prof wouldn't budge, Brown filed a complaint with the dean. The dean had the paper marked by another professor. This time, Brown passed but she was told she would no longer be able to attend the class. 

"I wasn't to attend that class anymore because it would make the professor uncomfortable and myself uncomfortable," she said.

"I had to read the literature that was assigned in the syllabus and write my papers and hand them into the dean's office and they were marked by a random professor and that's how I finished that course. So here I was, a paying student, in a course reading complicated literature and I had to figure it out on my own."

"I was punished because I didn't read it the way that professor wanted me to read it."

The Parr Centre for Thriving will create greater awareness and provide more support to Western students than ever before, the university said. (Colin Butler/CBC)

Brown's story is the latest story of anti-Black racism to emerge from the school since Western University started an anti-racism working group with the aim of tackling racial blind spots at the institution by creating a more diverse and welcoming place for students and staff. 

The report published by the school in July identified what it called "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."

"I believe it's absolutely true," Brown said. "I attended Western during the Rushton era, so I, along with other students were protesting his research and how it made us feel as Black people and he was not discredited and he remained a paid professor at Western until he died."

Professor Phillipe Rushton taught at Western University in the 1980s and 90s. He was famous for his controversial, discredited and widely derided research that ranked human intelligence by racial group, presenting Black people in particular as intellectually inferior and sexually unrestrained.

His research has since become source material for hate groups, giving their often political theories the appearance of scholarly and empirical weight. 

"So that's a painful legacy for many of us who attended at that time, including a friend who was in his class who had to endure his thoughts, his psychology, his dehumanization of Black people and Western didn't speak out about that." 

Western has since apologized, but many argue it's not enough. A Black alumni group has recently come forward with a petition that makes 13 recommendations on how Western could amend for the harm caused by Rushton's teachings and prevent similar research from causing harm in the future. 

Why is 'Heart of Darkness' still being taught? 

A school flag flaps in the breeze at the roundabout outside Alumni Hall at the Western University campus in London, Ont. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Brown said the biggest thing Western could do to create a more inclusive place is to not only re-evaluate what it's teaching, but through which lens the material is being taught. 

"I'm at a loss understanding why Heart of Darkness is still on the syllabus today and it's still causing grief today for Black students, it's still causing trauma," she said. 

"I think I'm less concerned with the how it should be taught, I'm concerned with why it's being taught. What is the why of it being taught today? That remains a mystery to me."

"So I would like to hear a professor explain to me why because I believe there's more current and relevant literature that's thought provoking, that's representational of that experience and can be brought through the lens of the Black person."


This story is part of a CBC project entitled Being Black in Canada, which highlights the stories and experiences of Black Canadians, from anti-Black racism to success stories Black communities can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

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

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