Nfld. & Labrador

MUN prof's use of racial slur in lecture highlights systemic problem, say anti-racism advocates

Newfoundland and Labrador anti-racism advocates are calling for changes in response to a video of a Memorial University professor using a racial slur during a lecture.

University says it's investigating

Anti-racism advocates are calling for educational reform in Newfoundland and Labrador at the K-12 and post-secondary levels. (Paul Daly/CBC)

Newfoundland and Labrador anti-racism advocates are calling for systemic change in response to a video of a Memorial University professor using a racial slur during a lecture.

In the video, assistant professor Sandrine Jean of the anthropology department reads from a slide titled "Systems of Power and Languages," which includes the N-word as part of an example of derogatory language. The word is spelled out and Sandrine utters it while reading off the slide.

Laurabel Mba, a Newfoundland and Labrador social activist, told CBC News she posted the video of the prerecorded lecture on Twitter on Wednesday after a student in the course sent her the video.

"I was taken aback..… I was like, 'this can't be real. This is not a MUN lecture.'" Mba said. "I was shocked, and then I was confused and a little disappointed.… I was very disappointed that this was what happened."

The fact the word wasn't used in a derogatory manner, Mba said, doesn't mean it can't cause harm.

"Hearing those words does automatically cause a gasp moment for a lot of Black people," she said.

Mba said she shared the video to highlight the need for teaching practices that take into account all students in the classroom and the trauma associated with certain words.

"This is a word that does appear in literature. It is part of history. If you're going to be teaching these things, you need to know how to do it without inflicting more trauma on the students that are going to be in your classroom," she said.

Under investigation

In reply to Mba's tweet, Memorial University apologized and said the matter is under investigation.

"We are deeply sorry our students experienced anti-Black racism in a classroom. Anti-Black racism is a systemic issue, and Memorial is committed to redressing anti-Black racism, and to fostering Black inclusion on our campuses, and in our curriculum," said the university in a statement Thursday.

Laurabel Mba, a social activist, says she shared a video of a Memorial University professor using a racial slur to educate people on how such language causes harm. (CBC)

Mba said she isn't calling for the resignation or termination of the professor, but does want to see MUN implement anti-racism education and anti-discriminatory education.

"There's a way to pass on education and information without being harmful, and it's for our institutions to figure out what that looks like," she said.

CBC News has asked the professor to comment but has not yet received a response. In an email, the Memorial University of Newfoundland Faculty Association said it is aware of the situation but was not ready to comment.

MUN needs to be transparent: Black Lives Matter co-president

Raven Khadeja, an anti-racism educator and the co-founder and co-president of Black Lives Matter Newfoundland and Labrador, says the incident is part of a pattern in higher education and the K-12 system.

As an example, Khadeja pointed to a junior high assignment in a Newfoundland and Labrador textbook that asked students to write down why immigrants and refugees should or shouldn't be allowed in Canada.

"Until systemic change is implemented … with regard to anti-racism at all levels of post-secondary education as well as high school intermediate, then we're going to keep seeing issues like these." 

Khadeja said she doesn't use the N-word in her own curriculum, and doesn't believe there is a need to use it in order to convey information. She noted the origins of the word in slavery and colonialism.

"This word has such a wealth of pain and nuance behind it," she said. "When it's uttered from somebody who is non-racialized it's like, what is the point?"

Raven Khadeja, an anti-racism educator and the co-president of Black Lives Matter Newfoundland and Labrador, says she wants the university to be transparent about what actions it takes in response to this incident. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

A MUN spokesperson said the university is using the Scarborough Charter on Anti-Black Racism and Black Inclusion to inform how it responds to the incident. The charter, of which MUN is a signatory, was formed in 2020 to fight anti-Black racism at post-secondary institutions across Canada. 

"We will look to the charter for guidance on how to prevent further such incidents and provide our faculty, staff, and students with the tools needed to made positive change," said the spokesperson.

Khadeja said MUN needs to be transparent in their response to the situation. 

"I want to see MUN do a comprehensive assessment of what their curriculum looks like … maybe figure out some racial literacy, and the first way to do that is to hire more Black, Indigenous and racialized professors."

An institutional problem

John Mweemba, director of advocacy for MUN's student union, said he's heard similar stories from other students, and has experienced racism at the university himself.

"This is not an isolated incident. Unfortunately this is something that many students have experienced over many different faculties," he said. "It is a universal problem at the university."

John Mweemba, director of advocacy for MUN's students' union, says the lecture is not an isolated incident. (CBC)

Similar incidents have occurred at post-secondary institutions in other parts of the country.

In 2020, a University of Ottawa professor was suspended for using the N-word as an example of a word a community had reclaimed. The suspension ignited a fierce debate, with 34 professors from multiple departments signing a letter supporting the professor, a letter that student groups condemned. The professor apologized.

Vincent Estick, chair of the education and training subcommittee of the Anti-Racism Coalition of Newfoundland and Labrador, said the incident points to a need for educational reform.

"These are things that are institutional. These are things that have been embedded within the education system … for years," he said.

Estick said it's long past time for MUN and government leadership to implement anti-racism curriculum.

"I hope that education reform really, really becomes a priority in the province."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

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