Dalhousie professors ask university to confirm blackface violates code of conduct

Dalhousie professors ask university to confirm blackface violates code of conduct

February 5, 2019

A group of law professors at Dalhousie University is asking the school’s senior academic administrator to confirm that blackface violates the code of student conduct and personal harassment policy.

In a letter delivered to the Halifax university’s provost on Tuesday, 28 members of the law faculty said they are concerned with statements about blackface made by the school’s new interim president, Peter MacKinnon.

His recent book, “University Commons Divided: Exploring Debate and Dissent on Campus,” refers to costume parties involving white students in blackface.

The incidents sparked outrage on campuses, but MacKinnon suggests in his book there was a “lack of proportion” in the responses and that these were “just Halloween parties.”

A group of Dal students spoke out about the book, saying it expresses “racist perspectives” and “oppressive rhetoric,” which prompted MacKinnon to issue a statement saying he does not condone blackface.

Still, the law professors are questioning whether the university’s policies would sanction the use of blackface on campus this Halloween, or dismiss it as “just a party.”

“In this book, Mr. MacKinnon characterizes the practice of blackface as ‘frequently, though not always, viewed as racist,”‘ the letter signed by the majority of Dalhousie’s law faculty said.

“These statements have caused us concern about how Dalhousie’s policies could be applied to similar facts, should they arise here.”

The letter, addressed to provost Teresa Balser, calls on the school’s administration to issue a “clarifying statement” to provide “effective and reliable guidance to Dalhousie students and employees.”

“We ask the administration to confirm that an individual who wears blackface at an event to which the Code of Student Conduct or Personal Harassment Policy applies will be considered to have known or ought to have known that their behaviour would cause another person to feel demeaned, intimated or harassed.”

Kim Brooks, a professor at Dal’s Schulich School of Law and one of the signatories of the letter, said the university has made substantial progress building an inclusive community over the last five years.

But she said that progress requires “careful tending.”

“When messages from members of senior administration suggest that ‘reasonable people differ’ in their approach to issues like the wearing of blackface … it erodes confidence that the university as an institution supports an inclusive environment,” Brooks said.

In his book, MacKinnon raises a number of contentious topics – including blackface – and suggests that “freedom of expression is under attack in our universities.”

Brooks said universities can simultaneously support freedom of expression and embrace values of inclusion.

“But the ability to walk that fine line is diminished when the most senior members of the university, people who set the tone on campus, take public positions on matters that are contrary to the spirit of equality and inclusion on campus,” she said.

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