Open letter to Jamie Cassels: Take action, lead change

Letters Opinions
Students contemplate the wall early Thursday evening. Photo by Myles Sauer, Editor-in-Chief
UVic’s response to the Third Space wall following its removal has drawn criticism from UVic staff and faculty. Photo by Myles Sauer, Editor-in-Chief

To UVic President Jamie Cassels,

We, the undersigned, request that you consider attending more deeply to the matters of white supremacy and racism, sexism and homophobia in efforts to transform the working and learning climate at UVic.

On March 23, 2017, your office posted your response regarding the UVSS Third Space interactive art installation that elicited numerous racist responses to challenging white supremacy.

Students wanted to open a space for dialogue [Link]. They succeeded in opening such a space and many of the comments constructively contributed to praxis that resists and/or seeks to make visible, dismantle and/or transform white supremacy. However, many of the contributions were vile and incited violent rhetoric and hate. These comments offer evidence of the continued existence, and further entrenchment of attitudes of whiteness as preferred and normal at the University of Victoria.

Although we acknowledge the Office of the President recognized this matter through said letter on March 23, 2017, we also hold that a much deeper sustained response is needed that responds to the structures, scaffolding, systems, and attitudes that keeps whitenesss centered and in power over relations with racialized “others.”

As you know, the reaction to the UVic Third Space art installation is only the most recent example of ongoing racism, sexism and homophobia that erupts year after year. Public expressions of hatred and exclusion are not new on this campus. Campus rooms and hallways have been, and continue to be, littered with messages of hate and exclusion fostering a climate where every day racialized and gendered verbal and physical violence can occur with seeming impunity. As an example of impunity, in reference to your letter, students, faculty and staff of colour are offered support services. But there is no indication that these matters will be investigated or that those who perpetuate this violence will be held accountable.

Further, institutional practices and discourses of marginalization and exclusion are still assumed as normal and “how things are done here.” While events south of the border may have loosened usually veiled ideologies of white supremacy, our experience is that a belief in white, heterosexual privilege is systemic and deeply rooted in University of Victoria’s structures, discourses, and processes. Other ways of knowing, thinking, and feeling are available. Alternative processes and structures have been created that support the dismantling of systemic exclusion and marginalization.

Many of us have worked at this university for decades and have seen some improvements. We are aware of the glacial pace of change and do not overlook the significance of such change when it does occur. But recurring incidents of hatred and exclusion continue and as such, certain groups of people remain at risk on campus. These incidents may appear inconsequential, but to those most affected who have spent their lives working at UVic, these incidents have cumulative, demoralizing and harmful effects on self, on interpersonal relationships, on productivity and more. We believe the university can and must do more than issue a letter if it aims to bring about deep, systemic, institutional transformation.

Fortunately, we are not starting from scratch. Many of us have been engaged with equity work on and off campus in areas of anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-violence, anti-homophobia, anti-transphobia, anti-Islamophobia, anti-exclusion of differently abled persons on campus. Closely related are efforts on decolonizing the academy more generally. There are experienced, passionate and wise people capable of implementing this work.

As president, we call on you to take action in this spirit. You, President Cassels, can begin by providing moral leadership and tangible support for a self-organized, self-determining, and independent (from existing administrative and governing structures) collective of engaged faculty, staff and students to develop and guide this process.

We, the undersigned, request that you consider attending more deeply to the matters of white supremacy and racism, sexism and homophobia in efforts to transform the working and learning climate at UVic.

Dr. Jo-Anne Lee

On behalf of the Department of Gender Studies

An open forum open to faculty, staff and students is scheduled for Thursday, April 13, from noon to 1:30 p.m. David Turpin Building Room 110.

The forum’s purpose is twofold: 1) to provide a space of sharing, support and dialogue for those affected, and 2) to develop an action plan for future action.