Pitfalls of the Scholar Turned Activist

January 2022

Professors are trained as impartial researchers. In a nutshell, they defend truth claims based on the best available evidence and avoid playing the role of a political advocate. Whenever academics gravitate towards the latter, they begin mirroring the discourses of an emerging cultural narrative instead of dispassionately interrogating its core arguments.

A perfect case in point concerns an initiative approved by the Faculty of Arts at the University of Ottawa. The teaching staff recently received an invitation concerning an anti-racist workshop titled “Building Belonging through Antiracist Pedagogy, 2021-2022.” One of the sponsors was the uOttawa Antiracist History Group, an organization of uOttawa historians who “wish to educate themselves on issues related to race and racism and promote antiracism throughout the university.”

The first goal is laudable and relates to academic values—specifically, the value of inquiry—but the second involves the dissemination of a favoured ideology, one that leads educators to adopt the self-evident positions of anti-racist activists.

Take, for instance, a bold assumption forwarded by the uOttawa historians: “Racialized students and colleagues continue to experience racisms of all kinds, be it intentional or unintentional, in […] our university, our faculties, and our departments.” Here’s the catch: the University of Ottawa has never completed an independent study on systemic racism.

How then would the uOttawa historians know to what degree racism occurs on campus? The University of Ottawa has a population of approximately 45,000 students, including over 1000 professors, so anecdotal evidence is completely unreliable. It tells us nothing about the probability of experiencing racial discrimination.

If questions arise about the frequency of racist acts, the uOttawa historians have a pat answer: “the belief that there is little or no racism […] in our university and in our teaching […] is itself a barrier to addressing it.” But so is the assertion that racism is pervasive or ubiquitous. Without an independent study, we are only left to speculate.

Campus history also warns against jumping to any conclusions. Back in 2008, a University of Ottawa student-run group issued a report, insisting that visible minorities—specifically, Arab, Black, and Asian men and women—were most often the victims of systemic racism on campus. Law professor Joanne St. Lewis was asked by the administration to assess this allegation. In her evaluation, she concluded that the report did not establish the claim of systemic racism “in any reasonable or analytically plausible fashion.”

To avoid accusations of white fragility, the uOttawa historians make a personal confession: “We acknowledge that we have individually and collectively perpetuated racism and white supremacy.” Promising to do better, they proceed by publicly shaming one of their fellow colleagues.

Professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval, who is white, was condemned for using an “injurious racial term” during one of her online lectures. Back in October 2020, a controversy erupted when she mentioned that some historically persecuted minorities reappropriate derogatory terms to liberate themselves from their oppressors. At first, professor Lieutenant-Duval discussed the word “queer.” Formerly used to denounce homosexuals, it is now employed as a badge of honour to signify both identity and difference. She posited the N-word as another example—just not the euphemized version.

One member of the uOttawa historians referred to it as “The Clothesline Incident,” suggesting that these kinds of racial episodes represent the “clothespins hanging on a clothesline of institutional whiteness.” Yet, in this specific instance, professor Lieutenant-Duval’s intent was clearly anti-racist. To think otherwise, one would have to ignore the distinction between use and mention—between professors who deploy the N-word as a racial slur and those who say it to confront racism.

The uOttawa historians sidestep context by assuming an absolutist stance: “uttering injurious racial terms does not have any academic justification.” But this too remains an open question.

Vershawn Ashanti Young, a University of Waterloo drama and speech communication professor, wrote in The Conversation that his university’s prohibition on using the N-word “actually serves the purposes of white supremacy and resuscitates racism.” From his perspective, banning it “functions as a too-easy way to quash the six or seven insightful ways the word functions in Black culture.”

All educators should pause and reflect upon Professor Young’s nuanced insights. Debates over sensitive racial issues, especially those considered non-negotiable, require more conversation. They are not settled by fiat.

By becoming politically and ideologically motivated, the uOttawa historians encounter pitfalls of the scholar turned activist. Racism is deemed a serious campus issue without hard evidence. Coworkers are characterized as racist without considering their methodological or pedagogical choices. And barring the N-word is viewed as progressive without recognizing the negative impact on black professors.

The implications here are obvious. The uOttawa historians are more inclined to acquiesce to the demands of anti-racist activists and less likely to challenge their beliefs head-on.