Over the past year and a half, I have been privileged to have the opportunity to organize some of ASSU’s academic seminars. From Ta-Nehisi Coates to Desmond Cole to Wab Kinew to Ben Wizner, seminars are part of our mandate as an academic union. Learning exists beyond the boundaries of the lecture hall, and we want our members to engage critically with the world and the topics presented. Ask questions, start conversations and take action. Intellectual engagement and academic curiosity is a key part of ASSU’s mandate.
But academia has its limits. We can take social justice classes where our classmates say cringeworthy things. We can take classes where the professor or a course text says things rooted in discredited ideas, long since abandoned. As bell hooks says, the classroom is not paradise. As great as speakers like Wab Kinew and Ta-Nehisi Coates are, and as honest their material is – I do acknowledge that these events attract progressive intellectuals and the middle class. There is a privilege inherent in attending lectures like this, and the danger is if we attend these lectures thinking “that was a good talk” but don’t critically engage beyond that. Our speakers have much to contribute, but we must make sure that we are getting as much as we can out of it, or we face a real risk of basking in the spectacle of academic lectures.
As a union, we have long believed that the academic experience and the lived experience are one and the same. The topics that are up for discussion are very much real, and not just interesting areas of academic inquiry. As a union, (that this year happens to have a majority POC executive) we believe in academic inquiry, but we also believe in grounding academia in the lived realities and experiences of people. We believe in anti-oppressive action, in using academia as a tool of liberation and social justice.
As you attend our lectures and events in the next few months, keep this mind. Ask yourself what can I do to take the speakers words and put them into action? This will be esp. relevant as we discuss the outcomes of the Truth and Reconciliation Report.
I leave you with one of our favourite quotes at the union, on our website, from bell hooks:
“The academy is not a paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The Classroom, with all of its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.”
By now, we all know of the horrendous attacks that hit Paris last week with over 120 dead and countless more injured. We were all horrified by these attacks on innocent civilians. President Meric Gertler has conveyed his deepest sympathies to the victims and any students who may be affected by this tragedy. I echo his sentiments. To our students who may be affected by this tragedy, to our students who have family in France, may have lost loved ones, or who are in a study abroad program — I stand with you. However, I’d also like to take this opportunity to reach out to some of our students who may not be feeling safe on our own campus this week.
Following events in Paris, there has been a string of hate crimes that has hit the Greater Toronto Area. This past weekend, a mosque in Peterborough sustained damaged in an arson attack (thankfully, the amount needed to repair the damage was quickly raised). A family woke up to find “Muslims go home” scribbled on their door. A Muslim woman donning a hijab while walking to her local school to pick up her kids, was viciously attacked by two men. She had her hijab ripped off, was repeatedly punched in the stomach as the assailants yelled “terrorist go home”. A video has also surfaced in Quebec where a man threatens to “kill an Arab a day”.
These horrifying attacks, coupled with the hate that has been circulating on the internet — has some students, especially those students who are Muslim feeling vulnerable and afraid. Seeing hate is one thing, having people you trusted all of a sudden be exposed as islamophobes on Facebook can be quite traumatic. This type of hate has existed before the tragedy in Paris however. Muslim women who don the hijab will tell you of all the stares and quiet whispers they get on the subway, or the comments about a barbaric religion and its followers made in the lecture hall. However, the tragedy in Paris has amplified some of this hate.
To all those students who may be feeling a heightened sense of fear, or are afraid for the well being of their families — I stand with you. I am a student and I am a Muslim. But this has nothing to do with being Muslim. It is about standing in solidarity with our fellow students against the forces of bigotry and hate. This week has been exhausting for many of us. Take care of yourself my friends. The world can, at times, feel like a depressing place with mass murder and acts of bigotry being broadcasted to us daily on the evening news. It’s okay to turn off the news. It’s okay to cry.
But know that our university community is here with you. Universities are supposed to be bastions of human rights — in reality, they do not function as well as they should in that capacity. But we, as students, as faculty members, as staff – can demand better. Just as we came together to say that U of T is a feminist campus when we were under threat, let us come together to say that we are a campus that does not tolerate the forces of hate, bigotry and violence.
The last few days have been tough to deal with. Take care of yourselves friends. If you do not feel safe on campus, you can contact Campus Police or the Community Safety Office. If you need someone to talk to, my ears are open. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.