Against Brutality

photo of Vari Hall with falling snow

FGS Dean Thomas L. Loebel on the Faculty’s efforts to combat anti-Black racism

I join the outcry of students and colleagues in its necessity, honesty, and overwhelming frustration and anger. While my affective response to anti-Black racism is visceral and immediate, my thoughts have been scrambled by the implicative debris and the contradictions of working at a university so committed to anti-racist ideals, yet where racism occurs in daily interactions, and the results of systemic racial discrimination populate the workplace, notwithstanding the aims of our hiring practices and institutional initiatives. Once again, I am caused to question the function of anti-racist education, the efficacy of its pedagogies, and the systemic factors designed to limit then dismantle its results. The results, I can’t but hope, play a significant and positive role in awareness and understanding, protest and the demand for change, yet they seem to have such a limited effect on privileged, narcissistic self-construction—namely, people’s thoughts expressed in everyday, racist micro- and macro-, interpersonal aggressions. Institutional change, right now, is impossible to deny, when the state of white privilege is what’s served and protected, and when the police perform publicly the ultimate aim of racism, which is to kill. Other institutions, including our own, contribute to this organisation of society, which makes racism fully systemic. That we battle simultaneously to change society is as fundamental as the irony is beyond dispiriting; it’s damaging.

In a recent letter, a graduate of York levelled this imperative: do “not limit your actions to the inadequate cultural competence model, which has already failed to deliver justice to marginalized populations.” That is not easy for institutions. Models are comfortable for their adoptability and adoptable for their comfortability. They offer a halfway covenant to institutions that struggle to admit fully their complicity in racism, which is taken up in part because we believe in our role in the fight against it. Recent organisational changes at York have put us on a better footing for a different future. Recent appointments of Black faculty and staff begin to move us in the right direction of a complement representative of our student body and our mission. I am heartened by and participate in recent collegial thinking that embraces more holistic, longitudinal, and developmental approaches which expand our desires and support them with active responsibility. For instance, in concert with the initiatives of the Vice-President of Equity, People & Culture, the Faculty of Graduate Studies will partner with various programs at York and in the broader community to identify and dismantle the barriers that arise serially and increase over time to disadvantage and dissuade Black students from pursuing graduate studies, especially doctoral studies, in every discipline. These include the barriers not just outside, but also inside the university.

We have a mission of social justice at York, but not yet true openness, which we cherish publicly, limit institutionally, and then can dismiss privately as unrealistic. When we approved in Senate a policy of Open Access, did we realise fully its transformative potential? In particular, and with thanks to the leadership of York’s Libraries who championed it, Open Access is a means of democratising knowledge; however, I want to ignite the words as our ethos and make them central to the York ontology. In this way of being, we would strive to remove barriers to and within education, including systems that can act as faceless agents of discrimination, racism and minoritisation; barriers erected by people, consciously and unconsciously, by their facial expressions and gestures, by hearing without caring or understanding, by inhumane rhetoric, whether quietly hate-filled or deafeningly empty; barriers to intellectuality and creativity made by trauma and anguish; barriers, therefore, to people’s futures. Open access confronts systems of information and knowledge control, in the service of which discriminations have been legalised for obscene profit. It seeks to subvert in advance the catch-22 of privilege.

York University is still new to the ethos of open access as powerful. We get caught in the draw of neoliberalism, but we also subvert it actively and inadvertently by our decisions. We struggle to maintain openness. The negative and positive senses of that statement reflect the dynamics of power both inside and outside of the institution, with which it must contend all the time. In this maintenance, fatigue is an ever-present, always increasing danger, complacency its too-common symptom.
Complacency allows closure by absence, in daily efforts not made; for instance, in the too-easy form of curricular ossification, texts not chosen for the syllabus, experimentation disallowed, critical discussions avoided, contributions belittled, ideas never invited or encouraged, embodied histories disregarded completely. Sameness rewards its own replication, which is as dangerous as it is inviting. Efficiency becomes the easy, unquestioned justification of these self-protections, which can’t but feel necessary as we respond personally to the pressures of a system that glorifies the individual and adorns it with responsibility for everything, while burdening it later with blame for the consequences of structures it couldn’t alone change.

There are structural problems in an institution that is disproportionately white and whose collegial governance depends upon committee decision-making; all the more reason, therefore, to establish democratically the strongest principles of justice and ethical practice, and then represent them in our collective conduct, which requires maintenance and vigilance. What FGS strives for is openness as the technique of energising representativeness. Committee members are acutely conscious of how bias affects cognition and judgement, which is why we rely on a diverse array of students and faculty, committed to equity, diversity, and inclusion as integral to the logic of academic standards and the activity of oversight. We have begun and will continue to mandate unconscious bias training for anyone involved in decision-making; however, we are also too aware of how ineffectual such training can be, unless, and at the very least, it enables the dynamics of colleagues challenging each other during the process of making important, collective decisions. Admittedly, this model enacts cultural competency, but a collegial culture that is incompetent in open debate for ethical decision-making can end up being racist, prejudicial, and constantly minoritizing. In FGS, our mandate is to plan with foresight, create and revise policy that broadens the horizon, and adjudicate merit, the latter usually and importantly with financial award. Student Affairs, Academic Affairs and Grad Wellness strive to resolve conflicts, solve problems, and the clear paths so that people can move forward. It sounds minor, but in terms of the power to remove barriers, revising thesis and dissertation guidelines from “what is allowed” to “how you can” opens up a perceptual difference and encourages students to create new knowledge in the formats it requires. With the input of every graduate program, we are overhauling how to deliver professional skills development, so that students can pursue individualised study plans, identifying and learning what they need to translate their knowledge into careers. None of this work is revolutionary. It’s just necessary, done ethically, regularly. We don’t see how an institutionalised system of education can ever become anti-racist, if it doesn’t keep challenging its own presumptions of what opens up or closes down people’s abilities to self-develop.

To York’s Black students, staff, and faculty who grieve, and fear and worry and question, little comfort may not be taken now and in the future if other than by my actions, my vigilance, and the conduct of the FGS community.

Thomas Loebel
Dean, Faculty of Graduate Studies & Associate Vice-President Graduate