academic reorganization · backlash · guest post · race

Guest post: I talked About Racism in Canada in a Public Venue. Here is what happened

By Misao Dean
I gave an interview on my research last March on the CBC program The 180. In it I talked about colonialism in Canada, picking away at some of the myths that sustained my childhood sense of “Canadianness,” and arguing that we should read them as representations of colonial power.
These ideas are not that radical in Canada; they’re absolutely conservative, in the context of recent interpretations of Canadian law. But it seems that when you bring those abstract ideas down to specifics – this piece of land, that cultural practice – or when you mention whiteness – well, some people get pretty excited. And someone wrote a reaction to my interview on a British right-wing website called “Heatstreet,” and that got a comment in the Times Higher Education Supplement, and a tweet was picked up by Fox News, and then things went a bit bananas.
On October 23rd 2016 I checked my e-mail and found a request for an interview about my research, from a podcast that is produced in Chicago. My first thought—as a researcher and scholar based in Victoria, British Columbia was WTF? The request referenced a tweet from someone I’ve never heard of, who according to Google, is a sociologist from the UK. My feelings shifted ever-so-slightly from incredulity to careful interests. Maybe my research is really getting some traction, I thought. People are talking about it, excitement, I thought.
By the time I got to work there were more requests for interviews, this time from ESPN, and there was something else: a steady stream of e-mails all consisting or two or three words, calling me a cunt and a fool, an idiot and an “SJW,” (derogatory internet slang for ‘social justice warrior.’) These emails had something in common: they were all lamenting the way I’m poisoning the minds of students. Many of them suggested I commit suicide.
Take a moment and pause on that: I was receiving emails from strangers telling me to commit suicide.
By the time I finished teaching my first class in addition to invitations to be on international news, and the hate-filled trolling, there were also e-mails to the Dean and my department chair, and someone in the Dean’s office had contacted me, offering “support.”
I’m ok, no big deal,I said. When the first death threat appeared in my inbox my stomach dropped, and I started to wonder why I did that interview.
I mean let’s stop and think about this again: I talked about systemic racism in Canada and I got death threats. Me—a middle-aged white university professor whose idea of a good time is a visit to the National Archives—got death threats talking about facts of Canadian social and political history.
My daughters asked me, What did you expect? Talking about race in the mainstream media just makes you a target. I gave this some thought. It doesn’t really help that I was attacked using my own words, taken out of context. This kind of irresponsible and de-contextualized quoting has become an art form among Trump followers who think it’s hilariously funny to post stories that make it look like famous “liberals” have said something entirely opposite to what they actually said: for example, that Michael Moore endorsed Trump, or that a woman academic doesn’t know the first thing about her own research topic.
I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect hundreds of abusive and obscene accusations from people who didn’t even know that the interview was talking about Canada.
I didn’t expect my Rate My Professor  page to be flooded with complaints about my teaching from people I’ve never met, and who can’t find my university on a map.
And I didn’t expect my kids to find abusive comments about me in their Facebook feeds.
I expected a conversation, but this isn’t conversation. Hate isn’t a conversation.
Listen, I’ve been called an idiot before, and survived (after all, I grew up with brothers). I’ve still got my job, and all the privileges that go with it. But last week I was asked to review a grant application for SSHRC and evaluate, among other things, a “knowledge mobilization strategy” in which Some Poor Sap, PhD., wrote that when his book comes out, on an important topic that really needs sophisticated discussion in the public sphere, he intends to create a website, and make himself available for media interviews and panel discussions, and really get his results out there.
I wanted to tell him, publish that book, create those new courses, teach those great ideas, but keep your head down, and don’t talk to the media, at least not before asking yourself these questions: Are you tenured? What will happen to you if colleagues or students Google you and find that the top results assert your incompetence?
And what does this self-policing of necessary and hard research questions do to researchers, to scholars, to our students, and to the public who is meant to receive that mobilized knowledge?
Research like ours, the complicated, risky, challenging ideas that really teach you something: this isn’t the stuff of public discourse anymore, and it’s disingenuous of SSHRC to suggest it is.
Have I learned something from this?  If the CBC calls again I will probably talk to them; the producer who organized the original interview called to apologize, and I think he honestly does feel bad about it. But the stuff is still out there, articles and blog posts and tweets that make me ashamed and defensive about my years of successful peer-reviewed research, and the fact that there’s nothing I can do to correct it makes me feel ill.
Miao Dean is a Professor of English at the University of Victoria. She teaches courses on the Canadian novel, and is interested in non-fiction prose and travel writing as well. She has published extensively on early Canadian women writers, on the literature of wilderness travel, and on animals and hunting in early Canadian writing. Her most recent book, Inheriting a Canoe Paddle, is on the way the discourse of the canoe is mobilized to justify Canadian sovereignty in the context of aboriginal title.

11 thoughts on “Guest post: I talked About Racism in Canada in a Public Venue. Here is what happened

  1. Don't let trolls stop you from speaking up and keeping your head up either. I've had a couple of negative comments but when I have reached out to discuss the issues further, no response. I think there's an army of malcontents who wait for news to come out to spend their mornings spewing their internal distress. And that's nobody's business but theirs. Miguel Ruiz' advice “don't take anything personally; what others say and do is a reflection of their reality, not yours” is a medicine one should take daily and at frequent intervals. I no longer read comments. They are utterly meaningless when they are anonymous.

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  2. Julie Rak here. I have been trolled (well, it's still happening), received threats (others have received death threats) because of my role in the Galloway controversy. It's no joke, and it's part of the reality of public life now. Solidarity, and thanks for writing about your experience.

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  3. What a horrible and terrifying experience, Misao. I'm so sorry you had to go through this. When, some years ago, I published a piece in the National Post defending Women's Studies from a ridiculous column by Barbara Kay, I learned very quickly not to read the on-line comments. But what you describe is much much worse, reaching to your family and workplace. And of course it's not only “controversial” research about contemporary issues that engenders (pun intended) such horrible attacks. One thinks of the esteemed UK classicist Mary Beard, viciously attacked for looking her age.
    It's good that the Dean's office offered support, but I wonder if there are also legal avenues? Can the university lawyers get involved somehow? After all, this is an issue of workplace safety. And the point you make about SSHRC is really important, a point that SSHRC policy makers should be discussing.
    Like the first commenter here, I hope that, in the fullness of time, you will feel able again to take your research to the broader public. If not, who could blame you? But I would hate to see those f***ers win.

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  4. What a terrible, if sadly predictable, experience: I'm so sorry to hear about it.

    Your story really highlights for me a problem I've had direct experience of as well: university administrators and policy makers (including at SSHRC) like the idea of “knowledge mobilization” but often seem quite uninformed about what the public sphere is actually like. Working in public brings (at least potentially) its own kind of risks and consequences: universities need policies that include ongoing support, including, if necessary, legal advice — as well as thicker skins and stronger principles when it comes to faculty getting (accidentally or on purpose) embroiled in controversy. It seems wrongheaded to me to require scholars to engage in this way, as not everyone can or should be expected to confront the kind of thing that happened to you; it seems equally wrongheaded to punish scholars who *do* get outside the usual boundaries of academic work for not conforming, when they do so, to academic norms.

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  5. This article makes me really want to audit your classes! Keep doing your thing – racism IS alive and well in Canada, but people don't like to talk about it.

    It's utterly depressing the way people behave when they believe that nobody knows who they are.

    (says the person with the ridiculous screen name but who attended the university with which you are affiliated.)

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  6. Misao, I'm so sorry that this happened to you! It's terrible to have your words stripped from their context and used against you. I hope that the fact that you have rattled the cages of trolls means that they are on the defensive, and real progress will be made as a result of the work that you and other leaders in the humanities are doing. From another UVic English grad….

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  7. Professor Dean, I am so sorry to hear this happened to you. In the past few years, I've had my own very upsetting experiences with malignant comments sections and feeling ill at being unable to correct public record. People will type the most appalling things into a keyboard that 99% wouldn't have the jam to tell you to your face. Thank you for putting your experience out there. With every supportive wish, Miranda Duffy, ENGL 426

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  8. Thanks for sharing your experience. I live in England and as a university instructor I was targeted by the right because I spoke out against racism and Holocaust denial. I am not tenured and my career as an academic may be over. But, I would not have kept silent even had I known the costs. I hope those of us working to change things for the better reach our goals.

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  9. So sad for you Hypatia; in your case the consequences of speaking out were much worse than my hurt feelings and hurt reputation. I hope things go well for you.
    And thanks to all the rest of you too for your comments — Miranda and Catherine and Julie and Jo-Anne and Rohan, and you anonymous ones. And thanks to the brilliant editors of Hook and Eye for hosting this discussion.

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  10. It's good that you wrote this column explaining what you have been/are going through. I send you my support and encourage you not to falter – your work is really important and women and men of reason will understand who you really are and appreciate you. Most people are reasonable and most people would not do what these other folk are doing to you. Take heart! Love is stronger than hate, and the truth will out.

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  11. I am flabbergasted to read what you have been through. How outrageous! A colleague of mine recently shared a similar experience. I now realise that too many of us in academia and in public life our going through this – and that there appears to be quite an important gender dimension here as well. Thank you for your important work on racism in Canada – which is indeed alive and well – and for having the courage of speaking out.

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