In or around January 30-31, two posters that were part of a display created by the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) for Black History Month were defaced. Specifically, the eyes of the people in the posters were scratched out.
Osgoode students received an email from Dean Sossin late on January 31 explaining what had happened. The BLSA released a statement on February 1 that is reproduced in this issue in its entirety. A petition was created on change.org seeking to establish a permanent installation at Osgoode in response to this incident. A public forum was held on February 1. Toronto Police are involved, and York Security is handling the investigation.
This is a heartbreaking act of violence. Professor Berger told me via telephone on February 4 that he is deeply saddened by the defacing of such a beautiful, powerful display that students had worked so hard to create. It is an emotional and terrible incident for many members of the Osgoode community and it is important that we reach out and support each other. The BLSA affirms in its statement that the administration at Osgoode, especially Mya Rimon, Ben Berger, Dean Sossin, and Kim Moore, has been supportive. It is important for Osgoode students to also offer their support.
Unfortunately, this incident is the latest in a series of racist/offensive graffiti spotted at Osgoode. At the start of this school year, several students spotted the word “cuck” written in pen in the northern stairwell. Last year, a friend of mine found a poster that proclaimed women have no place in law (among other things) on the first floor. Then, in November 2017 I found graffiti in the second-floor women’s washroom. Pictured here, it reads, “It’s ok to be white” and was written large on the stall in black marker. I reported it to Mya Rimon, and it was removed very quickly.
There has been a lot of talk about how the defacing of the posters could not possibly be the work of an Osgoode student; how it must be one of the York students who wander in and use our facilities on a regular basis, invading our safe and supportive community.
To this I say: Open your eyes. Denial is just another form of racism and white supremacy.
I spoke with Tristan Davis, president of the BLSA, via email this weekend. He told me that at last week’s community forum, it was found that many black students do not feel comfortable on the Osgoode campus. I find this unsurprising, considering the overpoweringly white history on display in the halls in combination with the whitewashed state of the legal profession in general. But the history isn’t the only reason.
Would you believe that there are racists roaming the halls of Osgoode right now? That you may be sitting beside someone who holds racist views? Who would deface a poster? You might be surprised that someone may be secretly racist. Without getting into specifics, I will say that I have had several conversations with Osgoode students over the last two years that show racism is alive and well, even in our community. Being blind to that possibility is in itself a sort of passive racism.
By denying the possibility that this act could very well have been committed by an Osgoode student (though we all hope it wasn’t), we perpetuate the longstanding white patriarchal approach to the painful experiences of others by diminishing them. Statements like, “It couldn’t happen here” or “it’s not as bad as you think. It’s just a little graffiti” reinforce the infuriating principle that those who are oppressed are overreacting to, in this case, an act of violence.
Let’s look at the “It’s ok to be white” graffiti as an example. Many of the people I told about it expressed doubt that it could have been written by an Osgoode student. Further, the sentence, on its own, presents as ill-advised and ignorant, but not necessarily overtly racist. It’s making a positive statement that it is okay to do something or be something, without an outright condemnation of those who are “other” than white. But it’s not that simple.
“It’s ok to be white” is a phrase that has its origins deep within the white supremacist movement in the United States. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the phrase has been tracked back to white supremacist fliers from 2005, and a song by a white power band used the phrase as a song title in 2001. The phrase became part of a 4chan trolling campaign, also in November of 2017, when fliers containing the phrase showed up in numerous locations in the United States. 4chan, if you weren’t aware, is associated with the white supremacist “alt right” in the U.S. According to ADL,
The idea was to create a flier that had an (ostensibly) inoffensive phrase on it that would nevertheless be treated as racist by people who viewed it, particularly liberals or members of the media. Their subsequent “overreactions” would in turn ostensibly make those people lose credibility in the eyes of others and seem like hypocrites.
So, “it’s ok to be white” isn’t just the ill-advised bubble-letter choice of some ignorant York student. In fact, it’s part of a much larger campaign of racism and white supremacy.
The defacing of the Black History Month posters is, in my mind, even more disturbing. Scratching out a human’s eyes in a photograph or other image is an act of violence. I’ve only seen it a few times in my life, and it always came from a place of deep anger and hurt (i.e. people scratched out the faces of former partners in pictures—back when we actually used to have physical photographs—after bad breakups). The act of scratching out the eyes of human beings, in the context of a display created by black law students for Black History Month absolutely must be understood. There is always more at play than a simple act of vandalism.
To bring it to a legal level, in determining whether incitement to racial hatred has occurred, international courts look at the totality of circumstances surrounding the inciting expression. The context of this particular act is one where black students already often feel uncomfortable, where other racist and misogynist graffiti has appeared. The images were part of a Black History Month display. This wasn’t an accident, or an isolated incident. It was the work of someone with deeply disturbing and racist views. It is extremely dismissive and naïve to automatically assume this individual is not an Osgoode student.
Let’s stop kidding ourselves that racism is nonexistent at Osgoode. That doesn’t help anybody. We need to learn to listen to the experiences of others, and understand the perspectives of others, to create a more just society and to truly engage in good judgment. I encourage everyone to make the effort in the coming weeks and months. If we are going to make change, it is up to us to actually do it. We’re not going to get anything done by ignoring what’s really happening and diminishing the experiences of others.
 Sign it here:
 Robert Faurisson v France, Communication no 550/1993, UN Doc CCPR/C/58/d/550/1993 (UNHRC, 1996)