Canadian university students launch petition to get prof removed for saying book title with N-word in it

Professor Catherine Russell apparently named the book twice in one class, and for this, students from the Concordia Film Studies department have launched a petition to condemn Russell.
Libby Emmons Brooklyn, NY

In the fall of 2019, a film studies professor at Concordia University read the title of a book aloud in class. Among the words in that title were the N-word. Professor Catherine Russell apparently named the book twice in one class, and for this, students from the Concordia Film Studies department have launched a petition to condemn Russell.

Russell has since apologized for mentioning the book, which student Rose Stiffarm said was a 1968 work by Quebec author and journalist Pierre Vallieres. The book in question is undoubtedly Valleries' White N*****s of America, a seminal text in the province of Quebec. The course was part of the mandatory curriculum, and the course spanned the year, according to the CBC.

Russell's apology, issued on July 31 of this year, read "First of all, I am deeply sorry for having upset you and your classmates to profoundly. I have to admit that I was unaware of the implications of using the N-word, even in the context of a historical work.

"As a white teacher, I am very much in a position of privilege and power and clearly need to do better for all students to feel more respected in the class room, and especially for BIPOC students to feel that they are in a safe space."

The apology did not appease her detractors even a little; after Russell's mea culpa, the petition continued to be shared online by her former students.

Speaking about the incident of a title being read out loud by a professor in class twice last fall, Stiffarm, who is noted to be Indigenous, said that "what happened was unacceptable and uncomfortable."

She noted as well that "There was indeed one black woman in class and when that word was uttered, she was uncomfortable, I was uncomfortable."

In addition to the petition, which demands that Russell not be permitted to teach that mandatory course come fall, students complained to Concordia administration. The petition has 200 signatures so far.

It reads: "There must be a concerted effort to refuse any and all framing of Professor Russell's infraction as an isolated, one-off incident, for it is precisely through such masking that systemic racism operates."

Glancing through Concordia's mandatory film studies courses toward an MA reveals three required courses, one of which is Methods in Film, which is listed among Russell's offerings. She is slated to teach that course this coming term.

The course description states that "Assigned readings will include film and media criticism, theory, textual analysis, and cultural studies approaches to cinema; and explore the history of the discipline of film and media studies. In addition to technical and practical matters, the course helps students develop productive and original research questions by examining notable issues in the field.

"Course materials examine the ways that film history, criticism, and textual analysis have been and can be written, encompassing a range of ways of seeing, interpreting and understanding cinema and the moving image." In addition, "The course also works to facilitate an esprit de corps within the M.A. class."

That feeling certainly did not extend to Russell. Concordia film studies students are also asking for mandatory diversity training, that would be implemented for all professors and teaching assistants. Concordia has bowed to that demand.

A Concordia spokesperson, Vannina Maestracci, a former journalist who has served as the universities spokesperson since May 2019, told CBC that work is underway by faculty to make coursework "more diverse and inclusive."

Maestracci said that the school "take[s] such matters very seriously and encourage all members of [the school] community to speak out about racism and report such incidents." She said that "There is no place for racism at Concordia University."

Nor, it appears, for the work of Pierre Vallieres, who died in 1998, at the age of 60. The work in question was called by The New York Times "a call to arms for the fledgling Front for the Liberation of Quebec." Vallieres wrote the book while awaiting extradition to Montreal from a jail in New York. It expressed answer at "the dominant English-speaking class in Quebec and the Roman Catholic Church."

He wrote "To be a n***** in America is to be not a man but someone's slave,'' identifying the movement for Quebecois with, according to the Times "the struggles of blacks in the American South, although he was criticized for comparing the history of the blacks to the less burdensome travails of French-Canadians."

Much like the students who are currently freaking out over the use of a bad word, Vallieres was an anti-capitalist militant who advocated for violence and the destruction of lives.

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Libby Emmons
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