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Blackface Blunder Backfires at Université de Montréal

During Université de Montréal's Frosh activities, white students painted their faces with blackface makeup. It's important to highlight here that this behaviour is not representative of French Canadians, which is precisely why my first week at Université de Montréal was like being on the border of Bizarro World and Crazy Town.

I am often asked about the socio-political climate at Université de Montréal, and I habitually fail to come up with an adequate response. For whatever the reason, I never seem to be able to put my disappointment in the perpetual disrespect towards minorities -- linguistic, racial or religious -- into words. This is most likely due to the baffling fact that this lack of respect seems to be tolerated by the administration, faculty and students.

As an alternative, I often just regale those who inquire about U de M with actual distasteful statements that I have heard myself. Undeniably, in a world-renowned civil law faculty, I find it very disconcerting that the following comments manage to make their way into the classroom:

[translation] "In New France, we were faced with a catastrophe, and we call that the English."

[translation] "Canada day should really just be called moving day."

[translation] "Canada is illegally occupying Quebec."

And those are just comments from some of the faculty. There is a bastion of ignorant remarks made by the students, alas, I do not have the time to catalog them all here, nor do you have the time to read them. Although, for the most part, the commentary is limited to general anti-Anglophone sentiment and the more disturbing anti-Semitic or racist remarks are appreciatively infrequent.

However, I should learn never to underestimate the ignorance of the common man. During this year's Frosh activities, white students from Université de Montréal's business school, Hautes Études Commerciales, painted their faces with blackface makeup. Yes. Blackface makeup. The same makeup that was used in the 19th century by white theater actors to portray black characters by amplifying stereotypical racial features and proliferating racist attitudes and perceptions.

An official for the university is claiming that there was no ill intent. Be that as it may, I am confused as to why not one of the students who participated in or organized the event appeared to realize that white people using blackface makeup is a practice that is considered offensive to many. There are weeks of planning that go into organizing Frosh, and it involves multiple people. A theme needs to be set, t-shirts need to be designed, activities need to be planned, food and drink needs to be ordered, sponsors need to be found, etc. It is nothing short of perplexing that amongst all the preparation, not one person found that what the faculty's Frosh committee was planning could be deemed as distasteful at the very least.

I think it's important to highlight here that this kind of behaviour is not representative of French Canadians at all. I grew up in the small rural town of Granby, Quebec. It is overwhelmingly white, Francophone and Catholic. Never in my 15 years of living of there did I ever encounter a single iota of racism. It was actually quite the opposite: neighbours would wish us well on Diwali, my mother's Indian recipes were always in high demand amongst the other mothers, my father was a highly regarded and respected physician, and my friends on the playground loved learning swear words in Hindi. I could not have had a more enjoyable experience living in small town Quebec.

Which is precisely why my first week of law school at Université de Montréal was like being on the border of Bizarro World and Crazy Town. Suddenly, I was being asked by students how it was possible I spoke French with such a "proper" (read: thick French Canadian) accent when, according to them, all immigrants who come to Quebec have no respect for French culture or language. When I would reply with the fact that Bill 101 ensures quite the opposite, I would receive nonsensical responses peppered with paranoia that Ottawa secretly wanted to put an end to the French language once and for all.

In a constitutional law class, a student was trying to remember the author of a text we had to read, and so he responded to the professor with [translation]: "Oh, I don't know, he had some Arab name," when I corrected him by saying that he in fact meant Muslim, and that the terms Muslim and Arab were very far from synonymous considering only one in five Muslims is Arab, I was met with a blank stare from the student and an uncomfortable, nervous laughter from the professor.

I would like to give this student the benefit of the doubt and assume he had no ill intent, as the university is claiming of the Frosh participants, but shouldn't the university step in and enlighten these students as per appropriate societal norms in the 21st century? Because if they don't, Université de Montréal will sink further into the Bizzaro World black hole, where common sense and political correctness go to die, and 19th century stereotypes flourish.

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