Does Asking Critical Questions About Accusations of Racism Make One a Racist?

April 2018

Not too long ago, a university wide e-mail appeared in my inbox, sent from our president at the University of New Brunswick (UNB), Dr. Eddy Campbell. The communication was lacking in specifics, but it was clear that certain recent events had caused discomfort of sufficient magnitude that silence was not an option. Only later did I discover a cause for Dr. Campbell’s brief missive: on the Fredericton campus, purported white supremacist posters had appeared, and the UNB Saint John student paper, The Baron, had published an article by a young man named Michael Thurlow.

I was curious yet ignorant, so I spent a few days researching these two events – reading what I could find and gathering additional information through correspondence with a professor and senior administrator on the Fredericton campus. Eventually I reached a point where I wanted to comment and ask additional questions, and so I composed a letter to a senior administrator and copied it to Dr. Campbell.

It is March 1st as I write this, and I have not yet received any acknowledgement of, or response to, my letter. I’m not sure what the silence means. Should I not expect a response? Was it read rhetorically? Did I insult with this letter?

I am wise enough to know that the subjects alluded to in Dr. Campbell’s e-mail are explosive. One has only to look at how these and related topics have impacted the lives of people such as James Damore, Lindsay Shepherd, and Rick Mehta. With that knowledge I composed my letter carefully and precisely, I think. I offer that letter here for others to read. It provides additional detail on the events at UNB, but more importantly I’m soliciting feedback; is the letter flawed? By flawed I mean have I projected racism, bigotry, or intolerance; revealed a latent affinity for white supremacy? Please let me know, my contact information is below.

Here is an article that reproduces the posters said to have been found on campus.

6 February 2018

Hello George,

Again, thank you for digging around to answer my earlier questions.

I am asking a few questions because my attention has been drawn toward recent events occurring at other universities, such as Sir Wilfrid Laurier here in Canada, and Evergreen State College in the United States, that center around issues of free speech, discrimination and – it seems to me – topics that make some people uncomfortable. Because of this interest, I would like to explore the Thurlow/Baron incident a bit further.

First, I would like to acknowledge the UNB wide message that Eddy sent out on January 30th. I appreciated that Eddy took time to emphasize that agreement or disagreement be expressed and received ‘in a respectful manner whatever the issue.’ I agree completely and will uphold that standard in this letter.

I would like to begin by making a few observations. When I read the University wide announcement from January 30th, the absence of specific detail proved to be a challenge. As a UNB Saint John employee I thought the information provided was sparse – I wanted to know what the posters said and what had been printed in The Baron. Only by way of reference to The Baron, along with a subsequent google search, and a small application of intuition was I able to piece it all together and begin to use my own mind to evaluate events. I have a friend, another UNB Saint John employee, who admitted that, after following a path like mine, read and commented on the wrong Baron article. I encourage future UNB wide messages of this nature include additional detail or links so that those of us displaced from the immediate events can quickly ‘get up to speed’.

The specific information is important for all of us to have because it allows for fulfillment of one of the important messages contained in the UNB wide correspondence: ‘As a university, we value rigorous and thoughtful debate on a variety of ideas…’. With this I agree. And because I agree it is important to me that I not accept uncritically the judgements of others, even those of our President. Eddy makes it clear that he finds the posters contemptible and that The Baron made a mistake publishing the Thurlow article. His comments I respect and given his position in the university hierarchy I understand his motivation for not remaining silent. However, the message extends beyond his opinion alone: about the posters it is written, ‘They do not reflect UNB’s values or our commitment to diversity’.

As I am a member of the UNB community this statement purports to speak for me, and if it does, I need to ask what values have been challenged and how has the commitment to diversity been undermined? On this point I want to be clear. It may be true that I too will conclude that the posters and Baron article do not reflect my values or ideas on diversity, but I need to have the opportunity to make that conclusion myself.

Along this same trajectory, the rapid removal of the article from The Baron was an additional challenge to my own comprehension of the brewing controversy. I had time to read the article fully once, maybe twice, before it disappeared from The Baron, and I simply didn’t think to save a copy. Given that Thurlow’s article has been strongly criticized – Emma McPhee of the Brunswickan, in editorializing its content, used powerful language that included the words racist, Nazi, and white-supremacist – I would have liked more time to study it. Words like McPhee used are used a lot these days, and I was curious if after my own review I would invoke similar language.

I believe it is correct that the Board of Directors for The Baron made the ultimate decision to remove the Thurlow article. And I suspect that most on the Board are young undergraduate students. I appreciate that they acted on their values, but their values are almost certainly different than mine. I am not completely the same person now, at 52, as I was as an undergraduate in my early twenties. These past thirty years have given me the time to read more, see more, and simply experience more. And because of that believe I am more thoughtful in many aspects of my life. So, with the Thurlow article I was curious and thoughtful; without passing any judgement – not immediately anyways – I wanted to THINK critically about everything he said. With that attitude I read through Thurlow’s writing not with a sense of disgust or outrage – as I believe many others did – but with a continual question running about my mind: “Is that statement true or false?” I wanted to proceed carefully so that I thought with my brain and did not judge from emotion alone.

It was that questioning that prompted me to send my original note to you and Eddy and to ask if one of Thurlow’s very first claims – that posters advertising UNB talks centered around ‘whiteness’ – had in fact existed. We now know that a talk did happen on the UNB Fredericton campus: “What does Whiteness do? Settler Colonialism, feminism and epistemic innocence,” and was presented by Dr. Erin Morton from the UNB History Department. I have since discovered a video of this talk on YouTube and have listened to a portion of it.

I did ask in my original email that if given a ‘whiteness’ talk did exist, was there any critical condemnation of Dr. Morton’s presentation. After viewing the video of the lecture, I still am inclined to ask that question, but only after considering what has happened to Thurlow.

I recall from Thurlow’s article that, in part, he discussed Indigenous people and made certain critical comments pertaining to them that was not complimentary. I’m not sure if his comments can be characterized as racist based on a formal definition – by this I mean I don’t recall that he made the claim that indigenous people are inferior (or superior) to any other race, and because of this advocates for their unfair treatment by another race. [Maybe he did make such a comment, but I don’t recall and do not have the article to reference]. I recognize that Thurlow has singled out an ethnic group, Indigenous people, but I feel any observations he has made about them, any claims to knowledge that are in doubt, should be challenged by argument grounded in the facts. This is not always easy to do, but certainly attainable in principle in many situations. For example, I recall that the article included a quote from an individual which expressed his favorable experience as a student in the residential school system. Well, does this person exist? Is the quote attributed to him? Did he attend a residential school? In the same way, many other contentious points can also be explored. In this manner, through an honest pursuit toward truth, the credibility of Thurlow’s article will either stand or fall. This is how I think Thurlow’s article should have been discussed; I learn very little, and find myself suspicious, when reading an interpretation that is sparse in detail and specific criticism, yet liberal in the use of words like racism, Nazi, and white supremacy.

Morton, like Thurlow, is critically discussing an ethnic group, and is not complimentary in her observations or conclusions either. In Morton’s case she is discussing white settlers and modern day white people. Morton is not being racist either, but like Thurlow her points should freely be challenged – and if they are – will stand or fall based on how well they survive scrutiny. I am curious then why, given the similarity between Thurlow’s comments on indigenous people and those of Morton’s about white people, why Morton’s talk did not receive a commensurate level of criticism? Maybe it did, and I am unaware.


Philip Backman