University of Victoria ‘deeply regrets’ use of racial slur in classroom last week

Editor’s note: This story contains language and graphic descriptions of violent, historical events that may disturb some readers. Discretion is advised. 

The University of Victoria says it “deeply regrets” the use of racist language in one of its classes last week after the incident was reported by a student.

On Friday, the group Black Vancouver shared a social media post from a University of Victoria student who said her instructor, Joel Hawkes, used the “n-slur when reading a racist book aloud” on Sept. 13.

“When I told him that he does not need to say that in order to make his point, he half-ass apologized and said, ‘I thought it would be appropriate to show the brutality,’” reads Black Vancouver’s Instagram post, which captures the student’s statement.

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Global News reached out to the student and Black Vancouver for comment but did not hear back by the time of publication.

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In an email, Hawkes said he appreciated the “opportunity to respond,” but referred Global News to the university’s public affairs team for further questions.

Karen Johnston, associate director of public affairs at the university, sent a statement saying the instructor apologized to students in the class “where the unacceptable racial slur and a triggering image was used in the context of the literature being studied.”

The student said the incident took place in a “British Modern Fiction” class of about 50 people, none of whom were Black, apart from her.

In the post shared by Black Vancouver, she added that all the other students were silent as she confronted Hawkes, who is listed as a sessional instructor in the English department.

The lesson continued with “paintings of slave ships in flames” and “dismembered slaves” forming part of the group discussion.

“How am I supposed to feel safe in an environment like that? How am I supposed to feel supported? In a place that I PAY a lot of money to attend?” she asked.

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The student said on social media she reported the incident to the head of the English department, who spoke with her via Zoom, and reportedly asked her: “What would you like me to do about it?”

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On Monday, the university confirmed an investigation into the incident has been launched.

“The Chair of English deeply regrets that the use of racist language occurred in one of our classes, and is taking measures to ensure that such incidents never occur again,” reads a statement by Michael Nowlin, chair of English.

“While the English department is signed on to take the university’s Anti-Racism Awareness workshop this fall, recent events clearly show we need to do more.”

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In her statement, Johnston wrote that university leaders, including the dean of humanities and Nowlin, are in touch with the “parties involved” to provide support and guidance. Faculty members are also receiving “additional teaching guidance on teaching difficult and potentially triggering materials in class.”

In his statement, posted to the English department’s website, Nowlin adds the department is undertaking a “substantial curriculum revision” to ensure course content reflects its commitment to diversity, inclusion and anti-racism.

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“The events of last week, and discussion on social media over the weekend, remind us how important this work is and that we must act quickly,” Nowlin wrote.

“I will be working closely with colleagues and the Dean to achieve demonstrable changes that support our individual and departmental commitments and responsibilities.”

In a memo sent to staff on Monday morning, the university’s dean of humanities, Annalee Lepp, further encouraged all faculty members and sessional lecturers to complete the school’s anti-racism awareness training and Indigenous cultural acumen training.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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